First Person

On week one after a tense summer, don’t be afraid to tell students: ‘We want to know you’

Denver Post

As school resumes, ninth graders are walking into 2,000-student high schools and and feeling uneasy, perhaps scared.

Some might recognize a small share of their classmates from middle school. But many won’t know a single teacher, and not one adult will know them, either.

They will wonder: Are the men and women in this building on their side? Is any adult there happy to see them?

In those first days, English teachers will have their own questions about their students’ writing skills and their students’ lives. As a longtime English teacher in Parker, my solution was to embrace the simple journal entry.

I would ask them to tell me about a fun, scary or memorable experience from this past summer. Write about a visit to relatives, a grandparent’s illness, your new apartment or home. Explain what did or did not go well in eighth grade and your questions about whether you’re ready to succeed.

The topics might seem fluffy to some. Aren’t those elementary-school topics? No mention of Common Core’s emphasis on “citing evidence to support your point of view”?

Nope. We have 35 other weeks to help our students develop their ability to narrate, inform, persuade. Week one, we need to get to know our students.

This is more important than it might seem for a couple of reasons. One, the 2015 Student Gallup Poll told us, once again, that by ninth grade students increasingly feel disengaged. Responses to the statement “The adults at my school care about me” decline steadily after fifth grade.

To keep our students engaged in this critical academic work, our 13- and 14-year old freshmen need evidence, this first week, that someone in this forbidding complex wants to know who they are. When they don’t get it, the results are clear.

Second, we cannot ignore what young people have witnessed this summer across our country. For those of us who teach or tutor in Denver, Aurora, or the Adams 14 districts, all of which have large numbers of students of color, questions about race and policing are even more relevant.

In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where protests flared in recent months, a recent story in Education Week profiled principals who are developing “plans to help teachers respond to students and their needs when they return to school,” including “efforts to provide students who may want to write or speak about race and policing as part of school assignments.”

“May” want? You better believe it. Let’s welcome this, and give our ninth graders a chance to try to put what they are thinking into words.

In my final years as a teacher, that first week of school, I asked my students to produce three journal entries. No magic there. But perhaps the big high school becomes less scary when one adult says, I care. I’d like to know who you are and what’s on your mind. Tell me.

Here are some writing assignment ideas …

I. Choose one of the options below, and focus only on that one activity or day or moment.

1. Favorite activity
2. Best memory
3. Most embarrassing moment/experience
4. Most difficult or most thrilling moment/experience, and why
5. Activity, experience or accomplishment from this summer of which I am most proud

II. Write about the adjustment to ninth grade. Some of the topics you might examine include:

1.) What is new? What is different? How much is the same? What are your first impressions? What will be different in the workload? What are you most excited about? What are you most worried about?
2.) Write about one or two of your main academic goals for the rest of the school year. It can help to set some goals for the next two or three months. What changes or improvement do you hope to see, and why?

III. Write a response to one of these topics.

Is there a family member you feel very close to? What makes you feel that way?
Do you or your family have a pet or pets? How do you feel about him/her/them?
If you have a friend with whom you can talk about anything, write about him or her.
What would you like to do after high school? After college?
What might keep you from achieving your potential?
What is your greatest fear? – or – What puts a smile on your face?

Peter Huidekoper Jr. taught for 18 years. He writes an education newsletter and is the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Fellowship Program.

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First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.