originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17
by Krista Taylor
Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.
It happens every year, so one would think I would be used to it by now. The school-year seems to move along, as slow as molasses, at times feeling somewhat interminable. And then, suddenly, it’s over. This catches me entirely off-guard. And I’m not ready.
The curriculum has been taught, the tests have been administered, the paperwork is complete, the culminating projects are finished, and yet I am still not ready.
I’m not ready to let them go. I’m not ready to say good-bye.
I am not ready to have my 8th graders move on to high school. And even though my 7th graders will return to me next year, I’m not ready to spend 12 weeks apart from them.
I know that sounds ridiculous. It probably is ridiculous. But I don’t transition well. Every year it takes me a week or longer after the end of the school year to complete the check-out process that somehow every other teacher manages to get done by the last day. But I’m not ready.
However, this year, exactly one week before the end of the year, I looked around the circle at the faces of my students during morning meeting, and I suddenly realized that whether or not I was ready, my students were.
The seventh graders, who had entered our building in the fall looking for all the world like little lost lambs, were ready to assume the mantle of leadership.
And the eighth graders had become so strong, self-assured, and independent that they were ready to tackle the new demands and challenges of high school.
How had this leadership emerged? It felt abrupt when I suddenly saw it staring back at me in black and white during that morning meeting, but I knew that it wasn’t. I knew that their leadership had been cultivated and nurtured over time and through great dedication and diligence. But how? What exactly were the critical components that allowed that transformation to happen?
As I tend to do, when I saw them with new eyes that morning, I acknowledged it. I told my 7th graders that I had just realized that they were ready – ready to fill the 8th graders’ shoes, ready to lead our community next year. And I asked them how they had learned to do this. Their response did not surprise me, but it did delight me. They said, “The eighth graders taught us.”
And, of course, that is how it had happened. This is peer transmission of culture, and it is a powerful thing.
Being social and engaging in peer relationships is the primary motivating force of the adolescent. As a result, they can teach each other far more powerfully than any lesson presented by an adult. This is why peer pressure is such a powerful phenomenon.
Teen-agers desperately want to fit in, to belong. They crave this social inclusion, and while adults often fear its power to lead children astray, peer pressure can be positively channeled to guide students toward valorization as well.
“Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent … When most people think of the phrase ‘peer pressure,’ images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.”
Students can reach each other more deeply than any adult ever could. Who better to teach them how to be leaders than their peers? This is the rich benefit of multi-age grouping in a classroom. Older students model expectations for younger students, and this results in powerful learning.
Multi-age groupings, like those seen in Montessori classrooms among others, readily allow the transmission of classroom culture to occur through peer relationships. And my students’ recognition of this was what I found so remarkable on that day when I looked around morning meeting and suddenly recognized their transformation.
Multi-age classrooms are a fundamental component of the Montessori model, but this philosophy is beginning to reach traditional education as well. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, “Multiage education … puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.”
This is exactly how it happens.
This mentoring, leadership, and collaboration is very intentionally constructed in the Montessori middle school classroom. At the beginning of the year, the eighth graders are asked to take on all the leadership roles. They are expected to model what positive leadership looks like in our classrooms. We overtly identify and discuss this – honoring the role of the eighth grade leaders. We also note that over the course of the year, the seventh graders will be provided with increasing opportunities to fulfill these duties, so that by the following year, they will be prepared to do the modeling for incoming students.
Initially, however, the eighth graders are given all the classroom leadership responsibilities such as: running morning meeting, helping new students manage a checklist of assignments, and reinforcing behavioral expectations.
Additionally, the language of leadership pervades our discussions with students. The poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart is displayed in each of our classrooms, and we use this as a tool to identify what leadership is. On a near daily basis, we say things like, “I need a couple of leaders,” “Where are my leaders?” “Can I get some leader volunteers?” or “It doesn’t matter where we are, we always behave like leaders.” Leadership is always referenced as an expectation for all, not just a quality that a few motivated students will demonstrate.
This is why student reinforcement is so critical. Every classroom has students who are internally motivated to lead and are responsive to teacher mentoring. Sometimes we call these students the “good kids” or “the bright ones” or “teachers’ pets.” A shift in classroom climate occurs, however, when all students are expected to demonstrate leadership, and I suspect that this can only be accomplished through positive peer pressure.
At Gamble, peer leadership modeling begins in earnest with the closing ceremony at fall camp. Camp happens early in the school year — within the first three weeks. The 7th graders are brand new to us, and their official initiation to the community occurs on the final night of the fall camping experience.
This ceremony is entirely planned by the eighth graders. In our community, it never fails that year after year, the eighth graders want to initiate the seventh graders by identifying and labeling their character strengths. This practice was begun with our first group of students, and each year it is handed down as tradition. This is a powerful example of peer transmission of culture.
So, invariably, just days before camp, a large group of eighth graders spend their lunchtime in my room frantically preparing certificates with individual names and character strength labels.
Listening to them discuss what they have observed in their seventh grade peers is so sweet. It sounds something like this:
“What about Dahlia, what’s her strength?”
“Oh yeah, she is. But that sounds kind of bad. How can we make it good?”
“I don’t know. Outgoing?”
“Yeah, that’s good. What about Ramon?”
“Ramon, I don’t know. He’s so quiet. I hardly even notice him. Ms. Taylor, what is Ramon’s character strength?”
“Hmmmmm … sounds like you need to observe him a little more. Do you think you can do that and then come back tomorrow and have a character strength for him?”
“Yeah, we can do that.”
This work of identifying character strengths requires them to do multiple things. They must review the various character strengths, intentionally observe their new classmates, and see them in a positive light. What an incredible way to begin leading a group of new students.
This type of leadership is a responsibility, an expectation, and an obligation, but it is also so much more. Because it is done by students year after year, it is seen as an honor, as something to be earned and entrusted with.
When treated this way, leadership becomes a somewhat revered role. I believe this is why I typically have so many students willing to take on leadership tasks, even when they know that it usually involves additional work. All I have to do is ask, “I need a couple of leader volunteers. Who’s willing to help?” And every time, many, many hands go up. It is an honor to be called on to complete these tasks, and the work is viewed not as a menial job, but as a responsibility to be assumed for the good of the group.
I giggled this spring upon overhearing the following exchange between two young ladies. We were outside taking a break from the stressors of standardized testing, and Aaliyah began picking up pieces of trash. Mi’Neasia looked at her and said, “What are you doing that for?” Aaliyah’s response made me so proud. “You know Ms. Taylor’s going to make us do it in a minute, so we might as well get started.”
Let’s be clear, no one likes to pick up trash. But Aaliyah knew that “Leaving a Place Better Than We Found It” was part of what we always did as leaders, and she viewed it as an obligation. She took the initiative before being asked, and then transmitted this expectation to a peer.
I am certain that if I, as the teacher, solely dictated the requirement of completing these types of extra jobs, I would be met with complaining and resistance, but when peers model diligent completion of the work, the entire experience shifts positively.
Of course, leadership doesn’t develop exclusively as a result of peer modeling. There must also be opportunities for leadership development built into the curriculum, but I do not believe that we would get nearly the same results without the benefit of students leading the way.
And like all growth, leadership doesn’t develop in one neatly-graphable, continuous line, and it isn’t developed overnight, or even over a few weeks. Although I was startled by my sudden recognition during morning meeting that the students sitting before me had become leaders, there was really nothing sudden about it. My students had been working on leadership all year, and it was the consistent guidance and direction of their eighth grade peers that had steered them toward that readiness. They recognized this and were able to articulate it.
Each year, while the eighth graders are in Pigeon Key, Florida engaged in an intensive marine biology study that serves as our culminating middle school experience, the seventh graders prepare a celebration to honor them. It is a bit of a mirror image of the fall camp ceremony, and serves to pass the torch of leadership.
This year, as part of the ceremony they planned, they wrote this:
“Dear 8th graders, It’s been a long year with everyone. A lot of things have changed with improved grades, behavior, and leadership skills. It’s been a big transition throughout the year. Everyone has shown growth tremendously, and I would like to thank the 8th graders for showing me the path to be an 8th grade leader. Everyone will be missed.”
“I know not only 7th graders improved, but you did as well. You were once in the same position as us, now look where you’re at. You were such a big help to us because you taught us how to be the 8th grade leaders you are today. We will miss every, single one of you, and hopefully you’ll miss us too. Most importantly, as you go to the 9th grade, just remember that you’ll always be UL leaders. P.S. Try not to make Ms. Taylor too emotional when you leave.”
They were ready to move on, and they recognized this in themselves, and in each other.
Just one week after that culminating moment, we said good-bye. The seventh graders headed off into another long summer break, and the eighth graders did the same, prepared to engage in an entirely different academic adventure upon their return.
They had come so far, and, while they often tease me about being “too emotional,” I know that they, too, felt the bittersweet pang of farewell. For a full ten minutes after the bell rang on that last day of school, my teaching partners and I had students clustered around us for hugs and final words.
Lisa, who ended the year with beautiful grades, threw her arms around me, as I whispered in her ear, “You’ve worked so hard. Remember that first quarter conference when you had to tell your mom that you were failing? Just look at you now!” She burst into tears and hugged me even tighter.
Derek, an 8th grader, who was incredibly immature when he arrived at Gamble and who spent the better part of a year being the class clown, stood tall and gave me a tight hug, as he said proudly and confidently, “You know I’m gonna miss you next year in the 9th grade.”
And Astrid, a painfully shy 7th grader who has finally begun to find her place and her voice in our community. As is her way, she waited patiently and silently for her hug until all the more boisterous students had gotten a turn. I looked into her eyes, and saw such longing for recognition there. I told her what I know to be true: “You will be such a powerful leader for our new students next year. You know all the quiet ones? The ones who are so afraid to come to high school? You’re in charge of them next year, okay?” She silently nodded as her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me good-bye.
And even Andrew, who had a very difficult year and will be repeating the seventh grade, waited for his hug, and then shoved a crumpled post-it note in my hand saying gruffly, “Read that.” It said, “Thanks for helping me do better and have grit. I will miss you these three months.”
I was almost certainly “too emotional” when they left. Because I was not ready. But they were. They were ready to move on to the next level of challenge, and that is what matters. That is how you measure a year.
 “Peer Pressure.”Teenagers and Peer Pressure – Causes and Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.
 Miller, Stuart. “Inside a Multiage Classroom.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.
It was the witching hour at fall camp. That tricky time that happens each day as the afternoon activity wraps up, dinner preparation must begin, and the canoeing group, which necessarily includes the bulk of teachers and chaperones, hasn’t yet returned to the campground. What this all means is too many wound-up students and not enough adult hands to go around.
I had just led our afternoon activity of a serious Olympic Games competition. This consisted of multiple activities such as wheelbarrow races, leapfrog races, football tosses, and one-legged stands. You know, all the famous Olympic sports.
Hilarity had ensued as student less-than-gracefully leap-frogged over each other and attempted to distract each other from standing stock-still on one leg for an unfathomable amount of time. The event culminated in a raucous Olympic medal ceremony replete with extremely off-key anthem singing.
And, this year, there had been a little thunder thrown in for good measure – just to help keep everyone calm.
And thus the witching hour began with 25 hyped-up adolescents and me. I needed to get them settled and working on their packets, so I could begin overseeing dinner crew, but I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to manage the transition.
I must have felt really desperate because I threw all caution to the wind and tried something new – all the while being absolutely certain that there was no way it would work.
I put on my best serious and quiet “Montessori voice” — not an easy feat on the third day of camp right after the Olympic games and just before an impending thunderstorm – and I said, “Do you guys remember last week when I told you about The Silence Game?”
Maria Montessori designed The Silence Game in her work with young children. She asked the children to be quiet, to “create silence,” and then she waited across the room from them and called their names individually in a barely audible voice. When a child heard his name called, he would walk across the room as quietly as possible and sit down silently.
I had introduced this concept to my students the previous week as the foundation of the practice of solo time that we use in the Montessori adolescent classroom. So in the controlled chaos of the moments just following our Olympic games, I told my students that we were going to play this game. I asked them to create silence, and when I tapped them on the shoulder they were to silently walk over to the pavilion area, have a seat, and begin working on their assignment packets.
I really did not think it was going to work.
But it did. This cluster of pubescent energy that differed little from a litter of puppies, closed their eyes and stilled. As I quietly moved among them, tapping them on the shoulder, they remained silent and practically floated, one at a time, toward the pavilion.
I very nearly giggled in my astonishment at the game’s success. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
In The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the yearning of silence and solitude as one of the seven gateways to the adolescent soul.
“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”
Montessori used The Silence Game to help young children develop focus and concentration as she asked them to remain silent for gradually longer increments of time.
In the busyness and constant engagement of today’s world, children need this opportunity to practice silence even more than they did during Montessori’s time. A recent study conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds to eight seconds. To put this into perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. 
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli such that, for many of us, silence and stillness are uncomfortable. We are easily bored and seek out the next engaging thing, often through ready access to mobile devices.
And yet there is plenty of evidence that our brains need this silence and solitude. Spending time in silence:
Relieves stress and tension
Replenishes mental resources
Allows the brain to access its default mode leading to deep and creative thinking
Classrooms are busy places. There is little time or opportunity to rest, and yet neuroscience is discovering that the rewards of silence are great.
In the secondary Montessori classroom, Kessler’s concept of an adolescent longing for silence and solitude is combined with Montessori’s philosophy that the child can be taught to focus by being asked to practice silence for increasing periods of time. We call this work “solo time.”
Solo time consists of a period of time lasting anywhere from ten minutes to forty-five minutes. Some schools practice solo time daily; other schools do it once a week. During solo time, students must engage in a silent, independent activity. Choices often include coloring, journaling, reading, sketching, puzzles, Play-Doh, Legos or other building material, or just sitting in meditative silence.
When the concept is first introduced, many students take immediate joy in participating in solo time, but quite a few students, and even some adults, actively dislike it. They find it hard to remain still, they are bored, and they are drawn to whisper to their peers, move around the classroom, or otherwise meet their need for greater stimulation. At the beginning of the year, after each of the first few times we “do solo,” we discuss, as a class, what this experience was like. Many students describe how challenging it is for them to be still and to refrain from interaction with others. Some require behavioral redirection to be able to comply with these seemingly simple expectations.
Over time, however, almost all students develop enjoyment for this quiet time.
Solo time is especially powerful when it is conducted outside. Sometimes, we are able to do this on school grounds; however, we also hold outdoor solo time during our overnight field experiences. Our most profound of these experiences is the 8th grade culminating trip to Pigeon Key, Florida. Solo time on Pigeon Key is especially transcendent because it feels so remote from “the real world,” and thus really provides the opportunity for deep silence and solitude. Students are powerfully affected by experiencing solo time in this setting, and they beg to do it more often and for longer periods of time.
Last year after the solo time on the first night on the island, Cavin wrote this in his journal.
“The solo time was literally the best solo time I’ve ever had. Like at first I was worried but then something helped me out, and I could really focus. It’s like you never notice how beautiful everything is with all the negativity around America and humanity. During the solo time I got to see nautical beauty and worry about nothing. It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything. It was pretty cool too, like I had wanted there to be more time.”
His words are especially profound because he had been battling depression all year, and had spent some time in the hospital due to suicidal ideation. What greater gift could we give him then an opportunity, even if just for a few minutes, “to worry about nothing?”
Solo time is just one way of embedding a practice of silence and solitude into the classroom.
It is all too easy to get caught up in all the things that need to be done in the limited time we are with our students. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we have five hours each day or just a single fifty-minute bell, the time is never enough. It’s hard to consider giving up any of this precious time to something as simple as silence.
And in the adolescent classroom, it can be equally hard to imagine that our students are actually going to cooperate in this. After all, the need for socialization is one of the critical hallmarks of the adolescent being. It is embedded in their very nature to interact nearly constantly with each other.
However, Kessler describes this gateway as a longing for silence and solitude. While on the surface, it may not be something students prioritize, they have a deep need for it.
In a similar vein, classroom mindfulness practices are growing and gaining national attention. A number of programs, such as Mindful Schools and CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators) have sprung up both as a means to train teachers to bring these practices into the classroom, and as a strategy to support teachers in coping with the stressors and demands of their job.
Public schools in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewherehave implemented the use of mindfulness both as a daily practice and as a way to help students calm down when they are engaged in conflict or misbehavior.
These programs are seeing powerful outcomes related to both reduced discipline and increased achievement. While there has not been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the impact of meditation on the developing brain, initial studies demonstrate some important benefits.
Mindfulness practices come at little to no cost, seem to have no negative impact, and have the potential for significant positive gains. Mindfulness is gaining ground as a structure that may be of great benefit to schools, teachers, and students, but why hasn’t this ancient concept been adopted sooner and more quickly in classrooms around the country?
I can only try and answer that question based on my own experience. I have been trained in bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom three times. Yes, I said three times. The first time I received this training was in 1999. Right. Eighteen years ago. I later completed two different mindfulness programs, in 2014 and in 2016, respectively. And yet I still have not implemented a mindfulness practice in my classroom.
Because it’s scary.
Imagine telling 30 adolescents to close their eyes, sit silently, and focus on their breath. Okay, admittedly, it doesn’t sound so scary when it’s written out like that, but in the moment it feels like the critical balance between control and chaos could be tipped at any moment. All it would take is for one student to say something goofy, or make a weird noise, or expose the practice as a sham, and suddenly, the whole class would be disrupted, and you would spend the remainder of the time trying to regain control of the group.
This is every teacher’s nightmare, but I have to admit I’ve never had this happen.
Each time I’ve dabbled in meditation in the classroom, it’s been incredibly well-received by students. Some students really appreciate it, and even ask for it. Most tolerate it without complaint, and none has ever been disruptive.
And yet, I still don’t have a developed mindfulness practice. #teachergoals2018
For now, we do solo time every week, and more frequently when we are on multi-day field experiences.
If, like me, you don’t feel ready to jump full-force onto the mindfulness bandwagon, there are many other ways, of bringing silent reflection into the classroom – including the establishment of a structured solo time.
CARE recommends implementing the following strategies as a way to get started:
It is that moment we live for as teachers. There is an energy in the room, students engaged in their work, with very little unfocused conversation, or perhaps no talking at all. Maybe students are eagerly calling the teacher over to examine their final product, or they are so immersed in their work that the teacher has become merely an observer. Or perhaps it is a classroom seminar, and the students are fascinated by the core question, pondering over possibilities. The bell rings. Students groan, “Aww, man, do we have to go?” “It’s that time already?”
It’s a narwhal moment. That is, a moment that exists, but is rarely seen in the factory model classroom where teachers hand out one assignment after the next, and then a bell rings to dismiss one group to make room for the next. Students have reached a state of optimal concentration. Immersed completely in their work, they have lost track of time, and perhaps even where they are. They are in a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (me’-hi chick‘-sent-me’-hi) calls “flow”.
It is not a rare phenomenon. Athletes, students, artists, and professionals of all sorts can experience this. Children can easily find this place when they are playing or learning a new skill. Young children paint with water and brushes on a summer sidewalk, see their art disappear, then trace and retrace the strokes of the brush. They perfect the moves with ever-circling, ever-delicate changes in how they hold the brush, or twisting the bristles with the angle of their wrist, each pass similar to the last, but slightly more perfect in the eyes of our budding expert. Then, suddenly, the motion mastered, they move on. Or less optimally, they are pulled away by parents with schedules too busy to allow the perfection of brush strokes, and their flow is broken by the business of the life of their household.
These moments, when they occur in the classroom, leave educators energized for hours or even days. It provides a “teacher’s high” that is far more effective at creating an innate desire to teach than our paychecks.
Why are these narwhal moments of deep concentration, where a person is so in the flow that they lose track of time and space, so rare in the classroom? And how can we create this flow more readily? There is an answer, and the tools for creating a space where it happens more readily are in the hands of teachers.
A hot trend in classroom engagement these days is “gamification”. Hoping to capture or perhaps replicate the intense fascination some of our students have with video games – losing hours in front of screens mastering delicate moves of the hand and wrist not unlike our sidewalk artist above – teachers are turning to technology to help students keep score of their work and even earn awards called badges for completing assignments. These are artificial attempts to emulate the very real and reproducible experience of “flow”. Flow is not gamification, exactly, though it does involve bringing parameters to the classroom that we most commonly associate with gameplay.
In his book Flow, Csikszentmihaly gathers other people’s descriptions of what he calls “optimal experience”:
a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. (p. 97)
That is what we want in the classroom. So let’s break down that description he provides, and see what we can do in the classroom to make it happen.
A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand.
The chart used to describe flow shows the y axis as the challenge, and the x axis as the learner’s skill level. As long as they are matched, a person can experience flow. Dancing, hitting a tennis ball, reading a book, learning an instrument, constructing a model – all activities are susceptible to this model. If the challenge outstrips the skill, a student becomes anxious, agitated or frustrated, and is likely to quit, or to certainly fall out of flow. If the task is too simple, and their skill level exceeds the challenge, the learner becomes bored or worse.
What can we do to match a student’s skill level with the challenges at hand? Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky described this area just beyond a person’s current skill set as their “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD (often pronounced “Zo-ped”). He describes a learner in this state as rapt in attention, and likely to even be verbalizing their thought process – talking out loud to guide themselves through a challenge. A student who is zo-pedalling their way through a challenging task looks a lot like a student in “flow”. Striving at the edge of their skill set, they are talking themselves through the finer points of the task. Vygotsky was observing one aspect of flow, life in the channel between anxiety where the challenge was too great for their skills, and ennui, where the challenge was too little to engage their interest.
So first, we have to know where a student is in regard to specific skills or objectives. Detailed testing, or close grading of student work, can provide the necessary level of insight. Better than assessment, careful observation can give a teacher the clearest picture of a student’s development of targeted and necessary skills. In an era of online tests and automated grading and feedback, a clipboard and a well-constructed observation chart is still the most powerful observation tool available. A trained professional educator remains the most sophisticated data collection tool in our schools. With the information we gather, we can provide targeted coaching in the student’s ZPD. Is the student struggling with capitalization? Specific practice in capitalization is needed, not writing another 5 paragraph essay. Is the problem with borrowing numbers in subtraction? Let’s target those skills.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines many examples of small geographical areas that suddenly produce a pool of great talent, with most of his examples coming in athletic talent. In each case, the practice that those athletes are doing is specific and targeted on key skills of a large puzzle. An example from his book is of a group of soccer players who mastered the intricate footwork to win one-on-one challenges on the field. They practiced by playing an indoor, small-room version of the game that depended entirely on mastering this close-action ball control. These athletes were playing a modified version of the game, working in their ZPD, while mastering a talent that can be a pivotal difference in a soccer match.
We can do this for our students, giving them practice on a skill they are mastering. We can also allow them to self-select work just “above” or just “below” where we think they are. They will almost always make the right decision for themselves, if we would let them. The Montessori method of instruction allows students access to shelfwork that is beautiful and engaging, and to which students can return again and again. A student may return to a beadboard to practice multiplication and understanding the relationships of groups of ten. Another may return to a book that is technically below their reading level, followed by their engagement and curiosity to investigate another aspect of the reading that is not determined by the book’
A goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing
Well, one would think the modern classroom would be the very model of this description. We are asked to emphasize specific standards, micromanaging and micro-reporting results from testing with information on specific objectives and strands mastered. We have online gradebooks that allow the student and parent to peer inside the gradebook. Here one sees the making of a transparent classroom with everyone fully aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.
In too many cases, students report their homework as “read these pages”, or “do those problems.” Students still describe work as the task, and not the skill to be learned. More targeted work might ask students reading the same novel to complete different work based on their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one student would be asked to gather information about a specific character, to learn how the author used actions and dialogue to reveal their true nature, while another student would be examining similes and metaphors for their impact on the reader and what they revealed about the action of the book. This work could be scaffolded based on a student’s skill level, and in fact could be worded in such a way that students could do similar work in different novels as their skill level and reading level increased.
We have the tools to have this kind of conversation, and yet we too seldom have it. We have not done a good enough job drawing the students in to conversations about their progress acquiring specific skills. In fact, it is a conversation we often are ill-equipped to have.
This is a daunting task. Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted an elementary grade card that reported not merely a letter grade for student performance, but instead gave parents a detailed list of skills and where their child was in mastering them. It came to its demise rather quickly, somewhere between the questions from the parents of “but how is my child really DOING?” and frustration with printing a 3 to 5 page report card for each child 8 times a year.
That was likely not the answer. So what about standardized test results?
For reasons entirely out of our control, our students are forced to sit through hours of standardized testing each year. If we then ignored the actual, meaningful data this effort generated, it would be us, and not the state, who was wasting the students’ time.
This year, Gamble Montessori looked closely at our AIR test (the current state graduation test) results at our instructional leadership team meeting. The scores were poor, in almost every measure. It was a shocking departure from years of success on the preceding tests, the PARCC (which had been discarded by the state after one year of use) and the Ohio Graduation Test. It was stomach-turning. However, we reasoned that since our students might likely be taking these tests for years to come, and would spend hours engaged, AND we got somewhat detailed strand information back, it made sense to focus on shoring up our weaknesses.
Guided by academic coaches, a specific role in Cincinnati Public Schools used to support principals in helping improve teaching in their building, we looked at our math and reading data. With additional input from our math and English teachers, we then chose a strand, a somewhat narrowed set of related standards, in which to focus. Then our teams built 90 day plans of action to focus on those areas, with a hope to see improvement in our next semester’s data.
This kind of conversation is becoming more common at Gamble and other schools.
“But Jack, this blog is ostensibly totally against standardized testing, and now you are talking about using test results to guide instruction.”
Much like I might use a student conflict to teach students about how to avoid conflict, there is no inherent crime in making the most of a bad situation. We are required to give the tests. We are evaluated by them. They determine a student’s qualification to graduate. Those things are true.
We can take the information provided and make it part of our dialogue. If we combined our close observations with our homework and classwork results, and the information from the tests, we could more clearly articulate where each student was and where they needed to be in every key strand. The result would be students with a clear understanding of our expectations. If we then made clear where they needed to get and gave them feedback and personalized work, the student would feel more supported, and less burdened, by homework.
Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to make acquiring specific standards a bit more fun. You can move a student’s ZPD further up the skill set by asking them to do something faster, or with fewer words, or in partners, or by evaluating others’ work with a rubric. Gamification attempts to meet this need, but can often do it in an awkward and inauthentic way, by tracking the number of attempts or minutes on task over time. Gamification seems to think that placing a screen in front of a student creates engagement, or that learning can only happen if the teacher can make something fun, or if a tangible reward is given at the end. This can be motivating to some, but the artificiality of it will quickly lose its luster for the student who is used to playing video games with plots developed by Hollywood screenwriters and animated with teams of technical artists. A teacher can certainly try this out as a way to engage students in a particular activity. The goal is to make the objectives clear to students, and provide a structured classroom environment where they have “clear clues” about how they are performing on the specific task and in the class overall. However, expecting this to stand in the place of authentic conversations about learning about topics of interest to students is short-sighted and damaging.
Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.
Maria Montessori once described an optimal classroom experience of her own, exclaiming, “the students are now working as if I did not exist.” Her careful preparation of the classroom environment, filled with work that engaged students by meeting them just beyond their current capability, allowed this to happen. Eager students concentrating on number beads or parts of speech work, or perhaps carefully coloring an illuminated letter with precisely sharpened colored pencils, perhaps a student with her face wrenched in concentration … AND THEN A BELL RANG.
And everyone packed up and left.
The factory model has a way of doing that. Of pulling the rug out from under a teachable moment. There is great happiness in the narwhal moment of disappointment at the end of the bell. The hidden sorrow in the anecdote above, where interrupted students express surprise and shock that time has passed so quickly, is that the interruption happens at all.
A teacher can help concentration happen by creating longer and longer blocks of productive work time in her classroom. Clear rules about entry and exit procedures are necessary. A student knowing where to put completed work, and how to silently request the teacher’s attention with work, is a student who can focus on developing in the standards.
There is no harm in taking days at the start of the year to teach these very discreet skills. How can a student request a bathroom pass without interrupting others? Where is the stapler? What do I do if the stapler is not where it should be? No such skill is too small to teach so a student may master the use of their time and space, without interrupting others.
Providing work that is repeated and familiar, such as specific rules for highlighting and notetaking for every text in every subject, prevent confusion about how to interact with each new text. Utilizing blocks of time for extended big work, like writing and editing, or silent reading, with provisions for silent transition into other work as a child’s individual concentration shifts, can help stimulate concentration.
Many aspects of the conditions of flow in the classroom are within a teacher’s purview. How we communicate the work and allow for students to articulate it, and how we match specific tasks to a student’s level of performance are choices we make each day while planning lessons. How to structure feedback and goals and rules are part of our annual planning for opening days, starts of new semesters, quarters, or even the day after midterms.
There is an interesting caveat to all this talk of what is possible. Csikszentmihalyi also described conditions under which a person will be unable to achieve flow. Clearly from the examples, a student who is challenged beyond their ability will become anxious, and be unable to perform well at all. A child who is asked to do a task that is too simple for them, will fall into boredom or ennui, and quickly seek activities to become a distraction to himself and others in the classroom. (Being too challenged can mask itself as ennui. Beware the student and parent who assert that disruptive behavior is happening because the child is too smart for the work they have been given. This allegation is often made without either parent or student providing any proof that the work can be completed at an acceptable level!)
Flow can never be achieved, he argues, in a person who is self-conscious, self-centered, or experiencing anomie (a breakdown in the connection with societal values) or alienation. In these cases, a child must be brought back into a sense of community. Only here, where a student feels a sense of belonging to the larger group, can he experience the blend of challenge and success that makes time disappear.
This is a continuation of a previous post. Part I can be viewed here.
During the second quarter of this school year, my teaching partners and I led our students in an intensive exploration of the concepts of racial bias and institutional racism. The impetus for this work emerged from a combination of concerns about what we saw happening in our country at large, and being aware of a microcosm of the same occurring within our school. We opened the dialogue through a series of seminar discussions. A more detailed account of these initial pieces is provided in Part 1 of this post, as linked above.
Throughout the time that we were seminaring on the issue of implicit racial bias, students were also engaging in novel discussions and assignments on After Tupac and D. Foster – a coming of age story about three African-American girls growing up in Queens in the mid-1990s.
Students were making connections between the novel and their own lives, as well as connections to the greater societal issues around them. It was at the end of one particularly provocative and rich discussion, where students had explored the motifs of stereotype, injustice, inequity, judgement, and racism, that Beau and I hit on the idea for our culminating group project.
Our work together in development of this task was a beautiful example of co-teaching at its best. Beau and I bounced ideas back and forth, and then worked through determining how to best structure each piece, so it would be accessible to all learners. (A copy of the complete student work packet is available here.)
We were so delighted with how the project developed through our collaborative work that on the day we introduced the task, we were practically shimmering with excitement. We hoped to convey this glee to our students, but, while a few reflected our enthusiasm, the majority of them looked back at us with expressions that clearly said, “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?!” They recognized the complexity and rigor of the task ahead, and the challenges that inherently arise through group work, and they were understandably apprehensive. Yet, we remained confident that we could support them in being successful with this challenging assignment.
The final two weeks of the quarter were dedicated to working on the project and groups predictably cycled through the various stages that come with any major task – excitement, anxiety, frustration, despair, pride, and relief. It was an intense time.
The project began with a creative representation of theme in the novel. Each group had to craft a theme for the novel based on the motif of racism. They then had to identify four scenes in the text which supported their theme, select a compelling quotation, provide reasoning for how this related to their theme, depict the scene, and construct a storyboard containing all these pieces.
They selected quotes like these:
“Cops always trying to bring a brother down. I’m coming from the park just now, trying to get home. I’m running down the street, and this cop just stopped me talking about ‘where you running from?’ I said, ‘I’m not running from I’m running to. Some days I’m thinking why God gave me these legs to run if it’s gonna mean getting stopped by some cop every time I try to do so.”
“’Brother in a suit is just a brother in a suit,’ he said. ‘His black head still sticking out his neck hole.’”
Students then created illustrations like these to represent the events of the novel.
Students were then required to connect their theme to the concepts explored in our seminar pieces (our supplemental texts): implicit bias in schools, stop and frisk policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, police relations with communities of color, and perceptions of race relations. None of these are easy or simple concepts.
They took the theme they had identified from the novel and expanded it outward to where they saw it represented in the real-world. Once again, they had to find evidence in the form of a direct quotation from one of the supplemental texts, and then develop reasoning to link that quotation to their theme.
The final component of the project was, perhaps, the most emotionally challenging. Students conducted an online search for images which reflected the topics they had discussed through both the novel and the supplemental texts. Many of them were shocked by what they saw.
As one student was searching for photographs, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t use this picture; it’s too upsetting!”
My response was, “I told you that these images might make us uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s important that we feel uncomfortable.”
Finally, each of these components was assembled into a comprehensive display.
As the projects began to be completed, students and teachers alike witnessed the tremendous power in the work.
Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, came to see how things were progressing. Josh has done considerable work on the concept of social justice, so his feedback was particularly valuable to us. He spent nearly an entire bell with us, looking at every group’s work and asking probing questions of our students.
When I spoke with him later that evening, his response was profound. He acknowledged the depth of the exploration. He shared that he wished he had been able to spend the entire quarter working on this unit with us, and he requested that I take photos and video of the project exhibition the following day, so he could share it with others doing this work around the country.
As a teacher, I was deeply touched by this praise, but I knew that it wasn’t me who most needed to hear it.
The following morning we prepared for the gallery walk of the completed projects. The tone in the room was a combination of anxiety and pride. Beau and I explained the structural and behavioral expectations of this task. Among other things, we asked that students remain silent during this activity. I clarified that the reason we set this expectation was to honor both their tremendous amount of effort and to be respectful of the seriousness of the subject matter. I also shared with them what Josh had said – that he was so moved by the work that he had been brought to tears, that he was proud that they had accepted the challenge to tackle this topic, that he found the work of such quality that he wanted to share it with others around the country.
An outside expert’s view of their work carried so much more weight than directions given by the same teachers they hear day after day.
Even with the reinforcement of Josh’s words, I anticipated having to repeatedly enforce the expectation of silence.
Once more the students surprised me. There was no need for any kind of redirection. For nearly an hour, as they viewed each other’s projects, they were silent. There was hardly any sound at all beyond the shuffling of feet as students moved between displays. They carefully examined each project, taking notes as directed. In all honesty, I have never experienced anything quite like it before. The tone was nothing short of reverent. So much so, that at the end of our time, several students expressed disappointment that they had to go to their elective classes, rather than spend more time looking at the projects. Here is a short video clip chronicling the gallery walk.
Later that afternoon, we concluded our project experience with a final seminar discussion. We focused on two primary questions:
How does the issue of racial bias impact us as a nation, as a community, as individuals?
How might we as a nation, as a community, as individuals address this?
The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.
An 8th grade boy optimistically indicated that he believed things were going to get better. As evidence, he proudly specified the work that we had been doing as a class, and Mr. Vogt’s intention to share it with others who were working on the same issues nationally.
One young woman angrily noted, “We can talk about it, and we can do things, but it won’t make any difference because of all the racist people who won’t change. You have to want to change in order to change, and they don’t even care.”
And then we talked about Change Innovation Theory – the idea that change is led by Innovators and Early Adopters, and it develops into a movement that grows such that the wave of the majority will do the work of influencing a resistant minority.
And with that, the bell rang and we ran out of time.
The issues addressed through this project are difficult ones. They are hard realities, but we do our students – of all colors and backgrounds – a disservice if we don’t being these concerns to the forefront and provide our students with ways to explore them.
For my students the conversation has only just begun, and the real work of change has yet to be started, but I am proud to teach Innovators and Early Adopters. They will change the world, and I hope that they will start with our school.
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-reflecton 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 is 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.
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.
“From the day she was born I knew she was special.”
“Let me tell you about my child. He is special.”
This message is repeated again and again as one family after another stands at the podium and speaks.
This is Meet the Seniors Night. It serves as a kind of kick-off to Senior year, and it is one of my favorite school events.
At this ceremony, the families of every senior stand with their student, and share the important details of their journey with their child … so far. It is the opportunity to speak publicly about what makes each child unique and precious, and to have this noted and honored by the school community.
The words spoken by one parent this year, “Don’t forget that you are as magnificent as you are,” are an accurate summation of the messages given by each parent to each child.
It proclaims: “This child is special.”
And, indeed, she is. And, indeed, he is. And, indeed, they all are.
In his opening remarks at this event, Jack says, “Acknowledgement is love, spoken aloud.”
And, indeed, it is, for throughout the evening, as family after family acknowledges their student, the room becomes palpably filled with pure love.
But this event is about more than just acknowledgment. It is the beginning of the process of letting go and moving on. It is a rite of passage ceremony that marks the beginning of Senior year and embarkment on the final steps of the journey toward graduation.
Rachel Kessler, in her book, The Soul of Education (which identifies “The 7 Gateways to the Soul of Adolescents) notes the importance of these rituals.
“The need for initiation deals with rites of passage for the young – guiding adolescents to become more conscious about the irrevocable transition from childhood to adulthood. Adults can give young people tools for dealing with all of life’s transitions and farewells. Meeting this need for initiation often involves ceremonies with parents and faculty that welcome them into the community of adults.”
Erin Wilson, Gamble’s Senior Class Advisor, opens the Meet the Seniors event with this statement, “Rites of passage can take on many forms and are present in many aspects of society, but all mark a person’s transition from one status to another. Rites of passage show what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures.”
Rite of passage rituals date back to earliest recorded history, but were first presented as a critical and universal cultural process by Arnold van Gennup in 1909. Van Gennep identified these celebrations as a structure that serves to ease the difficult transitions from one life phase to another.
Coming of age, or growing up, is hard. It includes both the act of letting go of childhood and that of assuming the weighty mantle of adulthood. Like many processes, this transition is neither linear nor simple. As children progress through adolescence, they move forward and backwards along the continuum of development – sometimes experimenting with ideas, actions, and relationships beyond their years, and then, just as readily, returning to the safety and comfort of childlike behaviors and roles. Gradually, over time, their forays into the world of adulthood become more frequent, and their retreats to the metaphoric nursery occur less and less often, until they disappear entirely.
This is what makes adolescence such a tender time. In the beginning, children stand poised on one side of a great divide, and then, for a time, they stand unsteadily, with one foot balanced precipitously on each side of this chasm. Ultimately, they are ready to step firmly across to the other side, but this doesn’t happen suddenly, or even all at once, and, as a result, we run the risk of failing to note its occurrence at all.
In the modern, Western world, we have few remaining secular rites of passage marking the transition from adolescence to adulthood; however, according to some scholars, including Kessler, human beings have a psychological need to participate in ceremonies that honor and support life’s transitions. Robert Brain even goes so far as to suggest that the absence of these rituals is fundamentally damaging to both individuals and to society as a whole. “Brain asserts that Western societies do not have initiation at puberty; instead of ritual, we have disturbed teenagers and infantile adults. At the age of eighteen, teenagers are ‘magically’ converted into adults”
The work of intentionally creating these critical rites of passage falls on the community of adults who participate in the hard work of guiding children along the path to maturity. Teachers are uniquely positioned to take on this task.
Meet the Seniors Night is one of several rites of passage events that take place during a student’s time at Gamble. Each student’s journey through our secondary Montessori program begins in earnest during the initiation ceremony that takes place at fall camp. This is continued with the ritual of saying good-bye to our middle schoolers and assuring them of their readiness for high school that occurs on the last night of the 8th grade trip to Pigeon Key. By the time our students stand with their parents on Meet the Seniors night at the beginning of senior year, they are nearly transformed from their junior high selves, and this maturation process is complete and finalized when they proudly cross the stage to receive their diplomas at graduation.
Each of these moments is powerful, and for a long time, I believed that they were conducted for the sole benefit of the novitiate. This year, however, for the first time, I fully understood that these experiences are equally impactful for all those who participate in them.
I came to this realization while working with the 8th graders on the final preparations for the 7th grade initiation at fall camp. Each year on the last night of camp, our 8th graders lead a ceremony, that they plan in advance, to welcome the 7th graders to our community. It is a powerful experience that students remember vividly, and although it takes somewhat different forms each year, there are elements that remain consistent from year to year. The ceremony always takes place after dark, and it includes an intentionally developed sense of mystery and apprehensive excitement as the 8th graders assemble separately from the 7th graders who are seated around the campfire. Each seventh grade student is individually invited to process through a line of 8th graders where they are presented with a variety of symbols marking their official initiation into our community.
I had always assumed that the basic function of this ceremony was to help the incoming students feel like a part of the community. This year, however, I understood its purpose differently.
About an hour before the ritual was set to begin, I met with the 8th graders to finalize all the pieces. They are always so excited that it can be challenging to corral their energy and get them to focus. This year, as we were verifying who would fulfill which roles and tasks, I asked who would be escorting the individual 7th graders from their seat at the campfire to the area where the 8th graders would be waiting. Zenyatta, a very quiet and introverted student, blurted out, “That’s me!” I was startled as this was not a role that I expected her to take on. It’s a big job that requires many trips back and forth to the campfire in the dark. I asked who would like to assist Zenyatta with this, as it’s generally a task given to two students. Zenyatta immediately interrupted me by saying, “No. It’s just me. I can do it by myself.” I was a bit perplexed by her insistence, but I had clearly underestimated her investment in this ritual.
As we lined up to process through the campsite, Zenyatta was practically wriggling out of her skin as she squealed, “I am so excited!” Once we got into position by the campfire, she looked at me and asked, “Is it time? Who should I get first?” Back and forth she went, determinedly locating the next 7th grader at the fire and bringing them over to the initiation ceremony. Each trip was punctuated by her breathless question, “Who’s next?” When my response was finally, “That’s it. That’s the last one.” Her face was crestfallen as she said, “Really? That’s it? It’s over, already?”
This ceremony is an initiation ceremony for the newly arrived seventh graders, but it serves as so much more. Clearly, for Zenyatta, designing and implementing the ceremony was important in developing her role as a leader; however it also fulfilled an important purpose for the classroom community as a whole. “An intentional rite of passage experience provides the space for the community to transmit its core values and confer the role responsibilities appropriate to the initiate’s stage of life, thus insuring cultural continuity, a sort of knitting together of the generations.” In designing the ceremony, the eighth graders must reflect on the values and principles of the classroom group, and determine how to best confer these ideas, roles, and responsibilities onto the incoming students.
Some of this has become tradition. For example, in the United Leaders community, students always incorporate the reading of the poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart, which serves as a kind of motto for our classrooms. There are also other traditions such as chanting UL as initiates pass through a corridor of 8th grade students, writing UL on their cheeks in face paint, and distributing certificates bearing each 7th graders name and an observed character strength.
Students also always read statements of welcome, which convey the expectations of the community. While, each year, these are written by different students, the message is remarkably similar – thus ensuring the transmission of core values as noted above.
As evidence, here are excerpts of statements written by different students in different years:
“Welcome new 7th graders. You guys are joining a community of leaders. We help each other, and make sure we make others that join this community feel welcome. You will each get a leadership role and a trait about yourself.”
“You have now joined the United Leaders’ family. United Leaders always work together and never give up on each other. We always welcome new members to the United Leaders. No matter who you are, what you do, or what you like, you will always be welcomed to the United Leaders.”
“Congratulations you are now officially a United Leader. Being a United Leader means that you take on leadership roles only a United Leader can take on. You belong in our community. Some days, you might not feel like you do, but you really do. In United Leaders, we don’t break each other, we build each other.”
“Welcome to the United Leaders’ ceremony where you will become something – and that something is a leader! As a leader, you will be challenged with obstacles you are expected to overcome. That’s where leadership roles of grit, perseverance, optimism, and helpfulness will come into play.”
The ideas of belonging, leadership, and character strengths are noted year after year. In this way, students are building a cultural legacy for themselves.
And this is the secondary function of these rites of passage.
In the final moments of Meet the Seniors Night, after hours of individual acknowledgments by families, a circle is formed, candles are lit from a flame that is passed around the circle, and Jack shares these closing remarks.
“I acknowledge you. I am proud of the work you are doing, the trail you are blazing. I try to honor you every day by working as hard as I know how so that this is a great senior year, and that your legacy remains strong for as long as I am here to honor it. I promise you this one thing. You will never be forgotten by this school. You will leave an indelible mark.”
An indelible mark. Isn’t that what each of us yearns for? To be remembered. To have made a difference. Rites of passage mark a beginning, but they also mark an ending, and it is this that makes them so bittersweet.
If we ignore the opportunity to note the farewell, we may also lose the power of leaving a legacy. The 8th graders establish their junior high legacy at fall camp; the seniors are invited to consider how the legacy of their senior year will represent them for many years to come.
Kessler is correct. We need rites of passage, for, as she notes, these life transitions are irrevocable. Rituals and ceremonies help us to move from one stage to another, causing us to note both the individual and the collective indelible marks that we have made, so we are better able to let go and move on.
As teachers, we are witness to many of the transitions of adolescence. We must honor these with gravitas, and build into our structure opportunities to formally note these changes. Like with so much of the work we do, this won’t be on any test, and it likely won’t be counted on any formal measures of our effectiveness, but it’s this work of the heart that is so important for our students … and for us.
 “Rites of Passage.” Rites of Passage. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
 Prevos, Peter. “The Social Importance of Rites of Passage and Initiations.” Horizon of Reason. Third Hemisphere Publishing, 6 Feb. 2001. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
 “What Is a Rite of Passage? Why Is It Important?” What Is a Rite of Passage? Why Is It Important? — Rite of Passage Journeys. Rite of Passage Journeys, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
This is one of the fundamental questions asked at Gamble before the start of each quarter. The quintessential yellow Post-It doesn’t carry much value – everyone has those. But red, blue, green, and purple are hot commodities, and colors like coral and turquoise practically make you a hero.
So what’s all the fuss about Post-It notes?
Seating charts, of course.
I mention this to my husband, who is also a Cincinnati Public School teacher, and he looks at me like I’ve come unhinged. “So what? Everyone does seating charts.” I asked him, “What criteria do you use to develop your seating chart?” His response was exactly what I had expected, “Behavior.”
Right. Every teacher worth her salt creates a seating chart as part of an effective classroom management strategy. I’m not saying this is an easy task,
but it takes into account only one of many factors we consider when deciding where students will sit in one of our junior high classrooms at Gamble.
Where students sit is the final task in a complex balancing act to ensure diversity in our classrooms. Like all seating charts, it comes with mixed reviews from students. I am reminded of Darnell, who during the very first bell of his new seat assignment asked to speak to me in the hallway.
“Ms. Taylor, I need a different seat.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Well, me and Destiny don’t get along.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on?”
Darnell then began to tell me a classic he-said, she-said story of typical junior high unrest.
As he wrapped up his explanation, he looked at me expectantly. Clearly I would understand the seriousness of his problem and the importance of relocating him immediately.
Unfortunately for Darnell, I don’t think I provided the kind of response he was hoping to elicit.
I acknowledged the social challenges that were at play, provided a few suggestions for how to work with someone that you don’t get along with, and then, like hammering the final nail into a coffin, I said,
“And Darnell, you know, part of leadership is being able to manage yourself in the face of difficulty, and this current challenge will help you continue to grow the leadership skills you’ve begun to develop. Now are you ready to head back into the classroom, so you can begin that work?”
To fully understand this complex process of seat assignments, we have to rewind to a day at the beginning of the previous summer. (#WhatSummerBreak? #TeacherRealities) This day is affectionately known as “Draft Day.”
Each year, Gamble Montessori draws incoming 7th graders from more than thirty different elementary schools across the city of Cincinnati. We have four junior high “communities” in which to place them. A community is comprised of two classroom groups each made up of students in the seventh and eighth grades. Students stay in the same community for their entire junior high experience. “Draft Day” is the day we assign our newly enrolled students to the community in which they will spend the next two (and occasionally three) years.
This is a complex process. The first challenging task is to assemble a spreadsheet, which includes name, gender, race, disability status, and the school the student is coming from. We sort the spreadsheet by school because the first order of business is to ensure that we don’t over-cluster students who already know each other. The transition to a secondary program allows children the opportunity to experience a fresh start; to that end, we attempt to avoid the continuation from elementary school of cliques or of problematic relationships.
Next, the bidding war begins.
Just kidding. It’s actually a very civilized process based predominantly on simple mathematics. Each teaching team brings a breakdown of their current community population. (Remember that we keep students for two years, so approximately 50% of our students return to us each fall.) We look at special education caseloads, racial diversity, and gender balance within each community, and as we place incoming students, we work to maintain equal numbers across all four communities. This meeting takes several hours, but we think it’s really important.
Here’s the thing.
No one seems to want to talk about it, but we know what works to create greater equity in education. It wasn’t Obama’s Race To the Top, or Bush’s No Child Left Behind, or Clinton’s Goals 2000.
What was it?
The busing and magnet programs of the 1970s and 1980s have gotten a bad rap, but they worked. They worked to create racial diversity in schools, and they worked to decrease the academic achievement gap.
“When the National Assessment of Educational Progress began in the early 1970s, there was a 53-point gap in reading scores between black and white 17-year-olds. That chasm narrowed to 20 points by 1988. During that time, every region of the country except the Northeast saw steady gains in school integration. In the South in 1968, 78 percent of black children attended schools with almost exclusively minority students; by 1988, only 24 percent did. In the West during that period, the figure declined from 51 percent to 29 percent. But since 1988, when education policy shifted away from desegregation efforts, the reading test score gap has grown — to 26 points in 2012 — with segregated schooling increasing in every region of the country.”
Gamble is fortunate to have a fairly diverse student body with 68% of students identifying as Black, 23% as white, 6% as multi-racial, and 3% falling into a variety of other categories. We are balanced at about 50% each males and females, and 35.6% of our students have been identified as having a disability. These percentages closely mirror that of the district as a whole, with the notable exception of our percentage of students with disabilities. Cincinnati Public Schools are comprised of 63.2% Black students, 24.6% Caucasian students, and 5.9% Multiracial students, with the remaining 6.3% falling into several other categories. Nineteen percent of students in the district are identified as having a disability.
Cincinnati has a long history of magnet schools (beginning in 1973) in response to the requirement that school districts offer voluntary desegregation strategies alongside mandatory ones such as busing. Sands Montessori School was a part of that initial magnet school movement, and as a result, Cincinnati Public Schools was the first district in the country to offer public Montessori education. Today, every high school in CPS is considered to be a magnet program pulling from a city-wide base of students and offering some type of unique educational strategy or focus.
Obviously, at Gamble Montessori, our educational focus is Montessori instruction. Many people view Montessori philosophy as an educational pedagogy for the elite. However, this idea very likely causes Dr. Montessori to roll over in her grave. After all, she developed her educational method teaching those deemed as uneducable – children from the slums of Rome who were considered to have mental deficiencies. I have no doubt that Maria Montessori would be highly in favor of having her practice implemented in urban, public school districts, and in schools with a high proportion of students identified with a disability.
Montessori’s philosophies of cosmic education and peaceful cooperation are perfectly aligned with a diverse classroom setting. And yet, as a society, we continue to struggle with issues of race, ethnicity, and gender. (Just look at today’s headlines for reassurance that this is at the top of our list of concerns.) So how do we make progress? What can we possibly do to begin working toward resolution on this issue?
The answer seems obvious – as obvious as the desegregation seen in the 1970s and 1980s. We must engage with “the other.” We must “desegregate” at the personal level.
We know this to be true.
“Among school children, greater interracial friendliness has been associated with beneficial outcomes in both achievement and social domains. . . . cross-race friendships among children can improve their academic motivations, their feelings about same vs. cross-race friends, and their social competence.”
But how do we accomplish this?
In 1997, Beverly Tatum published the oft-mentioned text, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria. Right. That. What do we do about that? Should we do anything about that? These are hard questions.
As a means to address this, Teaching Tolerance, a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center, launched its “Mix it Up Day” initiative. Essentially, this is one (or several) days a year where students are asked to intentionally “mix up” their lunch seating arrangements.
“Mix It Up is a Teaching Tolerance program designed to help students identify, question and cross social boundaries. Launched in 2001, Mix It Up recognizes that some of the deepest social divisions in schools are found in the cafeteria. Each fall, Teaching Tolerance sponsors a national Mix It Up at Lunch Day when schools around the country encourage students to move out of their comfort zones and share a meal with peers who are different from them.”
As much as I love the Teaching Tolerance program, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, I find this strategic plan short sighted. Okay, it’s a start, but I worry that in making this day special, unique, and different, we reinforce the very behavior that we hope to discourage. That, in drawing attention on these special days to the importance of sitting with someone at lunch who is “different” from you, we merely point out that this is unusual behavior. By making it “special,” we run the risk of increasing the divide of difference, rather than decreasing it.
So, where does that leave us? Well, it doesn’t leave us in the dark. Once again, we actually know what works. There is plenty of research on this subject.
“If you looked and looked at all of the solutions proposed by scientists over the years to combat prejudice and racism, you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective antidote than intergroup friendship.”
“The best-documented strategy for improving racial and ethnic relations involves the creation of opportunities for positive equal status interaction among people from different groups. These strategies are most effective when they organize cooperative activities so as to ensure that people from different backgrounds can contribute equally to the task involved.”
We must intentionally diversify our classroom seating in the same way that we once desegregated our districts.
Which brings us right back to those colorful Post-It Notes.
At Gamble, students are seated at tables rather than individual desks. This is part Montessori and part project-based learning, but it leads to forced interaction between students, as well as the development of functional collaboration over time.
Essentially, for an entire quarter, a group of four students are seated in close-proximity to one another, complete all group tasks together, and learn to function as a team.
“Cooperative learning groups are not only an effective tool to stimulate academic growth through participation, but they may also be a successful vehicle to help eliminate racism. Through the creation of a team, a micro-society, educators can attempt to break down the superficial barriers that students may see when they are individuals. Group work exposes individual attitudes, ideas, experiences, and beliefs that are used to achieve a common goal through a collective effort. Group work leads to better understanding of the task at hand, the dynamics of team-work, which will be valuable in later stages of life, and opens the lines of communication between group members despite race, sex, age or religion.” 
When our table groups experience challenges, as they surely will, it is up to the group to resolve them together. Problems belong to the whole team. Conversely, if we allow students to move to escape difficulties, we send a message that the other student is the problem and that the best way to handle it is to avoid it, thus missing a powerful opportunity for learning.
Because a community is comprised of two classroom groups, and because we want all members of the community to ultimately get to know each other, and we want students to practice developing teaming relationships with multiple groups, we switch up the classroom groups, and thus the table groups as well, each quarter.
That makes for a lot of Post-It Notes.
We need eight colors– one for each group, as we have defined them, at each grade level: 7th grade Black males, non-Black males, Black females, and non-Black females, and 8th grade Black males, non-Black males, Black females, and Non-Black females. (We have engaged in intense conversations about how to name these groups, and whether we should expand to include separate groupings for Hispanic students, Multi-Racial students, etc. So far, we are overall satisfied with our system, but it is an ever-evolving strategy.) We note students with identified disabilities, and then we begin building our groups.
Like most teachers, we first note which students must be separated for behavioral concerns. Then we place anchors – students who model the behavioral and academic expectations of our program – at every table.
From there we begin developing the table groups, making sure that there is a myriad of Post-It Note colors represented at every table, and that no table is over-weighted with students with disabilities.
Then, we simply count to ensure that our lengthy process has yielded our intended result.
It’s never perfect. Invariably, we have days when student behavior challenges our patience, and we look at each other and exclaim, “How on earth did we ever put those students together?!”
It’s admittedly insufficient as an isolated tool to address race, ethnicity, gender, and ability bias, but it’s a place to begin. Instead of a Mix-It Up Day, let’s make it a Mix-It Up Year. This generation can be better than ours. We need to provide them with every tool we have to eliminate the toxin of our -isms. Carefully constructed seating charts are a place to begin. And, of course, none of this addresses the bigger issue of segregation that continues to plague our public education system as a whole, but that’s a topic for a different post.
But, in the meantime, perhaps we should all buy stock in 3M.
Whether or not you use Post-Its, consider how you will assign seats upon returning from winter break, and how conscientious seating assignments might have impacts that extend far beyond classroom management.
 Theoharis, George. “‘Forced Busing’ Didn’t Fail. Desegregation Is the Best Way to Improve Our Schools.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
 Page-Gould, Elizabeth, and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. “Cross-Race Relationships: An Annotated Bibliography.” N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 “What Is Mix It Up at Lunch Day?” What Is Mix It Up at Lunch Day? | Teaching Tolerance – Diversity, Equity and Justice. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 Mendoza-Denton, Rodolfo. “The Top 10 Strategies for Reducing Prejudice.” Greater Good. N.p., 3 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 Hawley, Willis. “Strategies for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Prejudice: Essential Principles for Program Design.” Strategies for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Prejudice: Essential Principles for Program Design | Teaching Tolerance – Diversity, Equity and Justice. Teaching Tolerance, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 Morgan, Richard. “Eliminating Racism in the Classroom.” Eliminating Racism in the Classroom. EdChange, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.