I never left the classroom.
Four years ago, I made the most pivotal and sacrificial choice in my professional life: I accepted a position in the professional development department as an instructional coach thus relinquishing my physical classroom and its customary roster of 200 high school students.
As I placed each well-loved classroom library book into boxes, the individual students’ stories whose lives touched those pages sung to me. I sat down on the hand-me-down futon sandwiched in between dusty and barren shelves and sobbed.
But, I never left the classroom.
Since that day in 2010, I’ve carried my classroom with me into numerous contexts and four very different positions. First, I took my classroom with me into the role of an instructional coach where I sought to be a servant-leader. Then, with unexpected twist of fate, my classroom followed me into an intermediate dyslexia services position where I had time and space to consider where I might lead next. And, once again my classroom accompanied me cheerily back to the high school I loved, where I resumed the role of a servant-leader, expanding the influence and role of the library media center.
Now, to an outsider, it might seem that I’ve removed myself from the classroom even further by becoming that dangerous “A” word…a district administrator. I’ve crossed the line; I am an “other” a “them” in a see of teacher “us-es,” who solemnly shake their heads at those who’ve “left the classroom,” opting for cubicle space and cabinet meetings over the chaos and connectivity of campus life.
I never. left. the classroom.
And, I will never leave education.
I’m seeing more and more educators throw up their hands in despair and frustration at the system. Resigning their own and their students’ futures to the current condition of public education, some of the best and brightest are saying enough is enough and truly leaving their classrooms and generations of students behind, turning to reinvention in order to maintain their sense of purpose and identity. Nothing saddens me more than the exodus of teacher-artists.
In her blog, “Dear Teachers of 2014-2015: Welcome to the World of Art,” my friend and mentor Jennifer Isgitt calls for a new manifesto for teachers in this current sad state of the profession.
Every other day, it seems, I read another account, another memoir of a gifted teacher who just can’t handle the bureaucracy, the administration, the politics, the poor pay, the lack of recognition in education. Every year another teacher throws up her hands or writes his broken-hearted resignation letter for the national media.
In August before the new school year even really took root, Jennifer wrote about the pain educators are experiencing. It was in her blog that I saw myself there in black text as part of the problem–at least the traditional role and the role of my new set of colleagues and office partners. Her blog led me to a book that helped me re-define a vision for my (somewhat reluctantly) adopted role–that of a district administrator.
As a new curriculum coordinator, I resisted the title administrator for all of those same reasons that Jennifer included the word in her list of barriers that I don’t need to list here. With all of my reluctance to accept the heavy label, I clearly remember when my close friend and fellow coordinator finally said to me, “Audrey, you are an administrator.” I decided then and there to actively seek and create a definition of what that word could mean in a system that is crying for reinvention.
Jennifer’s blog planted the seeds of artistry. In her call to educators to “teach like an artist,” I heard a voice within me call, “lead like an artist.”
I’m slowly reading and processing Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, thinking critically about the evolution of our society away from industrialization–in which our current educational model and those policy makers who dictate static and dying conventions and conditions for educators and learners are deeply embedded –and grappling with the role of public education in the connected society where artistry is the only real commodity.
Growing up, I never saw myself as an artist or a leader–not in the traditional sense of either words. I had no particular talents, ambition, or desire to be followed. In fact, sometimes the two roles seemed opposite from one another; I had no model for what it could mean to be both–none that I could immediately see at least.
In the connected society, however, one must be an artist in order to lead and vice versa.
Godin revealed to me that I am already an artist. Since boxing up my classroom four years ago, I’ve continually redefined and reinvented my comfort zone, finding comfort in the risk-taking behaviors that make it safe for me to move forward. I’ve adopted the stance of an artist, “creating ideas that spread and connecting the disconnected” no matter the job title or bulleted list of responsibilities and roles.
I’ve adopted a new definition of an artist:
…Someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo…[taking] it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those who we seek to connect with) personally.
I’ve decided to be courageous:
Courage doesn’t always involve physical heroism in the face of death…sometimes courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say…Courage is necessary because owning our point of view brings risk. When you speak your truth, you have opened a door, allowing others to speak to you, directly to you, to your true self.
I’ve found a new definition of an educational leader that I am not afraid to own:
Leadership puts the leader on the line. No manual, no rule book, no uberleader to point the finger at when things go wrong…Leaders are vulnerable, not controlling, and they are taking us to a new place, not to he place of cheap, fast, compliant safety.
And, I’ve recognized my greatest asset is my ability to connect and to form connections between people.
In my new role as a leader-artist, I practice these things everyday: artistry, courage, and connection.
It’s through the stance of an artist that I’ve found comfort in the unknown. I don’t know what I want to be when I “grow up.” I imagine that there are many more roles and official titles that I might try on that haven’t even been invented yet, thanks to a rapidly evolving educational and economical landscape.
Regardless of how I might lead in the future, I will always be in the classroom. Educators are my tribe; education is my only true alliance.
I drafted the following list while participating in North Star of Texas Writing Project‘s Inquiry Day in April. It was a powerful day full of affirmations, inquiry, and open sharing among attendees. Meenoo Rami (#engchat), author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)invigorate Your Teaching opened the day by sharing her own journey as a teacher leader and change agent. Today, I needed to be reminded of just these things. I came across my notes from that day along with this draft for a blog post. Students may be heading out for summer, but for many of us, we’re in the middle of the next great “now what?” as we prepare for next year’s students and teachers to return to the freshly waxed and polished halls of our schools.
How to be an agent of change when the context you’re working within doesn’t have room for change:
1) Be open to change yourself and intentional about seeking experiences that inspire it.
2) Surround yourself with colleagues, mentors, and thinkers who share your same questions but who also have a host of their own questions to share.
3) Do not close your door. Resist the temptation when met with challenges and dissonance to simply shut your door and do your job. Find a new door to open in a network open to innovation.
4) Be vulnerable. Know that what you have to gain will often be greater than what you stand to lose. What do you stand to lose? Your pride, position, sense of control? Those are all fluid and flexible anyway–cling to them too fiercely and they’ll slip through your fingers.
5) Purposefully lose control. Cast your dice into the wind. Let the chips fall where they may. When we relinquish control, we find new avenues of influence.
6) Be subversive. If the system does not allow you to innovate, use your creativity to wield the system to innovation– sometimes without it knowing it. And, if you really need to, abandon the system. When the results are powerful, share your success.
7) To avoid debilitating frustration, seek the patterns within the system that do work. Working within them, reach for one pattern you wish to influence next.
8) Find your happy place and the people who fill it. Hold it and them near and dear.
9) Cry, scream, storm, and rant when you need to (and return to #1 to try again).
10) Sometimes, it’s true what they say– it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Today, I’m adding an additional nugget of Rami’s wise words, “Give yourself permission to do the Work you know to do with students [ and teachers].”
It’s Friday, which means I should be dishing up popcorn for patrons, talking book recommendations to students, and working on my Battle of the Books display and plans for poetry month in April. I should be compiling the social justice web-quest for my English I classes and collaborating with their teachers to talk about scaffolding students’ information literacies through inquiry. I should be checking in on the class that is in the library using our online resources to explore careers. But, I’m not.
Instead, I’m using an entire roll of purple butcher paper (valued at $175) to cover every. single. stack and shelf. in the library, because Monday is the first day of STAAR testing.
It’s not the extra task added to my already brimming plate that’s ruffled my feathers; I can manage my time and make things work. And I will get back to all of those things and more once the transformation is complete.
It’s the principle of the thing.
Why must every book cover and title, poster and sign be covered in preparation for testing in the library? For two reasons:
Reason 1. Students will be writing essays on the tests next week and might get an idea or thought from glancing around the library, and upon seeing a book that they read in the 8th grade, suddenly have inspiration for an example to use in their writing. This would not be fair or a true test of their writing abilities.
“Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.” Sydney Shelton
Reason 2. A student in one Texas school may have generative material on the walls that a student in another Texas school or classroom does not have. This is an unfair advantage on the test, where students are expected to write uniformly and predictably to achieve pre-set numerical scores that will accurately then rank their writing ability as “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” and “advanced.” There is no room for “creative,” “inspirational,” “unique,” “authentic,” and “relevant.”
“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.” Doris Lessing
The test is a refined instrument that we rely upon as a democratic society to ensure that all students are receiving equitable and comparable education in the free, public system. Apparently, our democratic society feels that thinking for oneself is not a desirable trait in its citizens, nor is the ability to be “immune from indoctrination.”
It’s not just in my library that this is happening today. Classrooms and testing centers all across Texas have sterilized their walls and spaces in preparation for the April testing season. It’s not my campus or institution that sets the context for this irony. We comply, as all others must, in the name of public education, bending a knee to allow the state the measure our students and our work, only to jump back to our feet when the day is over and return to the real work at hand, that of facilitating learning.
Now, I must return to today’s work at hand. Mr. Shakespeare, Maestro Beethoven, and Emperor Napoleon must be tucked into their respectful nooks for the coming days lest some student writer get the wrong idea for his writing.
Find love, for love in a broken world will comfort you. Hold on to hope; it will sustain you. Have faith, for in the end it will save you.
Finally, it’s starting to feel like spring in Texas complete with thunderstorms, 80 degree afternoons, and plenty of sunshine. In addition to pesky spring allergies, however, spring brings with it another pest–standardized testing.
Many of us gear up these final few weeks between Spring Break and “the Test” with test-taking strategies and test plans for our students. “Real” instruction halts…for weeks…with what benefit to our students? One friend posted last night on Facebook that she was sick from the fact that her 3rd grader was experiencing testing anxiety at home over a practice STAAR test. (Sigh).
Many studies have shown that traditional “test prep” leading up to the day of the actual test is actually detrimental to student performance as authentic, engaging, relevant literacy experiences are set aside to practice crossing out multiple-choice options, filling margins with notes, and learning how to use a highlighter “just the right way.” Student anxiety rises, which leads to lower performance. We’ve created a very unhappy, Pavlovian drooling dog. Rather than conditioning students through engaging, rewarding, personal, and powerful literacy experiences to build their confidence and solidify their identities as readers and writers, we’re delivering electro-shock therapy every time they go to read or write in order to get ready for the test.
Thank goodness for teachers who see that the greatest marker of students success is not a snapshot of a quantitative score in a completely unauthentic setting, but rather the greatest marker of success is seeing each student develop and grow in his or her own reading and writing identity. And when the latter is accomplished, the former follows.
One practice that is often first on the chopping block this time of year is independent reading or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading). As you may have already figured out, I am an independent reading champion–especially in the secondary grades. I often hear comments from teachers and administrators such as, “We don’t have time to let students ‘just read.’ We have to prepare them for the test!”
Well, we know from countless studies, teacher and student experience, and good ole’ common sense, that when students “just read” a book of their choice for the sheer joy of reading, they are actually:
1) building reading fluency and stamina
2) developing vocabulary skills and being exposed to thousands of new vocabulary words for their lexicon
3) developing their identity and confidence as a reader
4) becoming better writers
6) practicing close reading (and even analysis!) with texts that are on their appropriate reading level
7) building background knowledge
….the list goes on and on….what I see in this list are the exact goals that I have for my students in the days leading up to the test.
What does it look like in practice?
Rebecca is a first-year English I teacher, who has discovered that a thriving independent reading experience is at the heart of her students’ literacy experience in her classroom. She held fast to her practice, even daring to up the number of minutes spent a week reading books of their choice in her classroom rather than bringing in practice test items drilling test-taking strategies.
When she asked me for ideas for her students to respond to their books and celebrate their reading experiences the Friday before Spring Break, I introduced her to a response strategy from Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Know-How called “lift a line.” In the back of my mind, I knew that Rebecca had been working with her students on creating thoughtful open-ended responses to texts, and I wanted to build upon those skills while providing them an opportunity to celebrate as a community of readers .
After 10 years of experience working with teachers and students on the TAKS short answer question and now the STAAR open-ended response item, I understand that the #1 obstacle students face in scoring higher is the thoughtfulness of their response. Many of them are taught (drilled) the structure of the response through any number of mnemonic devices and acronyms. While many hours are spent in class memorizing these strategies, not much time (if any) is spent on building text-based response skills, which these testing items are designed to measure.
Here’s the difference.
Let’s look at this formula to start:
1+ 3 = 7
Is this a formula? Yes. It has all of the parts of a formula, right? Numbers, computation symbols, solution, etc.
But what’s missing? Reasoning…this formula is not rational. I would argue that this student understands the basic parts of a formula, but the student is missing the mathematical skills to use the formula efficiently to demonstrate his understanding of basic arithmetic.
We do not teach young mathematicians to add and subtract by drilling in their minds the parts of the formula and writing a correct formula FIRST. We teach them mathematical concepts by having them experience and manipulate concrete situations involving these concepts.
That’s what happens when students are taught to respond to a text by working through a formula or rigid strategy, rather than developing authentic responses to the text first, then crafting an effective written expression of their response.
The ability to form text-based inferences is not a strategy; it is a habit of mind. Therefore, it takes lots of modeling, scaffolding, practice, and extensions with increasingly more and more complicated texts.
Buckner’s “Lift a Line” allows students to practice beginning with a line from a text that speaks to them for whatever reason and then responding to it in their own way.
At the end of the independent reading time, Rebecca invited her students to choose a line from their books that stands out at them for any reason at all. Write the line at the top of the page and then spend 5-7 minutes writing about their thoughts, questions, connections, wonderings, confusions, etc. Anything that comes to mind.
Modeling this step when first introducing this strategy is paramount so that students see and hear how you as a reader respond in different ways to things that you read.
After writing in their notebooks about their line, Rebecca invited students to think about what they wrote and then illustrate the line on a piece of paper so that we can see some of their thoughts visually on a page.
By beginning with students’ reflective responses as readers, Rebecca scaffolded their reading experience to move them to a deeper level of interpretation. In order to respond to the line and then illustrate it, students had to think analytically to draw new meaning.
What did this accomplish for students in the weeks before they take their STAAR test?
1) students celebrated their reading experiences as a community, which builds their identity and confidence as readers
2) students drafted, revised, and published a creative, thoughtful response to a text
3) response skills were reiterated and extended in an authentic setting
4) they had a positive literacy experience where they were engaged and HAVING FUN!
This was a success in Rebecca’s mind because she had been carefully scaffolding and integrating powerful reading and writing practices in her classroom all year, not just in the days leading up to the test.
From here, students have a terrific foundation build on authentic response to create a full-fledged open-ended response-style paragraph complete with their own inference for a topic sentence that they formed from their line (textual support) and a conclusion or connection they drew. Niiiiiiiice!
Still not feeling ready to “drink the cool-aid” so-to-speak when it comes to independent reading?
You might visit my series on independent reading in high school. Leave me your thoughts, questions, and experiences!