First Person

How a very unlikely school visit improved my students’ writing

When I was named principal of St. Mark the Evangelist School three years ago, I didn’t expect that my students would end up learning to write using a model borrowed from a charter school in Brooklyn.

As principal, I was charged with continuing the school’s long history of faith-based education in Harlem while revamping our academic program. Our team has always been committed to teaching students the skills they need as learning standards and career opportunities change. But as a small community, we have grown more and more isolated over time.

To fix that, we did something unorthodox. Rather than turning exclusively to other private schools for insight, we looked to charter and district schools in our city for models to help us improve classroom instruction.

We did this through our new relationship with Schools That Can, an organization that builds cross-sector networks of district, charter, and independent schools. As debates about whether district and charter schools can effectively collaborate continue across the city, our experience made it clear to me that it is possible for different types of schools to learn from each other.

Schools That Can gave us access to talented educators in our city who offered us the chance to observe the way they approach a wide range of challenges. I was particularly concerned about finding ways to improve my students’ writing. It was clear from our middle school students’ performance on last year’s New York State exam—the first aligned to the Common Core—that we needed to find a way to help them build stronger, evidenced-based responses to writing prompts.

In November, I visited Hellenic Classical Charter School in Brooklyn to learn more about the school’s approach to teaching writing at the middle school level. The school is different from ours in many ways: we’re a small, private Catholic school, and HCCS is slightly larger public charter school where all students learn Greek. But I had heard about their robust writing program and wanted to learn more, particularly because the majority of students at both of our schools come from low-income backgrounds.

As I walked through teachers’ classrooms at HCCS, I saw walls filled with student writing. While displaying student work isn’t uncommon, I was struck by the comments that accompanied the writing.

Students and teachers used handwritten notes to sustain an ongoing dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of work. I was particularly impressed by the level of feedback students were able to give each other, including suggestions about improving sentence structure and using stronger adjectives to bring the piece to life.

After observing student work in the hallways, I looked through students’ portfolios and saw that students were using their peers’ feedback to improve their subsequent work. I read the essays students had written over the course of the year and saw, for example, that a student who received feedback on one essay encouraging the use of more vivid language  developed a stronger, more dynamic writing style in her next essays.

It was refreshing and motivating to see a clear, painstaking approach to teaching writing in which students and teachers both took ownership of the writing process.

Following the path laid out by HCCS, we introduced a schoolwide writing rubric and checklist tool at St. Mark. Teachers shared the checklist with their students, showed them multiple models of exemplary work, and walked them through the process of critiquing writing samples. Students are now expected to reference the checklist whenever they write, as well as when they critique their classmates’ writing.

We’ve only been using these tools for a few months, so it’s too soon to know their full effect. But throughout the school, I see students digging deeper into texts to find details to support their arguments, and critiquing each other’s writing in more nuanced and sophisticated ways—all skills called for by the Common Core standards. Teachers who were initially unsure how to adapt their classes to the standards are gaining confidence, in part because they have the checklist to ground their feedback to students.

As a school leader, knowing a school needs to improve is an important step, but actually making a plan to change it is where the real challenge arises. It can be tempting to turn inward for solutions, but no one teacher, coach, or administrator has all the answers. For my school, looking beyond our classroom walls gave us the chance to learn what we needed from a school that is very different from our own.

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First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.