Category Archives: Issues

Grading for Equity: A Brief History of Grading

Steamer Glass [i.e. class]” in Hancock School, Boston. Immigrant children.
Abstract: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)
I have a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary from 1893-1894, which I transcribed. It’s a fascinating window into history for many reasons, one of which is that while Stella was writing the diary, she was a teacher. She married in May 1894, after which she had to quit teaching and keep house.

Her primary concerns as a teacher seem to center around keeping order in her classroom. She remarks very little on what she actually taught her students, but she mentions whether or not class was unruly a few times. I also have a copy of a letter she wrote my great-uncle Alvin, who must have been assigned to write to grandparents and ask what school was like when they were little. Stella’s letter is wonderful (I reproduced it on this blog about 14 years ago).

I think I have always found the history of education, particularly schools, fascinating. I really enjoyed reading Joe Feldman’s chapter on the history of grading in  Grading for Equity. Much of it was material I already knew, as one of his sources, Schneider & Hutt’s (2014) article “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme” was one my own sources as well. If you can get your hands on this article, I highly recommend you read it (the full citation, including DOI, is at the end of this post). I learned some really interesting things from it, particularly the fact that the A-F grading system is not really that old. It quickly became entrenched in schools, and it seems nearly impossible now to imagine schools with A-F grades, but they actually didn’t become entrenched until about the 1940s. My grandparents were still in school in the 1940s, though my grandfather would have graduated in the very early 1940s. The history of letter grades as a method for communicating learning isn’t that old.

First, yesterday I promised to continue reflecting on Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” for chapter 1 today; however, on reading them more closely, I’m not sure you care over much why I am reading this book or who I’m reading it with, so I’ll skip those, except to say that  I’ll reconsider anything I’m doing if it means my grading practices will be more equitable. Chapter 2 dives into the history of schools and grades a bit more.

How do schools in the first half of the twenty-first century—their design, their purpose, their student—compare with schools in the first half of the twentieth century?

I have actually sat in desks that were bolted to the floor. Have you? I find that the design of classrooms, at least in schools where I have taught, is much more fluid. Desks are mobile, sometimes even on wheels. Students sit in a large circle or square in my classrooms. My classroom looks different from the classrooms I sat in and from the images of vintage classrooms (like the one at the beginning of this post). We also have projectors and computers. My students learn from viewing images and watching videos in addition to reading. Most stakeholders would probably agree that my school’s purpose is to prepare students for college. I don’t think that was the goal of most schools in the early 20th century.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to propose schools as we might describe them today? In his Notes on the State of Virginia (which isn’t read enough and is why people don’t realize how complicated and problematic Jefferson’s ideas could sometimes be), he wrote (emphasis my own, spelling his):

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor, who is annually to chuse the boy, of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters); and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall chuse, at William and Mary college, the plan of which is proposed to be enlarged, as will be hereafter explained, and extended to all the useful sciences. The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to: the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated at their own expence.

Pardon the long quote, but I find it worth quoting at length because it several ideas come into focus if you read the whole thing:

  1. School was never envisioned to be equitable, not even the mind of the guy who wrote that “all men are created equal.” It was made to sort people, which is why tracking is still so common.
  2. The language Jefferson uses is telling: he describes students as “rubbish.” He didn’t include girls or BIPOC in the calculation at all. It’s a pretty classist idea even if you remove the sexism and racism. You know the boy children of poor farmers weren’t going to college.
  3. If you’re struggling to parse the language, the proposal is as follows:
    • Send one boy per “hundred” to a grammar school. The remaining students would end their schooling after three years in the “hundred” school.
    • Of those boys sent to grammar school, competition for continued education would be fierce: Jefferson suggests one or two years of grammar school to separate the wheat from the chaff, after which one of those grammar school students could continue his education for six more years.
    • Half of those boys lucky enough to continue their education past grammar school would then be able to go to college after that six years of education.

The competition among students was baked into American education early on. My great-great-grandmother Stella describes such competition when she describes spelling class: “We sat on long benches and a class would go up to the teacher to recite and sit on a long bench, only the spelling classes would stand in a row and “turn down”, when one missed a word.”

I would argue school has changed a great deal since the early 1900s but some aspects of school haven’t changed much. I have cited studies ranging from 1888-2019 in my research that document traditional letter grades’ issues with reliability, consistency, motivation, and self-concept. Grades seem to be the one aspect of school we are resistant to changing, in spite of a large body of evidence supporting change.

Once again, I’ve gone on too long and you’re probably not reading anymore. More tomorrow on how I see ideas and beliefs of the early 20th century at work in schools where I have taught.

Citations for further reading:

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Jefferson, T. (1787). Notes on the state of Virginia. Prichard and Hall. https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

A Reflection on Completing the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge (But Not the Work)

When my colleagues and I started our 21-Day Racial Equity  Habit Building Challenge ©, we watched this poem by Norma Johnson—”A Poem for my White Friends: I Didn’t Tell You.” I wanted to return to it to see how it struck me after three weeks of reflection and learning.

The thing I hear most in Johnson’s voice is her exhaustion, the sense of knowing there is no way her White friends can truly understand and empathize with her. This post on Buzzfeed with photographs of people holding up signs of microaggressions they often hear is a good example of the kind of tired Norma Johnson is talking about. It makes me sad. It makes me want to be a better friend. It makes me want to be a better ally, accomplice, and co-conspirator.

Part of what makes it difficult to talk to White people about racism is that they are not affected by it, certainly not in the same way as BIPOC. Racism definitely harms White people in many ways (honestly Google how racism hurts White people and look at a few things), but it can be hard for many White people to acknowledge and understand there is a system at work because many White people feel like they worked hard and maybe didn’t have certain advantages, so everyone should just be able to do it (whatever “it” is). Honestly, this is an opinion I held in the past because I did have a hard time. I didn’t have a hard time because of my race, though. That’s the difference.

As I have said recently, I believe the path to becoming antiracist is like an asymptote. I will strive toward it for the rest of my life (understanding that I will never be fully antiracist) because I think that kind of love for myself and for my fellow human beings is worth striving for. People are not perfect, but we still strive to be better and to do great work. Since I started working on unlearning racism several years back, I am so much happier. I have deep, rich relationships with wonderful people that I might have missed out on due to fear or prejudice. I am so much less afraid. I feel a greater understanding—not only of the society I live in, but also of my role in it. I’m also frustrated a lot of the time because I know the pain people cling to because of racism. As James Baldwin says in his phenomenal book The Fire Next Time: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I think Baldwin is right that deep pain lies underneath hatred. We don’t have to live with that hatred, and we don’t have to live with that pain.

If you are interested in learning more about equity and justice, I encourage you to try the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.  The only things you have to lose are ignorance, pain, and fear.

The Problem with Textbooks

One really interesting activity I did in my Curriculum Theory course last year was to analyze a curriculum artifact. My department doesn’t use textbooks, but I really wanted to analyze a textbook after reading Michael Apple’s 1985 article “The Culture and Commerce of the Textbook.” I highly recommend this article, by the way. I found it fascinating, especially as it seems we are still discussing some of the issues Apple identified 35 years ago. This CBS This Morning segment on textbooks includes a really interesting statement near the end regarding the fact that textbook companies can make changes to texts to make them more accurate, but it’s up to the schools to adopt the standards and texts.

Apple (1985) argues that the textbook is one of the main means through which “legitimate knowledge,” which he defines as “the ‘cultural capital’ of the dominant classes and class segments” (p. 148), is transmitted. This becomes problematic because the market and production methods affect textbook production, and the textbook production industry is decentralized and caught between the tensions of profitable sales and obligations for transmitting knowledge (Apple, 1985). As a result, large markets, particularly in conservative areas of the country, sometimes drive the content of textbooks because these more conservative school districts will not purchase materials that challenge the ideological or political beliefs of those in power in these districts (Apple, 1985).

Textbooks can make things easier for teachers. There are handy questions for discussion in the teacher’s edition. You can assign questions after readings (if that’s your thing). But relying on them means that students often don’t get the whole story because what goes into a textbook is very political. At the time when the article was written, admittedly a long time ago, the top twenty publishers sold the vast majority of textbooks, and most of the people making editorial decisions about the content of textbooks were White men (Apple, 1985). I would imagine that it’s still true, but I’d have to do a bit more research to find out.

In 2015 a student at Pearland High School near Houston found his textbook described enslaved people forcibly removed from Africa as “workers” (Isensee, 2015). Apple (1985) questions “Who determines what this ‘public’ [that publishers respond to] is?” (p. 157), which is a question that I have as well. I would argue that, as Apple (1985) implies, the “public” whose “needs” publishers respond to is probably White, middle- to upper-class, and largely privileged in other ways (such as cis-gender, heterosexual, Christian, etc.) and thus are more likely to see themselves and stories of people like them reflected in textbooks. Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, and textbook companies want Texas school systems to adopt their books, as seen in the CBS video.

Apple (1985) suggests that researchers should undertake a “grounded ethnographic investigation that follows a curriculum artifact such as a textbook from its writing to its selling (and then to its use)” (p. 159), and I think this would be well worth our time as educators to do. When I get a chance to do some digging, I’d like to find out if anyone has done it since Apple wrote this article in 1985.

In case you are wondering how my curriculum artifact analysis turned out—the world history textbook I analyzed devotes twenty pages to the history of the entire continent of Africa (Gainty & Ward, 2011). Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) maintains that culturally relevant curriculum, including learning about topics that affirm students’ identities, will help students, particularly students of color, experience more success in school. The small amount of space devoted to learning about African history may communicate to students, particularly African-American students, that this history is not important or not worthy of study.

To be fair, the book is meant to accompany a larger textbook that I didn’t examine, and I also did not analyze the balance of coverage of societies on other continents in the book, mainly because the main crux of the assignment was to examine the curriculum artifact’s strengths and weaknesses, and in order to make the assignment manageable, I zeroed in on one lesson in the book. In my analysis, I found one strength is that the text asked students to analyze images. Students should learn how to analyze images critically, as this form of media is one of the most common communication methods in the age of Instagram and Twitter and is also not often considered important in schools. Another strength of the textbook is the use of storytelling (from the Epic of Sundiata) to capture a culture. As Geneva Gay (2002) explains, many cultures, including African American, Native American, Asian, and Latino cultures, use storytelling in their communication; thus, learning about a culture through its stories contributes to a more culturally responsive learning experience.

In terms of weaknesses, I felt the questions following the image and the passage are somewhat low level. Asking students to “describe [the] structure” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 225) or “wedding ceremony” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 223) are simple comprehension questions that do not ask students to draw inferences, interpret, or analyze or synthesize information. Even most of the comparative questions on p. 223 of the book are fairly low-level questions on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

The book really does not adequately explore African history. According to Gay (2002) “culturally responsive teaching” involves “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students for teaching them more effectively,” and while she posits that “academic knowledge and skills are situated in the lived experiences and frames of reference of students,” it also stands to reason that the cultural history of those students is as important as their lived experiences (p. 106). Students, particularly African-American students, using this text are not learning much about African history from a text that purports to cover world history. Ladson-Billings (1998) argues that “the official school curriculum [is] a culturally specific artifact designed to maintain a White supremacist master script” (p. 18), and the space devoted to exploring African history in this text certainly supports her argument. This omission is particularly glaring in light of the text’s fairly recent publication date of 2011.

I definitely think teachers who have to use textbooks should do such an analysis of their text. In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus narrowly on one issue that you want to make sure students learn thoroughly. For example, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand the actual causes of the Civil War, as evidenced in the CBS video, and if you teach American history (or even American literature), see what your textbook says, and if it’s inadequate or misleading, make sure students know that.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet students would be interested to know the textbooks they use are not politically neutral. What if you asked students to analyze the way a topic is presented. Whose point of view is centered? Whose is missing? Why?

References

Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman

Apple, M. W. (1985). The culture and commerce of the textbook. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 17(2), 147-162.

Gainty, D. & Ward, W. D. (2011). Sources of world societies (2nd ed., Vol. I). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(20), 106-116.

Isensee, L. (2015). Why calling slaves ‘workers’ is more than an editing error. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/10/23/ 450826208/why-calling-slaves-workers-is-more-than-an-editing-error

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

Reflection on Grades: A Student’s Perspective

stress photo

Tomorrow I start the second quarter of my doctoral program, and I’m reflecting on last quarter. I am studying assessment, particularly grades and why they are not effective. I believe they reduce motivation, increase anxiety, and don’t actually tell us what students have learned. We can absolutely assess student learning without grades. I know many schools have gone gradeless, and I am hoping my research will help me explore the best ways to assess students.

My experience as a student being graded myself for the first time in a while was interesting. Though I was studying assessment and grading and knew what was happening intellectually with my anxiety and motivation, I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on my grades. I will not go so far as to say I was motivated by my grades. Quite the opposite: I was terrified of my grades. For me, they weren’t a carrot, but a stick. And the strange thing is that I did very well last quarter. I did as well as I possibly could do. And the better I did, the more anxious I became because I felt like I had to maintain it. At a certain point, I was incredibly anxious just a single point would be taken off. That’s just ridiculous.

One night, I dreamed that one of my professors told me she would need to give me a bad grade on an assignment, and she also said I wouldn’t be able to revise. I remember feeling frustrated because each assignment seemed important for my learning, and if I really hadn’t done well, I needed to revise. Otherwise, what was the point of the assessment?

My dream never came true. I really enjoyed what I learned in my courses. I was able to have rich discussions with peers, and the assignments were really helpful in focusing my research and teaching me what I needed to know in order to move forward. I received good feedback from my professors and peers. I enjoyed the readings.

I’m writing this reflection for a couple of reasons. The first is that I need to be kind to myself and not focus as much on my grades from now on because the stress I put on myself was harmful. My back stayed clenched just about all quarter. I just need to remember the grades are not as important as the learning. I know they are not. They are meant to be feedback, even I believe they are imperfect feedback at best and incredibly harmful at worst.

The second reason I’m writing this is I might be just like a student in your class. When one of my students expressed anxiety over a small grade drop, I was much more empathetic with her than I might have been in the past because I was anxious about the same issues. I understood it wasn’t about a couple of points. The problem is deeper than that. And yet we call students “grade grubbers” and tell them not to focus on the minutiae, but at the same time, we tell them over and over how important grades are. And some of us, and you know who you are, insist the learning is important, but make no provision for revision.

I feel much more empathy for my students in general after going back to school. I would never characterize myself as lacking empathy, but the quality of my empathy has changed. One day my students came in stressed out over grades, college applications, graduation projects, and I don’t know what all. I asked them if they wanted to do a meditation exercise, so we used my iPhone app and did one. One of them gave me a shout out in morning meeting for “taking care of” them.

My goal is to prevent, as much as possible, causing undue stress. For the first time this year, I added a section to my course outline, which I adapted from my colleague Matt Miller:

Taking Care of Yourself

As a student, you may experience challenges that interfere with your learning—strained relationships, increased anxiety, feeling down, difficulty concentrating, and/or lack of motivation. These mental health concerns or stressful events may diminish your academic performance and/or reduce your ability to participate in daily activities.

It is important that you take time to take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep, and taking time to relax. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. If this class is the result of undue amounts of stress on you, please come discuss your concerns with me so that we can work on a solution to help you better manage your stress.

If you or anyone you know experiences serious academic stress, difficult life events or feelings of anxiety or depression, I strongly encourage you to seek support from a parent, teacher, advisor, coach, or counselor. Please let me know if I can assist you with this any way.

Be kind to your kids. And if you’re not being kind to yourself, fix that, too.

We Have a College Admissions Problem

college photo

I follow many of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. on Twitter. I don’t think anyone who has followed my Twitter feed or even this blog for any amount of time is unaware of how I feel about the MSD students and their stand against gun violence. I was surprised to see this tweet from one of the MSD students who has been most vocal in his advocacy for change:

If someone as articulate as David Hogg has demonstrated himself to be—time and time again over the last month—is not accepted into the colleges to which he’s applied, we have a college admissions problem. To my way of thinking, colleges should be clamoring to admit David Hogg and his peers. The fact that he has received several rejections boggles the mind. What, exactly, are these schools looking for if he doesn’t have it?

I wasn’t going to write about my personal experience here. I’m not embarrassed about what happened, but it’s not something I thought I’d talk about publicly. A doctoral program I spent about a half a year preparing to apply to and another three months waiting to hear from rejected me. I took the GRE, and given how long it has been since I had taken mathematics at the level the GRE tests, I was pretty proud of my average score on the math component of the test. Behind that average score was months of hard work practicing math using Khan Academy and GRE practice books. Aside from that, my verbal and writing schools would be difficult to beat: 168 (out of 170) on the verbal and a perfect score of 6/6 on the writing. I honestly thought it was a sign when one of my essays prompted me to write about the very subject I’d like to study in graduate school.

My college transcripts for both my bachelor’s and master’s reveal a hardworking student. I graduated magna cum laude from UGA, and my master’s GPA was a 3.9. My recommendations couldn’t have been stronger. I wrote something like seven or eight different drafts of my statement of purpose. Was it the statement of purpose that sunk me? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell if you have hit or missed the mark by a wide margin with such things, even if you pore over the advice from admissions offices.

My résumé reveals someone who publishes (including this blog for over a decade), often presents at a variety of conferences, and regularly engages in professional learning. I’m honestly the kind of lifelong learner for which I should think a doctoral program is looking. I have a certain humility, but I am proud of my desire to learn. You will never hear me say I know everything there is to know about a subject.

The rejection letter was a mere few sentences long. I didn’t think there would be a point in trying to figure out why I was rejected; most likely, I’d be told that the school didn’t have time to respond to those types of questions. Maybe a part of me didn’t want to know. So one of my dreams died. That’s okay, I consoled myself. I have other dreams. Maybe I should focus on achieving them instead.

So, aside from the fact that the program to which I applied is competitive, why was my application rejected? I was honestly a bit more stung by the fact that I didn’t even receive an interview request, which spoke of a whole other level of disinterest on the part of the school. I suppose I don’t understand why I didn’t even make it through the first hurdle of being asked to interview. The only reason I can think of is encapsulated into the word “fit.” That word covers a wide variety of potential reasons for rejection, some of them discriminatory, some of them not. It’s true I am a lot older than the average age of the student who studies in the program. I felt my experience would be an asset. It’s true also that I am a teacher, a practitioning educator, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my career researching. I want to be involved in education, not just study it and talk about it. For that reason, I admit, the program might not have been the best one for me. I have tried to decide if I am feeling bitter or if I’m being honest, and after much soul-searching, I concluded that the program honestly would not have been the best program for me. I was swayed by the cachet the name of the school would have offered me. Perhaps they just recognized it before I did, and if that’s case, maybe they did me a favor.

I went to two respected public universities—University of Georgia and Virginia Tech, and yet I have often felt, especially in New England, where I currently live and teach, that neither school is considered good enough. A former colleague shared he felt the same way. A doctorate from the college to which I applied would prove something. I’m not sure what.

I spent a couple of weeks feeling sad about it. I cried a few times. Then I thought long and hard. Did I still want to earn a doctorate? I concluded that I did. I applied to a different program. I am hoping for better results, but at the moment, my application remains incomplete until the school receives official transcripts and one more letter of recommendation. And honestly? The program I just applied to is much better suited to my needs and my current career as well as my future goals.

I do think we have a problem when applicants as strong as David Hogg receive multiple college rejections. I honestly think it’s a problem that my application went into what I imagine is an enormous slush pile. What exactly is it that colleges want in their applicants?

If applicants like David Hogg find college acceptance difficult, what does that mean for other students? Some might argue that college isn’t for everyone. It should be for everyone who wants to go, but I don’t agree that college should be required for everyone. In our economy, however, we demand college educations for jobs that don’t necessarily need one, and college graduates still find it hard to obtain work. However, despite recent arguments to the contrary, colleges do great work with students, and I remember my time at UGA in particular as a wondrous time filled with learning.

I don’t think I could have been better prepared to teach than I was as a student at UGA. Even to this day, their English Education faculty includes such luminaries in the field as Sara Kajder and Peter Smagorinsky. I applied to the school as a transfer student after a year at a community college. I was relatively new to Georgia, having moved there halfway through my junior year in high school. I had the most unhelpful college counseling you might imagine (as in it didn’t exist). The internet wasn’t available for me to research programs on my own. So, I went to community college for a year, so I could decide what to do. I saw a recruiting table for UGA’s College of Education at my community college. I spoke to the recruiter for a few minutes. I liked the look of the materials. I applied only to UGA. Later, I found out my SAT scores and probably my high school grades were not high enough to meet UGA’s threshold for freshman admittance. And yet, the entire time I studied at UGA, I earned A’s and B’s and, as I already mentioned, I graduated magna cum laude. UGA never asked for my high school transcripts or SAT scores when I applied as a transfer. I wonder if UGA would have given me a second look had I applied as a freshman rather than as a transfer, after I had proven I could excel in college studies.

Therein lies the problem. How many potentially great students are rejected for seemingly arbitrary reasons each year? I’m sure that college admissions offices have a tough job. How to distinguish one strong candidate from another on paper? How to determine who would be a good “fit”? Competition for a shrinking number of open student slots is fierce. I’m not sure how they should change, but I do know that if colleges are rejecting students like David Hogg, they’re getting it wrong. I’m concerned about issues of access for all if strong students like David Hogg are shut out.

Wish me luck as I wait to hear from the second doctoral program to which I’ve applied. I think I would not only be an excellent fit for the program but that it’s an excellent fit for me. If I’m rejected, however, I’m not sure I could try again with another program.

Update 3/19: I want to state for the record that David Hogg appears to be handling these rejections in stride. He is regrouping and discussing a gap year and internships as possibilities. He is in no way acting like his recent activism entitles him to college acceptance. I did not make that clear. It is also true I don’t know about his school record beyond what I have seen, but I am impressed with what I have seen. I think it speaks to the notion that he is a strong critical thinker and communicator.

Update 3/29: TMZ said yesterday that David Hogg’s GPA is a 4.2 and his SAT score is 1270, for those people wondering about his background and potential credentials. The SAT score puts him above the 80% percentile when compared to other SAT test-takers. He has been rejected from UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine, which, incidentally, is a school I considered applying to before my family moved away from California in my junior year. Not sure I’d have been admitted, but it was my top choice until I moved. So, I think my argument that we have a college admissions problem is probably accurate.

Why I Threw Out the Lesson Plan

Katniss, © Lionsgate Films

Sometimes, real life is more important than discussing Mrs. Dalloway. And if you knew how I loved that book, you’d know I am really saying something.

I invited my AP Literature and Composition class to discuss gun violence in our country. They have questions. They want to know what we are supposed to do when the fire alarm goes off if mass killers are pulling fire alarms. They want to know why this keeps happening. They want to know why people care more about their guns than they do about people’s lives.

We watched Emma González’s incredible speech, which I can also completely justify on the grounds that it’s an excellent example of the rhetorical triangle at work.

As a side note, how amazing is Emma González? When can I vote for her? She even thanked her teacher for teaching her “everything we learned.” Go, Mr. Foster! I know, I know, how very proud you are.

We signed a card with messages from our AP Lit class to the AP Lit classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

My students who were eligible registered to vote.

I wish I could express how proud I am of my students. They have thought about this issue. They were pulling up their writing from AP Gov and sharing selections. They know the facts and statistics. Their logic is airtight. They’re going to be marching. They are going to be a part of a revolution.

Hope

I admit to a feeling of real despair in my last post. So many Americans, so many children, have died due to senseless gun violence, and people in power do not seem to care. In the days since I wrote that post, however, I am feeling more hopeful. This girl is one major reason why.

Screen Shot, Video of Emma Gonzalez's Speech
Screen Shot, Video of Emma González’s Speech

If you haven’t heard her amazing speech in its entirety, you need to listen. CNN isn’t allowing me to embed, so head over to their site to watch and come back.

Anyone who works with young people knows they are capable of organizing. I really think that politicians need to watch out. These kids are marching, and soon they’ll be voting, and then they’ll be running for office. My friend Jennifer Ansbach captured this generation well:

They know what they’re doing. Again, Jennifer’s tweet captures what many of us who work with teenagers know:

Emma González is not the only one of her classmates to speak out, either. David Hogg. Cameron Kasky. They are speaking out.

The adults had better watch out. These kids have started a revolution.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
Emily Dickinson, Fr. 314

I’ll be marching with them on March 24. Will you?

Again

school shooting photo
Photo by fabola

America has once again been rocked by a school shooting. I wish I had hope that this time, maybe, something would change. That we would commit to valuing our children more than we value our guns. But we won’t. If seeing 20 little children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT did not make us want to change our gun culture, then nothing will.

As a teacher, I have to do active shooter drills. I have to figure out how to respond if someone comes into my school with an AR-15—have you noticed it’s often an AR-15?—and starts shooting at my students and me. I have to figure out how to barricade the room in the event my students and I are unable to escape, which is really our best option. I have to figure out what I have on hand that I can throw at a shooter to distract him. I learned how to grab a shooter’s elbow and drop, using my weight to pull the shooter down if it becomes necessary I have to tackle him directly.

What we aren’t talking about as much is this thread Michael Ian Black shared on his Twitter timeline. He lives not far from Newtown, CT.

You will probably need to click over to Twitter to read his whole thread, and it’s worth a read. Toxic masculinity pervades our culture. The worst thing a man can be called is weak or feminine. We even use a crude word for female genitalia to describe such men. Toxic masculinity contributes largely to our gun culture.

We idolize guns. We worship guns. We genuflect at the altar of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

It’s been said before, but I’ll repeat it: one man tried to create a bomb with his shoes on an airplane, and now we all have to remove our shoes at the airport so security can be sure we’re not hiding bombs in them. Kids start a ridiculous meme called the Tide Pod Challenge, and there are calls to figure out how to get Tide Pods out of their hands. We require anyone who wants to drive to obtain a license and pass a test to operate a vehicle. We have awareness campaigns for drunk driving. We require car insurance. In virtually every other area, it seems we have figured out a way to use legislation or rules to keep us safer.

Yet each time children are killed in school, we are told it’s not the time to politicize the issue, it’s a mental health problem, and that their thoughts and prayers (but not their actual spines) are with us. If their thoughts were really with us, they would do whatever it took to prevent the next one. I doubt their prayers even exist. I can’t see into their hearts, but I “know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). “Thoughts and prayers” is an empty phrase they trot out to appear to be doing something instead of the nothing they are actually doing—well, aside from taking donations from the NRA to continue to support our right to bear arms.

I recognize the Second Amendment is in the Constitution. I don’t think it should be, but my government has a lot of rules I don’t agree with. This one just happens to be the one I feel most strongly about, perhaps because I do worry one day I will go to work, and it may be my last and because I worry when I send my children to school. However, I also recognize that the Second Amendment is here to stay. So I really can’t understand why we cannot pass common-sense gun legislation in our country. Nothing in the Second Amendment prevents it. It doesn’t mean taking away your guns.

Don’t tell me this is a heart problem, not a gun problem. Try killing 17 people with a knife in a school. You’d never be able to do it before someone tackled you. Guns make it very easy to perpetrate mass killings.

Do my students wonder if I’d be willing to take a bullet to protect them? Do they wonder if I know what to do if someone tries to enter our classroom with an AR-15?

Our president claims no child should ever be in danger in an American school. Yet he revoked a measure that might have prevented the mentally ill from obtaining guns. I don’t suppose I’ll get into how little empathy the president has for others. I’d be here a long time, and frankly, I didn’t expect anything more from him.

I don’t care what your politics are. I don’t know how you can watch these tragedies repeat themselves and think that doing what we are currently doing is the best we can do and that it’s much more important to worship the almighty gun than it is to love one another. We should really be ashamed of ourselves.

Our children are crying out for our help.

I’m leaving comments open, but I’m warning you now—you can share your pro-gun arguments with the NRA. I’m not listening to you anymore because you have never listened to people like me, not if it meant putting people before guns. I will not give you a forum on my blog.

The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.

Slice of Life: Writing a Rationale

brokeback mountain photo
Photo by jiadoldol

I started a unit on Love and Relationships in my AP Lit class today. We discussed everything from what it means to love someone, what it means to love yourself and how you show love to others to the four kinds of love defined by Greeks to Capellanus’s rules for courtly love to #metoo and sexual harassment and rape. It was quite a class.

I took a second look at my syllabus, and I realized something was wrong with it. All the relationships depicted in the stories and poems were heterosexual. I am committed to selecting texts that are both windows and mirrors for students. As such, not only do they need to read to learn about others and develop empathy but also to see themselves reflected back in the books they read. Statistically speaking, even if students are not “out,” I have to have students who either already identify as LGBTQ or are still thinking about their identity. Adolescence is a time of considerable confusion; it’s especially confusing for kids who wonder if they are okay or if other people struggle with the same feelings as they do.

What a gaping hole in my curriculum!

I can’t defend the fact that my syllabus did not explore this issue in the Love in Relationships unit, but I did already include LGBTQ authors Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham in my Conformity and Rebellion unit.

Some years ago when I was teaching in Georgia, I taught a short story course for seniors, and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was one of my major texts. My students engaged in literature circle discussions of the stories. Students had to read “The Half-Skinned Steer” and could select other stories, including “Brokeback Mountain.” I had students who were eager to read the story, but I also had students who refused.

“Brokeback Mountain” explores some essential ideas within the unit theme of “Love and Relationships.” Most critically, it explores the essential question: How have changing roles in society affected romantic love and relationships? I had to put it in my syllabus, so I made a small change. I took out a story I wasn’t even that familiar with but thought I’d teach since a text I use for reference in building my AP Lit course suggested the story, and I replaced that story with “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Brokeback Mountain” addresses literature standards involving the development of elements such as setting and character and narrative structure and offers an opportunity to read through critical lenses (psychological, sociological, historical, among others).

I decided to re-read the story so that I could identify what issues it might raise if, in the worst case scenario, it’s challenged. After all, it was a long time ago that I last taught the story. Maybe ten years!

If I’m honest, I can’t think of another short story with LGBTQ characters that addresses some of the same issues as “Brokeback Mountain” does.

But there is a depiction of the sexual relationship between main characters Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and the characters use realistic, coarse language.

So I wrote a rationale for using the text.

It was an interesting experience. I think through in some considerable detail why I am using specific texts, especially for new courses when I am creating backward design units, but I haven’t written an entire rationale for a text. If a text I had selected was challenged, I think I could have come up with a rationale for its use, but it’s so much better to be thoughtful about why we are using texts in advance. One of my big takeaways from NCTE is the critical work of teaching literature means we need to be able to justify our choices. We might not ever need to, and that would be great. However, we should be able to explain why we are asking students to read texts and what we hope those texts will offer.

You know what? I’ve been complacent because I’ve been fortunate. Writing that rationale made me feel like this:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.