Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Low Expectations vs. Realistic Expectations

Of the many education quotes and adages I have floating around my head, one that consistently surfaces is George W. Bush's description of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." What does it mean when I have low expectations of a student? I see it sending two messages: (1) You're not smart enough to meet the high expectations that you see me holding other students to. (2) I've given up on you. The "I" in those statements could refer to me specifically, or to the "I" of a school or institution. I am honestly ashamed of some of the things I have let pass as "mastery" of content. It feels bigoted because it feels like I've already made the judgement that I've deemed them so incompetent that I don't think they can perform at a "real" level. It feels condescending because it seems like I'm lying to them to make them feel good about themselves. I feel like I'm no better than someone who writes them off in the first place. Maybe I even feel worse because I tried to earn their trust and then told them I didn't think they were good enough/smart enough/capable enough; the dagger hits closer to the heart.

But in trying to avoid the soft bigotry of low expectations, I keep coming back to two questions: (1) What are high expectations? What does it mean for something to be rigorous? How do I know I'm challenging a kid? (2) What does it actually look like to hold a kid to high expectations? I can give lip service to my expectations all I want, but what does it look like in practice to hold those high expectations?

And those are the easy questions. Like every good adjective, "high" is subjective. I think most people would agree that high expectations for sixth graders are (and should be) completely different from high expectations for 12th graders. Sixth graders are in a different place emotionally, developmentally, and academically. You wouldn't stick a sixth grader in a calculus class and pride yourself on how well you're challenging the kid. I would make the argument that my students are in a different place, at least emotionally and academically, than other 10th and 11th graders in, say, Palo Alto. So what does it mean for me to hold high expectations for my students, given that those expectations will be different from high expectations at Palo Alto high schools? If my expectations are different for kids at my current school than they might be at another school, am I inherently succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations, especially because my students are almost all children of color from low-income families?

Then there's the piece about what happens when you try to hold students to high expectations. Let's say I try to be that tough teacher and hold my kids to agreed-upon standards of high expectations. For example, what if I started teaching my geometry according to IB standards? Kids would fail my class. Maybe that's being pessimistic, but I also feel like it's realistic. I know it's my job as a teacher not only to set high expectations, but to help kids meet them. At some point, though, the kid has to do some work. I don't know enough about scaffolding or adolescent development or motivation or any of that to get students to put in the level of work that's required for them to compete at the same level as those Palo Alto kids. And even if I did know, I don't think I have the energy. If I compare it to sports, I could set a goal for myself of running a marathon in 2 weeks, which is for sure a high expectation. Maybe--maybe--I could even meet that goal if I was motivated enough to spend all of my time training and drop everything else I'm doing with my life. But that's unrealistic. The response to that is, "Set a goal to run a marathon in 6 months--that's reasonable." Great, but I only have a limited amount of time with my students. The marathon they have to compete in is coming in June (or May, if we're talking about state testing, or February if we're talking about the High School Exit Exam), so even if they're completely out of shape, they still have a limited amount of time.

Happy new school year. How do I set expectations for myself that aren't setting me up for failure and/or burnout?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

T-minus one sleep

Seems like this is the right time to blog; tomorrow is my first day with students at a new school.

Things I'm feeling nervous about:

  • I don't understand tomorrow's bell schedule.
  • I somehow ended up with an advisory when I didn't think I was supposed to have one. 
  • WHAT DO I DO WITH SIXTH GRADERS???? They are so small. 
  • When my principal handed me my rosters, there is a student whose name he circled multiple times. 
  • When I left my classroom today, it was still in shambles. Will the guy I'm sharing with clean it up? 
  • I am so far behind on planning. Already. 
  • I don't know if I can make it through an entire day in heels. 
  • The posters I hung up in my room are unevenly spaced and it's going to drive me crazy, but I also re-hung them twice, so I couldn't deal with fixing them. By the time I'm ready to fix them, will I be able to find a ladder again? 
Things I'm feeling less nervous about:

  • Tomorrow's lesson is easy. And it doesn't matter if kids learn anything. 
  • My classes are teeny-tiny. 20 or 24 kids? Five or six groups? That's nothing! I had nine groups in my first geometry class. 
  • The coffee is sitting in the coffee maker and all I have to do is press "brew" in the morning. 
This is by far the least nervous I've ever felt, at least about the teaching part. Here is the thing that calmed me: a teacher nightmare. Almost without fail, before the beginning of the school year or before I'm about to teach a brand new lesson, I have a dream where the first day or new lesson plays out, and of course everything goes wrong. Earlier this summer I had one of those dreams. It was the first day of school, and in typical nightmare fashion dream-me had somehow screwed up my schedule and had forgotten that I had a first period algebra class. And there were visitors from some important organization observing our classes. Luckily, one of my new colleagues (who is a first year teacher!) took over for me. But still, not the way to start your first day.

But here's why I'm feeling better: in the dream, I took that time when my colleague was covering my class and started planning for my afternoon geometry classes that I realized I had to teach. And even though planning 10 minutes before a class starts is never ideal, in the dream I knew I had tons of resources to pull from. I knew exactly what documents to pull up, what copies I needed to make, what general run-down I could use to make sense of the lesson plan. The dream was definitely a nightmare, but it wasn't unbearable.

Tomorrow I know (think?) that I don't have a first period algebra class, I am planned for my geometry classes, and even though a researcher really is coming to watch my 5th period, I am not nervous about her presence. Does this mean I'm reaching a new stage in my teaching? In so many ways I still feel as green as ever.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Diversity Matters

It's too obvious of a statement to say that my new job is different from my old one. Of course it is--I'm in a new role, a new city, a new type of school and district, a new set of educational priorities, and a whole host of other things. I switched jobs precisely because I wanted something different. But there's a difference that I keep noticing that I didn't really think about when searching for a new job or when I accepted the position: there are so many more people of color in my new workplace.

I noticed it at our first math department meeting: out of the five teachers, only one was white. I noticed a similar ratio of white people sitting around that table at a district level team meeting today. At a district-wide leadership institute two weeks ago, the presenters were all black women and the among the participants, teacher leaders and administrators, the people of color far out numbered the white people. And there's diversity in the people of color. There are black people, Latinos, and Asians of various ethnic origin. There are people who are non-native English speakers, people born and raised in the city, and immigrants to the U.S. As I've been sitting in meetings and trainings, at least once a day I look around and realize just how many brown people I'm surrounded by. 

And it feels amazing. 

I don't know exactly how to explain why it feels so good to be around so many other people of color. My last school wasn't completely lacking people of color, but there was a very white feeling to the environment. Again, I don't know exactly how to explain it. But something feels really powerful now to be around people who look like me, especially when those people are leaders and administrators. Maybe it's the role modeling of "they did it, so can I." Maybe it's a numbers game that reduces stereotype threat. Maybe it's the physical representation of the district's acceptance of multiple points of view. Maybe it's the fact that my students are much more likely to have a teacher who they can relate to on a racial, ethnic, or cultural level. Or maybe it's that sometimes I need a space where I'm around other people who I don't have to convince that race plays an instrumental role in shaping our daily lives. 

Interestingly, although no one has mentioned race or diversity (in the context of the work environment), I already feel supported as a person of color in my new workplace, something I definitely would not have said at my last job. I wonder what's making that happen, and if the presence of other people of color is enough on its own. That presence definitely makes it easier, but I have trouble believing that's the whole story, in part because I believe that there are ways that a demographically all-white work environment could still be supportive of me as a person of color. I need to think more until I can come up with a more definitive statement of what's going on, but in the meantime I'll leave it at this: I love my new job. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

Southwest Road Trip

Better late than never.

Seeing as how it's taken me over a month to get this uploaded, you'll just have to click on the slideshow and individual pictures to see the captions/explanations.

Still, here are some highlights. To keep it brief, I summarized the trip in haiku.

Long drive to Laughlin
Casino is depressing
Won some major bank

Happy birthday, me
Route 66: dry, kitschy
Grand Canyon is vast

Bright Angel Trail
Into the canyon--easy.
Uphill--almost died

Monument Valley
Disenfranchised Indians
trying to make do

The Four Corners--check!
Beautiful White Eagle Inn
Shower, bed, no tent

Mesa Verde cliffs
Ancestral Puebloans--is
their correct naming

Arches! Hoodoos! Fins!
Coolest hike. Follow the cairns.
Morgan! Get down here!

Roadside 'merica
Stopped for beer and weird statue

Zion in a day
Like Yosemite, until
Hiking in water

Drive, drive, skip Vegas
Did we really do all that?
Yolo e'ryday