-previously posted January 18, 2016 by Jack M. Jose
In reflection, there are many things that are unusual about this scene: The morning of the first day of our annual fall staff retreat, I was seated cross-legged on the floor in front of my staff, presenting the Gamble Great Lesson, and I was crying.
I would like to claim I never cry at work. It is, at least, unusual.
I wasn’t alone. Others were crying too. Crying partially because that next to last part of our story is exceptionally sad; the untimely death of two students in the same year deeply affected our school. Crying also because we needed to. In the moment of our most intense sorrow, or the series of endless moments of dealing with grieving students and parents, there simply had not been time to cry. And this time – the crying together – illustrated precisely why we need to tell the Gamble story over and over again, as it changes and grows.
Embedded deep in the Montessori philosophy, including student-directed learning , the Socratic method of questioning and the Adlerian concept of seminar, is an understanding that humans are naturally drawn to explore life’s great mysteries. We want to know the origins of the universe, the origins of life and human beings, how we started to communicate, and the origins of math. In these Montessori great lessons are the roots of the academic disciplines of science, history, reading and writing, and math. And those five stories already exist and are overtly taught to students as part of Montessori elementary philosophy.
Adolescents deeply feel the need to belong and they have a yearning for deep connection. So just as there is a great lesson for each discipline, it is appropriate to create a story to help students (and staff) understand that they are part of something larger – in this case, a school with a short but powerful history. This was the genesis of the Gamble Great Lesson: if students and staff can understand why the school exists and our core values, and will accept our invitation to belong and make their mark in the school, everyone benefits. When a person feels deep connection to a place or an idea, when they feel they belong, it is a sort of magic. It is the basis of grit, and hard work, and victory … and vulnerability. It makes it safe to try, and safe to fail, and even safe to not fight.
At its core, the Angels and Superheroes blog exists to tell the story of a group of educators at one school, and their collective experiences finding success with individual students or with particular strategies or practices. The best stories are, after all, often about one person. “Stories help people feel acknowledged, connected, and less alone,” Annette Simmons asserts in her book Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. She’s right. Only when we start talking about our individual work, our success and our failures, can we begin to see our common human experience.
Once we find our common ground, we are better prepared to learn from each other, challenge each other fearlessly, and grow professionally. If we stop telling our story, if we withdraw ourselves from the conversation, we shrivel into nothingness. No matter how strong our concern for our students, the reclusive teacher is no more than a gollum, praising a precious ring in the darkness – a ring that merely brings longevity to the one who owns it in secret.
But when we share our stories, or pass on the stories of others, we knit ourselves together in a tapestry of the history of education. This summer I had the opportunity to by taught by Martha McDermott. She is a raconteur of the first order, and – once I settled in past her deep Irish accent and could understand what she was saying – I realized that each of her vignettes from her past experience was pushing myself and the other educators in the room to understand deep truths. What was true for one teacher and one child, was true for the teacher-child relationship across time. This notion is made more poignant by recalling that she was taught by Claude Clairemont, who in turn was taught by Maria Montessori.
A story shortens the cord of time, and ties decades in a neat metaphorical bow, calling forth our past to be present.
When we started this process of telling our story, it felt artificial. It felt wrong. Not like bragging exactly, but like needless mythologizing. Krista encouraged me to write it, and I recall offering some resistance, and then just going along on a lark. I thought it would be an interesting mental exercise, and give me a chance to write a bit more creatively than lengthy emails to parents, or the weekly bulletin.
I thought it would be insignificant.
I was wrong.
And what better evidence than the tears in my employees’ faces – those who knew the students involved, and those who did not but nonetheless were heartbroken by the story that included the death of two students – and now includes another.
This story, however, is more than a collection of memorable events both negative and positive, though it has those too. It includes our story from the time we were still essentially just an idea, and is updated each year with events more significant or, in many cases, more emblematic of the community we have created. There are plenty of rich details.
Gamble Montessori was created in 2005, and I came to the school in 2009, so we can tell the story from the inception, as a proposal from some parents. It includes our slow growth over time, the stories of students and staff who shaped our character, and our academic successes. There are moments where we show how we became who we are. There are responses to implicit criticism of our school, and pre-emptive strikes against those who suggest that deep feeling should somehow be separate from the work we do as educators.
There is great joy. A first state championship was recently added to the story, and already our story contained a team that spent a quarter of a basketball game letting one beloved teammate score his only high school basket. And there is also deep sadness.
This is interesting to me: retelling the story creates the opposite reaction in me than what I would expect. When I tell the story again and again, instead of becoming routine or mundane, it gains almost mythological status. The associated emotions are heightened instead of dulled. I choke up sentences in advance of the lines that draw the same emotion from the listener.
Ralph Ellison said that when we touch deep sadness repeatedly, or “finger the jagged edge” as he memorably put it, we are not allowing it to pass or fade. This is the heart of the blues as a musical form, or as a written form exemplified by Ellison himself, or as a spoken form utilized by Colonel West. When we repeat a theme, especially one that carries deep emotion, instead of growing dull, it retains its sharp edge, it retains its ability to cut.
This is true of great happiness as well. Our remembered celebration allows us to celebrate again, and the triumph of one student over a challenging situation becomes the hope for triumph in every student.
You should work to tell the story of your school, or your classroom, or your team. And you should tell it at the start of every year.
Key Components of our Great Lesson
an invitation to see the school as someplace unique, and to enter the storytelling mindset
a brief history of key events in the school’s history
reference to key individuals whose contributions helped shape the history and character of the school
celebrating the students who have made a profound impact on the character of the school
recognition of moments of joy, triumph, sorrow, and loss
an invitation to make a mark on the school through individual contribution and to view the community through the lens of the stories that have been chosen
No video of the Gamble Creation Story exists. It is most powerful because it is told in person. However, in the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to tell part of the Gamble Creation story at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati. It was an installment of the True____ Series called “TrueGamble”. You can view it here.
I don’t promise (or threaten) that crying is part of the process. That doesn’t demonstrate success or failure, exactly. However, in our case, the Gamble Great Lesson still had something to teach us: the act of telling our story is powerfully therapeutic and cathartic.
A few weeks ago, I was walking through one of our high school hallways at the bell change. As teenage bodies spilled out of doorways and began making their way to their next class, I was quickly surrounded by former students looking for hugs. After wrapping my arms around the first two or three, I heard an approaching student ask, “Can I get one, too?” I laughed and replied, “Of course. You belong to me.” This was immediately followed by a deep voice coming from down the hallway, “What about me? Do I belong to you, too?” I looked to see who the speaker was and saw Malcolm, a senior football star, who I had taught four years earlier in the eighth grade. “Yes, absolutely,” I began to respond, when I was interrupted by a different voice coming from the other direction, “I get one first. I belonged to her before you did.” Ethan, another senior, was right. I had taught him in the seventh grade. He had, indeed, belonged to me first.
They all belong to me. I suspect that most teachers feel this way about their students. After all, we spend time with them every day for most of a year, or in the case of Montessori teachers, for two or even three years. Our students belong to us because we know who they are.
And knowing who they are is critical for understanding what they need from us. What they need from us in order to make academic gains. What they need from us in order to develop personal responsibility and leadership skills. And what they need from us in order to get through difficult situations or interactions.
Being aware of the importance of knowing my students left me in a quagmire, however, at an important moment in my career.
This letter was originally published in January, 2017 and has been viewed more than 375,000 times worldwide. It was mailed to all parties listed.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202
Governor John Kasich
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6117
Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria Ohio Department of Education
25 South Front Street
Columbus, OH 43215-4183
Dear Secretary DeVos, Governor Kasich, and Superintendent DeMaria:
I write to each of you, in my position as a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools, to ask for your assistance. I include both federal and state politicians here, as in the past when I had the opportunity to address concerns to a member of the Federal Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under state control, but when, while working as part of a committee examining the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I addressed the same concerns to members of the State Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under federal control.
As a result, I invite all of you to engage in the conversation together in hope that rather than finger pointing, we can begin to seek solutions.
As we implement new education legislation, I ask that teachers be treated as the experts we are. That we are not just included in the conversation, but that we are leading it. The data demands it, and our children deserve it.
An Artificial Crisis
Politicians and the media have had a field day “exposing,” and attempting to address, what has been described as an educational crisis in America. I, too, believe that we are facing a crisis; however, unlike many in the school reform movement, I do not think that teachers and schools are at the root of this crisis. Rather I think it is the very reform efforts themselves – known generally as the “school accountability movement” — that has caused this concern.
I do not blame the Common Core State Standards. Many people conflate the Common Core State Standards with school accountability measures, but, to be clear, while there are some overlaps between these issues, the CCSS are not to blame in isolation for the challenges we are facing in education today. As a teacher, my personal opinion is that the jury is still out on CCSD, and will remain so until we have experienced several cohorts of students whose education has occurred entirely under CCSD. There are some who believe that this set of standards is not developmentally appropriate for students. This may be, but to be clear, the Standards themselves are merely goals to aim for. I am happy to have a high bar set for both my students and myself, as long as I am given time, support, and resources to attempt to meet that bar, and with the understanding that since students all start at different places, success lies in moving them toward the goal.
The standards are not the problem. The problem is the methodology being used to monitor them.
A Look at the Data
There is a body of information indicating that the supposed “crisis” in American Education has been misreported, and that this myth has been supported and sustained by a repeated skewing of the reported data.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national database that has tracked student progress in reading and math since the early 1970s. It is given to students at ages 9, 13, and 17, and the tests have been carefully monitored for consistency over the course of nearly 40 years. The results of this data indicate that reading and math scores have remained fairly static from year to year, with both increasing somewhat over time. For example, the 2012 data indicated that for thirteen year olds, the average reading scores increased by 8 raw points and average math scores increased by 21 raw points, since the first data reported in 1978.
This does not look like a crisis at all. The “educational crisis” hysteria has seemed to predominantly come from information comparing United States’ educational data with that from other countries.
Whenever we compare educational outcomes, we must be careful to monitor for external factors – for example, when comparing data internationally, we must take into account that the United States educates and assesses all students until the age of 18; whereas some other countries place students in various forms of tracked models and do not include all of these groups in their testing.
Additionally, the United States has a very high child poverty rate. The 2012 UNICEF report listed The United States’ child poverty rate as 34th out of 35 “economically advanced” countries, with only Romania scoring lower.
We know that poverty impacts academic achievement, and this must be taken into account when comparing U.S. scores internationally. For example, when the oft-cited data from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) is disaggregated based on economic status, we can see a trend that clearly indicates that the problem is poverty, rather than instruction.
United States’ schools with fewer than 10% of students living in poverty score higher than any country in the world. Schools with student poverty rates that are less than 24.9% rank 3rd in the world, and schools with poverty rates ranging from 25% to 49.9% rank 10th in the world. However, schools with 50% to 74.9% poverty rates rank much lower – fifth from the bottom. Tragically, schools with 75% or higher poverty rates rank lower in reading scores than any country except Mexico.
Couple this with the 2013 data that indicates that a majority (51%) of public school students live in poverty in this country, and we see the true depth of the actual crisis of poverty, and its impact on education.
A Crisis of Poverty
Schools with the lowest rates of student achievement are typically those with the highest number of disadvantaged students and the fewest available resources. The problem runs deeper than just funding, however. Children living in poverty often have a specialized set of social-emotional and academic needs. Schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students cannot be treated in the same manner as more affluent schools.
Education is neither a business nor is it a factory. We do not start with identical raw materials, and act upon them in a systematic way to produce an identical product. In the same vein, we cannot judge instructional efficacy in a single manner, with a single measure, and expect to get a consistent result. Teaching is a service industry, and we work with human capital. There are myriad factors at play that influence what appropriate expectations are for any given student, but poverty is likely the most impactful of these factors.
Children living in poverty are more likely to be coping with what has been labeled “toxic stress”– caused by a high number of identified adverse childhood events. Factors such as death or incarceration of a parent, addiction, mental illness, and abuse, among other things, have been labeled as adverse childhood events. Poverty, itself, is considered to be a type of sustained adverse childhood experience, and it also is a correlate factor, since living in poverty increases the likelihood of experiencing other adverse childhood events.
We know that these types of severe and chronic stress lead to long-term changes in children’s mental and physical development, and that this directly impacts their performance in school. “On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers. On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions …, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.”
We know that children living in poverty face greater academic challenges than their middle and upper class counterparts, and yet, instead of helping this situation, the school accountability movement has chosen to vilify the wrong thing (teachers and schools), and has used standardized test scores as the weapon of choice to add insult to injury.
A Moving Target
In Ohio, there have been so many moving pieces at play that it is impossible to get a statistically valid measure. Over the course of the past three years, schools, teachers, and students have had their performance assessed using a different measurement tool each year. The 2013-2014 school year was the final year for assessment using the old Ohio State Standards and the Ohio Achievement Assessments. In the 2014-2015 school year, we switched to a combination of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and American Institute of Research (AIR) assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. Due to the legislation passed which illegalized PARCC administration in the state of Ohio, in the 2015-2016 school year, we administered AIR tests for the full battery of testing. During those same years, Ohio increased the number of grades and subjects areas tested.
In addition to these changes, the identified percentage of correct responses for proficiency on each test has changed each year, and the percentage of students scoring proficient in order to schools to be considered successful in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has also increased each year.
So, the standards have changed, the tests have changed, the acceptable percent of correct responses has changed, the required percentage of students achieving proficiency has changed.
It is, therefore, not surprising that scores have remained anything but static. For the 2012-2013 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools was rated as being in “Continuous Improvement,” while the school where I teach was deemed “Excellent.” For the 2015-2016 school year, the Cincinnati Public Schools received four ratings of “F” and 2 ratings of “D,” while the school where I teach received 3 “F” ratings and 2 D ratings. (As a high school program, we are not rated in the area of K-3 Literacy.)
There are only two ways to interpret this. Either, over the course of three years, the quality of instruction has declined precipitously (across a district of nearly 3,000 teachers), or the data is invalid. The former assumption is nonsensical; the latter is terrifying based on the weight this data carries when making educational decisions.
Teacher performance evaluations are linked to test scores, School and district report cards are based almost exclusively on test scores, and, student graduation is based on test scores. But if the tools keep changing and the target keeps moving, how is it even remotely possible to measure improvement?
This concern is compounded by the subjectivity of the scores determined for proficiency – the cut scores are neither norm-referenced nor consistent from year to year.
For the 2015-2016 testing, in reading and math, across all grade levels, the percentage of students projected to score proficient or above ranged from 52-66%. This means that even on tests where students were “most likely to pass,” it was anticipated that only 66% of students would do so, and for other tests this was as low as 52%. For many tests, the reality was significantly worse. Only 21% of students taking Integrated Mathematics (Math 2) across the state were deemed proficient or above, and only 24% of students taking the Geometry test scored proficient or above. This is an awfully broad-scale problem to make the assumption that the issue of concern lies with students and teachers, rather than with the testing itself and with the structure of the system of accountability.
And once again, we see that poverty plays a role in these outcomes. For the 2015-2016 school year, 94% of urban schools in Ohio received ratings of D or F. Because of school accountability, and the high-stakes nature of the tests, scores like these cause the testing pressure to ratchet up. Low scores necessarily result in greater time and resources being spent solely to improve these scores. Some call this “test preparation;” others call it “teaching to the test.” Testing and school accountability result in too much time spent on testing, and on teaching curriculum that loses much of the flexible, creative, engaging, and in-depth instruction that keeps students engaged in learning and educators engaged in teaching. As one former urban school principal, concerned about the state report card, said during a faculty meeting when a teacher dared question how testing was detracting from her carefully crafted curriculum, “The test IS the curriculum! What are you, STUPID?!?!”
An Unavoidable Outcome
In 2013, the American Federation of Teachers reported that in heavily tested grades, up to fifty hours a year was spent on testing and up to 110 hours a year devoted to test preparation. Schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students bear the greatest weight for this, as they tend to have the greatest required gains in testing outcomes. The Center for American Progress notes that students in urban high schools spend up to 266% more time taking standardized tests than students in suburban schools.
And this is the fundamental problem with school accountability measures. They have caused the American public school system to become overly focused on a single measurement of success, and that measure is most punitive to populations that are already struggling.
Standardized test data is one measure of academic achievement, and as such it is valuable, but it is nothing more than a single data point. However, this data point has become so important that it is driving every other aspect of the educational train.
I want that data point – I want it for each of my students individually, and I want it for my class collectively – because it tells me something. But it doesn’t tell me everything, and we are treating it as if it does. How can the snapshot of a test score – given on a certain day, in a certain amount of time, with a specific type of questioning – tell me more than what I know as a result of working with my students hour after hour, day after day, for 40 weeks? It can’t, of course.
A Teacher’s Plea
Teachers are professionals, and we should be treated as such.
We are required to hold, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree in teaching one or more subject areas; we also must complete significant amounts of additional training every year, and, at least in Ohio, to submit this to the state for re-licensure every five years. Most importantly, teachers are highly practiced in assessment and interpretation of results through our daily work with students and our careful observation of, and reflection on, student learning .
Education is complicated. Student growth is broad and deep, and sometimes happens in fits and starts and other times grows slowly and consistently. This complex process could never be adequately measured by a series of tests.
I know my students. I know when I am moving too quickly or too slowly, and I know when they are succeeding and when they are struggling. To assume that the state can determine this, and can make judgments on the effectiveness of my instruction based solely on a single measure is folly – especially when we know that students in poverty, the teachers who educate them, and the schools that serve them, will be judged most harshly by these measures. In fact, standardized test scores may tell us very little about a teachers’ impact or a students’ future success.
As Paul Tough writes, “A few years ago, a young economist at Northwestern University named C. Kirabo Jackson began investigating how to measure educators’ effectiveness. In many school systems these days, teachers are assessed based primarily on one data point: the standardized-test scores of their students. Jackson suspected that the true impact teachers had on their students was more complicated than a single test score could reveal… He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability. Jackson’s new index measured how engaged students were in school – Whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this was, remarkably, a better predictor than student’s test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.”
School Accountability measures with their fundamental focus on testing reduces teachers’ ability to focus on nurturing students’ “noncognitive ability,” and this is damaging to students and teachers alike — perhaps irrevocably damaging.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is moving us in the right direction by removing the requirement that teacher evaluations be linked to standardized test outcomes, but it doesn’t go far enough, and it leaves the window open for states to continue this practice.
As a nation, we must move away from our obsession with testing outcomes. The only group that is profiting from this is the testing industry. And with 1.7 billion dollars being spent by states annually on testing, they are, quite literally, profiting, and at the tax payers’ expense.
The most critical solution to this is to untie student, teacher, and school accountability measures from testing outcomes, or to combine these scores with a variety of other measures of success. In addition, we need to dramatically reduce the time spent on testing by requiring tests in fewer grades, or not administering tests every year. No high-performing nation in the world tests all students annually.
An Expert Opinion
We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis.
Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it.
We must not go further down this rabbit hole. The future of our educational system, and the future of our children, is at stake. No one who has not worked in the sector of public education should be making decisions about our school system without careful consideration of the insights of those who will be directly impacted by those decisions.
As we move forward with a new federal administration, and as the state of Ohio makes decisions relative to implementation of ESSA, I beg you to not just include teachers and parents in the discussion, but to ensure that we are the loudest voices in the conversation.
I hope that you will consider the issues raised here, and most importantly, that you will listen to the voices of the teachers and parents who are trying so desperately to be heard.
Thank you for your time. I am happy to engage in the conversation further; feel free to contact me at email@example.com
Kristina L. Taylor
Intervention Specialist; Team Leader
James N. Gamble Montessori High School
2015 Educator of the Year
 “LTT – Select Criteria.” LTT – Select Criteria. National Center for Education Statistics, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Adamson, Peter. Measuring Child Poverty: New League Tables of Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2012. Web.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: Leading Determinants of Health.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2014): 1-5. American Academy of Pediactrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 3.
 Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell The Plain. “Scores on Ohio’s High School Math Tests Much Lower than Expected, Sparking Debate over Graduation Requirements.” Cleveland.com. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 03 June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 9.
 Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 @dianeravitch. “No High-Performing Nation in the World Tests Every Student Every Year.”Diane Ravitch’s Blog. N.p., 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
Despite the zero-tolerance position taken by many educators, smart phones are not the enemy of education. However, incomplete or thoughtless smart phone policies can create tremendous division between teachers, administrators, and students, and even conflict among teachers.
The solution is not
… eliminate cell phones from the school, or
… eliminate phone restrictions entirely.
Smart phones can be windows into the world for our students. They can open new vistas of direct communication with experts from around the corner, or with other students from around the world. But smart phones create problems in schools and in the development of adolescents, and for these reasons educators must be intentional in their approach to setting policies.
As the high school English teacher my first year at Gamble Montessori, I was able to put together a memorable and educational field experience
with the help of my co-teacher, Tracy Glick. This happened through perseverance and planning, and high student tolerance of changes as we adapted to obstacles.
This was a real-life experience in which students used the recording program GarageBand to create a song that met certain technical qualifications: it had to be 3 to 5 minutes in length, it had to use at least one original sound captured with a microphone, one sound played on an instrument, and one edited loop (pre-recorded sound available in GarageBand.) While some of the students were excited to record a song, several students admitted they joined my intersession because it was the only one they could afford.
In the 2015-16 school year, Gamble Montessori earned a chance to participate in a groundbreaking new theatre program through a competitive application process. The Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), a large national actors’ guild, had initiated a program called JumpStart. Designed to help schools develop drama and theater programs, JumpStart targets schools that have no drama program. They provide training for teachers, access to modified musical scores which are tagged with the label “Jr.” (e.g. Once on This Island, Jr., or Annie, Jr.), and a structure for staging your own middle school musical in the spring.
In order to be selected for JumpStart, the school must first verify their dedication and determination to establishing an ongoing drama program. This is determined through interviews, where our responses to a series of questions were investigated to make sure we had the resources and initiative to accomplish the work. Once a school was selected – Gamble was one of three in this inaugural round – JumpStart provided support throughout the process.
Following the successful staging of Once On This Island, Jr. at Gamble Montessori in the spring of 2016, I was asked to speak at a fundraising breakfast to a group of EdTA donors. Other speakers from EdTA spoke about how the program came about, and between each set of speakers a professionally produced video was shown. Each video featured snippets (like this one) from the training or the performances, and interviews with those involved, myself included. Below are my remarks, edited for clarity.
That was a student’s response when I told my Algebra class about an upcoming test. My first reaction was to be flabbergasted. “What do you mean is it for a grade? It’s a test. Of course it’s for a grade!” But then suddenly I understood.
Sixty-seven percent. That was the number I was banking on. I was running discipline data, and I already knew that 67% was my golden number – the percentage I didn’t want to exceed.
But . . .the results were yielding something different.
90%, 87%, 85%, 90%, 82%, 84%
These numbers weren’t just above 67%; they were way above it.
As I ran quarter after quarter of discipline data, I kept hoping to see something different, a change in the trend, or at least an outlier or two.
But that wasn’t the case. Every quarter, the same pattern emerged: our Black students were involved in disciplinary infractions at far higher rates than any other racial group, and at far higher rates than their representation in our population would indicate – 67%.
As Gamble’s Positive School Culture Committee Chair, I had begun this process because we were curious about a blip we saw in the student survey data related to school climate. When we disaggregated the responses by race for the questions that dealt with fairness of consequences, we noted that our black students felt that consequences were less fair than our white students. The rest of the responses were fairly consistent across racial demographics, so it caught our attention when we saw that 52% of our African-American students felt that consequences for misbehavior were seldom or almost never fair; whereas only 34% of our white students felt this way.
It wasn’t a huge gap; it was just bigger than anything we had seen in response to the other survey questions. However, it caused us to pause and reflect on what it might mean. This survey question was about student perception, but we realized that if we disaggregated our discipline data the same way that we had for the survey data, that we would be able to compare reality to perception.
Which is how I found myself repeatedly staring at my computer screen in disbelief and horror as every quarter showed nearly the same thing about our discipline data – our Black students were markedly over-represented.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. These results aren’t different from what has been widely reported nationally: students of color face harsher and more frequent disciplinary consequences than their white counterparts. In fact, the national data shows a significantly wider discrepancy than the data at Gamble. Proportionally, our data notes that every 1.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of our Black population; whereas nationally 2.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of Black students.
Doing better than the national average is not, however, something to celebrate. The cost of these high-level discipline responses is high. We know that suspensions and expulsions lead to a decreased likelihood that students will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood that these students will wind up incarcerated. On average, one out of every three African-American males will be incarcerated during their lifetime.
None of this was new information for me. I just didn’t want any of it to be true at Gamble. I wanted my school to be different. I didn’t want us to be culpable. I wanted my students to be protected. Unfortunately, that’s not what our data indicated
Schoolhouse Rock taught us, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that we had the knowledge, what were we going to do with it?
Turns out, it’s easier to compile the data than it is to address what it shows. There is no quick fix solution.
We decided that the first step was to be transparent — to share the data and to acknowledge our concern about it. To this end it was shared on teacher teams and at PTO; some of our high school teachers shared it with students as well.
Those of us who teach junior high chose not to share it with students. We didn’t know how to craft the conversation in such a way that it would be structured and pro-active, and we didn’t know how to guide our students toward recognizing both the gravity and the complexity of the situation.
So, for more than a year, we did nothing.
Although, I suppose, it wasn’t really nothing. It weighed on all of our minds as, tragically, during the same time frame, police shootings of black males – another example of implicit racial bias – was repeatedly in the public eye.
Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Sam DuBose, Gregory Gunn, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher …
It is not possible to see this list of names and not worry which of my students could join them.
We knew that we had to talk with them about all of this, but the prospect of that was so intimidating. I know there are other teachers, like this one, who were braver than I. There were teachers all over the country who were having these difficult conversations with their students.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have these discussions – we did – we just wanted to make sure that we did it “right” – that we found the right materials, that we structured it well, that we prepared students correctly, that we tied the content to our cycle of study, that we identified the perfect time to have the conversation, and that we did everything within our power to ensure that it was a productive conversation, rather than a damaging one.
While each of these factors is important, waiting for this confluence of perfection was, of course, a subtle kind of avoidance. Waiting on perfect, allowed us to do nothing.
But, finally, this October, we began to find some traction. Our second quarter novel, After Tupac and D. Foster, included thematic undercurrents of racial bias. In light of this, Beau, my teaching partner, also assigned a reading about a study of implicit racial bias in preschool classrooms: Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, A Study Finds by Yolanda Young.
With this assignment, the die was cast. Although we didn’t even realize it yet.
We didn’t yet know how profoundly this beginning would impact the entirety of the quarter, but we did know that we needed to be very conscientious about how we prepared our students for engaging in this conversation. Because we wanted all students to receive an identical message about the expectations for how we talk about these sensitive topics, we arranged the room to accommodate both of our seminar groups at the same time.
As we do before any seminar, we reminded students to keep their comments relevant to the text, to disagree with statements rather than people, to give everyone opportunities to speak, to not form alliances, and to be open to changing their minds.
But this time, because of the emotionally-charged subject matter, we had to provide additional guidance. We had never before explored such challenging content with our students. This type of careful preparation is critically important before embarking with students on any topic that is likely to elicit strong reactions.
We instructed students to give each other the benefit of the doubt. To be careful of their words but also to be honest and to risk making a mistake. To recognize that we might inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings and to be willing to share these feelings and question one another as a means of seeking understanding.
And then we began. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.
But, like in most things, our students rose to the challenge beautifully, and we had a powerful and engaging discussion. We hadn’t planned to bring up the school discipline data, but in both groups, the conversation naturally led in this direction. When that moment appeared, (and it happened nearly simultaneously in both groups), we openly shared the disproportionate percentages, and explained why they were concerning.
The students’ response was flabbergasting. I was prepared for them to be angry. I was prepared for them to be indignant. I was prepared for them to blame us.
I was not at all prepared for them to discount it entirely.
“That used to happen at my old school.”
“My teacher did that last year. I always got in trouble just because I am black.”
“I have a friend who says that happens at his school.”
And most notably, “Well, that probably happens in high school.”
The closest they came to seeing the data as personally impacting them was by claiming that if it was a problem in our building, it must be something that happens in our high school program and not about junior high … or them … or us.
Their interpretation is simply not true; the data contains no indication that there are differences between grade levels, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they responded in this way. Perhaps, like us, they simply needed more time to process it.
We hadn’t intended to make the concept of implicit racial bias and its impacts the subject of all our seminar discussions for the quarter, but the deeper we delved into the subject, the more there seemed to be to discuss. We decided to run with this idea, and each week throughout the quarter, we seminared on a different aspect of racial bias.
At times, our conversations were uncomfortable.
When reading about “Stop and Frisk” policies, a student asked whether that meant that every police officer who engaged in this type of policing was racist. That’s a touchy question to answer, but it helped us examine the difference between individual racism and societal racism, as well as the difference between overt racism and implicit racism.
During one discussion, a white student courageously noted, “Somewhere, deep down inside, everybody is at least a teeny, tiny bit racist.” This comment elicited strong reactions, but it helped us to turn the lens on ourselves.
On several occasions during the quarter, when given behavioral redirection, students accused us of racial bias. That felt terrible, but these challenges helped us to reflect carefully on our reactions and responses to student behavior.
It was through this process of self-reflection that I realized that we had made a mistake – we had skipped a step.
Maria Montessori said, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” This is one of my favorite quotations, and yet I had forgotten it here.
The teacher must prepare herself. It was not just our students who were impacted by these difficult conversation; we were experiencing this, too. We had been guiding them, but had failed to use our resources to prepare ourselves.
Confronting the societal demon of racism in a mixed-race group of colleagues is a daunting task. We agreed to commit one meeting a month to discussing this topic through the lens of a variety of resources that we would take turns providing. Like we did with students, we established special meeting norms for creating a “Courageous Space” in which to engage in these conversations.
This work is an ongoing process, but so far we have watched Bryan Stevenson’s video Confronting Injustice and read John Metta’s article “I, Racist” and engaged in rich conversations on each.
None of this is enough. None of it marks our ending place, but taken together, it is our beginning. We have embarked upon this journey. It is a complicated one, and it requires us to be brave. And to be humble.
It requires us to take a hard look at both what is happening around us, and what exists within us. Next week’s post will detail the initial work we did with our students to help them synthesize their learning and their experiences, and to guide them toward activism.
 U.S. Department Of Education Office For Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION 1 (2014): 1-24.Education Week. U.S. Department of Education, Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2017. <http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf>.
 Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.
I was mid-lesson when a knock at the classroom door interrupted my flow. Interruptions were not unusual, but instead of a security assistant asking to take a student to the office, I was surprised to see a man I did not know standing outside my door.
“Is Carlos Junior here?”
“Um, yeah, but I’m sort of in the middle of a lesson here, you are …?” I trailed off looking for some explanation of this visit. Something about the man was unkempt, off-center somehow. There was the oddness of a visitor I didn’t know, and the knock in the middle of a lesson, and yet I had an anxiety which I couldn’t exactly trace.
“I’m his father. I got a call about his grades.” Any apprehension I had at the time was relieved. It made sense. My team of teachers had made some calls to the homes of students who were struggling academically. Here we were, the next day, and a father was standing at my door. Pretty good response time, all things considered. He just didn’t call ahead for an appointment. Still, I wanted to check with Carlos.
I asked the man to wait a second in the hall and I pulled the door shut. I turned, planning to ask Carlos if this really was his father. Carlos was already three strides across the room towards me and the door. He had a look of resignation on his face.
“Hey, um, your dad …” I started.
“Yeah, I got this.” He walked into the hall and shut the door behind him. I resumed class.
A couple of sentences into the lesson, several students’ heads turned toward the door as a heavy thud resounded in the hall, followed by loud profanity from Carlos’ dad.
I quickly opened the door and stepped out. The man had grabbed Carlos’ shirt with both hands and had him pressed up against the wall across from my door. He was mumbling threateningly into Carlos’ face. I made out profanities and school-related words like ‘homework’ and ‘grades.’
“Sir, you can’t do that.” I put my hand on his shoulder, unsure what I was going to do next. He was several inches taller than me, and 40 pounds heavier. Without looking at me, he shrugged my hand away, leaned in, and spat a final threat at his son. He then stepped back and twisted his hands, throwing his son to the floor. Carlos slid on the floor to my right, his left hand on his cheek, then propped himself up with his right hand on the ground. His father was to my left, standing off-balance.
Now, in his struggle to maintain balance, I saw what I had missed earlier. He was drunk. As he took another step toward his son, cursing his poor grades, I stepped in between and the man bumped into me. Behind me, my student said, quietly, “Mr. Jose, you don’t have to…”
At the very moment when I realized I was going to be unable to hold him back, Carlos senior thought better of his actions and stopped leaning into me. He gave me a perfunctory pat on the shoulder that landed more like a shove. “There you go,” he said to me, but not taking his eyes off his son. “You won’t have any more trouble with him not doing homework.”
He spoke past me, “Isn’t that f—ing right, Carlos?”
Not waiting for an answer, he turned and walked down the hall.
Carlos wasn’t going to learn much English that day.
Violence at home rarely is this visible at school. However, incidents of violence are prevalent in American homes. The Centers for Disease Control recorded 683,000 reports of abuse or neglect against children in 2015, with more than 1,600 deaths[i] attributed to neglect or abuse that year. Related studies suggest that as many as 1 in every 4 children experience abuse or neglect at some point in their lifetime, indicating that many cases go unreported.
Abuse and neglect are two of the types of incidents that are collectively referred to as “ACEs”, or adverse childhood events. These experiences contribute to the likelihood of a series of negative outcomes for the individual involved. The negative outcomes can include increased chances of addictive and self-harming behaviors as well as physical conditions including heart and liver disease. Ultimately, an accumulation of ACEs correlates to an increased chance of early death. Needless to say, ACEs can interfere with a child’s learning and academic progress.
Tackling ACEs is the work of communities and schools together, and the focus of many books and blog posts already published and yet to come. There is a lot to learn, and many specific steps to be taken to address this growing body of knowledge.
However, individual teachers in their classrooms need strategies for handling situations that might trigger ACEs.
In that moment, in the hallway, I believed Carlos Senior was the enemy.
Later, it occurred to me that he was an ally – of sorts. With a phone call home, I could get Carlos swift and strong consequences, or more accurately, punishments, for his performance in class. Now even the threat of a phone call home might serve as a sort of motivation for him to improve his behavior in class.
This is the decision that some teachers are comfortable making. Hanging this phone call over a student’s head for misbehavior in class makes the threat of physical force a reality. It puts this tool “back in the belt” of a teacher; she can now wield force indirectly. Some teachers might find this power tempting.
However, teachers should never place a hand on a student to do anything other than to greet, console, or encourage them. Corporal punishment is against the law in Ohio (in public schools) per House Bill 1, passed in November 2009, and in 30 other states[ii], for sound moral and educational reasons. Physical consequences often sever, rather than strengthen, the relationship between child and caregiver. Worse, they muddy the real consequence of an action, leaving a child to guess what the adult might find to be important, rather than to understand the significance of a missed assignment or a single poor grade.
Teachers should not cause harm to students, even if they do it indirectly.
The question teachers have to answer is this: if you are reasonably certain that your phone call will lead to a child being hit, should you call? That is, what do you do when a phone call home will hurt, rather than help?
This question places a teacher in an almost impossible place. Parents are, of course, the most important figure in the life of a child. Decisions made by the parent are legally and unquestionably binding on the child, from a quick swat on the rear to the edge of what might be rightly considered physical and emotional abuse.
The relationship between a parent and a school is crucial to the success of the student. A parent who feels the school is supporting their child and providing a safe and rigorous learning environment, matched to the needs of their child, will go to great lengths to reinforce the schoolwork and schedule, and will be a crucial ally in the formal education of their child. Also, the parent needs the teacher as a partner in the growth, development, and socialization of the child. This is an important bond that must be strengthened by the teacher and administration.
So we must avoid the temptation as teachers to call the parent and use the parent’s disciplinary consequences as an extension of our own.
Outsourcing the consequence to the parent is similar to asking another teacher to provide the discipline in your classroom. This abdication of your authority sends an important message to the student that is the opposite of the intended message. It doesn’t say that you are strong, it says you are weak. Over-reliance on this tool will also send a message to the parent that you can’t manage your classroom or their child, and will make the parent more likely to believe their child when they blame the problems on the teacher instead of themselves.
On the other hand, we must also avoid the simplified response of refusing to call at all. This prevents the physical harm, of course, but it remains our professional obligation to communicate with parents. Balancing our obligation to call with the needs of the child is a challenge we must master.
Here are steps you can take in this situation to reduce the likelihood of a child being hit, emotionally abused, or neglected, while still reinforcing the parent/teacher/student triangle.
Establish clear and consistent classroom procedures
First, the teacher must work to develop a strong bond of communication and trust with the student. Clear and consistent processes in the classroom, communicated and reinforced multiple ways, will help a student feel comfortable with the routines. Setting a single way to hand in work, and a specific day and time to have the work completed, will increase chances of the work being completed and turned in on time and in the right way.
Additionally, the teacher must provide a way for students to make up work or catch up independently. This allows students to take ownership when the inevitable happens. Students will miss an assignment. A busy morning will leave a student at school without the work they already completed. This, in fact, happens to human beings. Having a fair and consistent way to address common human mistakes helps a student be confident in their ability to make up the missing work, and less likely to need parental intervention.
Establish clear and consistent communication with parents
It is easy to fall into the trap of only calling home when there is a specific behavioral or academic concern in the classroom. Phone calls home can be time-consuming and quite a chore, especially when everyone involved knows that the phone call is bad news.
A common solution suggested to teachers is to also make positive phone calls home.
That is the life of the educator. Doing more work didn’t fix the problem? Double the work! That should do it!
Sure, positive phone calls home are helpful in strengthening the triangle of parent, teacher, and student, but more work is not always the solution. Working smarter is the answer. Chances are, your school already offers lots of indirect ways to engage with families. Open house nights, ice cream socials, sporting events, and conference nights are part of the life of a typical school. Teachers are often required to be at these. Use these opportunities to ask questions of parents, just as you would a student who was new in your class. What do they do for a living? What do they like to do in their free time? What was their favorite class in school? Making a personal connection will come in handy when you need to leverage the relationship to deliver helpful information about their child.
Before involving the parent, talk with the child
Most often, big problems in the classroom start as small problems in the classroom. A failing grade is not caused by one missing assignment but several over time. The teacher’s patience is worn thin not by one misbehavior but by days of repeated disruptions or disobedience. It is wisest to first address this individually with the student.
Asking a student to identify the source of the problem is almost always the quickest way to a solution. Responses can range from an admission of wrongdoing, “I just didn’t finish my work last night,” to awareness of an emergency at home, “We were at the ER with my little brother until really late, and I didn’t get any homework done.” Sometimes these conversations reveal a student who is struggling to complete work independently and who needs advice on setting up a schedule, study area, and self-discipline.
Sometimes, as in the case of a student like Carlos, a parent has demonstrated a frustratingly limited approach to motivating their child. The teacher must, in this situation, develop a connection with the student in order to create an internal sense of motivation. Building a caring relationship, and smoothing the pathway to academic and personal success does not mean eliminating expectations. It means helping the child prioritize challenges in their life, put school as part of the solution, and take the necessary steps to navigate their precarious position.
When making a call home to address misbehavior, be very precise
Despite our work as a school to provide a positive vision for a child to grow into, I still have teachers approach me and say about a child, “He never …” Regardless of how that sentence ends, it is not true. This is the kind of sentence that drives a wedge between student, teacher, and parent. Rarely is the phone call home intended to fix a mortal flaw in a child’s character. The call that includes this sentence reinforces the idea that the teacher sees the child in a sort of irreparable state of unsuccessfulness. It can only go two ways from there, and both are counterproductive.
If the parent agrees that “He never…”, then the parent and teacher have formed a sort of belief system aligned against the growth and learning potential of the child. An adolescent is already predisposed to feeling attacked and to severing bonds from their parents, so this alliance will only reinforce ill feelings within the child, rather than fostering a sense of problem-solving and improvement.
If the parent disagrees with the statement, then the teacher finds herself on the wrong side of the growth equation, seemingly resolved to the idea that the child cannot learn. Being perceived by a parent as believing their child is unteachable or inherently problematic undermines the teacher-student relationship completely. The adolescent, so eager to prove her independence, will nonetheless cling tightly to a parent who is allied against a teacher and a bad grade. This develops in a child a skill set to avoid consequences and externalize control over grades and other life outcomes. This is completely counter-productive to the goal of education.
Instead, the home contact addressing poor performance should be very precise. This means that the observed behavior, be it failure to complete work, poor work quality, or disruptive or disobedient behavior, should be described within specific guidelines. The teacher should include a description of the observed behavior, when and where it occurred, and how many times. Then the effect of that misbehavior should be explained. Suppose that there have been seven homework assignments, and the student has not turned any of them in. Instead of saying, “he never does his homework,” it is more accurate to say, “we have had seven homework assignments, and he has turned none of them in. As a result, he currently has an ‘F’ in class.”
When making a negative call home, offer a specific solution
The call is not over when you have described the misbehavior. A parent might not know exactly what to do with this information, leaving them frustrated in their desire to help their child be successful. Leaving a solution fully in the hands of someone who does not understand the workings of your classroom and gradebook does not make sense. This is equivalent to your doctor saying, “Looks like you have a stone there, on your kidney. That’s going to be uncomfortable.” As the educator, it is important to tell the parent a specific solution to the misbehavior.
In the homework example, the teacher might continue, “as a result, I have assigned your child a detention with me Tuesday after school. He can make the assignment up there, and maybe finish Tuesday’s homework too.”
By providing a specific solution, the teacher makes sure the parent does not feel responsible for providing the consequence. No additional stress or responsibility, just information. It helps in this situation to be able to add information from the conversation with the student. “In fact, when I spoke with your son, he said he couldn’t stay after school on Wednesday because you work late that day, so he and I thought maybe he could stay Thursday with a different teacher.” The effective teacher prefers to accomplish this consequence in person with the student, to address the misbehavior and repair the relationship. However, this teacher makes exceptions and accommodations to allow the child to experience control and personal efficacy.
Help frame the student in a positive light in the parent’s eyes
Parents react so strongly to their child’s struggles because we identify closely with our children. We get angry when they struggle just as we celebrate when they succeed. School is a place where “winning” and “losing” is often framed – and perhaps accurately – as a metaphor for future success in life. No parent, not even a teacher or a principal, is above this identification with their own child. The stakes are breathtakingly high.
Calling a parent to indicate that their child is exhibiting signs of academic failure can trigger a strong reaction in the calmest parent. How much more so if the parent displays passionate reactions? This passion is not a weakness or a failing of the parent, and should not be regarded as such. This is an area to capitalize on.
Use each conversation to explain the strengths of their child. Seeing their child in a positive light prompts a reaction of pride and cooperation within the parent. They can see the good there too. Creating a shared vision for what is possible with their child is a powerful groundwork for a conversation.
Doing this over a series of conversations sets up the opportunity to walk a parent down from the edge of an intemperate response. If the parent accuses the child of being irresponsible or worse, the teacher can provide a different perspective. “Well, I agree that he should have done the work at home. His willingness to make up the work after school shows that he is growing in responsibility.” Without minimizing the concern about the misbehavior, a teacher can re-frame the frustration.
If violence is proposed as a solution, speak out against it.
Finally, the strongest step a teacher can take in this situation is to speak out against violence. If they offer, or threaten, to strike their child to create a change in their behavior, you have to advocate against this. In fact, teachers are mandated reporters of physical abuse; it is our legal obligation to protect students. Informing the parent that striking their child is unacceptable to you, and counterproductive to your shared goals, can possibly change their actions, and serve to make a child’s life remarkably better.
This is challenging. Sample phrases can lead you in a direction that is comfortable for you. One approach would be to state your preference that the punishment not be related to your call. “Mr. Wilson, I really wish you would not do that. I would hate to think that my call home got Carlos hit.” Or you can provide information, such as informing the parent, “You know, the reason they outlawed striking students in school is that they found that being hit actually harmed their academic performance.” Or simply repeat the solution you arrived at earlier. “Mr. Wilson, you know, we have already scheduled a make-up time. I know you are frustrated, but let’s see if that works.”
On occasion, it is necessary to make a stronger statement to the parent. In a personal conference, rather than a phone call, we can assert our position and our shared values. Life is precious. The child is precious. Hitting a child, or using profanity and psychological abuse as a motivator, devalues that child. It undermines our work as educators, and it uses fear as a motivator, which, as Kohlberg demonstrated is the least advanced reason to do a given action.
Ultimately, a parent will do the best they can do in a given situation. Giving them, and their children, the tools to find their way to success without resorting to abuse will lead to better results. And the evidence shows that making this change can lead to a longer and more successful life.
As teachers we are obligated to work in the best interests of our students. Tackling these sorts of problems makes the difference between teaching only the students who arrive ready, and making every student ready. When we persevere and solve these problems we distinguish ourselves, and send a message of faith in the students who most need to hear that message.
Josh Vogt stepped into my office and handed me a calendar. “Umm, thank you,” I offered.
“October,” was his only instruction. I examined the annual Day by Day calendar published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. As instructed, I turned to October, expecting to see a photograph of our students. Instead I saw a picture of a group of people I did not recognize, taken downtown near a local homeless shelter. “Bella.” I looked closer but did not see the student he named, and I looked up at him.
“Bella TOOK this picture. This is her picture, from the Mayerson experience this summer.”
The evident pride on his face was well-earned. Josh has worked diligently with students in our school to help them become aware of the social and economic factors that contribute to poverty in our community. For four years he has led a Peace and Justice intersession at Gamble Montessori which includes an overnight “shantytown” experience, where students construct a cardboard shelter and sleep in it overnight on our school grounds. He had, most recently, given up a summer week, 11 hours a day, to partner with our students, the Mayerson Foundation, and Cincinnatians experiencing homelessness. The goal was to humanize the problem, and help students understand the difficulties faced by the poorest of the poor. But what he wanted was this – not to have students merely become aware of the problem, but to have them be part of the effort to fix it. Bella was contributing meaningfully to the conversation.
For a generation, students in high schools have been doing community service in increasingly formal programs. Nearly every high school in the Cincinnati area has a community service requirement that centers around accumulating a certain number of service hours over a high school career. The Mayerson Foundation, which generates and implements “innovative approaches to important issues” in Cincinnati, has helped promote a culture of community service in more than 30 high schools and districts around the greater Cincinnati area, and is a leader in structuring programs designed to promote community service and related service learning. Nationwide, about a quarter of our population participates in meaningful community service annually, though there has been a slight decline since 2011.
Community service, can be broadly defined. In school, often it is a teacher who sets up an opportunity for individual students or an entire class to participate in an activity designed to help a person or organization. This can take many different forms. Gamble students have planted butterfly gardens and removed invasive plants, they have repaired fences to keep out predators and spent time with traumatized animals to prepare them to live with a new owner, and they have worked with toddlers and the elderly.
This passion for involving students in giving of their time and talents to others is beneficial. The community gains an energetic and impressionable army of workers, who often drag friends and family into the work. Students gain a sense of accomplishment and begin to see the scope of the work of adulthood, and the real problems faced not just in other countries but by those in their own backyard. It develops a sense of self-efficacy in the student, who can see themselves as a helper instead of someone who needs the help of others. It fosters grace and courtesy, as we teach lessons about the environment, the elderly, and people experiencing homelessness, and students become comfortable with manners in a variety of new circumstances.
Additionally, developing a habit of volunteering can actually lengthen one’s life, as older folks who volunteer regularly are shown to live longer than those who do not, when controlling for other factors. Finally, we know that adolescents crave meaningful work while resisting busy-work, and tangibly helping a person or an agency as part of a larger cause helps satisfy this urge to make a real impact in their own community.
So volunteering is good. How do we get students to buy in?
Until now, the answer has been: make them do it.
Gamble Montessori looked at other schools’ requirements and settled on an average number of hours from neighboring schools. High school students were asked to compete 50 hours of service a year, for a total of 200 hours required for graduation. Middle school students had a slightly reduced requirement of 30 hours each year.
From the beginning, student involvement in our community service requirement was uneven. Only a few of our students, born into families with strong community service ethics and the means to support this passion, met the requirement each year. Others struggled to make the required total, and sought flexibility in the rules of what we would call service. Teachers found themselves broadening the definition of service. Soon the student lists included raking leaves for grandparents, to dishwashing at home, and we even accepted spending time at home with siblings while parents were at work as community service. Other students failed to meet even this newly broadened standard, and we found ourselves in the position of asking if we were passionate enough about our commitment to service that we would prevent a student from graduating if the requirement was not met. We answered by quietly ignoring the requirement.
The odds seemed stacked against getting all of our students to meet this expectation.
The hours and evidence were hard to track at high school. We tried monitoring it through our advisory, but with infrequent meetings in a class where we typically did not keep grades, the tracking was uneven and unreliable. There was also the issue of keeping and verifying evidence. It was suggested that we centralize it and the task was assigned to one teacher assistant at the school. This seemed to be working until the paper records were entirely lost in a building move. Finally, with the help of a counselor – available through use of a temporary grant – we purchased a program for helping the students track their own hours online. After about a year of implementation, we had trained most of our students in the program, but found that the additional step of self-recording appeared to have diminished our community service participation.
Frustratingly, we also had to confront the reality that some of our students were among those who benefited from charitable giving in the Cincinnati area. More than 70% of Gamble Montessori students are living in poverty, as measured by their eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. Several of our students qualify for assistance under the McKinney-Vento act, designed for students who have experienced homelessness.
This showed up several years ago, when teacher Gloria Lane was working with students to identify a place where they wanted to do some service. One of our 8th graders reported to his teacher that he wanted to work at a particular church that was far from his home. When she asked why he would choose a site that would be hard to get to, she told me that he shared with the class, “They brought presents to my little brother last year. They were really nice.” We explored the irony, or perhaps it was something worse than mere irony, of asking students living in poverty to give their time and resources to helping others. While the spirit of giving was strong (it is my observation that often our poorest families are the quickest to give and the most generous), it felt unfair to make the same demand on our neediest families.
The final nail in the coffin came through the observation made off-hand by a staff member, perhaps Josh himself, at a meeting where the service requirement was being discussed. “It’s another step in the school to prison pipeline. We’re making them do community service hours to get out.”
Sure enough, the perception among some members of our society is that community service is assigned in response to committing misdemeanors. Service as a consequence is so pervasive in our society that local United Way agencies maintain a list of agencies that provide opportunities for people needing to complete court-ordered community service. So our requirement, instead of creating an internal desire to do service for others, was instead inadvertently associating school with crime and punishment in the minds of some of our students. This could reasonably be seen as a powerful motive for some of our students to resist the requirement.
Still, we knew that the act of service is important for students and the community, and we sought to find the right program to build this habit. We had been trying to provide technical solutions to a larger, cultural (or adaptive) problem. We needed a revolution.
Recently, through our partnership with Clare Blankemeyer of the Mayerson Foundation, Gamble teacher Josh Vogt took a revolutionary new approach to service at the school level and created a program he called “Gators Give Back.” While we still have some of the same tracking and participation issues – technical problems that we hope can be resolved – it is a brilliant answer to the larger, adaptive problem of addressing the desire to participate by creating a real relationship between the student and the work.
In Gators Give Back, the hours and hours of potentially disconnected service, possibly spent at dozens of agencies addressing a range of problems, or raking leaves and babysitting, are replaced by a single focus area chosen by the individual student.
The difference between the old program and Gators Give Back is stark, evident right from the first service activity through the finalization of their senior project. At each high school grade, the requirement is distinct from the old “counting 50 hours” expectation.
Ninth graders, instead of being asked to provide evidence of 50 hours of service, select one opportunity from a list provided by the Gators Give Back committee. They are encouraged to attend with a classmate. Then, responding to a prompt, they write a reflection on the experience, which they share with their classmates.
Tenth graders are asked to dig a little bit deeper. Again encouraged to do this in a group of two or three, they must attend the same agency two or three times, gaining an awareness of the social impact and importance of a particular topic. This time, instead of writing a personal reflection, students are asked to take on the role of advocate. In a letter to a public official, they are to explain what they have learned about their chosen agency and the need it meets, and then suggest ways the public official could assist in the area of need.
Our close partnership with the visionary Mayerson Foundation is an essential component of the 11th grade requirement, philanthropy. Our juniors take stewardship over $1,500 dollars provided by the Mayerson’s Magnified Giving program, created by local philanthropist Roger Grein. Over the course of the year, they investigate the work of the agencies they already know firsthand, reviewing grant proposals that are written directly to the students from competing agencies, and researching the needs of the agencies and the community. They invite the agencies to bring proposals to the group. Ultimately, using criteria they have devised, they award the $1,500 to a deserving agency in a triumphant end-of-the-year ceremony.
Noticeably absent from these first three years of the program are the reliance on counting hours, and the likelihood of students experiencing a range of different and uneven volunteering experiences. Instead, students in the Gators Give Back program find themselves serving and reflecting and learning about a particular area of concern, while thinking about multiple aspects of the service. Whereas a student in the former program might have spent hours folding clothes donated to a local shelter, a student today gets an experience with a trusted partner like Visionaries and Voices, then explains the problem to someone in a position to help, and steps into the role of the person in a position to help.
The Gators Give Back manual provides a list of possible agencies and areas of need, and provides templates and prompts for the writing, as well as key definitions for terms such as service learning and advocacy.
Students in our program gain a nuanced understanding of the relationship between societal needs, face to face assistance, and the agencies and systems that can either ameliorate or exacerbate the conditions that make the service necessary.
Senior year, the service project becomes more involved, intertwining with senior project in a segment aligned with the Youth for Justice curriculum. The work is far more involved, requiring several components, and deepening the student’s involvement in issues and solutions.
The senior must select a service topic that relates to their year-long project, often with a connection to their intended career or area of study in college. They must seek out a mentor who is knowledgeable in that area, who will guide them in learning about the topic and making suggestions for meaningful action. Then, importantly, students must begin to implement that solution. At this level, we initially had a minimum requirement of hours, as well as a minimum number of contacts with the mentor, but in practice we found that many of our students had so many contacts during the process that tracking them seemed artificial, and the requirement has fallen by the wayside.
Our seniors are responsible for tracking this progress, and for presenting the work as part of their senior project. This step helped address the accountability issue that existed when community service was a standalone hours-counting project. Enmeshed with their senior project, the work becomes more personal, and directly tied to graduation. Senior Project is a non-negotiable for graduation at Gamble.
I attended one successful project, a domestic violence awareness walk organized by Tariah Washington. Replete with catered food and special-order t-shirts bearing her slogan, the walk drew 50 people who marched and carried placards around our school neighborhood before eating and hearing the presentation Tariah prepared.
The Gators Give Back program is revolutionary because it tackles the kinds of problems that have been plaguing community service programs in high school since their inception. Students are not providing hours of disconnected service in multiple places. Instead they are building meaningful connections with issues of need in their own community. Now, hopefully, students find that service is inextricably linked to a required graduation component. They cannot hope to duck under the gaze of an individual tracking their hours, as the largest portion of the work is part of senior project. Now: impoverished students who may find themselves served by an agency can see a role for themselves beyond receiving or giving temporary help, instead working in the role of advocate and benefactor. This gives them practical skills that they can use in their own situation to make a sustainable change in their own family’s situation. Now: our program is not aligned with the mandatory, punitive community service programs in the justice system, counting hours until release.
Josh related to me a longer version of Bella’s story.
“Bella is one of those students whose life was literally changed by serving others. I’ll never forget that during the summer program, she was strongly advocating for eliminating spikes on concrete that some businesses put on the ground to discourage people experiencing homelessness from sleeping there. One of the StreetVibes vendors we were working with was actually sticking up for the businesses, but Bella did not back down. Another of the vendors raised his hand and said ‘No, man, I agree with her’ and the other vendors started clapping!”
Through service, advocacy, philanthropy, and mentored service learning, students in the Gators Give Back program transcend typical service. Instead they are empowered to act in an area that is meaningful for them.
As a school we have more come a long way, but there are still improvements we could make. This service paper could be incorporated as requirements in English and social studies classes. The letter they write in 10th grade meets a specific requirement for the ELA standards, and working on this in class for a grade would reinforce the requirement, improve the writing, and provide additional support for the student and the work in the school. Advocacy certainly meets high-level expectations in American History and Government classes.
This is how we are doing service at Gamble.
How can you promote service, advocacy, and philanthropy at your school? What have we missed?