First Person

Where Did the Spark Go?

I recently had a discussion with my students about how my classes have changed over the course of my first three years of teaching. It began when I shared with them a question I had been wondering about: Were my classes better my first two years than they are this year?

I began thinking midway through this year that my classes were not the same as they were when I was fresh, and that the change was not for the better. The students responded eagerly to my question, and their feedback confirmed my suspicion: “Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Fullam, I still love your class,” one student remarked, “but sometimes the spark is not there.”

My progression as a new teacher is unique in this sense. I began strong with a lot of “spark.” My strategy was to create the curriculum as we went along, introducing texts from literature, philosophy, and the social sciences according to the students’ emerging interests. I encouraged the students to think about how one unit related to the next, how everything fits together. The students wrote questions about the texts and spent entire class periods sitting in a circle, freely discussing those questions — and we did this often. We also wrote poems and journals, published a school literary magazine, produced a video documentary about the achievement gap, and even managed to squeeze in some preparation for the English Regents Exam.

Everything I was doing in the classroom during my first two years was based on an approach I learned when I was studying to be a teacher in college: critical teaching. The idea behind this pedagogical approach is that we all hold deep inside of us our culture’s theories about the world, and that these theories can be excavated, problematized, and reworked. Critical teaching engages students in theorizing not in a detached or purely abstract sense, but in a manner that is political and deeply personal; it engages a community of learners in the transformation of our beliefs about language, culture, and society so that we are no longer mere products of socialization, but instead are evolving, freethinking, intelligent beings.

I had a great deal of success with this approach as a new teacher. So where did the spark go? Why was I successful in implementing critical teaching in my first two years and now less so in my third year? The story begins last September, when I decided to undertake a teaching experiment:

I began the year feeling confident that I could continue my practice of critical teaching and use sanctioned teaching methods while providing administrators with sanctioned kinds of evidence that my students are learning. In other words, I set out to situate critical teaching within a framework of “data-driven” and “differentiated” instruction while conforming to widespread “accountability” practices — the three primary components of current policy trends in New York City. Accordingly, I gave my students essay exams in the format of standardized tests, used those exams to determine the skills that each student most needed to improve upon, grouped students according to these skill needs and drilled them with exercises designed to improve the skills, and then gave another round of essay exams to repeat the cycle. I also documented the improvement that individual students demonstrated on subsequent exams and generated fancy charts to show progress over time. All of this required a lot of work and a lot of time devoted to what I described to students as “housekeeping”: everything had to be documented.

Creating and implementing this data-driven, differentiated, and accountable teaching system came to fruition during my school’s “Quality Review” (when representatives from the Department of Education spend three days investigating a school as part of a comprehensive evaluation). When two DOE reviewers observed my class, everything I had planned was in place. My students were working in groups to finish Regents-style essays comparing Plato’s philosophy to a novel they were reading. Each group had two teacher-edited rough drafts of their essay on hand, along with completed “formative peer-assessment” and “summative self-assessment” sheets. Individual students showed the reviewers work samples and charts for monitoring their progress that we kept in their binders; and I showed them my own charts for monitoring student progress: “You see,” I said, “Mattie was getting 4’s on her essays and now she’s getting 6’s.”

My students were aware that to some extent we were putting on a show during that observation, and since they generally support me, they were happy to play along. The whole thing went great — so great, in fact, that one of the reviewers later told the principal that I was one of the most impressive teachers in the school and should be brought to the forefront of professional development for our school. By this time, though, I had become strongly suspicious that incorporating sanctioned teaching methods into my practice had caused me to compromise my commitment to critical teaching; and I was already too cynical about my new approach to enjoy being praised for it.

In retrospect, the result of my teaching experiment is clear to me: While my plan was to situate my practice of critical teaching within a new framework, I ended up with a different practice altogether. I am now convinced that the sanctioned and mandated teaching methods in NYC are skill-oriented and teacher-directed, and hence are incompatible with critical teaching, which is inquiry-oriented and student-centered. Furthermore, while the sanctioned methods may succeed in driving up test scores, I found that they shape the roles of teachers and students in unfavorable ways. Rather than acting as an intellectual and leader, for example, in my experiment I had become more like a clerk officiating within a bureaucracy. Rather than entering into critical interactions with language and life — rather than growing as real thinkers and real learners — my students had become parrots of the “correct” way of responding to different prompts; they were practicing a kind of intellectual obedience that inhibits critical thought.

The dialectical reading journals I mentioned in a previous post are one way that I am now attempting to get back on track. In my other classes, the students are planning critical research projects on how the achievement gap affects their school and their lives. I hope these activities help regain the spark that my classes had before I embarked on my teaching experiment. I am concerned, though, about how I will fare working in a school system whose policies I disagree with at such a fundamental level. Now that I am an experienced teacher, I feel greater pressure to conform to sanctioned teaching methods. Can I still be successful as a critical teacher? Can I survive in a school system whose policies I will be attempting to subvert on a day-to-day basis? Is it even ethical to do this?

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.