Classroom Alchemy

“Hey, how was Philadelphia?” asked Darius*, as I checked his work (“Sketch a parabola in which b=0”).

“Pittsburgh,” I said, pleased and taken aback. It was Wednesday, first day back after our 4-day Veterans Day weekend. Sometime on the previous Thursday, I’d mentioned casually I was going back east for my uncle’s 70th birthday. Six days later, Darius remembered my plans.

“The family reunion, right?”

“Yeah. How nice of you to remember. I had a wonderful time.”

I moved back to the front, checking for universal understanding of the impact that b=0 had on the position of a parabola, and then told everyone to sketch a parabola in which c=0.

“Did a lot of people show up?” Darius asked across the room.

“They did! Over 90 people. All my uncles and aunts on my dad’s side, and several of their cousins. Eleven of my fourteen surviving cousins on that side. At least 9 of the next generation–my son’s. And even some tiny members of the generation after that—the great-great-grandchildren of my dad’s parents.”

“Wow. Did you know them all?”

“Some of them I’d never met before, because they hadn’t been born the last time I’d visited. Others I’ve known all my life, like some cousins, and my aunt and uncles. We even had someone from my grandfather’s generation. Aunt Ruth–my dad’s aunt–who is 94, looks fantastic, and just came back from a trip to Paris.”

“Was the food good?” from Harres.

“Outstanding. It was simple, nothing dramatic. They put the food on different tables throughout the room.”

“Oh, I don’t like that,” Darius again. “I always want everything, and can’t decide which table.”

“There was a table with two big haunches of meat. One roast beef, one ham, with really good bread rolls. I had no trouble deciding which table.”

After we finished up c=0 and they were figuring out the significance of a parabola with just one zero/solution, Darius waited again until I was checking on his work.

“Did you talk to people there?”

“Me? Oh, yes. Non-stop talking. There were so many people I hadn’t seen in years, and then others I wanted to get to know. I wish I’d had more time. I need to go back more often. If I wait as long again, I’ll be older than my uncle is now.”

“I went to a family reunion one time.”

“You did? How was it?”

“No one talked to me. I was like this.” and Darius humorously mimed standing all alone, silent, looking about for something to do.

So that’s why he remembered.

“Darius, I can tell you for certain that no one at my family reunion was sitting all by himself. I’m sorry. That probably wasn’t fun.”

“Yeah. It was weird. I didn’t know anyone there, and they were all talking to each other.”

“That would totally suck. I’m sorry. We’d have asked all about you.”

As they worked out the next task, I had a brief moment of introspection. Darius, who’s a cool cat in every sense, is far less likely to be the one sitting alone at a party than, say, me, a cranky introvert who has to brave up for crowds so she can exercise her natural garrulousness. I know that my uncles, or my dad, would have probably joked about a teenaged African American appearing at the party. Some or all of them, egged on by siblings and downstream kin, would one up each other with ribald wordplay and puns about where and who had done what when to add color to the family tree. But they’d have sought him out, gotten him some food, grilled him on his life story, likes and dislikes, found out his plans after high school. Looked for links and common interests, bring in others to get conversation going. But would I have done everything to reach out? Or would I have been too busy enjoying not being the one sitting alone?

As the bell rang, I was actually showing Darius and others some family pictures from the night, which sounds impossibly boring, but they seemed genuinely interested in seeing evidence of my stories.

“I’m really sorry you felt isolated at your own family reunion, Darius.”

“Yeah. It’s always the same. I’m like the whitest person when I’m with my black relatives, and the darkest person when I’m with my white relatives.”

“Well, you’d have been the darkest person at my family reunion, for sure. I don’t think our bloodline moves east of Aberdeen. Maybe London. We’re pretty thoroughly white folks. But even though you felt isolated because of your race, some of it could just be family dynamics. My family’s big, boisterous. Really loud.”

“Everyone here was loud. They just were loud to everyone else but me.”

Kameron* punched his arm lightly. “I hear ya.” At Darius’s look, he elaborated. “I’m half black. My mom’s white.”

“Oh, then you know.”

“Does your black family ask if you’re ‘all-black’?”

“You get that too? Isn’t that idiotic? Like they’re measuring?”

“Well, gee, I guess at least the white side of the family didn’t ask if you were ‘all-white’.” I pointed out, and they cracked up.

“There’s a lot of research and profiles on biracial kids, did you know?”

“Really?” Both Kameron and Darius looked interested.

“Yes, that feeling you both have of not being one nor the other, of being slightly separate, is not uncommon. It’s also not unique to kids with one black and one white parent. Biracial Asians have similar feelings, whether their other parent is black, white, or Hispanic.”

“Huh. Really.”

“Sure. There are some good books that you can read about other teens with the same background. You should check them out. In any case, I promise you, Darius, that you wouldn’t have been all by yourself at our family reunion.”

“So the next one you have, invite me!”

“It’s a deal. Have a good day, guys.”

Such exchanges are classroom alchemy, a magical transformation of mundane, random elements into golden moments. They spring from elixirs of personalities, events, spontaneous conversations, the incidental inspired nudge. They are occasionally unrelated to content knowledge and always irrelevant to test scores. They will never be found in MOOCs, nor in classrooms obsessed with tight transitions. They are criterion deficient; ed schools can, to a limited extent, prepare teachers for such moments only with open-ended assignments that are probably opinion-based.

I don’t confuse alchemy with the meat and potatoes of teaching. Darius and Kameron are both doing very well, improving their competency and fluency in quadratics, modeling real-life situations with algorithms and, importantly, taking on intellectual challenges that don’t immediately hold interest.

But teachers are responsible for more than content, whether we are aware of it or not. We are the first adults students interact with, the first engagement students have with the outside world. Independent of content, we can give students a feeling of competency, of capability, or of frustration and helplessness. We can communicate values both indirectly and directly. We can teach them that work is a serious business, or we can teach them that work can be fun and entertaining—or both. We teach them how to interact with a wide range of personalities, how to ask for help, how to give help. It doesn’t matter if a teacher is determined to convey nothing but content. Simply by the nature of our job, we create an environment that has its own entirely unmeasured learning outcomes.

I am a teacher who focuses primarily on conveying content, as all observers have noted over the years. Yet for a teacher who doesn’t see her job in terms of its emotional impact, I have my fair share of classroom alchemy, the moments of knowing my classroom has been a positive force in the universe, whether for one student, a group, or a class of thirty five.

I never plan these moments. As the great Terry Pratchett noted (with props to Neil Gaiman), you can’t second guess ineffability. It’s just going to come along on its own terms.

*Darius and Kameron both confirmed this exchange as written.


Higher Standards and Santino

A couple years ago, an administrative vice principal (AVP) walked into my classroom and asked, “I’m checking up on previously ELL students who were reclassified English proficient (RFEPed) to be sure they are getting enough support. What can you tell me about Santino?”

“Santino? He’s doing well. He’s gotten either a high F or a solid D on every test so far, which is a big step up for him.”

“Really. I guess we have different notions of what ‘doing well’ is.” She raised her eyebrow, refrained from sneering, made a check on her clipboard form, and walked back out before I could respond, which was probably a good thing.

Santino, a junior in my geometry class, was passing all of his classes at that time. He had finished his sophomore year with a sub-2.0 GPA, still higher than his freshman year. Ultimately, that AVP would determine that Santino’s upward progression was evidence of a valid reclassification. She didn’t walk back into my classroom and apologize for her nasty bit of snark, though.

Santino had a shock of black hair, big black glasses, and a rail-thin physique, which he clothed daily in black tees, skinny black jeans, and a light black hoodie. Think Hispanic Emo without the makeup. He almost never smiled in school. He didn’t amble but stalked silently through the halls, eyes always on the ground, occasionally with an equally silent and dark-garbed friend. His English was surprisingly fluent, considering his qualification for the Migrant Education Program and two parents who spoke no English, and his rarely used voice unexpectedly mellifluous.

As a sophomore, he sat silently through almost the entire first semester of my algebra class, doing nothing. He didn’t goof around. He just sat. He turned in empty tests. I’d called his home a couple times and tried to get him to work in class to no avail. Finally, I made contact. I vividly remember our first nearly wordless exchange.

In an early November test, Santino was just sitting there again, blank test in front of him. I stopped at his desk and picked up his pencil. Problem: Alycia made five times as many pumpkin pies as apple pies. If she made 24 pies, how many apple pies did she make?

I drew five circles, marked each one with a “P”, then handed him the pencil. He reread the problem and drew one circle, labeling it with an “A”. I waited. He thought. Drew another five “P” circles. Then another “A”. I smiled, and walked away. When I came back, the entire problem space was filled with circles, and the words “4 apple pies” was scrawled down in the corner.

“So let’s try this next one.” Problem: Julio was at the beach, and noticed that the ratio of seagulls to blackbirds was 3:2. If he counted 30 birds, how many blackbirds were there?

I drew 3 Ss and handed him the pencil. He drew 2 Bs, then three more Ss. “There you go.”

For the first time, Santino turned in a non-blank test. He got all three ratio problems correct, with pictures and “guess and check”. Everything else was still blank.

For this particular ratio unit, I had taught students both the algorithm and the visual method I’d just used with Santino. I’d taught it not once, but several times. I’d given the students a number of different techniques to help conceptualize a ratio, concepts that they’d already been taught extensively their previous year, either in Algebra or pre-Algebra. I had already dramatically simplified and slowed instruction for the class.

Yet Santino’s response to my intervention demonstrated that I still had students for whom the gap between the content I was teaching and the support they needed proved much larger than I’d imagined.

And so, over Christmas break, I winnowed algebra down to the fundamentals, designing an “algebra lite” curriculum for these students. Through trial and error, I settled on a method: start the day with something they could do instantly, without needing explanation. Introduce new material twenty minutes into class with simple practice problems—and I mean simple. Take my initial notion of simple, cut the difficulty in half, and then again. Then take just half the problems I’d planned on and I’d be in the ballpark. They’d work on those problems the rest of the class. The next day, they’d start with a basic—again, really REALLY basic—problem in the new material, and move forward on that. Although this method meant more work (remember, I was still teaching the usual course in the same class), it gave my weakest students a chance to progress. Most of them responded eagerly, grateful for work they knew how to do.

Santino’s math skills didn’t improve dramatically, but his engagement inched up several notches. He worked in class, and his tests (easier ones for this group) were no longer blank. He was noticeably stronger at word problems, and best of all at word ratios, that first type we’d worked on together.

As a sophomore, he took the required California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in March of that year. I assigned my strongest freshmen to coach a sophomore for eight class days, using a tutorial I’d designed to help both freshman and sophomore understand how the test was constructed . For Santino, I chose Carl, a shy, sweet, white kid who wore his NERD teeshirt once a week. I told Carl that any score above 330 (passing was 350) would make Satino feel ready for a rematch, instead of hopeless. Carl understood, and as I wandered the room during that prep fortnight, I would often hear him reminding Santino to “estimate and eliminate”. Santino was always hunched over his practice questions, thinking hard, not sitting passively; he even ventured a question now and again to the far less threatening Carl.

Just over half of my algebra sophomores passed the CAHSEE, which is as much as I could ask for. Santino, who passed the English section with a 356, stunned me with a 348. The day the scores came out, we had the longest conversation of our two year acquaintance.

“I didn’t pass.”

“You got a 348! That is AMAZING! One question from passing! I am so proud of you!”

“I almost did it. I think I will do better next time, because I didn’t know geometry. I need to study again in November. I will pass it then.”

“You make sure to come back and see me in November and I’ll give you the practice material.”


Santino passed my “algebra lite” curriculum and I changed his first semester grade to reflect his new work. His junior year, he was assigned to my geometry class. Come November, even before I’d prompted him, he came up and said, “I will be taking the CAHSEE.”

“I know. Do you want a few days in class to practice?”

He worked independently and diligently. While he didn’t go so far as to ask me questions with, say, his voice, he had questions circled and would look up mutely when I stopped at his desk. I’d coach him on best methods for elimination; he’d nod and get back to work. He came to class the day of the test, a little less inscrutable than usual, just a bit anxious. When the announcement calling students to the testing room came over the speaker, I said, “Go get ‘em” and the class all cheered him and the others on.

He passed with a 356. His seatmates and I harassed him to look happy, until he finally turned the ends of his mouth up, reluctantly. But he did look pleased.

In geometry, Santino would still sit silently in front of a blank sheet if he was stuck, but he never turned in an empty test again. He’d peek up through his shock of hair as I walked by, and point to a problem when I stopped. Most importantly, he was passing the same course as the other students—passing with a D, but passing.

So you can see, perhaps, why I didn’t particularly appreciate the AVP’s snark. Santino was, indeed, “doing well”.

He did well enough in right triangle trigonometry, of all things, that I gave him either a D+ or C- for the second semester. Since he’d passed pre-algebra in summer school his freshman year, Santino had, at the end of junior year, the necessary three years of math to meet his graduation requirements. He was as quiet as ever. Despite our two years’ acquaintance, he never initiated a greeting when we passed by in the yard, although he would, if I waved, give me a “chin jut of recognition”, as Sheldon Cooper would call it.

I left the school that year, but often wondered if Santino would be able to “make the walk”. Would his credit gap force him to an alternative high school for senior year, or some online academy? He didn’t have the grades for the voc-ed program, so that wouldn’t be an option. I have beer or coffee with my ex-colleagues frequently, and would often nag them for any status about Santino. None of them could find his name in the system, but I kept hoping they’d just missed something.

One Tuesday in early August, I ran into another student from Santino’s school, and wished him luck in college. “Did you see my name in the paper? They had the whole graduating class!”

I went home and googled the Mercury News list of graduating seniors for the school. Santino’s name was on the list. He’d walked with his class.

A growing body of research suggests that non-cognitive factors—persistence, effort, motivation—are important in adult outcomes. Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University analyzed the impact of teachers on both test scores and non-cognitive skills (as assessed by attendance, graduation rates, and so on). He found that “many teachers who are among the best at improving test scores may be among the worst at improving non-cognitive skills”. Moreover, “teacher effects on the non-cognitive factor explain significant variability in their effects on these longer-run outcomes that are not captured by their test score effects”.

In practice, valuing “non-cognitive skills” almost always means lowering academic standards. Many students struggle with advanced content but have no ability to choose easier courses, thanks to our well-meaning but misguided education policies. If teachers hold all our students to a strict reading of the course requirements, students who either don’t want to or can’t understand the rigorous material will fail. Obviously, reasonable standards would eliminate the need for that choice. Schools might provide a menu of classes of varying difficulty, allow students to choose course material they are capable of and interested in learning, rather than set a ferociously high bar and then make some teachers choose between failing most of their students or not covering the material with a rigor appropriate for the strongest kids. But in today’s world, fail or pass a student who can’t really do the work is our only choice.

On the other hand, Rishawn Biddle argues that teachers like me are the problem: “Behind all this gatekeeping is the view among many traditionalists that there are some kids who just aren’t capable of high-level work”, and that students of color are given a terrible foundation due to terrible teachers and weak curriculum.

Biddle’s assertions aren’t borne out by any reality I’ve ever seen. In Santino’s case, he had a solid grasp of math facts but struggled tremendously with abstractions. He attended the same K-8 schools that many of my strongest students, both Hispanic and white, attended. But while I’m no traditionalist, it’s certainly true that I thought Santino was incapable or uninterested, at that point in his life, of deep understanding of algebra and geometry. So I modified both his work and my expectations to give him passing grades. I would do it again. In fact, I have done it again.

While the education philanthropists like Whitney Tilson hold that “kids will live up – or live down – to whatever expectations are set for them”, reality plays out very differently. Many kids simply don’t try. Many kids try but simply can’t do the work. And quite a few kids fall somewhere in between. Fail the kids like Santino, and they either drop out, or settle for a GED, or go to some credit-recovery room, separate from their peers. Pass the kids like Santino, and they get to feel normal, even in an environment designed to make them feel inadequate. The Whitney Tilsons believe that failing a kid simply makes him work harder at an achievable task. But what if they’re wrong, as the majority of teachers who work with low ability, low incentive kids would argue? The data shows that, given the same level of academic achievement, kids are better off graduating than dropping out, or even getting a GED.

So, the question: Do you teach the course or teach the kids? Many math teachers hold that higher standards are essential, that the only way to ensure that our classes accurately reflect their descriptions is to fail those students who don’t perform with the expected rigor. I understand that argument but ultimately, I agree with a colleague who said once, “Look. If half your class is failing, blame the person you see in the mirror.” I simply can’t fail half my kids in classes they didn’t choose to take.

As for Santino, I know this: He almost certainly would not have passed algebra and geometry with a different teacher. This alone gave him a better shot at graduating normally. Without the need to repeat math classes, he had more slots on his schedule to repeat earlier failed classes and make up even more credits. The more he could see graduation becoming a possibility, the more he was willing to work to achieve it.

God speed, Santino. Go get ‘em.

Transcripts vs. Reality

First published in the Mercury News, December 27, 2010. Since archived.

In “Waiting for Superman,” the much-discussed documentary on charter schools, Redwood City’s Summit Preparatory Charter School is celebrated for its inclusive curriculum. All Summit students are required to take college prep and Advanced Placement courses, with no separate tracks for high-, middle- or low-achieving students.

However, perhaps some students would be better off on a less aggressive track, since many Summit students graduate unprepared for college.

According to the 2010 Early Assessment Program test, half of Summit’s current senior class is ineligible for California State University college-level math and composition courses. The EAP test, designed by the CSU to warn high school juniors of their likely path to remediation,assesses second-year algebra and third-year English.

As most Summit juniors took precalculus and Advanced Placement English, the much easier EAP test should present little challenge. Such a high failure rate is a troubling sign. Yet Summit placed all seniors into still more Advanced Placement English, history and math courses,in spite of strong indications that some students weren’t capable of the work.

Should high schools require students to take college-level courses when they struggle with K-12 material? Many schools do so with the best intentions, convinced that under-represented students only lack the right courses for success — even those with serious academic deficiencies.

As Stanford professor Michael Kirst observes,”Access, rather than preparation, is … the theme of many of the professionals who mediate between the high schools and the colleges.” Meanwhile, community colleges and state universities everywhere are buckling under the weight of remedial high school graduates whose weak skills put them years—and thousands of tuition dollars—away from college-credit courses.

As a teacher and test prep coach, I have worked with students to help them avoid remediation, but it’s often too late. Sadly,the choice between high school curriculum and “college-level” courses is a zero-sum game. Time spent in AP courses is time lost to catching up.

Those who advocate “AP for all” argue that some students have a chance at passing, and that even a failing score can improve college outcomes. But fewer than half of Summit’s Advanced Placement tests receive a passing score.

An National Center for Education Statistics study shows that remedial math placement halves the likelihood of a four-year degree, and remedial reading levels lower it even further. Is a year wasted in an AP course really going to improve college outcomes more than a year spent escaping remediation?

Schools face few controls for their AP courses, which are weighted with an extra grade point average point. Teachers can and do give As and Bs to students who fail the course’s standardized test.

The College Board should institute mandatory grading policies, linking the weighted course grades directly to test scores. Failure to test or a ‘1’ score should result in a loss of the AP designation; a’2′ score should receive a C. Only a 4 or 5 score should receive an A.

Saul Geiser, an education researcher at UC Berkeley, recommends that bonus points be awarded for AP courses only where students demonstrate actual mastery of the subject by achieving a passing score on the AP exam.

Either approach would end these courses for unprepared students. Schools wouldn’t risk putting their students in courses if it meant dramatically lowering GPAs — and even if they were willing to, the students themselves would refuse.

Attractive transcripts are worthless when facing off against college placement tests, which decide remediation status and are merciless in their allegiance to demonstrated abilities. Besides, students shouldn’t have to wait until college to get a high school education.

The right way to assess teacher performance

First published in the Washington Post, June 18, 2010.  This is back when I was trying to write op eds. There’s only a limited amount of topics I can limit myself to under 1000 words and have something safe for publishing.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program demands that teachers be evaluated by student test scores. Florida’s legislature passed a bill in April to end teacher tenure and base pay increases on test-score improvement; although Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that attempt, legislatures in Colorado, New York, Oklahoma and other states have also modified regulations regarding tenure with an eye toward Race to the Top. Teachers protest, but they are dismissed as union hacks with lousy skills, intent on protecting their cushy tenured jobs because they could never cut it in the real world.

I’m a first-year, second-career high school teacher, a “highly qualified” teacher of math, English and social science, a standing I achieved by passing rigorous tests. I’m not a union fan, nor am I in favor of pay increases based on seniority or added education. Like many new teachers throughout the country, I was pink-slipped and am looking for work, so I don’t have a cushy job to protect.

I’m not your typical teacher. But I believe I speak for many teachers when I say I’m willing to be tested on student performance, provided certain conditions are met. So let’s negotiate.

I propose that:

(1) Teachers be assessed based on only those students with 90 percent or higher attendance.

Without the missing students, the tests won’t yield a complete picture of learning. But the tests’ purpose is to yield a picture of teaching, which isn’t the same thing as learning. Teachers can’t teach children who aren’t there.

Results will reveal that many students miss this attendance requirement. Put that problem on the parents’ plates. Leave it out of the teaching assessment.

(2) Teachers be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classroom on a day-to-day basis.

Two to three students who just don’t care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up — sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Yes, teachers could misuse this authority. But if teachers are evaluated by student learning, they must have control over classroom conditions. Then the administration can separately decide what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them. But keep the issue away from measuring student performance; leave it as a personnel call.

(3) Students who don’t achieve “basic” proficiency in a state test be prohibited from moving forward to the next class in the progression.

Students who can’t prove they know algebra can’t take geometry. If they can’t read at a ninth-grade level, they can’t take sophomore English — or, for that matter, sophomore-level history or science, which presumes sophomore-level reading ability.

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.

If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

(4) That teachers be assessed on student improvement, not an absolute standard — the so-called value-added assessment.

I suspect that my conditions will go nowhere, precisely because they are reasonable. Teachers can’t be evaluated on students who miss 10 percent of the class or don’t have the prerequisite knowledge for success. Yet accepting these reasonable conditions might reveal that common rhetorical goals for education (everyone goes to college, algebra for eighth-graders) are, to put it bluntly, impossible. So we’ll either continue the status quo at a stalemate or the states will make the tests so easy that the standards are meaningless.

Yes, some students are doing poorly because their teachers are terrible. Other students are doing poorly because they simply don’t care, their parents don’t care, their cognitive abilities aren’t up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven’t figured out — with no regard to teacher quality. No one is eager to discover the size of that second group, so serious testing with teeth will go nowhere.

That’s too bad. We need to know how many students are failing because they don’t attend class, how many students score “below basic” on the algebra test three years in a row, how many students fail all tests because they read at a fourth-grade level. We need to know if our education rhetoric is a pipe dream instead of an achievable reality blocked by those nasty teachers unions. And, of course, if it turns out that all our problems can be solved by rooting out bad teachers, we need to find that out, too.

So if we’re going to evaluate teachers based on student results, let’s negotiate some reasonable terms — and let’s not flinch from whatever reality those terms reveal.

The Driftwood and the Vortex

I wrote this for Larry Cuban’s blog as well, first published on March 2, 2013.

“Ms K, I need to do my work with Ms. V. My education plan is my civil right!” Deon’s entire body was contorted in a geometric impossibility, the better to shout at me from the back of the room.

“Hey, Ms. K! Come here! What if both numbers are negative?” Sticks was waving me over.

“If the rise and run are both negative, the slope’s positive. Just like multiplying!” Jack argued, as Cal watched dispassionately.

Welcome to the first month of my math support class, for juniors and seniors who haven’t yet passed California’s High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Snapshots from a typical day:

  • Deon and Mack in exile, Deon facing east in back, desk jammed up against the full-wall closet, Mack facing due north, desk flush against the middle of the wall. The two would scream at me for a few minutes, demanding to be released to their guided studies teacher now that I had successfully removed anything remotely resembling fun from their grasp. Eventually, they growled various forbidden words and subsided into something approaching silence.
  • Miguel and Eddie obliviously tagging my whiteboards with my precious student markers that I’d taken away twice already.
  • Yesenia and Juan, a brother-sister pair who only spoke Spanish, chattering away about anything but math with Pauly Jay who, in a class that’s half Hispanic, is nonetheless my only bilingual student.
  • JattJeet dozing off, Tavon fixing me with a hostile stare for disrespecting Deon and Mack.
  • Johnny wandering aimlessly, resplendent in a teal plaid shirt and striped turquoise shorts, wearing a pink winter girl’s hat and a purple school blanket wrapped round his shoulders over his backpack, which he never took off.
  • Atamai whirling around on a wheeled free-standing chair, stopping only to shout a math question at me or argue when I told him to put his posterior back in a desk.
  • Brian tuning out the world with music, having surreptitiously put his earpieces back in when I wasn’t watching.
  • Jack, Cal, Victor, and Sticks usually working on the assignment for the day.

And so it went.

Juniors and seniors who haven’t yet passed the seventh-grade standard-based CAHSEE are kids for whom math presents a serious challenge. A class of students with mostly low motivation and widely varying but generally weak math abilities is first and foremost a management problem, and a huge part of the management problem is the math. In order to maximize learning time, a teacher has to manage not only the students, but the math.

First task in managing the students: separate the vortex from the driftwood. The disruptive vortex sucks all the driftwood into his wake, where all spin about endlessly and, alas, happily, in circles all the way to the bottom. Pull out the driftwood and nothing changes. Move the vortex and the driftwood go back to floating about aimlessly, amenable to redirection. The quintessential disruptive vortex, Deon could single-handledly destroy half the class’s productivity if left undisturbed; his absence or isolation always left most of my “driftwood” students open to the idea of getting some work done.


The much rarer productive vortex students capture driftwood and spin it in the right direction. I was blessed with two. Seated with Jack and Cal, Sticks and Victor would compete madly to get the most work done; left to themselves, Sticks would toss wads of paper at JattJeet, with Victor shouting direction vectors. Understand that “good” kids and “bad” aren’t useful distinctions: Jack and Cal had the occasional zero-productivity hour, and all kids had days in which they settled down and learned. Deon was a math-solving machine who worked fiendishly once I isolated him from all other entertainment.

After carefully managing vortices, I sat the rest of the students so that no one, ideally, was next to a buddy. I ruthlessly rearranged students for the sole purpose of ruining their social hour, and pushed hard upon pain points (no music during practice, an F for the day) for any misbehavior. Then I had to figure out who to call and what to write when students left to go to the bathroom and never came back.

By the end of that first month, I occasionally ended class declaring that everyone had a daily F, and often endured various bleats of “Ms. K, why you so mean? Why you yelling? Chill out,” from kids whose voice volume went up to 11. But most days we had fun. And no matter how crazy the class got, I taught math every single day.

Onto managing the math, so that the driftwood would move in the right direction, and preparing the students for the test.

The students have multiple opportunities to take the test. I aimed my preparation push for the November test, with the February test as a backup. Of the original eighteen students, I thought nine would pass by November, or get close to it. Their existing math knowledge wasn’t so much the problem as was their inexperience in high-stakes tests. The other half did not appear to have the language, motivation, and/or math skills to pass, but at least I could teach them some math they could use when they finally got around to wanting it badly enough.

But even that limited goal was a challenge. I learned how long I could run an upfront discussion before their attention waned, carefully timing the moment when I moved them onto practice problems—which had to be carefully managed, too. Struggling students need to build momentum on a string of problems before they get to their first hesitation point. Hit that hesitation point too early and they “shut down”. They look away and find a more rewarding activity: talk to their neighbor, take a nap, turn up the volume on their iPod, sketch, tiptoe out of the room when I’m not looking, send objects airborne in pursuit of a target. Finding worksheets that started with problems simple enough to get them working and then built to more challenging work that wasn’t too hard took up a big chunk of my day. I’d spend hours looking through practice sets to be sure they didn’t leap to tough problems too soon, and often just wrote a dozen or more identical problems on the board, simply varying the numbers. Even with all that effort, some concepts were still too hard for some students, and I couldn’t always reach each one before he got pulled into a disruptive vortex. And so, from managing the math back to managing the students.

I lived for the days when I scored a win. Much is made by both reformers and progressives about the soul-killing nature of drill, but I got hooked on the genuine triumph my students felt when they worked a whole set of problems correctly. They beamed and bragged. Stickers were not unappreciated, or maybe a big red star with a smiley face. They didn’t mind the drill. They minded that they couldn’t do the drill, and so pretended they didn’t want to.

Sometimes students could do the work but just decided not to that day. Long ago, all these students learned that the relationship between effort and result was non-linear with no guarantee of a payoff. That this payoff was passing the CAHSEE, something they needed in order to graduate, was sometimes forgotten in the moment. But it’s not as if I could offer a guarantee. Some students never do pass the CAHSEE.

“Improving teacher quality” is the buzzphrase for 2013. Yet none of the challenges I’ve recounted are addressed by higher teacher Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, and an understanding of multivariable calculus offers no tools for managing a student howling nonsensical accusations about his rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. No conclusive research on superior discipline approaches can inform ed schools of the best way to prepare teachers to help students with complicated motivations and no real desire for academic excellence. Meanwhile, education reformers point accusingly to the very existence of high school students who haven’t yet mastered fractions and percentages as de facto evidence of incompetent teachers with inadequate knowledge, even though all of my students had been taught these concepts dozens of times over the years, from both traditional and “reform” approaches.

Another catchphrase these days is “grit”. While academically they might be driftwood, my students are a forceful, opinionated group who questioned my own views on politics and social policies (“Ms. K, what’s your position on alcohol?” “Upright. Bad idea to drink lying down–and never consume before 21, of course.”). Many hold jobs. At least one is a committed and dedicated athlete. While some have abysmal Grade Point Averages (GPAs), others are respectably above 2.5. Several seniors have done well enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for military service.

Five of the nine students on my “should pass” list did, in fact pass, Jack and Deon in October, the other three in November. Two of the remaining four got “high fail” scores; the other two did about five points lower than I would have liked. All four on the “should pass” who didn’t probably did well in their February test. Of the remaining nine with more challenging skill deficits, at least half will find the motivation, the focus, or the language skills in the next year to succeed. The others have the option to waive the requirement.

Reformers will judge me for the low pass rate. As a long-time test prep instructor, I judge myself for the four who didn’t pass in November, and will continue to look for better tools. But as a teacher, I judge myself by the degree to which my students develop increased confidence and competence in their math skills, as well as the degree to which they take more responsibility for their academic choices.

And on those criteria, I am content. All the students improved their understanding of proportional thinking, linear equations, and binomial multiplication, skills which will help them move through the high school math track. Sticks is now doing well in my geometry class. Victor stopped by two days before the February CAHSEE asking for practice material to brush up, and Brian visited to give a full report of his performance after the same. Jack and Cal are studying for their college placement tests.

On the last day of class, I read this article’s opening paragraphs to my students. They listened in total silence and then burst into applause, with faces that I must describe as shining. Some of them picked their own pseudonyms. While none said so directly, they are clearly pleased and proud I’d chosen to write their story. As I looked out at the class I’d worked so hard to teach, I remembered my students make their own judgments. Clearly, I hadn’t done too badly in their estimation—and I wouldn’t be a teacher if that assessment didn’t matter most.

Update: Of the four who didn’t pass in November, two passed in February. Surprisingly, one of the “high fails” didn’t pass, getting much the same score. The other “high fail” made it over. The two who’d gotten lower scores than I’d expected did much better—one of them passed, one of them missed by a point. None of the others broke 335 (350 is passing).

The Miracle and the Moment

Note: I wrote this for Larry Cuban’s blog, it remains one of the two or three best pieces I’ve ever written, capturing  that day, which still makes my heart go pitty pat, and the glory of teaching when none of the students care if they’ll ever “use” the information again. FIrst published June 27, 2012.
My best moment as a teacher–so far–came right after a miracle.

It was the end of the school year. I was teaching a unit on Elizabethan theater in my freshman humanities class, and on this day the students delved briefly into the sonnet. With reading abilities ranging from fifth grade to college-level, they wouldn’t all be capable of close analysis, but that was beyond the scope of my lesson anyway. I just wanted to give the students an hour of listening to and thinking about sonnets, with the hope that they would later be able to tell me later that sonnets had 14 lines.

I’d chosen five poems; three because they are high on the list of Sonnets: All-Time Greatest Hits, making them useful content knowledge (and they are, still, beautiful). The other two are personal favorites that never fail to astound me with their power (and they are, still, well-known).

I played the poems in chronological order. First up were Shakepeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” and Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud.” The students listened politely and, when the reading finished, wrote their initial response. Most of the kids wrote for five minutes as required; some of them scribbled a few desultory thoughts and then waited out the clock. The kids then shared their responses in a class discussion. I threw in some literary terms as needed. Things were going well.

Third in line was the Milton sonnet, “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” a poem drenched in grief, loss, and longing, a poem I’ve loved since adolescence, a poem that I thought, perhaps, they wouldn’t entirely understand.

And so the miracle.

Ian Richardson recited the poem. I had no projector that day; they only heard his voice. You should click the Youtube link above, to hear it.

When his voice faded away, I opened my mouth to instruct them to write their response….and then closed it again. The kids were just sitting there, stunned.

A good twenty seconds passed before Luke spoke. “Holy crap. That was…..”

“Sad,” Sadie finished.

“Devastating,” Melissa added.

“Tragic,” said Kylie.

“Beautiful,” from Narciso.

“I’m depressed,” said Frank, in astonishment. And….

“Play it again,” said Daniel. The class murmured assent.

I played it again. When it was over, twenty-three heads bent down to write. Many students struggled to tell me that yes, the poem was sad, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered, to each of them, was they got it. They understood suddenly how loss can be so crippling that the dream of its return, the mere memory of happiness, can “bring back the ‘night’ of grief during ‘day’,” as one of my strongest students wrote, when the respite of the dream ends. I still remember another student’s sentence: “Being happy in your dream only makes pain worse.”

And then I told them that Milton was blind.

“Auggghh,” said Annie , holding her head. “So he was dreaming of two losses that came back to him.”

“…and then left. Again,” Armando finished.

The comments came fairly quickly; I jumped in a few times to define “paradox” and point out that the “day” brought back at least two “nights”–that of grief, and that of sightlessness, but for the most part the kids carried the conversational load on that poem for 10 minutes.

I always think of those minutes as the miracle. Was it their response to the poem? My recognition of their response, my decision to keep my mouth mercifully shut (a rare event of itself)? I honestly don’t know. But no sensible teacher would ever plan such perfection as twenty-some-odd adolescents with no particular interest in literature being touched to the core by a Milton sonnet.

Of course, nothing about that miracle improved my students’ academic skills. Some of them spelled “feel” with an a, “wife” with no e’s, and “grief” with two. Had I wanted to push on and ask them to analyze Milton’s use of metaphor in an organized essay, no more than five of the students would have even known where to start, even though they’d written several analytical essays that year.

Moreover, had I been observed by an administrator that day, I would have been dinged in several important areas. I wasn’t helping the students make progress on ELA standards. The students had no vocabulary list to define by reading the words in context. They had no pre-reading guide explaining key concepts. They hadn’t been given specific learning objectives, and had no clear writing template to follow for their responses. The literature was focused entirely on Western lit (four dead white guys, one dead white chick).

I knew that at the time, and know it even better now. I didn’t care.

Don’t get me wrong; I support standards. I believe that state tests measure important information. I want my students to demonstrate improvement, and find it entirely reasonable that schools should be held accountable for student academic progress.

But I’d spent the ELA portion of that year focused on standards-approved objectives. I’d pushed through Twelfth Night, an obscure Indian novel, and Filipino magical realism literature, texts that a number of my students couldn’t understand even if they’d wanted to—and many of them didn’t. I’d assigned them essays that they wrote by rote by design, using the irritating Shaffer chunk method, a routine that the strongest writers found limiting and dull (the rest listlessly followed the rules to write sentences they didn’t mean and hadn’t thought about). Meanwhile, I couldn’t spend too much time helping students remember the importance of spelling “wife” and “grief” properly, or of constructing a simple sentence that expressed thoughts that they did care about, although I did create my own customized SSR/SSW program that gave them time to gain content knowledge and informal writing skills.

All I wanted was a day dedicated to listening to, and thinking about, sonnets that connected the poetry to the history of Elizabethan theater, the larger unit.

We moved on. They found Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” pretty shallow, after the intensities of the three previous poems. (“She loves him yeah, yeah, yeah” wrote one student, a la the Beatles tune.) But Robert Frost’s “Design” went over very well. Although they weren’t able to visualize the poem’s tableau the first time through, they wanted to know more because on that day, at least, they were beginning to realize that confusing poetry can make sense with more context and information. When they learned the “white heal-all” was usually blue, they asked to listen again.

After the second recitation, I told them to underline the last two lines: What but design of darkness to appall? If design govern in a thing so small. Then I reminded them of the Calvin and Hobbes raccoon story, and the panel that shows Calvin hiding under the bed: “It’s either mean or it’s arbitrary, and either way I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.” They got the connection immediately.

“So was Calvin and Hobbes copying Frost?” one student asked.

“No. They’re both illustrating the same theme. The world can be an unforgiving, cruel place. Is it part of some great plan? Do things happen for a reason–Design, as Frost says–or is it arbitrary and random, as Calvin worries? And which is scarier to contemplate?”

“Does that happen a lot?” asked Alexandra. “Do people write about the same thing in different ways?”

“Funny you should ask. Listen to this song and tell me what sonnet explores the same theme.”

The specific logistics of this lesson were fuzzy until 30 minutes before class, when I belatedly realized that professional recitations were obviously superior to my original vague thought of the students reading the poems to themselves. But the sonnet and this song had been in the lesson since I’d originally conceived of it, several weeks earlier. In fact, the song may have been the unconscious premise of the entire lesson. Still, I hadn’t really expected them all to be familiar with John Mayer, adult contemporary pop crooner.

I was therefore caught entirely off-guard when the opening piano arpeggio of “Dreaming with a Broken Heart” came over the speakers and the class exploded with energy and excitement. Everyone in the room instantly knew the song and recognized the connection. Some students literally jumped up and down as they realized that over three hundred years earlier, poets had gotten there first, that all those years ago grief and sadness, loss and longing were still best told in verse, not prose, and they began feverishly writing, underlining and circling words to make it clear that John Mayer and John Milton were writing about the same thing.

Looking out over a class nearly incoherent with excitement at their new awareness and understanding, I bit my lip hard to stop from crying and told myself ferociously to just enjoy the gift of a perfect moment.

Like all teachers without tenure, I spend a lot of time job-hunting. Along with the obsessive, hopefully illogical, worry that I won’t find a new position comes a litany of memories, favorite moments I won’t find in any other life, moments when I know I made a difference, when I helped students feel more competent, have more confidence, feel a greater awareness of the world or how it works. And of those moments, this is the one I remember first.

Yet not a second of that moment had anything to do with test scores, with measurable academic outcomes, with improved reading ability, or the correct spelling of “wife” or “grief.”

Do truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks need to write compare and contrast essays on sonnets? Probably not. But surely, at some point in the past, our educational system gave truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks a sense of the beauty of the world, our heritage, the history of our country–and, ideally, the ability to spell “wife” and “grief.”

Today, our educational system has no interest in truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks. All students must perform as if they are college bound. Since most of them can’t perform at that level, regardless of their desires, teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question, to get those test scores as high as possible, even knowing that many students will never gain a real understanding of the demanded material. We can’t teach them what they need to know, and we can’t spare any time to give them knowledge they might find actually interesting, or experiences they can enjoy without forcing them to process it into analysis.

Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hall gives you the option.

Naturally, anyone on the “college for all” bandwagon, reformers and progressives both, would vehemently deny such beliefs. But the logic of their demands is inescapable. Students have no way to step off the college train. They can’t say “Hey, I don’t want to take trigonometry. I just want an interesting math class.” or “No more lab science; can I just take a writing class that focuses on modern ethical issues in medicine?” or “Can’t I just read and write without having to think like an English lit major?” Denying them that choice leaves failure as the only other option. That lack of options betrays the value system at the heart of those who deny education the right to sort by abilities and interest.

Obsessed with ending the achievement gap, our current educational policy pushes everyone down the same college path and then blames the teachers when they don’t get the desired results. Lost in these demands are the millions of students who are doomed to years of boredom and, worse, a sense of inadequacy-lost, that is, until the teachers are blamed, again, for failing to help them achieve more.

And so, many people will read of my miracle and that perfect moment and point out that my students hadn’t improved their skills. Yet I defy them to say I didn’t teach my kids something important that day.

I don’t know if my students even remember the day. I’m certain they never think of the lesson as an important moment, much less a miracle. But I am also certain that in that moment, all of them understood—some for the first time—that they could understand and empathize with great poetry. They realized intuitively that art could explore themes and ideas using metaphors so powerful that artists return to them time and again over centuries. They learned, too, that this knowledge had value and meaning to them—not because it made them better readers or writers, or got them better grades, but simply because that knowledge led them to a better understanding of beauty….and so, of life.

And it is of moments like this one that teachers think of when they say that education is more than a test score.