Category: Issues in Education

Professional Development that Empowers: A Teacher’s PD Wishlist

If your professional development doesn’t feel like this, you might be doing it wrong.

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the honor of working as a facilitator for the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project at their Invitational Summer Institute. I love working with the Writing Project, because it is absolutely outstanding professional development. If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it magic.

It also makes me wonder whether or not this magic is replicable, because (as all teachers know) professional development can be both the best thing or the worst thing about being an educator, depending on what, where, how, and through whom it happens.

What if professional development could always be good? What should districts look for in their pursuit of quality professional development for teachers–workshops that leave staff feeling inspired and legitimately empowered to change their practices for the better?

As a teacher who has actively pursued (and facilitated) professional development to enhance my teaching practice over the last decade, I’ve noticed some patterns in what good teacher PD really means, which I’ll  share here in list form. It’s my hope that this list will be helpful to professional development committees and administrators when considering PD offerings for teachers. I’m focusing specifically on aspects that will leave teacher participants feeling empowered, because that’s a key in creating positive change in schools. It’s not an all-encompassing list, but it’s enough to start some important conversations.

Recommendations for Professional Development that Empowers Teachers

#1 Presenters of professional development for teachers should also be current teachers themselves. I understand that there are people out there who have well-researched and innovative ideas about what teachers should be doing. However, if those people are not current teachers themselves in some capacity, their ability to truly understand the day-to-day classroom implications of their findings is compromised. A presenter must be able to answer the question “How does this work in your classroom?” in order to get complete buy-in from an audience of practicing teachers.

#2 The topic of professional development should directly correlate with an area of need identified by the participating teachers. Teachers have a lot to do. They also want to learn. But if they are sacrificing their time, they want to learn about what’s important to their own practice right now. The best professional development addresses the specific needs of its audience. All teachers have questions about certain strategies or situations within their classrooms. Professional development topics should ideally correlate with those questions to make the process authentic. This is best accomplished when the presenters have a working knowledge of the participants’ context–what is it like to teach in this school? Who are the students? To what level have the participants already implemented the strategy in question? What kinds of expertise are the participants bringing in with them? A presenter must know what his or her audience truly needs most, to make sure the offerings are valuable.

#3 Participants should be assisted in creating or adapting resources for their classrooms during the professional development. Teachers don’t want to be given something and simply told to use it–they are creative, ingenious people. Professional development that assists teachers in creating something tailor-made for their own classes and students taps into this immense potential. Students benefit immediately from new resources being applied by the experts who created them–their teachers! Hands-on, active learning is the kind of meaning-making that we know works well in education at all levels. Teachers, like students, should be provided opportunities to apply and experiment with their growing knowledge to create new applications.

# 4 Participants should be given the support they need to become future leaders by sharing and building knowledge in their professional communities. The goal of teacher professional development should not be to “bring in the experts.” Teachers are the experts when it comes to teaching (see #1). Districts gain more value when they invest in professional development that in turn makes teacher-leaders out of participants, who can then present their developing knowledge to others in their district. This shows a trust and investment in teachers as professionals. It also builds a school culture where teachers grow their own learning by sharing expertise with colleagues–a sure way to strengthen community and foster leadership among staff.

#5 Participants should have the chance to build supportive relationships and connect as human beings. Teaching is primarily about working with people. Teachers will participate more enthusiastically, feel more valued, have more fun, work far harder, and respond far more positively when they are able to connect meaningfully with each other during their time together. Sharing stories and feelings around what they are teaching, the joys and heartbreaks and frustrations… these opportunities to connect, relate, vent, joke, and collaborate are crucial. Giving teachers time to discuss what is most important in their own lives may seem like it’s a distraction from the purpose of professional development, but it is not. Rather, it’s a catalyst. Caring about people fuels teachers. When they care about each other, they can do incredible things as a team.

Any one of these five criteria can make professional development more empowering for teachers. It may not always be possible to hit all five at once, but when it is–that’s when the magic will happen. 

Of course, I can speak only from my own personal experience. But as someone who just can’t stay away from the National Writing Project after eight years, I’m currently looking at another summer institute with new colleagues who have become family that I don’t want to say goodbye to. I’m feeling a propulsive momentum for learning about my profession that I don’t want to end. I’m feeling like a leader who wants to work hard. If all professional development felt like that, well… I can only imagine the resulting magic.

For an at-a-glance version of the list in this post, scroll through the infographic below!   Download the PDF version here.

Arm Me With

It’s hard to teach (and write about teaching) in this moment in history where unthinkable violence can reach children at school. There’s a lot of noise out here, and I just can’t lift my voice right now, so I’ll simply post an image this month. So much love to all of you.

Support for Our Passion: A High School Teacher’s Christmas Wishlist

Happy holiday season! Santa, if you’re listening, I’d like to explain one thing that I know is on a lot of teachers’ Christmas lists–an oversized box of passion, with the batteries included. Here’s what I mean.

Schools are always trying something new. As someone who is committed to research-driven teaching methods, I do like to push myself to dive into new theories, recommendations, and strategies. But as long as schools exist, there will always be someone new coming to town to tout the Next Big Thing that will revolutionize education. And sometimes a back-to-basics approach can remind us of what’s most important.

I think we sometimes forget that the true core of teaching, the best thing about teaching, can’t ever be summed up with a buzzword or sold for a price-per-student fee, because it’s just too personal. And for content-area teachers in high schools, a big part of that is our love for our subjects. If I were to define the concept of “high school teacher” to an alien, this is what I would say: A high school teacher is a person who loves a certain discipline or skill so much that they spend their life helping young people to learn it. Good teachers know that our passion for what we teach, why we teach, and who we teach will always come first.

Am I just being sentimental here? Maybe we should look at some data. Would a study that synthesizes findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students be convincing enough? In the recently published Visible Learning research (Hattie, 2016) about the individual impacts of over 250 elements in education, “Teacher Credibility” was named as one of the top ten positive influences on student learning, with 0.90 effect size. That is MASSIVE! What is this magical element of teaching that can impact students so strongly for the better? Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher, Hattie, and Frey, 2016) defines it as such: “a constellation of characteristics, including trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy.” In other words, caring teachers who know their content, demonstrate a dynamic excitement about it, and create a sense of urgency to learn it will have a profound impact on their students. If we ever doubted that, the numbers are here to remind us that good teaching relies on a personal energy that cannot be bought, nor can it be faked. It can only come from that irreplaceable, exciting feeling of passion that brings many teachers to the career. People, maybe, like me, who find themselves floored with wonder over the power of words to create beautiful moments within a flawed world. Or people who relish the truths hidden deep within the structure of mathematics, with its unwavering consistency and elegant logic. Or people who have an uncommonly deep respect for history, who understand the figures of our past as if they were intimate acquaintances.

This kind of dynamic, contagious, urgent excitement for a particular type of knowledge is what inspires students to learn. And that makes sense, right? Do you remember a teacher who loved a certain book so much that it made you read it and love it? Or maybe a science teacher who was so gosh darn excited about each and every lab that it made you curious about science in a new way? Or a social studies teacher who made you care about the events in the world because he was always sharing relevant news articles constantly? Maybe you were lucky enough to be a part of something–a discussion, a performance, a debate, or a project that was so engaging that it set you on the path to the life you now lead as an adult?

Those milestone learning experiences are part of the magic of education, and they are propelled by the incredible force within teachers who love what they teach. But that force does not always flow freely–it can get damaged when teachers are overwhelmed, when staff morale is suffering, when time is not available to tap into that passion. Depending on where we are in our lives, personal struggles with mental health or home concerns can also dim the light of the most passionate teacher. In these times of lower ebb, support from others can help. It might be a kind email from a colleague, a chance to connect with other experts in the content area, or just a genuine comment from a student or parent that says, “Hey, I see what you do, and I value it.”  There is no educator resource more powerful then a simple vote of confidence to cultivate that shared excitement for learning which powers good teaching. When members of our community get excited about the same things that teachers are excited about, it creates this huge, good energy that makes our school days bright and productive.

So here’s my Christmas wish: I wish that school communities everywhere might recognize the very real (quantifiable, even!) positive impact that individual teacher passion has on student learning. Help us notice it, support it, and fuel it however we can… because an excited teacher is not only an effective one, but a happy one, too.

Happy Holidays.

Into the Woods! A Transcendentalist Day at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Sometimes the world is just so big that we forget it’s even there.

Teaching our junior unit on transcendentalism is always a highlight of the end of the year. Beyond just teaching about the American philosophical giants of the mid-1800s, we work on understanding the legacy of the transcendentals and their lasting ideals of self-reliance, solitude, and free thought. We try to transform our classroom walls into windows that turn within, as student consider their own personal philosophies. Last year while reflecting on this unit–so much about thinking and writing born of the natural world’s inspiration–it seemed to us that we shouldn’t just be turning walls into windows. We should be opening those windows, and streaming out into the place where Emerson found his spirit, and Thoreau found his soul–the woods. What good is reading about the connection between man and nature, if you can’t feel it?

Yep, you know what that means! Field. Trip. Time. With this goal in mind, we spent several months planning a day of workshops, inside and outside, where students could read, write, hike, observe plants and animals, and maybe even lose themselves (safely) in a place of solitude and reflection. We found a perfect partnership in Milwaukee’s Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, which prioritizes experiential, environmental education in its mission statement and boasts six miles of trails over 185 acres of beautiful natural ecosystems along Lake Michigan.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you announce to over one hundred teenagers that you’re taking them to the forest. They seemed excited, in an uncertain kind of way, about spending a day outside. For most of them, this would be an unfamiliar kind of experience. We primed them all week leading up to the trip by introducing them to transcendentalism, reading about the science behind effects that nature has on the brain, and practicing field notes in the classroom. Here’s my example from the classroom practice, written in the same little red field notebook that we provided to each of our students on field trip day:

Our full plan for the day was developed by our team of five teachers and three staff members at the center. We rotated five groups of around 20 students between five mini-workshops including geocaching (staffed by the nature center), and hands-on lessons in transcendentalist ideas, nature writing, reflective writing, and field notes, all written by our teaching team. (If you’d like access to our curriculum to adapt for your own nature field trip, find it here, shared with the permission of my colleagues.)

We took 107 high school juniors out to navigate, tread through mud, hop on rocks, watch sun-baked turtles, listen to birdsong, to write and read and eat bag lunches and laugh. It was curriculum brought to life. The students were really kids on this trip, laughing, shrieking, stretching, and having actual dynamic conversations.  They were excited and adventuresome. They dug in to what we were doing. They walked all day. This is teaching at its best and most pure–creating an experience, guiding pupils on how to explore it, and watching them feel a spark of curiosity drive a search for knowledge. 

“Wait, I want to write a little more!”

“I’m muddy, but I don’t even care.”

“Why don’t we do this all the time?”

“Do we really have to leave?”

“It’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you so much for putting this together.”

“Thank you for planning this.”

“Thank you for taking us here.”

 

I was so happy that my heart was breaking a little bit. I was thinking about all the time that the average high school student spends in a desk filling out bubbles, when he or she could be making or doing something that connects to his or her learning instead. I’m so grateful that we were able to have this golden day in nature to help new learning catch fire. We need so much more of this. The first step is cultivating partnerships between schools and outside organizations like the SANC–it’s fantastic when we can support one another’s missions and open the world to kids in the meantime.

I also got to hold a snake! (So did the students, at least those who had good feelings about snakes!) Touch is such an important sense–we touch to connect, to understand. Learning about the natural world is only so much trivia until you get to feel the squirm of a snake’s muscles contracting as he sneaks gently around your arm. It’s a different kind of bond, a deeper kind of understanding that takes you from interested to caring. Immersive education is crucial to natural preservation efforts… because in order to act, you have to care. Thanks to this experience, we got to reach out and touch our big, big world.

Pretty darn awesome. Thanks again to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center for helping us make our transcendentalist teaching dreams come true!

 

They Remember Who We Are: The Immense Impact of the Individual Classroom Teacher

At the end of this summer, I proudly completed my Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the culminating weeks of my coursework, I wrote an in-depth literature review on the topic of character education. I was exploring several questions; most prominently, I was seeking a way to sort through the broad spectrum of existing programs, strategies, and beliefs about how schools teach our students to become good citizens in addition to becoming savvy scholars. What strategies are effective? How is that effectiveness measured? How does the complicated history of character education inform our present? Does developing character translate to academic achievement?

As you might imagine, the deeper I dug into those questions, the more complex and conflicting my findings became. On one particular afternoon, feeling overwhelmed at the process of synthesizing and interpreting the research I had read, I resorted to wandering around Golda Meir library. I had this strong sense that, if only I could find the perfect spot in the meandering depths of the stacks, inspiration would flood me and all my struggles would dissipate. Weirdly enough, it happened. It all started with this:

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I moved to a desk below an unassuming plaque mounted to the brick. It’s you and me, Walter Hewitt Cheever, I thought, plunking my bag down on the chair. I started to read the information below the name, and there it was:

Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend.

We loved him.

Walter Hewitt Cheever, whoever he was, taught at UWM from age 38 until his death nearly three decades later. He “served faithfully.” My grandfather wasn’t even born yet when Cheever died, but yet here was I, a teacher from 2016, finishing up my master’s degree in the company of his modest little memorial. What struck me was that nothing of Cheever’s academic discipline or scholarship was mentioned. I don’t know what his subject matter of expertise was, what he published, or what content his students learned. Tears, out of nowhere, started to push at my eyelids as I read the epitaph over again. Love. Ideals. Character. These are the words that Cheever’s students and colleagues decided to put on his plaque, way back at the beginning of the Roaring 20’s. And oddly enough, the story of this piece of metal in the odd corner of the university library mirrors what, to me, were the most fascinating aspects of my research on character education.

On that day and those that followed, I started to articulate, in writing, everything that I learned about the ways that schools attempt to teach students about things like kindness, leadership, and responsibility. Part of it breaks down to this: the individual classroom teacher has a bigger impact than nearly any other school-based factor–not just on learning, but on the people our students grow up to be.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

*In 2003, Williams, et.al interviewed students about their feelings regarding a newly implemented character education program at their schools. The responses that the researchers got, however, had little to do with the actual curriculum that the program used. Instead, individual teachers’ behavior and attitudes were consistently mentioned. The questions were about the program, but the answers were about the teachers as role models.

*Also in 2003, another researcher named Richard Weissbourd found that even when schools have been massively restructured in policy or curriculum, students remained largely oblivious to the changes; yet, when questioned about their feelings regarding new initiatives, they typically responded with observations about a specific teacher’s actions or lessons. Again, we see that students interpret individual teachers’ behavior and messages as the voice of their school’s character mission. This puts a lot of moral responsibility on teachers’ shoulders! Weissbourd acknowledged that a special support and training of teachers is needed in order to help character education work: “Schools can best support students’ moral development by helping teachers manage the stresses of their profession and by increasing teachers’ capacity for reflection and empathy” (p. 6).

*Especially for students who may not have a home life that provides safety and empathy, the environments of their classrooms can make a profound difference in academic success as well as social, emotional, and ethical development (Schaps, 2005).

*While mission statements and stated values may create a formal message about the school’s environment, students are keenly aware of the implicit messages about values that they receive via their daily interactions at school. The positive quality of students’ relationships with teachers dramatically affects their receptiveness to character education (Berkowitz and Bier, 2004).

In today’s educational environment, the collection and interpretation of academic proficiency data is highly prioritized. But there’s a huge part of teaching that isn’t addressed in that sphere. Parents, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders also care deeply about helping to raise students who can connect with and care for one another. A teacher’s work goes beyond teaching content. In their own classrooms every day, teachers directly impact a student’s potential to flourish, empathize, collaborate, create, and lead. 

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I’ve begun my school year reflecting on these things and thinking back to Walter Hewitt Cheever’s memorial plaque. It’s humbling to think that, especially as the years pass, students may remember relatively little of what we teach, and relatively much more about the kind of people we seem to be in the classroom. To help remind myself of this, I’ve framed my classroom expectations within four core values: bravery, compassion, dedication, and joy–these are ways of thinking and being that have helped me prosper as a person, as a student, and as a teacher. Throughout the year, when I can, I’m going to connect these values to what we do in class. (Bravery and public speaking, dedication and research writing…) It’s my way of purposefully honoring the seamless relationship between building young scholars and guiding young citizens. If they’re watching and listening that closely, I want to make sure that I share something of value when it comes to the things that we fall back on when mere knowledge won’t suffice.

The next time you feel like maybe what you do in the classroom doesn’t matter, think of Cheever. Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend. We loved him.

 

 

References

Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. C. (2004). Research-based character education. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 72-85.

Schaps, E. (2005). The role of supportive school environments in promoting academic success. In T. Hansen, H. Knoff, C. Muller & E. Schaps (Eds.), Getting results: Developing safe and healthy kids, update 5 (p. 37). Sacramento: California Department of Education.

Weissbourd, R. (2003). Moral teachers, moral students. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 6.

Williams, D. D., Yanchar, S. C., Jensen, L. C., & Lewis, C. (2003). Character education in a public high school: A multi-year inquiry into Unified Studies. Journal of Moral Education, 32(1), 3-33.

 

Where the Teaching Life and Political Life Meet–What Does the Law Say?

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I’m excited to share an article of mine that was published in this month’s issue of  Wisconsin Lawyer  magazine, entitled “Speaking Up: The First Amendment and Wisconsin’s Public Educators.” The article is the result of a special graduate project that I completed as part of my ongoing master’s coursework at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Special thanks are due to Dr. Pritchard from the Journalism and Media Studies program at UWM, for his mentorship and feedback during my research and writing process!

The article explores both historical and current law surrounding the intersection between public educators’ jobs and their political actions, with a focus on Wisconsin cases. I set out to answer the question, “How much protection does the First Amendment extend to the speech of public school teachers?” In other words, what can teachers legally say and do to participate robustly in political life… without getting in trouble for it? What does the law really say, and why?

To find out, check out the article by clicking here.

Thanks for reading!

Listening Down the Hallway: Teaching Through Doubt

Teaching is unpredictable on many different levels. Sometimes it seems like our very existence in the classroom is governed by uncertainty. This uncertainty can pop up in many small ways. What will my students be like today? What will they do? What will they need? What unforeseen events or circumstances will I need to adapt to? Did I say the right things today? Did my students learn from me? 

Uncertainty can surge up in the form of much larger questions, too. Am I really making a difference? What will my future as an educator look like? Do people find any value in what I do? Am I even in the right careerEspecially in times of high stress or low staff morale, the sandpit of doubt manifests surreptitiously beneath our feet. And getting out of it can be… a special challenge.

Having one such day recently, I walked down the long Communications Department hallway to make some copies during my prep hour. I was treading carefully (because of the metaphorical quicksand and all), so I’ll admit that I was walking a bit more slowly than usual. As it turned out, slowing down physically also quieted my mind. The worried questions that had been scrolling in my head dropped off one by one, and by the time I was halfway down the hall, my head was clear. In that mind-quiet, I become suddenly aware of what I was hearing: a whole hallway worth of my colleagues teaching, a chorus of voices simultaneously audible through their respective classroom doors. Mr. B’s hip introspection. Mrs. L’s patient guidance. Mrs. G’s honest laughter. Mrs. H’s enthusiastic explanation. Mrs. F’s wry wit. And Mrs. U’s unbelievably clear and carrying Teacher Voice with a capital T. You have to understand, these people are really good teachers.

I stopped for a minute, and leaned against a locker.

I listened.

I let the sounds weave a poem in the air and my sense of uncertainty floated away like a tetherless buoy. These are good days, I thought. These are good days with good people. I was literally hearing learning happen. Over a hundred students just behind each door in the hallway were all learning at once in the same space. And beyond that, more hallways with more students were learning even more things all at once! As can happen when one deeply ponders otherwise obvious facts, it staggered me to think about it. Such a massive force for good was happening, and I was there, standing right in the middle of it.

I don’t have a catch all answer to doubt. But I know that there’s one thing I won’t ever doubt. I will never doubt that teachers everywhere are working really hard to be there for their students. And when I think about all the fantastic teaching that’s happening in my hallway (and the hallways beyond mine in all the school, all the city, all the state, and all the country!) all at once, the magnitude of sheer, recklessly dedicated courage that teachers bring to work with them each day comes into focus. To teach is to have the confidence to say, “I know some things about the world. I want to share them with you. I want to teach you how to walk in this way, to write and speak and read.” To teach requires a boldness that slices through doubt. On the days when I feel like I’m not the one who has it, all I need to do is listen down the hallway to be reminded that I’m in the most capable of company. My colleagues are my steady ground–a plank across the sand.

If you feel your steps start to sink, take a moment in the hallway to listen and admire the fellow teachers around you. There’s a lot of intellectual firepower there, and a lot of love.

These are good days with good people.

COMMM

Committing to Equity in Our Diverse Classrooms

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Summer gives educators important mental space. Few people understand the word “chaos” quite like a teacher who’s elbow-deep in the joyful mire of managing her classroom during the school year. When we’re simultaneously focusing on feedback, meetings, lesson planning, events, data, e-mail, conferences, and instruction, there’s not always time to ponder the larger issues that surround our profession. As I’ve been enjoying this summer space to delve into educational theory and continue my graduate work, the chaos has quieted enough for me to hear the echo of an important assertion that I need to recommit to as I start my seventh year of teaching this fall. Here it is:

There’s no such thing as a classroom where diversity doesn’t matter, and teaching with an intentional goal of equity needs to be a priority for all teachers.

As our nation’s famed achievement gaps fluctuate slightly from year to year, their staying power reveals the social crevasses deeper than the Marianas Trench that run through our school hallways. Simply put, our education system still unfairly marginalizes students of color and students in living in poverty. Disparities in achievement don’t end there, either—gender, sexual orientation, home language, and physical ability can also be weighty deciding factors in a student’s level of access to success. These disparities impact future career and earning potential, mental and physical health, as well as likeliness of incarceration. It’s an overwhelmingly massive problem, with historical roots in institutionalized discrimination that many, many hardworking policymakers, academics, administrators, educators, and parents continue to fight. And it’s not just in urban areas. It’s system-wide. No district is immune. We’re all symptomatic to some degree.

We do want justice for all. We want to see all kids get a fair chance to succeed. But when data set after data set shows American schools still failing to close achievement gaps, it’s hard. As teachers, sometimes we cope by blocking out worries about inequity in our schools. We relinquish ownership of the issue. We say things like, “Well, the fact that this student won’t turn in his work has nothing to do with me” or “I’m just here to teach English. I teach things and it’s up to students to learn them, that’s it. I didn’t create the problems in education.” Here’s my message to you—don’t give in to that. Responding to diversity matters. It matters in cities, in suburbs, and rural communities. It matters because we have the agency to create a salve of parity in the small environments where we can still claim power as individual educators. It’s our job to care about, grapple with, question, and claim the ways in which diversity is addressed within our own schools.

I’d like to share with you a short list of research-supported methods that I hope to use in the coming year to work toward this goal of creating a more equitable classroom. (Read more about the research in the resources linked to each name: Banks 1999; Steele 2010; Milner 2010; Schippers, Scheepers, and Peterson 2015.)

Recognizing my own privilege and resisting colorblindness means understanding that differences—in race, gender, culture, etc.—between my students and me are important and not to be ignored. Because of my race, language, social status, and other aspects of my identity, I’ve been afforded certain social privileges free of charge which position me in a place of power. I cannot be blind to this fact, nor can I pretend that all of my students have been handed an equal backpack of privilege. By seeing and acknowledging the different identities and experiences that my students bring to the classroom, I allow myself to respond to them as individuals with needs that may be different from what I assume them to be. By making my classroom a safe space to discuss variances in identity, I prevent myself from robbing my students of agency when their perceptions vary from my own.

Understanding stereotype threat requires me to recognize that the way in which I frame an assessment can alter my students’ performance. In situations where students are conscious of an aspect of themselves (ex. being female) that is negatively stereotyped in certain subject areas (ex. mathematics), they consistently underperform. This effect can be counteracted by helping students focus on different aspects of their identities (ex. membership in an academic community) before an assessment, where the identity is associated with positive performance.

Honoring multiple perspectives in curriculum is a requirement for transformative multicultural education. In preparing students of all colors—yes, even white–and backgrounds for our increasingly diverse society, it is crucial that the stories we tell in education reflect a spectrum of cultural perspectives. This means teaching texts that include female authors and authors of color in addition to the European, white, Christian male authors that dominate the canon. It means teaching history as it was experienced by the conquerors as well as the voiceless. It means fostering critical thinking and discussion rather than seeking predetermined, one-dimensional responses.

Narrative interventions have powerful potential to increase achievement in students who are in danger of failure. This means I need to commit to helping my students express their academic goals in writing, asking them to envision the steps that they will take to achieve their goals and how the end result will impact their personal lives in a positive way. Students need the chance to think about and express what they truly want to accomplish academically and why. And I need to be involved in those goals as well–be aware of them and do what I can to support them.

Building community connections and positive relationships with students that I don’t initially have things in common with is something that takes work, and sometimes even a little bit of strategy. But I need to remember that the quickest way to boost a student’s achievement is to get him or her to invest in my classroom. That means investing in me as a person, and can only happen if the student feels that I genuinely connect with him or her. Whether it’s taking a moment to talk about some favorite music, showing up for a basketball game, calling home to check in with mom, or attending community events, the time teachers spend relating to students personally builds us a bridge across the staggering depth of the trench. When a relationship is created, the cultural tension of difference can fade.

Don’t look down. Look forward. Let’s do the work we need to do to create more opportunities for all of our students.

You Can’t Cut Truth from a Budget: A Response to the Proposed Cuts to the UW System’s Resources and Mission

UPDATE: Shortly after the post below was published, Governor Walker tweeted that his removal of The Wisconsin Idea from the UW System mission statement was a “drafting error” and that it would be replaced in his most recent version of the budget. Here’s the tweet:

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This is a positive rhetorical move, but the question remains whether or not the reasoning behind Walker’s proposed cuts remains true to The Wisconsin Idea. (Does he walk the walk, in other words?) Evidence seems to point to the contrary. Keep reading to consider my argument about the link between this type of rhetorical oversight and the implied accompanying motivations for political action.
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In case you haven’t been following the news in Wisconsin surrounding our governor’s proposal to implement deep cuts to the University of Wisconsin system, here are the essential facts.

*Governor Walker has proposed $300 million worth of budget cuts to the UW System overall, to be implemented over the next two years. This is a 13% cut to the overall UW budget.

*The plan also includes a two-year tuition freeze.

*This decrease in state aid is intended to improve the state’s financial situation, and to provide the universities with more autonomy in establishing employee salaries and benefits, as well as to expand campuses’ ability to add property and resources via different regulations on procurement contracts and construction projects.

*University leaders are troubled by the prospect of this cut, noting that large-scale layoffs and program cuts will likely derail many university initiatives currently in place.

*And, most recently, the governor suggested this revision to the mission statement of the UW System, removing the essentials of the Wisconsin Idea and striking the phrase “search for truth” in favor of a stronger focus on creating contributors to the state’s workforce:

missionrevised

Image source

 

Reading about this makes me extremely uneasy. As a lifetime Wisconsin native, as a UW System alumnus, as a public school teacher, and as a current UW system graduate student, I have a deep, personal feeling of connection with the UW System: its faculty, its facilities, its goals, its ideals, and its strong sense of responsibility to improve the quality of life in our state. That commitment is the embodiment of The Wisconsin Idea–the part of the UW mission statement which defines it as one of the finest public university systems in the nation. This is the idea that the impact of a public university should be directed toward the betterment of its community. This is the idea that the human condition and the search for truth are vital in the process of education. This is the idea that the governor wants to omit in his revision of the UW System’s mission statement.

I experienced the power of The Wisconsin Idea personally as I went through the UW-Milwaukee education program, where I was required to invest my talent back into the city by completing two semesters of student teaching within the Milwaukee Public School system. This and many other aspects of my UW education made me aware of social issues, equipped me with the tools I needed to contribute something to improve upon those issues, and required that I take action to participate in my community and make a positive change. My schooling required me to be a force for good in my own city, in my own state, of which I was and still am zealously proud. 

I have carried this sense of service and action with me throughout my career–a sense that was imbued in me by the cohesive, devoted, demanding, and brilliant professors that guided my learning. They taught me how to research and interpret data on a mathematical and human level. They taught me how to be an assertive leader in my field, even though I was young. They taught me how to innovate. They taught me the value of speaking up and digging into problems as a maker of solutions. Yes, they taught me how to teach well. But more: they taught me how to give the benefits of my education back to the people of Wisconsin.

I don’t know how much money needs to be spent, cut, invested, or redirected to keep our state’s economy running smoothly. This is not a post that posits the correct amount of money to cut from the correct sources. This is a post about respecting the purpose of education in our lives. The proposed slash to the UW System budget is bolstered by the fundamental idea that the search for truth is frivolous and that we don’t have to uphold a commitment to playing an active role in bettering the lives of those around us. It’s a move that supports a streamlined, factory-like higher education system which holds grooming earners for the workforce as its sole objective. This mentality, paired with the threat of a crippling economic blow to our UW schools, eviscerates the very soul of public higher education as we’ve known it in our state for over a century.

This proposed political move is about more than saving dollars. It’s about a paradigm shift in the way that we see the outcomes of higher education. My plea to those with the power to prevent or re-envision this budget proposal is this: when you’re looking at the numbers, please consider…

How much is cultivating the search for truth worth to you?

How much is working to improve the human condition worth to you?

How much is the accessibility to education for all people worth to you?

How much is a group of young people with the long-term desire to reinvest in their community worth to you?

How much is a century-old state tradition of leadership which is motivated by ideals rather than profit worth to you?

How much is the exploration of new ideas worth to you?

Is it your belief that meeting workforce needs is the primary reason why young people should attend a University of Wisconsin school?

I urge you, voters and policymakers, to consider the impact of these proposed cuts with an eye to the end result. Ten years, fifty years, one hundred years down the line, I dearly hope we can say that any economic shifts that were made to the UW System budget in our time were made with the intent of strengthening the long-term legacy of higher education that has always been such a bright spot in our beautiful state. Being both realistic and critical is essential to making a decision that can benefit the state without devastating our commitment to an education that makes us not just better employees, but better people.

I speak for thousands of UW System supporters when I say this:

I still believe in the Wisconsin Idea.

Please understand that our soul is not for sale.

A Textbook Case

What is teaching, really, anyway?

This was the question that started to brush my mind last week, when the members of my department and I sat through a sales pitch from a major textbook company unveiling their new set of books, workbooks, and online materials for the high school English classroom. I felt horrified and seduced at the same time–these materials had absolutely everything one would need to stop lesson planning and simply follow the program trajectory. Worry not! Every piece, every student task, every assessment and enrichment tool was carefully engineered to the appropriate rigor, standards, and theme. It was slick. It was interactive. And, it was touted by the representatives as something that could transform our hardworking lives into an easygoing dream. But that’s when I started wondering… if we purchased these materials and I did nothing but deliver them, could I really call it teaching?

Before I could pursue that train of thought, the saleswoman began demonstrating the online component of the textbook, preloaded and constantly updated with video, audio, and tutorials to go with everything and anything my students would be expected to learn. In envisioning my teaching life using these materials, I saw a very simple–albeit somewhat monotonous–alternative to my typical, burstingly generative, yet vastly time-consuming lesson planning norm. But I couldn’t shake the bad feeling that grew with every moment of the presentation. I wondered if I was maybe being unreasonable.

What, exactly, was the matter?

The thing that’s the matter with this type of curriculum is this: I didn’t make it. I have no connection to it. If every single thing my students read, write, and do points back to a perfect fit as a predetermined cog in some grand machinery of education, my value as an educator depreciates.  In a way, following a textbook program to the letter may make my students smarter readers… but only in these clean, perfectly directed situations. Real reading and creating is messy and confused. Being able to balance those points of confusion with curiosity is a real and crucial skill for becoming a generative, creative individual. Looking at these materials, I found myself asking, “Where is the personal power?” A textbook progression cannot respond to students, or urge them to pursue their own passions. A textbook by itself, even the best one, only offers preparation for a culture of query-and-enter-response–one that I would argue is an ill fit for the reality of the culture today’s students have inherited. This culture is a one of create-your-own-idea and open mic. It’s been my mantra this year: students of this age need to create. And as a teacher of this age, I need to create, too. That includes my curriculum.

What do I lose if I let “Textbook, Incorporated” tell me what and how to teach? I lose responsivity. I lose a personal sense of purpose. I lose the power that my love of word and art lends to specific lessons I’ve designed. I lose the opportunity to use the value of my own thought process and insight as a model for a new way to think. 

A canned curriculum will not ever be enough to replace true teaching. Let me put it this way–I don’t having lasting memories of any classroom activity I ever did in a textbook. I remember rich discussions–even arguments, and watching my teacher lead my class through a piece of text or sharing an example of writing. I remember choosing books to study, I remember finding plates of artwork to write about. I remember watching films that made me cry. I remember giving speeches. I remember writing poetry. I remember singing on stage. I remember building the model of a house’s framework. I remember my teacher’s hilarious sweaters and how he would talk about the elements of the periodic table as if they were dear friends.

 If reading out a textbook’s instructions represented the majority of my teaching, I would never have to do… nearly anything, except give feedback on student work and manage my students. But here’s the thing… I have a teaching degree. I know my standards, and I know how to select content and how to design classroom activities that address the standards. I could write a textbook. Therefore, I am a viable textbook alternative. I, too, am interactive, self-updating, and tuned-in to student needs. I, too, am a veritable library of teaching approaches and activities. But most important: I also have the added perk of being a human being who can form meaningful connections with my kids.

I do think that, in some situations, a textbook adoption can improve and guide the curriculum of a program. Of course, teachers who utilize textbooks do not by nature have to default to them all the time, and can work them in as an effective resource. However, in our case, I was very relieved to be a part of a department who gave a respectful yet decisive “no thank you” to the proposed purchase of the textbook set we were offered. In my opinion, no textbook can ever exceed the effectiveness of teacher-designed curriculum, when creative, highly professional educators are designing it for their own classrooms.

The question was “What is teaching?” The answer I came to is “a human expertise, passed on through curiosity and connection.” People are the pathway to learning. Whether we use a textbook or not, we simply cannot just sit at a desk and assign chapters. Our students’ learning lives depend on it.