Embracing Discomfort

I created a beautiful, color-coded, curriculum map. I planned out all 26 weeks of the school year by topic. I even went through each week and added the standards we would meet. I made detailed lesson plans for the first week of school. I outlined our daily activities from the first day of school until the end of the second quarter (August 21st – January 12th). I did all of this because I will be attending graduate school and wanted to be able to enter my classroom fully prepared so all I had to worry about was teaching and adjusting as the schedule and student needs changed.

Last week, I had to scrap everything and start over.

When I first visited the school, I received several rubrics outlining the way certain subjects are taught, how classrooms are set up, and how staff interact with students. Even though I had this information, my plan was still to make the rubric fit what I already had in mind for teaching middle school.

I’ve been (im)patiently waiting to start my new job since April. Before then, I was (im)patiently waiting to get a teaching job because I felt called back into the classroom. This last year has been a test in letting life unfold to get to the place I wanted to be. It’s been difficult, but I kept hoping and telling myself, “this, too, shall pass” until it passed.

An additional way I got through this time was planning. It filled me with a lot of hope to imagine what I was going to teach. I figured it would also be a future timesaver. I created bell ringers and grammar exercises. I spent hours developing assignments, selecting vocabulary words, and creating a class website.

I like to think I embrace change really well. I got a sense of superiority when I read Disrupting Thinking because a lot of the book’s arguments support my reading teaching philosophy. Then I got to the chapter about teaching a whole class novel. A whole month of my 26-week plan to morph 8th graders into lifelong readers was to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a class. I had already downloaded chapters from YouTube for students at a lower reading level so they could listen instead of read the chapters independently. Beers and Probst had the audacity to challenge my plans! They advised teachers should not teach whole class novels, and if they do, it should not be for longer than a week.

So I planned to read one novel in a week and then have my class to literature circles. There! I adapted.

Last week was my first day of work. After a training on the school’s approach to literacy and speaking with the other ELA teacher, I realized my ideas were not going to work. My rigid goals to focus on certain genres and concepts did not align with the literacy initiative at the school. I was grumpy. I wanted to place an emphasis on digital and visual literacy, and there is no time to do this.

I’ve been working on reframing my thinking. Is it beneficial to focus on utilizing technology if kids can’t even read at grade level? Even if I did spend all of this time planning, is that time worth more than what works best for my students?

I did some more reading. Probst and Beers had planted a seed that maybe I don’t know it all. I just finished The Book Whisperer and the author makes many excellent points about giving students choice and emphasized that the best way to improve reading is to give students time to read. I’m currently reading Attachment-Based Teaching and it’s forcing me out of my comfort zone for establishing classroom routines. The author encourages teachers to relinquish a lot power and decision-making to students.

Everything I will end up doing in my classroom aligns with my desire to be a critical pedagogue. I didn’t have all of the tools I needed to implement a more student-centered approach to learning. Yeah, I’ve heard about differentiation, but I was never really taught how to do it effectively. All-in-all, I’ve learned I might have some control issues and I’m more resistant to change than I thought. I also recognize I need to accept the unanticipated challenges I will face because they are unavoidable. All I can do is roll with it and do what is best for my kids – not what is easiest for me.

Changing My Approach

I haven’t posted anything on this blog in over three years.

The idea for this blog came to me during my first year of grad school in 2013. My plan was to re-enter the middle or high school English/Language Arts (ELA) classroom once I graduated in 2014. I felt a lot of the issues which forced me out of teaching in the first place were still a problem – the teaching profession wasn’t respected, education was legislated by individuals with no idea what works best for children, and the pay was terrible. I wanted to create a space where people could see what real teachers went through to create understanding.

I did not get a teaching job when I graduated and it was 100% my fault. I dragged my feet getting my license. I dragged my feet getting letters of recommendation. I dragged my feet looking and applying for jobs. Suddenly it was August and school was starting.

How can I write about teaching when I’m not a teacher? What can I possibly add to the conversation when I have no credibility? And why would people even want to read what I have to say anyway? Do I even remember how to write? People are going to notice all of my misplaced commas and incorrect tenses and think I’m an idiot.

I knew I needed to start writing again because I have a lot of things I need to write about for me. I shifted my thinking about this blog. I realized I do not need to write for an audience and try to convince them to feel a certain way about education. I learned it doesn’t matter what other people think, and their critical thoughts are usually a reflection of themselves anyway. I need to write this blog to explore my own struggles as I enter my own middle school ELA classroom for the first time in six years while earning my doctorate.

I need to write about how the current political climate is affecting me as an individual and how I’m going to bring that into the classroom. I need to write about the drastic change in my worldview after three years of working at a non-profit for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness, and human trafficking. I need to write about the devastation I felt when one of my former students died. I need to do all of these things for me. And I already have this platform so I’m going to use it.

So, if you want to read my largely unedited thoughts as I work to figure things out for myself – thanks. I hope in my narratives you can find something you identify with. And if this sort of navel gazing/soul searching isn’t your jam, that’s cool too. I’ll still be here writing for me.

Grade Grubbing – Or Why I Won’t Change Your Grade

At the beginning of the school year, I tell students their grades are a reflection of their performance. As a teacher, when it comes to grades I am simply a scorekeeper who tracks the quality of their work through points. Wherever the points fall at the end of the semester is their grade. I remind students it is not a matter of how much I like them, I simply enter the calculated grade. This does not mean throughout the semester students can’t appeal an assignment grade they find unfair. If a student completes an assignment and truly feels there was a mistake in my grading, I am more than happy to look at it again. However, it is unacceptable to receive a request for a higher grade at the end of the semester. 

This was my last semester teaching Oral Communication at a state university, and I received two requests to change grades. When I responded to one student explaining I would not change her/his grade, s/he responded again to make a claim for an increased score. I’m not sure why students feel they are entitled to request a higher grade. Although a student feels s/he deserves a grade, it definitely does not mean s/he earned it. Taking preventative measures can lead to a decrease in these requests.

Dr. Ryan McGeough created a document he includes in his syllabus to decrease “grade grubbing” at the end of the semester. With his permission, I am sharing it with you to adjust as you see fit to handle “grade grubbers” in the future.

Professionalism Inside & Outside of the Classroom, and Why “Grade-Grubbing” is a Very Bad Thing to Do
Dr. Ryan McGeough

Despite the fact that I think this information should not have to be included in my syllabi, previous experience indicates that it does, thus I apologize to those of you who do not regularly engage in the end of the semester rituals of “grade-grubbing.” I am unsure where you as students got the notion that grades are a “starting point” as though you are purchasing a car or something, for it is both highly unprofessional and unacceptable to negotiate grades with your professors. After submitting final grades at the end of the semester, I am typically inundated with emails regarding grades, and wanting them changed to reflect what you “think” they should be, and not what they actually are. This practice of “grade-grubbing” is unfortunately increasing across college campuses nationwide, and I am astonished to have students questioning both my fairness and my ethics regarding their grades, and I find this completely unacceptable. This may be part of the student culture at LSU or in other academic institutions that you have been enrolled in, but I will not participate in it. Please do not contact me with the expectation of me changing your grades. I do not negotiate grades. I spend a great deal of time grading student work, and find it extremely disrespectful when students question my fairness, ethics, and accuracy. Essentially, what you are doing when asking to have a grade changed, is for me to be unfair—if I granted this request to someone other than you, you would be outraged, but if I granted your request, you would most likely see it as fair. To me, it is entirely unfair to treat one student differently (better or worse) than any other student.

And, here is something for you to think about…consider how this “grade-grubbing” appears to your professors, whom you may later need to write you a letter of reference or recommendation for a job, internship, or graduate school. What image do you want to leave with your professors? I know that I have students from 6 and 7 years ago still contacting me for recommendations, and for those that have “grade grubbed” I am hesitant to recommend to a potential employer or graduate school, for I know of the limited range of their professional behavior. Thus, I typically refuse to write letters of recommendation for grade grubbing students, despite their requests. In sum, consider carefully how your actions may impact your present and future, as well as your overall professional image. I apologize to those of you who do not engage in regular “grade-grubbing” rituals to even have to read this, but I feel this information is necessary for all students to stop the unprofessional practices of grade negotiations, which can only harm your careers here at LSU, as well as your future careers.

On Building Community in the Classroom

To me, the first job I have when I start a new school year or new semester is to make a comfortable learning environment for my students. There are a variety of approaches for establishing a classroom culture, and all of them start with the teacher on the first few minutes in the classroom. When I started my student teaching orientation, one of my mentor teachers explained they had done studies and students established their opinion of you within seconds. From my mentor teachers’ standpoint, this was your chance to establish you were in control. Control, in this sense, meant having a set of rules which you enforced to manage an orderly classroom.
This is one approach, and I definitely tried it. I was able to be “fair, firm, and then friendly” for the first few weeks of school. But, this just doesn’t match my personality. In order to have a harmonious classroom where I was happy, I found I needed to establish an environment where students felt safe. As you may know, when students feel this safe, they often break the rules you set initially and this undermines those standards you carefully crafted and enforced at the beginning of the semester.

I know this approach isn’t for everyone, but to me, community in the classroom is more important than content. Content is easier to deliver when students respect you and genuinely like you. Students are also more willing to trust you when you try a crazy activity and humor you when you want to do something new.

I’ve used many tactics to create a safe learning environment. Below, I explain three of them. I talk about how I implement it and how it has created opportunities for students to get to know each other.

1) Respect Circle
I had a particularly difficult section of seventh graders my first year teaching. When I started the school year, there was a pre-existing social order. Several students disliked each other over events from elementary school. Their troubled relationships got worse when they bullied each other over social media and then confronted each other in school the next day.

During the first week of school, I tried different activities to help students get to know each other. This was great for me because through these activities I learned a lot about my students. However, these kids were already incredibly familiar with one another. They just didn’t get along. Community building wasn’t going to emerge with games where they had to self disclose. I was talking to my principal about the class, and she said, “You might just have to push those tables back and sit in a circle and talk to each other.” When she said this, my first thought was, “But I have so much material to get through!”

One day while I was teaching, I was exasperated. Students were talking over each other. I could not get anyone to focus. It was probably a Friday. I stopped what I was doing and told them to help me move the desks and to sit in a circle. I grabbed my wooden frog and sat among them. On the fly, I said, “Okay. We’re going to talk about what is going on in class. If you have the frog, you are allowed to talk. You may not talk unless you have the frog. You cannot interrupt each other. Who would like to start?”

Something changed during that conversation. Old issues were brought up. In this circle, we were all equal. They told me things I was doing that they wanted me to change. I changed those things. They confronted each other and settled arguments. Several of them cried. It was cathartic. After this initial conversation, things were much better. Did I still have issues with this class? Absolutely. But now I had a strategy to get them talking constructively.

2) Counting Game

You know those corny team building activities they make you do at retreats? I really hate them at first. I don’t know why, but I hate being told that I have to get to know someone. I’m guessing my students feel the same way. However, the reason you are forced to do human knots over and over is because it builds community. When you have a shared task and are forced to work together, you come away knowing that person. Together, you overcame a challenge.

The counting game is like that. It is a theater game I learned from Dr. Karen Mitchell. You break students into groups of three. Your first instruction to them is to count from one through four. Each student says a number and they keep counting until you stop them. At this point, you explain the number one should be replaced with a sound and a movement. (One of my favorites was a birdcall accompanied by flapping arms). As the number changes from student to student, they will all have an opportunity to do the sound and movement. After giving students time to do this, have them assign a sound and movement to number two. Rinse and repeat until students are no longer counting, but are instead doing a series of sounds and movements.

I then tell students to practice because they will be presenting their sounds/movements to the class. After a few minutes, each group comes to the front of the room. We laugh together. A lot. This combination of laughter and finishing a task is one tool to creating belonging in the classroom.

3) Sculpting Activity

This is another theater game, and it can be adapted for many content areas. For me it is really important to have opportunities to learn through the body. I love this sculpting activity because it is versatile. I use it to teach stereotypes, but it could be changed for any concept or can just be a warm-up to introduce something new. You will need a lot of room. Below are the instructions as I used them from on a lesson plan by Dr. Danielle Dick McGeough.

Have students find a partner. Have them decide who is Partner A and who is Partner B. Clear plenty of space in the classroom. Have the class form two circles, an inside circle and an outside circle. The inside of the circle should be Partner A facing the outer circle composed of Partner B. Partner A is “the clay.” Partner B is the “sculptor or the artist.”

Explain that this is an activity done WITHOUT talking. You will give the class a prompt (i.e. sculpt me an image of happiness) and the sculptor will sculpt the body of the clay into a still image. There are two ways to sculpt. The sculptor can physically move the clays body or can demonstrate to the clay the image s/he wants the clay to hold. I always show the class an example. Do a practice round. (i.e. sculpt an image of how you feel about having to give a speech in front of others).

After students have formed images, have Partner B (the sculptors) tour the art gallery—having students move around the circle counterclockwise. Ask the sculptors to notice similarities/differences between the images. Are the images looking up? Down? What is their posture like? Do they look powerful? Happy? Ask the clay to pay attention to what it feels like to hold the image. Where are there tensions? Was the image easy or difficult to hold? Did it feel powerful? Why or why not?

Let students play both the role of the sculptor and the clay. Some example images to sculpt: jock, cheerleader, thug, homeless person, politician, hipster, nerd, etc.

From this activity, students have said some really astute things about the way they evaluated people based on stereotypes. This is another chance to laugh together.

Will all of these activities work for everyone? No. In classrooms with too many students and not enough room, these may not be viable options. However, these are a few things you can try to help your students feel more at home with you as their teacher.

Oh, Yeah – I’m the Adult

When I was a child, I believed at some point in my twenties I would become a grown-up. Being a grown-up meant knowing right from wrong and what to do in every situation. It meant being able to tell people what to do and always being correct. From my perspective, adults always knew how to act at all times and when I was the right age, I would, too.

As you all know, this is not the case. I’ll be twenty-eight in February and am still waiting for adulthood to kick in. This isn’t necessarily a problem for most people. It takes time to mature and become a person who makes wise and thought-out decisions; I’m not sure if we ever grow out of making mistakes.

The fact I don’t consider myself to be a “true” adult is important when I manage a classroom. I took classes on student psychology and classroom management. We did activities in college where we role-played student/teacher interactions. However, these experiences did not come close to preparing me to handle the insane situations which arose when I started student teaching.

I was twenty-two when I did my student teaching. I taught at an incredible school with a diverse student population. I had an amazing cooperating teacher who let me make mistakes and gently corrected them without making me feel like a failure. Most of them were small. For example, on the first day I introduced myself as, “Miss Nicole” instead of “Ms. Goebel.” The biggest mistake that stands out, and the first where I thought to myself, “This is my responsibility and I don’t know what to do,” came during group debates.

I taught ninth grade English and my goal was to connect the literature we were reading to current events. We read a portion of “The Circuit” by Francisco Jimenez and one group decided to debate immigration in the United States. The story clearly portrayed the struggles of this family and through research students were supposed to connect this narrative to immigration’s societal impact. One side was arguing for stronger border security and the other for comprehensive reform that let more individuals into the United States.

Students had several days to work in the library. My teacher’s intuition wasn’t fully developed, but I had a sneaking suspicion something was going on with the border security group. I would hear loud laughing coming from the group and I would go over to check on them. By the time I got there, it appeared they were working on researching and writing their arguments for the debate. I know today I should have pushed them and read their scripts.

The day of the debate came. My cooperating teacher was sitting at his desk behind the group and I was sitting among the students. A Latino student, Alexis (name changed), who was frequently absent showed up that day and sat down next to me. I don’t remember exactly how the flow of the debate went, but I clearly remember when Ricky (name changed) began his presentation.

Ricky began reading from his paper a series of stereotypical statements about Latino and Hispanic people. I don’t remember the context, but I can still hear him clearly enunciating, “enchiladas, tacos, and burritos.” At first, the other students in the class were horrified, but as he kept going they started to laugh. I still don’t know if they were laughing because he was making such a fool of himself or because they thought he was being funny.

I could feel my face heating up with anger. I looked over at Alexis and he was vibrating with rage. I had no idea what to do. Thoughts raced in my mind. Do I stop the speech? Do I let him keep going? What do I do when he’s finished? Should I stop the whole debate? I have to make him apologize. How do I explain to the whole class why what he did wasn’t funny? Should I let my cooperating teacher handle this or should I do something?

During his speech, I was frozen. When he was done, the only thing I could think to say was, “Ricky, after the debate I need to talk to you.”

When the debate was over, I pulled Ricky aside in front of the room. I asked him if he knew why I was talking to him. He stated he thought so. I explained the comments he made were offensive and racist. I told him he needed to apologize to the class for the statements he made. When I was finished talking to him, he half-heartedly said to the class, “Hey, guys. I’m sorry,” and sat down.

The apology was not as heartfelt as I expected, but I didn’t know how to proceed. I talked the situation over with my cooperating teacher and the day went on.

Later that afternoon, my cooperating teacher and I were called in to talk to the Vice Principal. He told me that during lunch, Alexis told several of his friends about what Ricky said during the debate. His friends were angry and a group formed around Ricky to beat him up. Alexis told them not to hurt him, and the group dispersed. The Vice Principal stated he spoke to both Ricky and Alexis and advised that we talk to Alexis about the situation.

I let my cooperating teacher talk to Alexis because I felt so much shame about the situation. I should have made better decisions during the process in class to prevent it from happening at all.

There is no easy solution when a crisis occurs in the classroom. You can’t rely on the fact that you will automatically know what to do. Sometimes you won’t. The only thing you can do is learn from it and never make the same mistake again.

Be Passionate, Share the Classroom, and Never Stop Learning

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” –Bill Nye the Science Guy

In a perfect world, I will be teaching Communication Studies courses at the college-level once I complete my PhD in 4.5 years. After 6 years of undergrad, I just finished my first semester of my MA to step closer to achieving that goal. One of the courses I took, Critical Pedagogy (taught by Dr. Karen Mitchell), asked us to be reflexive in how we share the classroom with our students and how we can best create a space for making visible issues of diversity, privilege, and oppression. My favorite assignment in this class was one where we were asked to write our Teaching Philosophy Statement. After struggling to get my ideas on paper, I realized that this document will never be finished. It will never be perfect because the ways I view the classroom will be shaped by the learning (my students’ and my own; in and out of the classroom) that takes place on a daily basis. Finally, I tried to capture my philosophy on teaching developed as of November 2013 through themes including “Be Passionate, Share the Classroom, and Never Stop Learning.”

Teachers that have most influenced me are contagiously passionate about the material they are teaching. In high school, I hated math. I tend to not have much patience for skills that do not come naturally to me, and statistics was no exception. However, Mrs. Miller loved it. She was good at it, and she enjoyed teaching it. While this didn’t make me like statistics, watching her explain something that she was passionate about gave me a reason to care. This influence resurfaced over and over again in college. The most notable instance of this was with Anna Schony. It would be so wrong of me to not mention how much she influenced my life path. After struggling to find purpose in my collegiate education, I enrolled in her Public Speaking and Interpersonal Communication courses during the same semester. She giggled as she went through the syllabi, and maintained a beautiful balance between being personal and professional during her classes and office hours. The content she taught was relevant and applicable, yet academic. This was the semester that helped me realize that I wanted to teach Communication Studies at the college level.

A few weeks ago, my classmates and I were asked to discuss our teaching philosophies. The passion that radiated from our uniquely constructed documents was unavoidably contagious. It was so special to learn how all 7 of us took a different approach to the assignment, but shared similar objectives. However, the conversation ended up taking a turn that I did not see coming: What happens when students and class activities don’t aid in achieving your course objectives? How do you save face and maintain a safe environment when a student disrespects you and/or their classmates? When do you give up on an activity that doesn’t seem to be working? Is it actually not working, or will it resonate with students after they’ve had time to sit with the material? Won’t it be scary to ask my students for feedback on what is going well and what could be improved in my classes? Will that undermine or add to my credibility as a professional? The answer to all of this seems to be “You’ll figure it out along the way.” There isn’t a handbook that outlines every single problem that could go wrong in your classroom and how to fix it. Through dialogue in my Critical Pedagogy course, I have become more comfortable with the idea of “trusting the process” (which is actually a miracle – there is no doubt that I am Type A).

Even though I have been a student for over 20 years, it’s true that I have no idea what I’m truly getting myself into. It’s also true that I will never stop being a student, and I will not be alone in my professional and academic endeavors. Academia has been, and I believe that it will continue to be, a dynamic place for collaboration and sharing ideas. Dialogue is imperative to broadening our understanding of the world around us, developing new ideas, and perfecting our methods. Most of all, it is important to engage in this dialogue with both our colleagues and our students. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up having a conversation with one of your students that meaningfully influences their life path.

What’s the Deal with Performance Pay?

by Nicole M. G. Brennan

Economics and organizational studies have found employees perform better in organizations rewarding performance pay.[1] The notion is workers will try harder in their profession because they will get a financial reward. After the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), education reformers discussed implementing performance pay in the K-12 school system. Congress also introduced the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) which offers school districts money to use performance pay measures. If performance pay works in the private sector, why not try it in schools? Well, there are a lot of reasons and I’ll give you a few.

First, schools are not businesses. I’ve heard countless times on radio and television that if only schools were run like a business, we’d see more student success. Let me give you an analogy. Let’s say I run a bakery. When I make my blueberry muffins, I choose the ingredients I’m going to use. I’ll select eggs, flour, and blueberries from local producers. After mixing my ingredients, I’ll put them into an oven that makes them the perfect golden brown. If during the process I notice the berries are moldy or the flour has bugs in it, I can throw the batch out and start over. If my oven breaks down, I’m in charge of getting it repaired or replacing it. As a teacher, I can’t throw out a class of students if they’re not high achieving or have behavioral problems. If the facility I’m working in is faulty, I can’t make swift repairs. Although it is a simplistic analogy, the fact remains schools cannot be run like a business because we don’t have agency over the product. If the schools I’ve worked in are any example, we also don’t have the resources at our disposal to ensure student needs are met before learning can take place.

Second, performance pay isn’t linked to good teaching. In the previously cited article, the authors found in higher education, performance pay increased the amount of time instructors spent researching, but not the success of their students or teaching practices. Additionally, incentives tied to performance have been linked to “teachers focusing excessively on a single test,” changing answers on tests, helping students cheat, and making low-performing students stay home when the test is administered.[2] In my research, I was unable to find any long-term study conducted in the United States (and in a peer reviewed journal) indicating increased student achievement as a result of performance incentives. Those conducted internationally found either modest positive effects or no change at all.[3]

Third, performance pay removes the egalitarian salary structure in K-12 education. K-12 teachers in public schools are paid based on a salary schedule which takes years of experience and education level into account. For each year of experience, teachers move up the pay scale. (Unless there is a pay freeze) As teachers continue their education, they can move over and are compensated. Here’s a brief example:

Years Teaching

B.S.

B.S. + 15 credits

MA

MA + 15 credits

1

28,000

30,000

32,000

34,000

 

This method places educators on an equal playing field. A district cannot discriminate against an educator for their race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. as they could prior to the implementation of the salary schedule.[4] If performance pay is implemented, teachers in areas assessed by standardized tests are at an advantage. Instead of an equal playing field, educators in valuable but untested subjects (art, music, physical education) are not rewarded at all – even if they are outstanding educators.

It’s a scary time to be a teacher. It’s easy to scapegoat us for failing schools and to portray our unions as greedy and problematic. If the people who teach were motivated by money, they wouldn’t be teaching. Performance pay is another example of trying to cure a symptom instead of the larger disease: an outdated and underfunded public school system. Do you want innovation in the classroom? Give teachers the feeling of safety and protection to use new learning tools instead of threatening us with decreased funding and firings.


[1] Eric R. Schulz and Denise Marie Tanguay. “Merit Pay in a Public Higher Education Institution: Questions of Impact and Attitudes”, Public Personnel Management 35, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 71-88.

[2] Michael Podgursky and Matthew G. Springer, “Credentials Versus Performance: Review of the Teacher Performance Pay Research”, Peabody Journal of Education 82, no. 4 (2007): 551-73.

[3] Matthew G. Springer and Catherine D. Gardner, “Teacher Pay for Performance: Context, Status, and Direction”, Kappan 91, no. 8 (May 2010): 8-15.

[4] Julie E. Koppich “Teacher Unions and New Forms of Teacher Compensation”, Kappan 91, no. 8 (May 2010): 22-26.