FRIDAY POLL 04/21

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Since this is a blog devoted to educational issues I won’t point out that yesterday was 4/20, but since it’s testing season maybe I will. Here in Nashville it’s the midpoint of the testing window and I hope everyone has found a way to keep their sanity. I have to say I find it baffling that we assign such value to a test that is proctored almost completely by volunteers from the community that each school has to literally scrape together. But what do I know? I’ll be doing two days next week at Tusculum ES.

Which brings us to the first question of the weekend. Governor Haslam sent out a wonderful letter to students encouraging them to do their best despite the state’s inability to do their best the last 3 years. In my opinion there hasn’t been as much conversation about testing this year as in years past, but I wanted to get your opinion.

My second questions is in reference to Dr. Joseph’s recent budget announcement where he also proposed to make all Middle Schools STEAM centered.  Is this a good, bad, or indifferent idea? Tell me what you think.

I’ve been meaning to ask the third question for a while. A couple months ago the MNPS school board gave newly hired director a perfect score on his first evaluation. Now that he’s been here just about a year, I wanted to know what grade you would give him if you were doing the evaluation. I know the question might seem a bit redundant, but I wanted to drill down on it a bit, so please indulge me.

That’s what I got this week. I hope everybody has a fantastic weekend. See you on the other side.

 
 

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REFLECTIONS ON GOOD FRIDAY POLL

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Hope y’all had a wonderful Easter holiday. I appreciate those of you who took the time to respond to the weekend’s questions. As always some of the answers surprised me. That’s a good thing.

Let’s start by looking at the question addressed towards public educators: “What are your plans for next year.” It seems that most educators are staying put next year, with that answer reaching a total just shy of 50%. The reasons differ, though. A little over a quarter answered that they were in a good position and planned to stay right where they currently are. That’s cause for optimism. Unfortunately, the flip-side is that the remainder who answered that they were staying put said it was because “the devil you know is worse then the devil you don’t”. It’s also not cause for optimism that nearly 40% answered that they were considering leaving the district in one way or another. That should be a little concerning I would think.

Recently when questioned about a percieved high level of teacher dissatisfaction. Dr Joseph responded, and I’m paraphrasing, that he anticipated the level of anxiety would go up even higher next year as the district identifies more specific key performance indicators(KPI). He went on to say that was inevitable due to the increased level of accountability, there was no way around it. I’m going on record here, that may be the dumbest comment I’ve recently heard from a person in a position of leadership. Sorry if that offends, but I find it offensive that a leader would think so little of the people he leads.

If Dr. Joseph, as a leader, has done his ground work – outlined the goals and fully communicated how we were going to reach them, been transparent about the reasoning and philosophy behind the goals, explained everybody’s role and how that role would impact the reaching of the goals, genuinely sought buy-in, included a transparent method of measurement – why would people be anxious? There is no reason why the troops shouldn’t be chomping at the bit to get started.  These are professional educators that by their very nature are looking to take kids further faster. If they are not fully engaged and excited for next year to get here, that’s on leadership.

Question 2 took a look at the practice of holding formal meetings with parents starting in 6th grade to communicate students’ college/career readiness. Over 50% of readers rejected that idea, with just 16% saying “maybe in an informal setting”. 15% of respondents thought it was a good idea. There were a couple interesting “other” comments. One being, “I’m seeing the forced drilling of college expectations create teen resentment.” That answer ties in with a theme from a book I’m currently  reading. The authors discuss the concept that achievement destroys creativity.  As quoted in the book Originals – How Non-Comformists Move the World, psychologists Todd Lubart and Robert Sternberg state, “Once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.” Author Adam Grant sums it up by saying, “The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads us to strive for guaranteed success.” It’s a theme I plan to explore in upcoming blog posts.

The other answer that intrigued me was, “No. No one tells the truth anyway so why bother?” That’s a little troubling. In order for our democratic institutions to succeed there has to be trust. Once people lose that trust, the whole institution begins to crumble. We need to be sure to treat truthfulness with fidelity, but that’s not enough. We must be sensitive to the perception of dishonesty as well. That mere perception can do considerable damage to our society. That is a charge that is more important today then ever.

Lastly, I asked about Dad Gone Wild blog content. It seems that readers want predominately local news. I did take heart that 41% like the current mix. Going forward I will attempt continue to strike the desired balance. It seems like I’ve naturally gravitated more to local issues because nationally people like Peter Greene, Diane Ravitch, Steven Singer, Jeff Bryant, Jennifer Berkshire and others have  things so well covered. Grace Tatter and Andy Spears are doing a more then adequate job on the state level. It’s hard to keep up with those folks and I encourage you to read them all. There were a couple “other” comments warning me about negativity and I will keep them in mind but won’t allow the fear of a negative perception stop me from telling stories I think need telling.

This is a very eventful week education-wise in Tennessee. TNReady kicks off across the state today. This year the state swears they are prepared, but not everybody has faith. Once again we are spending inordinate amounts of money telling  people how cool the testing is. I’ve never understood the need to convince the general public that the current level of testing is necessary. Shouldn’t we be able to understand the value intrinsically?

On Wednesday, the voucher pilot bill is in the House Finance sub-committee here in Tennessee’s State Legislature. There’s no shortage of reason’s why it shouldn’t make it out, but TREE (Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence) has some especially good ones. I urge people to contact their reps or just come on down to the party at the State Capitol on Wednesday.

That’s it for now. As always, comments are welcome.

 

 

A GOOD FRIDAY POLL.

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It is hard to believe that it is already Easter weekend. The year just seems to fly by. I do have another set of questions to ask, so if you could take a couple minutes to help a brother out, I would appreciate it. I’m getting them out early because I’ll be spending the rest of the day with my kids. Trying to decide between fishing or the zoo, but that’s another conversation. Let’s get on with the questions.

Michael Petrilli of the Fordham institute recently wrote a piece about schools informing parents of student’s progress towards college readiness starting in the 6th grade. Peter Greene, Curmugucation, wrote a rebuttal. I’m interested in your opinion.

Spring always brings  a flood of teacher “I quit” letters. Which is contributing to a growing teacher shortage. So I thought I’d ask educators on a whole – teachers, principals, administrators – what are your current plans for next year? I know plans change but, I thought I’d ask.

Lastly, I thought I’d ask about DGW Blog content. I try to write about issues that have local, state, and national implications. This year it seems that local issues have taken a forefront, but I always try to show how those issues relate to national issues. I thought I’d ask what you thought the focus should be.

Thanks again for your time. Regardless of your religious affiliations, I hope everybody has a great springtime weekend and special people to share it with. I’ll see you on the other side.

MY KIND OF EDUCATION REFORM

A couple weeks a go, it was Spring Break in Middle Tennessee. Scrolling through my social media feed, I was suddenly inundated with pictures of friends taking their children to Chicago to see Hamilton, to New York to visit the Museum of Natural History, a week at the beach. I must admit most of my friends are of the middle class persuasion though we as a family cling to that classification precariously. Still my own kids went to see their aunt in Chattanooga where they visited the Adventure Science Museum and toured Lookout Mountain. Meanwhile, kids from poorer families spent large chunks of time in their homes whiling away time, waiting for parents who couldn’t afford to take time off from work to get home.

I’m not trying to cast stones at anyone. Parents who continue to invest in the educational experiences, often at great sacrifice, of their children should be commended. And yes, I count going to Walt Disney World as an educational experience. One of the traps that we fall into is thinking that education only falls into a formal category, whereas learning is as natural as breathing to children, and therefore every experience forces their brains to grow and expand. Think of it in computer terms. The larger a database a machine has, the greater likelihood you’ll get a relevant answer when you query a search. Same holds true for kids. The more experiences they have as a kid, the more likely they’ll be able to take advantage of an opportunity in the future. Why is this a hard concept for policymakers to grasp?

Parents intrinsically know this. Why do you think wealthier parents invest so heavily in extracurricular activities despite the high cost? Do you think they harbor illusions of Johnny being a star pitcher in the majors? Or little Jennie becoming a concert pianist at the Met? Well, some do; those are the ones we all snicker at. The rest of us realize the important life lessons that are taught through these extracurricular activities. Lessons like grit, teamwork, leadership, self-confidence all are grown through participation in extracurricular activities. No less an authority than Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has gone on record saying, “Kids who have a significant involvement in an extracurricular activity have a capacity for focus, self-discipline, and time management that I see lacking in kids who just went through school focused on their GPA.”

Despite reams of data that illustrate the benefits of extracurricular activities and their input on children’s lives into adulthood, the last four years have shown a dramatic decline in participation from children in poverty, while participation by their wealthier peers has grown. School budget cuts and rising costs have served to cut the rate of participation by disadvantaged youth to 56%, while participation by upper and middle-class children rests at 75%. You are fooling yourself if you don’t think that makes a difference later in life. 

While extracurricular activities certainly affect kids later in life, the other part of the equation to look at is social networks and access to mentors. Remember the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? There is some truth to that statement. Obviously, succeeding in life requires a certain skill set, but the opportunity to demonstrate those skills hinges on your social network. Don’t believe me? Try getting a job without using any of your social contacts. Go ahead, throw your resume out into the pool of similar resumes, and see what kind of results you get. I know the answer because mine’s been floating out there for nearly a year.

People in lower income households have smaller social networks. These smaller networks lead to reduced opportunity for upward mobility. Look at it this way. If my child decides that he wants to be a lawyer, I can hook him up with friends who can sit down and explain the intricacies of what a lawyer does. I can later use those friends to help secure an internship that will give him an advantage against other kids pursuing that career. When it comes to college, I have the resources for us to tour several campuses. I understand how the system works or know people who navigate it for a living, and I can call on their help. Once my child graduates, I can again call upon my social network to help secure him an interview and increase the likelihood of job placement. A child from a poorer home has fewer of those advantages. That’s where the importance of mentoring and developing of social networking comes into play.

It’s undeniable the importance that extracurricular activities and a wide social network play in the opportunity for upward mobility, yet we fail to invest adequately in either while doubling down on the narrative of increased academic rigor. Riddle me this: if a kid is reading at an advanced level but has failed to develop leadership, or even team building skills, and doesn’t have a network that can open doors for them, how do they benefit from their advanced reading level? Is there some kind of giant radar that I am unaware of that will suddenly recognize them, pluck them out, and reward them for all that rigor? Who are the real beneficiaries of those high test scores?

I would argue that once again, it’s adults who get to hold up test results like winning lottery tickets. Lottery tickets that allow adults to double down on policies that fill them with a feeling of superiority and allow them to create a captive market.  A very profitable captive market. But do we ever really look at what happens to these kids after they leave high school? Do we ever look at where these children end up employed?

The National Center for College Education conducted a study on the level of education that students attained based on their socio-economic status. While the results between middle and lower income students achieving an advanced degree wasn’t too different, 29% to 14%, the number of high income students was over 4 times as high, 60%, as that of low income students. That’s a little disturbing. While a single reason couldn’t be pinpointed, inability to navigate the system, inability to manage time, trying to balance work and class all came in to play as reasons for not attaining advanced degrees. Still think it’s all about rigor? Chew on this for a moment. A poor student with test results in the upper 5% of test scores is as likely as a wealthy child with just mediocre scores to attain an advanced degree. If that is not a red flag, then I don’t know what one is.

What happens to those upper 5% kids, as well as their less high achieving peers, who fail to get that advanced degree? Invariably they become underemployed. Which results in bad outcomes for both the individual and society. Clive Belfield, professor and researcher at Queens College in NYC,  uses the term “opportunity youth” to describe kids between the ages of 16-24 that are not in school or employed. He puts their number at 6.7 million and breaks down the classification such,

“Some opportunity youth are ‘chronic’: they have never been in school or work after the age of 16. Others are ‘under-attached’: despite some schooling and some work experience beyond 16, these youth have not progressed through college or secured a stable attachment to the labor market. We estimate a chronic opportunity youth population of 3.4 million and an under-attached opportunity youth population of 3.3 million. Both groups are failing to build an economic foundation for adult independence.”
According to Barfield, “After each opportunity youth reaches 25, he or she will subsequently impose a future lifetime taxpayer burden of $170,740 and a social burden of $529,030.” Furthermore, “Considered over the full lifetime of a cohort of 6.7 million opportunity youth who are aged 16-24, the aggregate taxpayer burden amounts to $1.56 trillion in present value terms. The aggregate social burden is $4.75 trillion” You have to remember that an under employed individual is more likely to require government assistance and more likely to be involved in the criminal system and have health problems.
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.We like to talk a whole lot about getting kids career and college ready, but have we lost sight of a deeper obligation? An obligation to get them ready for life. While nothing but living can truly prepare us for life, shouldn’t we try to give children a bigger tool box, maybe one not so specific, before we send them out into the world? After all, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. A well-rounded education provides a multitude of paths to success for a student. A rich variety of experiences needs to be a part of that education. An education that is a balance between the development of soft skills and academics. The kind of education wealthy kids have been getting for a long time.

Every town  has an organization like the Nashville Public Education Foundation. Organizations that say they support every child having a great public education. Increased extracurricular activity opportunities and increased mentoring opportunities would seem to be perfect initiatives for them and a way to alleviate the pressure from traditional schools. It’d be nice if they took up the challenge.

I came across an article the other day talking about college wrestling and how Penn State was changing the face of that sport. In the past, the championships were staid affairs where matches were won by a score of 1-0 or 2-1. Participants would do everything they could to hold on to an advantage and not run the risk of giving up points. But now, Penn State’s coaches have changed all of that. They encourage their wrestlers to have fun and wrestle freely. They are not scared of giving up a few points because they know they are going to score a lot more. The results have been impressive; this year they had 5 individual champions and won the national championship for the 5th time in 6 years. They are obviously on to something.

What if we took the same approach with education? What if we stopped teaching for test results and started teaching for ever-widening experiences? What if we embodied Dewey’s axiom that education isn’t preparation for life but life itself? What if we taught kids that education was not just in the classroom, but rather before school and after school as well? My 6-year-old son can do Jiu Jitsu drills for 2 hours straight without complaint, but will often complain about having to go to school. Why is that?

Metro Nashville Public Schools are pushing the concept of STEAM with Project Based Learning as a primary element. PBL is a powerful tool and its impact was readily apparent at Metro Nashville Public Schools’ recent project fair. Kids were given a reason to get excited about education. Two problems though. One, show me a PBL project, and I’ll show you a teacher dipping into their bank account. Second, how do you execute a project and make sure you hit all the standards? One or the other is going to have to give a little. I nominate the standards or at least a modification.

Every aspect of life is not measurable and sometimes we are called upon to use skills we never knew we had. We try to quantify how ready people are prepared for life based on a period of time that is in all likelihood less then 15% of their entirety. No one will even know how successful their lives were until they reach the second part of  the “college and heaven” goal voiced at a religous school recently visited by President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos. It’s like me with my sobriety, I could be sober for 25 years but if I have a drink the day before I die, I die a drunk.

Also like with my sobriety, we do know the practices that will increase the odds of a successful life.  For me it’s stay out of bars, don’t get too stressed, keep a good social network, etc. For kids it’s, read a lot, let the process of learning become ingrained, learn the value of work, keep a good social network, etc. Some of those lessons are learned in the classroom, some not, but we owe it to all kids to make opportunities available for them to learn all of those lessons independent of their parents fiscal or social standing.

Over the last several years writing this blog, I’ve met some of the most creative, passionate, dedicated teachers imaginable. What if instead of just focusing on test results, they were allowed to bring those skills to the classroom in a truly meaningful fashion? What if they were able to teach kids to have fun and learn freely? What if we made a variety of extracurricular and networking opportunities readily available to all kids? What if we were to allow teachers to really prepare kids for life and all the different kinds of challenges they’ll face? Now that would be education reform that I could get behind.

 

WEEKEND POLL SUMMATION 4/10/2017

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My apologies for taking so long to write this summation up. I went to the MNPS State of Schools this morning and it’s taken this long to glue my head back together from its repeated explosions. I’m not going to go to in depth on things, obviously I have several issues, but I do want to touch on one thing. This is something Maplewood teacher Jarred Amato would never say, but I’m going to say it. If the district is going to reap PR rewards off of his tireless and selfless work, then it’s time they start footing part of the bill. Up until now the majority of the resources for ProjectLit have come out of Amato’s pocket and that should not be ignored. My biggest criticism of Director of Schools Shawn Joseph is that he often presents the hard work of others as being representative of his own. I can name half a dozen other iniatives over the past 6 months that have served the same purpose. That more than anything else needs to stop. By not acknowledging that Amato’s work is, by in large, a by product of his own initiative and sacrifice Joseph shortchanges the amazing work being done. A high quality leader gives credit, and support, to his troops. He doesn’t use their success stories to fuel his own narative.

I’m stepping down from the pulpit now to review this weekends poll results. The first question was on how teachers deal with the ever increasing amount of stress they are faced with daily. If responses  are to be believed, I need to invest in a vineyard. It was heartening to see that running slightly ahead of fermented and aged grapes, was the answer “I find strength in my work and the children’s lives I touch.” This question was asked a little tongue in cheek, but the subject of teacher stress is a very serious, and not a bit funny, subject. We really need, as a collective, to find a way to make the profession a whole lot less stressful. I don’t buy for one minute the argument that the current level of stress felt is “just part of the gig.”

Question 2 on what principals need to do to improve brought the most write-in votes we’ve ever recieved. Here’s all of them:

Appreciating and respecting their faculty. 
Saying “no” to district 
ALL OF THE ABOVE 
Situational Leadership 
Setting high standards for student behavior. 
Community involvement 
collaboration – they have to share decision making with their faculty 
Compassion for kids and staff combined with high expectations 
Protecting what little autonomy that remains 
Being smarter 
Personnel skills 
Hire qualified principals in the first place? 
Not micro managing, not creating drama 
Standing up against bad policy

Some great ideas in there and I appreciate you taking the time to write them out. Overall the number one answer was to become better communicators. That included both talking and listening.

On the last question, in regard to the new MNPS ES report cards, 44% found them useless. I have to admit that I took secret pleasure in the fact that the number 2 answer was, “I don’t look at it that closely, so I don’t have an opinion.” There was one “other” response that resonated with me as well, “Standards based grading is less useful. Reduces courses to “badges” to earn.” I am going to have to think on that one for a bit, but on the surface, I have to agree. I do think it is absolutely ridiculous that an ES report card comes home with no place for comments by teachers. And don’t tell me about those “canned responses” that are available. My children are on track with every standard so every column has a “2” in it. BUt what does that mean? What is their day like? Are the inquisitive or reluctant? Serious or playful? Do they interact well with the other kids or are they spending alot of time alone? Those are the things that I need to know more then are they on pace to master the standards.  My children’s teachers run neck and neck with mom and dad in the love department in the eyes of my children. That alone makes it imprtant for me to know their thoughts.

That does it for the poll results. Look for a piece focusing on the importance of extracuricular activies and social networks later this evening. I promise that I’ll have a podcast out in next couple of days focusing on Rahm Emanuel, vouchers in Memphis, the State of MNPS speech, and lots more. Friday we’ll have more poll questions.  Somebody asked me this weekend why I started doing the polls. Purely and simply, I believe your opinions are only good if you are constantly vetting them. I am so grateful for the many educators, locally and nationally, that take the time to help me vet my thoughts. Asking poll questions is just one more method to learn more and after all isn’t learning at the root of it all? Have a great week.

WEEKEND POLL 4/7/2017

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Hope everyone has had an enjoyable week. Things have been good here. Still trying to work on a new pod cast. It  look’s like vouchers plans may get shelved for another year. Texas just killed their state voucher plan. So there is some good news out there.

This week I wanted to address teacher stress. It’s almost testing season and there are about 2 more months in the school year, so teacher stress is probably pretty high right now. Teacher’s, how do you personally deal with the ever increasing stress you face?

My second question is inspired by last week’s poll. On the question of how best to retain teachers, the majority responded, hire better principals. That made me wonder, what do principals need to get better at to be great principals?

Lastly, MNPS recently made changes to elementary school report cards. They sent out a memo touting the much improved reports and I wonder if you concur.

Those are the questions for this week. As always, comments are welcome and confidential.

TALKING LITERACY WITH HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER JARRED AMATO

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Anybody who is involved in education issues and is active on social media should be aware of Maplewood High School English teacher Jarred Amato. Amato has been teaching now for about 8 years, after entering the profession through the Nashville Teaching Fellows/TNTP. He’s proven to be a dedicated, innovative professional, and at a time when young males need more role models, he’s just what the doctor ordered. Last summer Jarred dedicated himself to learning more about “book deserts” and then paired with his students, many of whom reside in those deserts, to do something about them. The result was what he calls Project Lit. Something equally refreshing about him is his humility. He recognizes that he is benefiting from exposure to great educators and that he’s just one of a system full of great teachers. Jarred and I recently sat down for a coffee and a chat at Portland Brew on 12th Avenue South.

Dad Gone Wild: Afternoon Jarred. You doing all right

Jarred Amato: I’m good, TC. How are you?

DGW: I’m doing all right. I’m kind of laughing a little bit because when you and I first met, what, about four years ago?

JA: That sounds about right.

DGW: Yes, four years ago and that was under little different circumstances.  Where was it, a teacher cabinet or a teacher group? Teachers for reform? Do you remember it at all?

JA: (looking puzzled) I’m not sure.

DGW: It was a meeting held by a group of primarily parents and some teachers who were trying to form a group to promote education reform, and you and I were on different sides of the table. I think I kinda got kicked out of that meeting, or it was hinted at that I might not be a good fit. That’s back when battle lines were really being drawn.

JA: Oh, over at the community center, right?

DGW: That’s the one, and that time we were definitely in opposition. But I’ve kept track of your career over the last several years, and I have to say I’m impressed. It’s reinforced to me that in arguing policy, we have to really be careful that the end result is not running people out of the conversation. It would have been a big loss if you were no longer in the classroom because of some ideology battles.

JA: Thank you for that. It’s been a blast. This is my eighth year in the classroom, and it’s crazy to look back at how much I’ve grown from 2009, graduating college and stepping right into the classroom at Jere Baxter MS to now at Maplewood HS. I look at my transformation as a teacher, but also how I’ve broadened my perspective on education policy, not just here, but nationally and internationally. I have been fortunate to learn from and work alongside some great people during my career. I think I’ve been able to figure out what works for me in the classroom and at the same time recognize that there’s still more to be done.

DGW: So you started off as a coach, right?

JA: I was actually hired as a teacher, but saw coaching as a way I could connect with kids who didn’t look like me. My first year at Jere Baxter I took a job volunteering as a football coach even though I had never actually played the sport growing up. Driving kids home from practice is kind of where I learned how to teach kids who were just super brave, courageous kids who faced challenges beyond anything I had experienced. I went on to coach basketball as well, so that I could continue to learn from and connect with my students.

DGW: You attended Vanderbilt University, did you go there for a teaching degree?

JA: Initially, no. I was an English and history major in the College of Arts and Science. I have always loved reading, writing, and playing sports – those are my three passions. And I took a freshman seminar course from a professor, Dr. Gilman Whiting, on the intersection of sports and race in American culture, and then took another course on the achievement gap in America during my junior year. Those courses exposed me to educational inequity. As I was about to enter my senior year, switching majors was not going to happen. Instead, I went through the first cohort of TNTP’s Nashville Teaching Fellows.

DGW: Okay, I didn’t realize that.

JA: So that was back in 2009, and everybody at TNTP was trying to get a handle on things, but I was lucky because my coach and mentor during that summer was Julie Travis, who was then an English teacher and mentor coach at Jere Baxter and is now my assistant principal at Maplewood. She’s been the best person to learn and grow from. I was able to get an idea of what English instruction should look like from her. My first year at Jere Baxter was in special education, so I was a co-teacher. I had a year, essentially, where I didn’t have to run or manage my own classroom. I was able to learn from Julie along with my co-teacher, Kristin Rowan. I had a year of what was essentially a residency. It was invaluable.

DGW: I would think that would prove invaluable..

JA: Not having any of the typical first-year pressures definitely shaped me as a teacher. I’m really thankful I had that opportunity. When I got certified to teach English for grades 7-12 and run a classroom of my own the following year, I was far more prepared

DGW: Now, Jere Baxter Middle School, for those not familiar with it, and I should disclose that my mother-in-law taught there for 35 years, is what, 70% African-American, would you say?

JA: Yes, I’d say about 70%.

DGW: And the poverty level is about…

JA: 98 percent?

DGW: So it can be a challenging school and has been for years and years and years. One that, at times, has been drastically under resourced.

JA: Yes. I think almost the only constant for these kids is change. Look at the changes there from 2009 through 2015, how many changes in leadership structure the school has been through. Essentially, the kids never had stable leadership, and these are the kids who need stability in their schools the most. That broke my heart. But what you see in these students is just super resilience, super strong talent, and a super strong desire to learn. Jere Baxter became my home, and when I decided to move to Maplewood HS, it was to stay in the same cluster and to continue to work with the same kids I’d taught and coached in seventh and eighth grade. Being at Maplewood has been a wonderful opportunity.

DGW: And I should clarify that I’m always hesitant to refer to a school as a challenging school because schools aren’t just made up of brick and mortar. When we classify them, we are actually classifying the very real children who create the school. That makes me hesitant to use phrases like challenging.

JA: Very true. I try to focus on relationships and that is what has helped me first survive and now thrive. I think it’s about really caring about kids and getting to know them as more than just a number. To build relationships with my class and with my students. As a young teacher, I spent a lot of time just getting to know them and love them. I think the shift for me probably happened three or four years in. I realized that I also had a responsibility to be a really good teacher on top of that. To really give them the kind of instruction as their English teacher that I knew they were going to need to overcome the odds and get to where they want to be. That’s been the fun part. Figuring out over the past few years the recipes that will make me a better teacher. I don’t know if you can teach people things like caring about kids and having empathy, and I don’t know if I had that ingrained or if I had to learn it. The caring part certainly came more naturally, but then the fun part has been figuring out how do I become just a really good teacher who can give my students the skills they need as writers, readers, and communicators.

DGW: To give it all focus.

JA: Yes, to give it all focus.

DGW: We don’t have enough male teachers in the classrooms and especially in the high school setting. Which translates into a lack of role models for males when they need it most. Do you embrace that role, or is it is something you keep at arm’s length?

JA: I hadn’t thought about it in that sense until recently, when a librarian actually talked about it at a professional development session last month. I think I’ll have to find the studies – I am sure they’re out there – that find how a lot of our boys don’t enjoy reading or struggle to read. There could be a connection to the fact that they haven’t seen or had many real male reading role models in their lives, both inside and outside of school. I don’t think my guys have had a lot of English teachers who love sports and can talk to them about Kevin Durant and Steve Kerr before the bell and then in class we can read together side by side and I can make book recommendations. It’s my job to find ways to connect with all students so that I can connect them with the right books. It could be the introverted girl who wants me to read a book like The Selection by Kiera Cass, and I’ll do that. But then, back to our boys, some of them have maybe gone seven or eight years without male teachers, and have possibly only read books that their female, probably white, teacher, made them read, right?

DGW: Good point.

JA: And if that’s their only experience in reading, it’s probably not going to be the most positive. So, I’ve tried to embrace being a male reading role model and I’m getting more comfortable in that role.

DGW: I believe that being a role model is extremely important. I’ve worked with kids over the years, in different fashions, and have seen how much they are looking for guidance. Too often, we adults try to avoid that role by saying things like, “No, no, don’t call me sir, that’s my father’s name or whatever.” I believe that does a disservice to kids and that it’s important that adults recognize we are the generation ahead, and we owe it to the kids who are coming behind us to provide them with some guidance. To help them understand both morally, and like you said, in reading, to provide a positive role model. It’s challenging, but we need to recognize that we’ve made it this far, and we wouldn’t be in these roles if we weren’t capable of passing them on. Kids are going to take their cues from somewhere, and obviously someone with your skills and your qualifications is going to be a better source to somebody who didn’t finish school or is in trouble with the law or having trouble navigating the system on their own.

JA: I do a lot of talking about how I ended up here and how important it is for young men to do well in school. For me, I just read a lot from a young age. I always had a book in my hand. My mom loved to read, so I was reading the sports page when I was a young kid at the breakfast table. Or then, throughout elementary and middle school, I was just constantly reading. I think a lot of our kids haven’t had that reading experience, and so we owe it to them to give them the time and the space to read. We also need to create the environment in our schools to give them that opportunity. If you ask most successful people what was a major contributor to their success, odds are they will tell you they read a lot. We need to instill that in our kids.

DGW: It’s interesting when we talk about that because I believe the same thing. I’ve discovered a lot about life through reading. I’ve travelled to far off countries through books and even some of my moral tropes have come from books. Books that might not necessarily be considered “good books.” My wife (she’s a literacy teacher herself and better read in the classics than I am) and I get into the conversation all the time about reading the “right” books vs. just reading. We both agree that all reading is valuable. The throwaway detective novels I’ve read over the years have had an underlying theme of doing the right thing, be honest, be trustworthy, and I think through these books, a set moral of codes started to sink in. I discovered a lot of who I wanted to be as man, what I aspired to, through reading both “good” books and “bad” books. To often we try to qualify the reading.

JA: I agree on the importance of fiction. If we want our students to develop empathy, they need to read fiction. If the kid’s reading and that’s what he’s enjoying, there is no bad book. Reading books by Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Kyleen Beers, and other inspirational teacher-authors, has shaped my views on English instruction. We have to give kids choice and help them to see themselves as readers.

DGW: Here is a chuckle for you. When I was in middle school, the books I read the most were those teen romances and Doc Savage Pulp Fiction novels. My mother would send us to our room to study, and I would tuck one of those books into a textbook and read it while pretending to do my homework. Those books were terrible. But the act of reading was important. They helped develop vocabulary, understanding of sentence structures, and development of plot. To this day, even though I write all the time, I can’t necessarily tell you the grammar rules. I’m not one of those people who can quote The Elements of Style, but I intrinsically understand proper sentence structure a because I’ve read so much.

JA: That’s exactly it. So on a standardized test, there may be a question with a sentence that’s either correct or incorrect, and if you ask kids, the good readers, those who read all the time, they will just say, “It sounds right or it sounds wrong.” And they’ll get the right answer. Take for example, the concept of main idea. Every kid knows what main idea is, right? But it’s when they read, if they read all time, they’ll be able to pick out the main idea about a passage, whereas if they’re a non-reader or an inexperienced reader, they may kind of get the main idea but they won’t be able to really identify it. That only comes with volume, volume, volume, volume – just increasing the amount of time that kids spend reading and writing. We know it doesn’t happen at home as much anymore, so at school, we have to give them time every single day to read and to write and to increase that volume.

DGW: I thought of you the other day when I finished a book that was just a slog to get through, but paid off handsomely in the end. I think about a year or so ago, we had a brief online conversation about the importance of finishing a book or not once you start it. And you said, sometimes you allow your students to abandon a book.

JA: Yes.

DGW: It was always ingrained in me that you don’t abandon a book. Once you’re on an adventure, you need to trust there is a pay off in the end. This book, I Am No One, was such a perfect example of a book that seemed to drag but came together perfectly at the end. I finished and I was like, “Where is Jared’s number?” This is an example of why you need to finish a book you start because the author’s whole scope or whatever the technical term may be didn’t get wrapped up until the end.

JA: (laughing) I love that. Every English teacher can tell you about the kid who constantly starts a book and puts it back. Those kids, they’re just hilarious. Every teacher will know them, but you’re right, I think it’s important to finish books. There are so many kids, and I’ve had some of them as freshmen, where this is the first time they’ve ever finished a book from start to finish on their own. And that’s a big deal to them.

I think in some places the only time kids read a book now is when they’re reading it as a class. So you have a situation where someone’s reading it out loud, maybe a teacher is trying to read this book from beginning to end aloud, and there is value in that. But then you’ve got one kid asleep, and the teacher’s trying to wake him up and then one kid’s talking and the student is trying to pay attention and follow along, but the read aloud is either too fast or too slow for him. If that’s the only reading you’re doing in school, it’s no wonder that A) you’re not going to grow enough, but B) you’re not going to enjoy it. So that’s why I give kids time every day to read silently and independently. That’s a struggle for some kids. It may take them a semester to finish a book from beginning to end, but it’s super rewarding for them.

DGW: A couple of my favorite books are ones that took me a great deal of time to read. There’s a book by Steven Pinker called Blank Slate, which is about nature vs. nurture, and it runs so counter to a lot of things that I believe in. It would make me so mad that I would throw the book down and then I’d pick it back up again. It was a difficult book to get through as well because the language was so academic, but it’s a book that continues to resonate with me. That’s another thing I believe as a reader – there are certain books that you finish and you think, “Oh that was a good book.” And then you’ll notice maybe six months later you can’t recall anything from it. On the flip side, there are books that you’ll think, “Meh, that was all right.” Then six months later, you find that those themes are still resonating. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose was like that for me. We had to read that, I guess it was either senior year in English or freshman year in college, and I hated it. But the themes it that book, even 30 years later, still play out in my life, or I’ll see something and I’ll think, “Hey, that’s similar to that circumstance in that book.”

JA: So you bring up the idea of the shared experience, and I’m going to ask you a question too. There’s this debate of the shared experience of a group of students reading the same book in class and enjoying that, and having that connection they can draw from (“Hey, remember when we’re read this in August and this character… ?”) versus knowing that in that experience there are going to be some students who don’t enjoy that book. Will they still get something out of that book? Is that as valuable as allowing a child to pick their book and retreat into it?

DGW: I think both are valuable. My wife and I often talk about the importance of teaching novels and its challenges. I’ll give you a couple personal examples: Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front are two books that I read in a shared reading experience. During the reading there were times that they didn’t really feel that compelling or I just wasn’t that interested at the time, but as a class we kept going forward and we finished them. Talking through the themes in these books aloud  and the feelings they evoked in others offered new perspectives and brought them to life.

JA: Yes. And that’s what I’ve found. We do a whole class novel and then when kids are absent, when they can’t take books home, you can run into problems in terms of logistics. To get kids reading a lot and to be able to take books home is a big deal for me. So I’ve ended up with kind of a hybrid model where kids are always reading something of their own choosing, but we’ve also created this book club where we’ve got one book every month that is a shared reading. We’ve begun to invite other people to join us. It has been great because now you have this shared experience of a community reading the same book, where people from all ages and walks of life are coming together to share their perspective. I think it’s been really valuable for both the adults and students. I ask the kids about it all the time. I give them quick online surveys about their thoughts, and 80 to 90 percent say they have enjoyed that experience of being together and talking about their reading.

DGW: And I think part of the value of the discussion is that sometimes we may think there is only interpretation. But then somebody else would mention another take on that book, and it would force us all to go deeper. If you go back to some of the classics, sometimes the language can be a hang up if you’re reading alone, but if you’re talking about it aloud, it starts to make sense. Dickens and Shakespeare always worked that way for me. The new Romantic poets as well. I had an English teacher who pretty much painted those guys as the hippies of their time. Lord Byron ain’t that different from Jim Morrison, and all of the sudden you’re like, “Oh well, now that I’m looking at it this way instead of that way, it makes sense.” And so I think sometimes our shared experiences open up doors that would normally stay closed.

JA: That’s a really good point. I’ve been really big on finding contemporary books, but we need to talk about classics as well, right? I struggle with that. I think some classics have value. But then I also believe our students deserve to see themselves in the pages, and there are so many great young adult books that deserve to be shared and discussed. There are some great authors out there that I’ve really been intentional about exposing our students to. The books are just as complex and just as rich as the classics. I think that’s been the fun part of my giving students choice in what they read. I’m able to discover books like this one (Holds up copy of book The Hate U Give).

DGW: Ah, I hear great things about that book.

JA: It’s just beautiful and real and already they’re making movie about it.

DGW: Reading the synopsis of this book, a 16-year-old girl who lives in a poor neighborhood and attends a private school witnesses the shooting death of a childhood friend by police, and I reflect back to when I was 13 and read The Outsiders for the first time. It was dangerous because it talked about things we as kids weren’t supposed to know about and it was written in our language. And I wonder if some of the power doesn’t get lost now that it’s taught like a classic.

The scene where Ponyboy is leaning against the car and the Socs come up and begin to hassle him, and he breaks the bottle and stands his ground. As a kid who was bullied a lot growing up, I can’t begin to tell you the power of that scene to me. That was a personification of the, “I’m not going to take it anymore” attitude, or that sense of “I finally found the strength inside to stand up for myself.” It really made me feel that as a kid in the shadows, somebody noticed me and my challenges, and I wasn’t alone. But now that it is universally taught, I worry that some of that power is lost because it’s no longer just speaking to us kids on the fringe. I think also sometimes when you have to search for things, they have more power. I compare it to punk rock. We had to actually search for that music to get it. There was no going online and typing in Ramones and 10 groups popped up. So when we found the music, it was almost like joining a tribe. The Outsiders felt like that to me. Having it as required reading is almost like being forced to listen to my dad’s music. You know what I mean?

JA: Yes, I think that at the end of the day, we want English teachers to be passionate about whatever model works for them. I think when we try to say this is going to be the one way that we’re going to do English instruction, it is a mistake. I think over time as you work together with people, you steal things from each other and mold it to make it yours. If we are passionate about it, then it’s going to be great for our kids. There’s no one way to do English class, but the best classrooms are the ones where students know that their teacher loves their job and is passionate about the material.

DGW: Ironically, that reminds me of something I heard on a sports talk radio show a number of years ago. Tony Dungy was the guest, and they were discussing how he has changed the model for football coaches. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t scream, he doesn’t do any of that. The talk show host said to him, “Do you think that’s the way a football coach should be?? That in the future, coaches should be less vocal. Dungy responded, and I’m paraphrasing, “I believe that you have to be true to who you are and know yourself. If you’re somebody that yells a whole lot, don’t try to be somebody who doesn’t yell. If you’re somebody who is not a yeller, don’t try to become one. I’m not a yeller. To effectively lead you have to know who you are and be authentic.”

JA: Yes, it’s absolutely true. Kids sense when you’re not being yourself and you’re not being authentic. If your heart’s not in it, they’ll know it. That’s why we need to be constantly selecting, evaluating, and adjusting our practice. But you’ve got to – whatever it is that you’re doing – you’ve got to believe in it.

DGW: Yes.

JA:I  think it took me too long to get to the point where I can say, “This classroom is right for kids. This is what they need.” It took me three, four, or five years to get to that point where I thought I was really being effective. There’s always going to be a learning curve, but I do think we need to find ways to get teachers up to speed quicker, like here are the things we know we need to see in English classrooms, here are the things that we know are good for students, good for teachers. I’d love to be part of that conversation, to figure out how we can get to the point where all teachers have this framework that they can take and mold and work for themselves. I was working with a new teacher the other day and we looked at my structure in the classroom and my core beliefs, and she was very appreciative. I was thinking we’ve got to figure out how to help teachers get established more quickly.

DGW: Agreed. Whew, we’ve really gotten off on a couple of tangents and almost missed the main reason I wanted to talk to you, the literacy project you started.

JA: So I’m big fan of Twitter. I love it because I get a lot of information and professional development through it. Last summer, I came across an article in The Atlantic about book deserts. I knew about food deserts, but book deserts I hadn’t heard of before. So I took this idea back to this great group of kids I’ve been teaching and proposed that we do something to address book deserts. I spent last summer meeting with different people, sharing what I was thinking about doing. Initially, I though we’d just do a book drive, but then school started and I proposed to the kids that we do a little research. We had a great discussion about the impact of growing up in a book desert. We went through and visually talked about our community. When you go down the road, what do you see? You see used car stores, you see fast food, but you don’t see a library though, right?

DGW: Right.

JA: So what impact does that have? We went through the whole scenario and decided to do something about it. And it’s really been organic growth from there. The kids named the project. They looked at challenges. Developed strategies. Let’s start collecting books, they said. All right, how many books are we looking to get people to donate? As long as we get a thousand, it’d be good, but let’s try for 5,000. Students wrote letters to businesses and the community asking for book donations, started a social media campaign, and created a promotional video. We recently passed 11,000 books.

DGW: Amazing.

JA: Yes, it has been very powerful. The kids are super passionate about it. They are all readers themselves, so this empowers them to be reading ambassadors and reading role models for not only their younger siblings and their peers, but for the entire community. And so we did the book drive. Then, the next piece was figuring out where we’re going to put these books. We knew we wanted to put them in places that normally there wasn’t access to books, but how were we going to do that? So again, we started talking to different people. The decision was made to build them. Let’s be creative, we can find things at home, like mini fridges, and turn those into little libraries. Then Matt Portel [is there a link? Check spelling of his name], who works with literacy in the neighborhood, suggested contacting The Tennessean because they have these unused newsstands. Eventually, we got in touch with them, and they donated and dropped off twenty newsstands that were no longer being used. We turned those into libraries.

DGW: Good idea.

JA: Then we got our former art teacher on board, Mike Mitchell, and we spent two Saturdays painting old newsstands. Now that we had these twenty awesome libraries, we had to figure out where to put them. Our students generated a list of potential sites, and we wrote letters to those locations explaining how this would work and requesting permission to place them. And so we started to place little libraries around the community – we call them LIT libraries. You can now take or leave books from four East Nashville community centers, two YMCA’s, the Nashville Juvenile Court, and we’re talking to hospitals and clinics next.

DGW: Incredible.

JA: I hate to toss out the term PBL since I think it’s one of those new buzz words, but…

DGW: Oh, that’s what I was going to ask you. It sounds like you backed into a project-based learning activity.

JA: We have. I’ll give you an another example. The week before spring break, students started to work on a business plan. They’re working in teams of four or five to design “swag” — t-shirts, sweatshirts, and such. They have to draw up the entire process: here’s how we are going to order, here’s what they’re going to look like, here’s what it’s going to cost, here’s how much profit we’re going to make, etc., and then they’re going to pitch their proposal. While that’s going on, they’re also reading to kids in elementary school, they’re doing community service hours, they’re using their artwork to design logos. They’re working in groups, they’re communicating. They’re writing letters and emails to authentic audiences, but on top of that, we’re just celebrating reading every day and working together on a project we’re all passionate about.

DGW: Reading.

JA: Reading. So when books come in, every day we’re taking pictures and sharing on social media. Kids are running Facebook and Twitter and Instagram campaigns and driving traffic up to those accounts, giving them their social media marketing experience. We didn’t put any timeline on any of this, and so it just happens naturally. I’m lucky that my kids eat lunch in my room out of preference. We put that 30 minutes of lunchtime where we’re hanging out to use by working on the project. It’s just been really rewarding to see the whole process unfold, and now the book club, which we started in January, is the next piece. I think this could be even more impactful because we are bringing the whole community together around reading. Hosting this book club where our students start facilitating will be huge. Imagine kids going from never finishing a book to hosting a book club. It’s huge. We’ll also spend the summer figuring out how else it can grow.

DGW: The possibilities are endless.

JA: They’ve taken it so far. We started with an idea that we had, and what it looks like now is completely different because of their curiosity and their energy about it

DGW: Absolutely incredible.

Jarred and I finish our coffee as he runs through a list of books that the book club hopes to tackle in the coming months. It’s an impressive list, and I have no doubt that they’ll get to them. These are the kind of stories that make me believe in public education. Instead of endless ideology debates we should be directing our energies towards supporting teachers like Jarred and the many others across MNPS who are doing similar projects. So much of the resources for projects like this come out of the teacher’s pocket, and that needs to stop. We need to start directing funding to areas that will most effectively create lifetime learners. I’m willing to bet that in 25 years when these kids reflect back on their high schools years, their participation in Project Lit will be among their most lucid and valuable experiences.

OF HIGH SCHOOL KIDS AND LITERACY

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I spent Wednesday morning over at Maplewood High School participating in a book club. This book club is made up of students and community members. It is just one facet of Maplewood’s impressive ProjectLit. I got to say it was one of the more enjoyable mornings I’ve spent. The book was Ghost by Jason Reynolds.  This is a book discussion that is facilitaed by students. It’s very powerful to see young people embracing literacy and taking control of their own development. At a time when we are constantly bombarded by adult battles over how public education should look, it’s refreshing to walk into the trenches and see how it’s being done right. In an ideal world a book club like this would be taking place monthly in every school in our district.

I hope more community members will take up the offer to join in once a month. It’s a decision you won’t regret. I look forward to next month.

REVIEWING POLL RESULTS 4/3/17

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Once again the poll results proved to be a little bit of surprise to me. I fully expected that the number one answer on teacher retention would either be “making teachers more a part of setting policy or “better discipline policy. I was wrong. The number one strategy, with 28% of the vote, was “hire better principals”. I shouldn’t be too surprised because I’ve heard over the years from teachers what a large role a principal plays in a successful school. I have seen teachers leave what were considered plum assignments in order to follow a quality principal to another school. Seeing these results begs the question, why don’t we focus on making sure that there is a high quality principal in every highly challenged school and then trust that they will be able to staff that school with high quality teachers? It seems we never hear that portion of the conversation.

Clumped together behind “hire better principals” was “better discipline policy”, “more pay”, and “more of a voice in policy”. All three recieved roughly 18% of the vote which lends credence to many of the write in votes who stated the best strategy would be a combination of all the above. Equally of interest to me was the write in vote who said, “I think it’s different for every teacher.” I think we lose sight of that sometimes. We accept that every students learns different but we find it harder to accept that every teacher teaches different. A couple of the write in votes also referenced allowing more time. Time to plan, instructional time, and time to deepen relationships with students were used as examples. I’ve long said that more time would solve a lot of problems. Less reliance on test results would free up some time.

In looking at the community school question’s answers, it becomes apparent that people are looking to support the concept. 56% of respondents said they were highly supportive of the idea with 21% saying they were highly intrigued by the concept. There were 14% of respondents who said they weren’t familiar with the concept. If you want to keep up with what’s happening with community schools in Tennessee, The Tennessee Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a good place to start. I must admit that I am excited to see this iniative moving forward. I think it caould pay real dividends for kids.

The last question was on MNPS’s central office’s national jaunts, also known as 80 trips in 160 days, and the nearly $600k pricetag that went withh those trips. 72% of respondents expressed a negative view on these trips. Only 7% said the trips didn’t bother them at all. It should be noted that two contempories of Dr. Joseph, Dallas Dance Director of Baltimore Schools, and Gerry Weast former director of Montgomery County Schools, have both faced questions on their districts travel policies as superintendents. Dance served on the MNPS transition team and Weast serves as kind of a advisor in the shadows to Dr. Joseph. So in truth, since history tends to repeat itself, the amount of travel shouldn’t come as a shock.

Once again I’d like to thank everybody for participating. Friday we’ll have some more questions. I’m also putting the finishing touches on my talk with Maplewood teacher Jared Amato, so look for that this week. If you’d like to get in touch with me you can email me at norinrad10@yahoo.com. Have a great week.