'The Great U Give': Getting Their Best by Giving Our Best
"That's the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What's the point of having a voice if you're gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn't be?" —Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
We teach children to help them become better people. In the process of becoming better people, it is important that they master the skills that would allow them full participation into society. This journey happens one class period a day. In schools where students are underserved (predominately in districts with a majority of black and brown faces), each class period can be such a challenge that marginal improvement is celebrated and true greatness is rare (but also celebrated). What does equity mean in classrooms like this?
It means tapping into the generosity of teachers to put students in positions to be great. It means being the voice in the ear and hearts of every student, resisting the temptation to conduct a smoothly run mediocre learning experience and giving the best that we have to see the best that they have. The challenges are many, but today's blog will attempt to frame the solutions for you in the format of a story.
In the scenario below, a typical day of instruction for many of our underserved students is dramatized. At different timing breaks within the scenario, a quote by Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give will be inserted to give color and context to the preceding dialogue/events and hopefully provoke further thoughts. I use her book as a frame for the story, because it talks about the minority experience in schools and in conjunction with police brutality. The story is a lesson for us to listen and consider both sides of en event in a way that few books have before it.
After the conclusion of the story, there will be questions for consideration as well as ideas to ponder when teaching or leading instruction in a school or district.
2:11 p.m. - "Intentions always look better on paper than in reality."
We are in Ms. Moore's 9th grade social studies classroom. Some students are completing their warm-ups while others are talking. As Ms. Moore is taking attendance and greeting students, she thinks to herself, "I hope this lesson goes well. I took some extra time to prepare this for them, because evaluating two texts can be hard. It's hard for me and I have a degree!"
Ms. Moore communicates the objective for the day and students orient themselves in their seats for instruction. Lorraine, a struggling student since middle school, cannot find her pencil. "Where's my pencil?" Lorraine shouts, much to the dismay of Ms. Moore. "Here we go again," she says to herself.
2:31 p.m. - "Be roses that grow in concrete."
Lorraine is no stranger to outbursts. Most of them have happened to her, however. Since the 5th grade, she has had seven social studies teachers—four were rated below average, three quit mid-year and nearly all of those teachers had less than three years of experience before meeting Lorraine. The story was not much better for the reading/language arts teachers that taught her during those years. So, with a recent history of ineffective teaching and a low reading and writing skillset, Lorraine still comes to school. She still attempts to bloom despite her environment and history, but is having trouble with the class assignment.
"So, you want us to read both, um, texts and tell which option for the U.S. was better during that war, or something?" Lorraine blares at Ms. Moore. Ms. Moore, after trying to help a group of students whose history is not altogether different than Lorraine's, attempts to answer Lorraine's question with a general answer. Lorraine is still confused.
2: 39 p.m. - "At an early age I learned that people make mistakes, and you have to decide if their mistakes are bigger than your love for them."
"Okay, so I think we are a little off with this task, so let's just, let's just," Ms. Moore pauses; then continues, "Let's just focus on summarizing right now. All I want you to do is just summarize the main points in the article." The temperature and noise in the class begins to die down. Students are working. Ms. Moore goes around to each desk. To an observer, she looks like she is checking for accuracy, but Ms. Moore is really trying to make sure that students are simply writing words. She stops at a desk with a head full of hair covering it. Lorraine's head is down. After trying to wake her several times, Ms. Moore just moves on to the next student, annoyed at Lorraine and marking her down in the gradebook as a result.
2:52 p.m. - "Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right."
The classroom noise picks back up and Ms. Moore gets students to share out their answers. Most of the answers are not summaries, but rather direct copies of parts of each text. Frustrated at the lack of quality responses, but not having others to share, Ms. Moore begins to believe that these students really cannot handle complex texts or tasks. In order to have something resembling complexity, she asks students "just jot down your reaction and feelings about the summaries you wrote." Some students begin writing, other students begin laughing and Lorraine continues sleeping.
3:17 p.m. - "...Fairy tale? No. But I'm not giving up on a better ending."
The bell rings, signaling the end of class. Lorraine wakes up and gathers the paper that she wrote her name and a few scant sentences on. She hands it to Ms. Moore on her way out of class.
"You have to be awake to get a good grade in this class," Ms. Moore says.
Okay, Lorraine nods with her head.
As Ms. Moore stands in her classroom after a tough day of instruction, she looks at the stack of papers from her students. Some answers are written, but most of the answer spaces are left blank. "What do I do, now?" she says to herself as she begins to get ready to plan for day three of a one-day lesson on evaluating two texts. "Maybe they can summarize the second text for the next class. I am not sure they can do the evaluation part, but I do want them to be successful."
What could Ms. Moore have done better as a teacher? Have you experienced days such as this? What should be her next steps?
What about Lorraine? What will help her behavior improve? How will she react if Ms. Moore teaches essentially the same lesson again in the next lesson?
As you reflect on this story, feel free to share it in your professional development meetings. It is important to understand that although Ms. Moore was doing what she felt was her best, the student output was poor. Equity in the classroom is about holding the daily preparation and practice of teachers up to the light of student outcomes and increasing a teacher's capacity to fill in the gaps.
Classroom Instruction Principle
Create well-designed learning experiences that give students multiple opportunities to productively struggle and master content.
Three Actions/Strategies to Implement Today
1. Make sure that 'great' is defined in your classroom through exemplars to every major assignment (and even the daily formative assessments). Additionally, what does good look like (on the way to great)? The exemplars as well as the on-the-way to great examples must be grounded in the standards.
2. Love and master the content that you have to teach. Loving the content is important, because passion for the content is transferable to the students and will motivate them to connect with the material in a more intentional way.
3. Be generous with your patience, praise and push. Learning is a jagged process and students are going to make mistakes. Your patience can be the bridge for them to be successful. Praise their effort and their behavior in relation to the outcome (detail how their effort, persistance and focus has led them to their outcome). Finally, always challenge students to do better than their last assignment. This can come in the form of multiple revisions until they reach a standard, as well as setting several progress goals until they reach the capacity to perform well.
Two Resources for Further Study
Three Ways to Help Any Kid Be More Creative (article) by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman
Redirecting a Lesson with Exemplars (video) by Anne Simpson
One Inspirational Quote/Video
The Boost Students Need to Overcome Obstacles by Anindya Kundu