BulgingButtons

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Student Success Strategy

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to participate in a virtual staff training. Here we were, a staff of mostly white, mostly female educators trying to improve our practice. We worked with a trainer who has spent her career researching and applying methods to bring EVERYONE to the table in terms of education. From early childhood to graduate studies there are obstacles that many of our learners and their families face that take them further and further away from receiving the quality education they deserve.

There was a lot to learn, think about, and digest, but for me there was one nugget that stood out. Here it is: Every Decision Made Must Be For The Benefit Of The Students. It seems both obvious and simple, but when I think about day to day practice in schools (not just my own), there’s plenty of work to be done. Think about it. Every decision. Wow. Let me just throw out a few, some from the workshop, and some from my reflection.

  • curriculum (yes, that’s HUGE)
  • class size
  • class make-up
  • teacher hiring
  • teacher preparation
  • lesson plans
  • assessment
  • discipline plans
  • schedules
  • school assemblies
  • morning announcements
  • visitor policies
  • teacher evaluation process
  • building conditions
  • athletics
  • cafeteria set up
  • instructional team decisions
  • furniture placement
  • performances
  • family communication plans
  • rewards and incentives
  • technology use
  • competitions
  • lighting
  • heating/air conditioning
  • wall/hallway displays
  • playground design
  • supervision of unstructured times

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Within each of those individual bullet points there are dozens of factors to take into consideration, but the most important one must always be the best outcome for the student.

The reality is that we know there are things that could and should be better if only we had bigger budgets. Smaller class sizes, more access to high quality instructional materials and equipment, the ability to bring in experts to share their knowledge and love of their field to spark kids’ interests; all of these would be wonderful. However, we must work with what we have and find ways to make it better.

There are dozens of times a day during teaching when I make decisions on the fly. If the class seems to be drifting off, we switch gears or take a break. If the work turned in is poor, I analyze the weakness in my instruction, and have another go at it taking a different approach. If part of a lesson has taken longer than expected, I modify the assignment to reflect the shorter amount of time for students to work on it. These are things that teachers do all the time, and the more experienced they are the better they get at it. But experience can also bring an attitude of “this way works for me, so I’m going with it.” This is where the Benefit Of The Students can come crashing down.

Here’s what I mean. In my teaching I have always read aloud to my students. I have taught kids from preschool to grade six, and I have read to them all. Over time I’ve found many books that I love, and in my heart I would like everyone else to love them as well, but I know better. My reality as a white woman born in the suburbs more than 50 years ago is quite different from that of ANY child born in the last ten years. Now add in family structure, race, gender identity, home language, disability, living conditions, access to adequate food, housing, and healthcare, economic situation, issues of safety in the home, and more, and you see that my reality and my students’ realities may be worlds apart.

What speaks to me, inspires me, motivates me, and enthralls me may do none of those things for my students. If I were to share some of my old favorites, it would become a lesson in drudgery for many of my kids: just a boring old lady reading a boring old book. That is NOT how you share a love of literature. Thank goodness for Jason Reynolds, Meg Medina, Kwame Alexander, Kate DiCamillo, Varian Johnson, Pam Munoz Ryan, Linda Sue Park, Tedd Arnold, Jason Chin, Dusti Bowling, Erin Entrada Kelly, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, Katherine Applegate, Dan Santat, and so many others for giving voice to the children of today. Of course many old favorites have stood the test of time, too.

A mixture of older and newer titles.

While I’m feeling pretty good about the literature I share with me students, I do sometimes make decisions that I know aren’t necessarily in the best interests of the students. Is every lesson as engaging as it could be? No. Time constraints are a big factor on this one. Planning, executing, and assessing these top tier learning opportunities take a good deal of time and effort. Every teacher I know has limited time, and most of us are knocking ourselves out in the effort department, just trying to keep our heads above water.

Here’s the thing: when you know better you can do better. Can I completely reinvent what I teach and the way I teach it? Not completely, no. But can I make adjustments that benefit kids? Absolutely. After all, doing what’s best for kids is why I became a teacher in the first place.


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Bedtime Stories from Hell

I am a child of immigrant parents. German Jews whose own parents took them away to safety before they had any concept of the danger they were in, just by virtue of their birth. They were brought to America, enrolled in school, taught English, and given high expectations for achievement. After all, they were fortunate, they were spared when so many others were not. They were in the land of opportunity, and by gosh they had better take advantage of those opportunities.

When I was small my mother read me bedtime stories every night. There were lots of normal ones, like like The Little Red Hen and If I Ran the Circus, but there were bizarre German ones too. Struwwelpeter_1First there were the Brothers Grimm. It has been observed many times before how aptly named they were, as their fairy tales involved the darkest side of human nature, and often involved evil and death. And then there were Max und Moritz and Struwwelpeter. Oh. My. God.

These were really the stuff of nightmares. A stubborn boy starved himself to death. A  tailor cut off the thumbs of a boy who sucked them. A girl who played with matches burned to death. Mom?  Did you read these?  Were you aware of how disturbing these stories are? This is what you put me to bed with! Didn’t you like me?

imagesThese are not the stories I shared with my own son. We read The Very Busy Spider and  The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He delighted to Jan Brett’s illustrations and Dr. Seuss’s rhymes. The loving families in Patricia Polacco’s books, and the familiarity of Big Red Barn and Good Night Moon sent him off to sleep in a world that was safe and comfortable.

To this day I have many unjustified fears. I think that perhaps my parents’ choice of bedtime literature fostered some of those. I hope that my son lives in a world where he feels safe and secure. A world where a young child can count on stories ending happily ever after, and nobody will cut off your thumbs.