A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Same starting place, different outcomes



Rick Wormeli recently held an workshop at my school entitled, "Fair is not always equal," for which Dr. P came to my door after I had not responded to an email from Ms. Hendrix, his secretary, and personally invited me to attend, to my great surprise. School leaders have begun rolling out a new no zero grade book policy, as the grade book becomes increasingly transparent, with the parent portal set to open in September, and the necessity of communicating how students are doing goes real time.

My dad is convinced that Dr. P is an authentic leader, who would understand the Just Third Way if I presented it to him, and would see how it would enable students to feel invested in their own education. Dad frequently reminds me, as he did the other day, how Dr. P was willing to take a chance on me, despite a somewhat checkered past, largely because I tend to view education differently that many of my colleagues, having become an educator relatively late in life, and because of my unique background, which enables me to relate to students who want to lift themselves up. Being included by Dr. P in the Wormeli workshop sort of confirmed that I am there because I am a little different, and that my unlimited retake policy is aligned with best practices, though out of the mainstream.

The reason I hesitate to share big ideas such as the UAP Party Platform to my colleagues and to my administrators, to my father's disappointment, is that, frankly, I have always felt extremely vulnerable as an educator. For one, I am still learning my craft, and my work through lunch with students, work everyday after school with students, including Fridays is viewed by my colleagues as a sign of weakness. For two, I work with certain students who could be considered "career killers," students who have been unsuccessful in an academic setting for their entire life, who in 6th grade cannot read, write, or do math at grade level, and out of utter frustration, seem to have decided to do everything that they can to take everyone around them down with the full weight of their negative gravity as a sport, both students and teachers alike, as comedian thugs-in-training, as tyrannically ignorant members of "the Special Ed Mafia."

For students like George, a 6th grader who wears a plus, plus, plus-sized black tee shirt with skulls and the word "Sinister" on it, who has a habit of shaking down normal sized students for their lunch money and their snacks, who has never learned to modulate his voice in class, who finds it hilarious to sit in the teacher's chair and not get up when asked to do so, or put his finger in the teacher's face, who disrupts lunch bunch sessions and after school study sessions alike, learned helplessness, i.e., being "stuck on the escalator" has become a running joke on teachers. George knows that teachers are fully invested in his academic success, but he is not and he and his fellow members have made a game of it, so the other day when George asked where the materials for the lesson were, when he knew they were were materials for the lesson always are located, I refused to play his little game. Instead, I began walking George towards the room of Ms. Jay, the 6th grade disciplinarian, where I ran into Dr. P and Mrs. England and asked, "Do you remember, 'Stuck on an escalator?' Dr. P acknowledged that he did.

I replied, "This one is stuck on the escalator" and preceded to explain how George was acting as if he did not know what to do, when we have a routine and everybody knows the routine. Mrs. England made a polite suggestion to George and me, I smiled, and George and I returned to class. I went to the table and handed George his materials, and returned to the lesson on identifying and classifying quadrilaterals, whereupon he promptly threw the materials on the floor, explaining, "Oh, I already have that."

It's that time of year and we were recently asked to make our Student of the Year selections, In the hall, I was asked by my Instructional Coach how I was doing, and in reflecting, I was able to find great joy and pride in the growth of certain students who have accepted my unlimited retake policy, but frustration about those I have been unable to sway, Patty, for example, and her brother Tarsus, both started the year in self-contained classes, but their outcomes could not be more different.

Patty, who had been retained sometime when she was in elementary school, has failed almost every quiz she has taken on the first try. Despite her frustration, Patty throughout the year kept coming back to make corrections, one question at a time, and her work spaces show evidence that she is starting to get it,

Tarsus, on the other hand, started the year probably a little ahead of his older sister, but Tarsus has allowed other students to call him "Training Wheels," seems to have accepted the identity of somebody who wears a stupid grin, is always joking around and rarely asks questions, and never makes corrections,

Patty, unlike her brother, decided that conditions in a self-contained class, where she was surrounded by a bunch of numskulls, was unacceptable to her. Patty asked to be moved into Mr. Lee's class at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, and despite my concerns, the move was made. On Thursday, we did a lesson on Circle Graphs, which provides a culminating activity that shows understanding of fraction, decimal, percent relationships, or what Wormeli would say demonstrates "proficiency, not mastery." Patty's work with Circle Graphs was a clear demonstration of proficiency. On his Quarter 3 District Test, Tarsus did not even write on a workspace, which demonstrates a total lack of respect for the process. I explained to Patty why she was my choice to become my Student of the Year, and in my explanation compared what she had accomplished to what her brother has done, i.e., essentially nothing all year. Patty asked me to call her father and explain to him what I had just told her. As I had throughout the year, I called Patty's dad and once again we had one of those heart to heart conversations and both commiserated.

In a funny way, Wormeli explained that current grading policies are ineffective at best, and at worst, morally bankrupt. I reflected that students like George are byproducts of a defective, developmentally inappropriate system which enabled him to progress into the 6th grade math, despite a lack of proficiency with 3rd grade concepts, despite an inability to make socially appropriate contributions to a classroom community.  Wormeli explained the moral imperative that justifies standards based grading, and the paradigm shift that needs to follow, with urgency, because the loss rate of potentially contributing members of society is unacceptable, and too many students are checking out instead of digging in.

After I formally wrote up George for spraying Windex in his friend's face upon entering my classroom, Ms. Jay expressed her concerns with me in the hall that I was using words like "infuriated," and in the process was "giving all the power" to students like George whenever I showed frustration. She also cited the three year burn out syndrome and asked whether I needed a day off to to cool off. I was reminded to keep it light.