Test Gatekeeping

This was written sometime between March and April of 2009. As part of our practicum, we have to do an observation of a fellow student, write up an observation, and then write a reflective response to each other’s observation.

My fellow student observed me give an exam to my students and was surprised, but highly complimentary of my practice of “gatekeeping”. A student just doesn’t get to turn in a test. First I check the test, scan for unforced errors and blank responses. If the first, I underline some key term that should trigger a recognition, if the problem is just that they misread the question. If the second, I just hand it back to them and say “You know how to do this. Or you know how to start doing this. Go get it done.” Some students whine, some ask quiet questions, and some look at my underlined term and gasp out “Thank you!” as they run back to their seat and fix the problem.

My colleague asked if I would continue doing this throughout the semester. Would I always provide this support, or as the class progressed, would I let them go out on their own? I answered the question in this reflection.

Ten years later, this is one practice I haven’t changed even slightly. I make tough tests, and I make the students try hard, sending them back with advice, pointing out small mistakes, giving them a hint if they are lower level. And I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s amazing to see this again and be reminded of how consistent my philosophy has been–and that it does come from my years in test prep.

One change–when a student asks me to check it for them, I still give it a once over. I’m nice that way.

I decided to focus my reflection on your comments about my test “scaffolding”, my practice of reviewing a math test before the student hands it in.

I didn’t mention this earlier, but I have only actively reviewed every student’s test for the past two chapter tests–and even then, only done it both times for fourth period. This test, I actively scanned all students in both classes before they could submit.

I began doing it because I noticed so many struggling students leaving questions blank when I knew that they knew how to do the math. I have spent five years teaching kids to take tests and have seen emotional responses that defy all logic knock down performance considerably. Some examples:

  • “I don’t know how to do this problem. See? I KNEW I didn’t know how to do this problem. I TOLD myself I didn’t. I was right!”
  • “Should I try this? No, it couldn’t be that. If it were that, then it would mean I knew how to do the problem, and I know I don’t know how to do this problem.”
  • “Eh, I did enough work to pass. I’m done. I’m bored.”
  • “Oh, my god, I thought I knew how to do this problem but it doesn’t work! I know NOTHING.” (instead of seeing if, you know, maybe a minor algebra mistake happened somewhere.)
  • “God, I’m done. I’m done. Thank god. I’m done. I’m turning it in now. Thank god.”

None of these thoughts make it into the conscious brain to allow the student to see logically how goofy their responses are, how maybe they should calm down and try some other approaches, take their time and think through the math, check their work for mistakes, or, god forbid, remember what they learned in class. No, the responses all pass through the brain at light speed, leaving behind despair and antagonism, affecting students’ decisions without letting them know what’s happening.

As a math teacher giving an assessment, my primary responsibility is to determine how much math each student knows. If I have to make them hork it up like a fur ball or punch it out of them via Heimlich maneuver, so be it. But to the extent possible, I will not allow their emotional response to determine their grade and my knowledge of their performance.

Many math teachers believe that learning math involves a degree of emotional maturity. As students progress, the thinking goes, they must learn how to accept responsibility for their performance. Maturity involves taking responsibility for one’s learning.

I have parented a teenager, and this sort of thinking makes me laugh. If I allow these kids to turn in their lesser effort, I am doing them a favor. They aren’t punished by the lower grade. They are vindicated. See? They were RIGHT. They didn’t know the math. Stupid fool teacher, and more importantly, stupid fool parents for thinking otherwise.

By insisting they can do the work, I prove two things. First, I am the boss. I will not allow them to get away with a lesser effort, whether that effort is due to lack of interest, fear of failure, or total panic. Second, I am right. They can do the work. They will get a higher grade.

The struggling students aren’t the only ones who benefit from scrutiny. Strong and even mid-level students make unforced errors, and these students genuinely appreciate my checking. These are the ones that go “Ack!” when I point out the word “line” and they realize they’ve solved a linear function as an exponential one and say “Thanks!” with enthusiasm.

But struggling students see math as a war, and in their minds, their failure is a form of victory. Lecturing them about failure doesn’t work nearly as well as showing them that they already have the knowledge to avoid failure–or at least mitigate the disaster. I would far rather engage in a humorous tug of war with a student who wants to turn in a math test than I would lecture them about an F after the fact. For one thing, even the weakest students appreciate the reality of a higher grade. For another, I have proven conclusively that I was right and THEY WERE WRONG. This gives me the credibility advantage and gives us a shared reference point. “Yeah, yeah, sure you can’t do it. Didn’t we have this conversation last test? Sit back down and think. You can do it.” This is already happening with some students. Others are still in the argument mode, but we’ll get there.

So when do I get around to allowing them to go cold turkey? With the stronger students, of course, the task will be easier. Over time, I will talk to them privately, mention SAT scores and the downside of not having a teacher check their work. Their own motivation will do the trick.

But with the struggling students, so long as it affects their grades, I will continue to force math out of them no matter how long it takes. My primary objective as a teacher is to be sure that I am capturing their math knowledge. Independence and self-direction are nice to haves, but they come second, in my mind.

However, if my test prep experience has any relevance here, over time, the struggling students will start to realize they know more than they think they know. By having test productivity forced out of them kicking and screaming, they’ll begin to accept that by golly, they do know math and will start asking small questions to clarify and taking on more responsibility. That’s the plan. When the struggling students are at the point of handing their test to me and saying “Hey, could you check this for me? I want to be sure I got everything”, I’ll start telling them to check their own work and count it a happy day.


When Schools Get Political, What Should Teachers Do?

Rick Hess: Politically, nothing is more potent or poignant than the picture of a child’s face at a hearing or protest. Which is why adults in the system must wield their influence with great care.

Hess’s cautionary tale of schools involving students in their political agendas reminded me of my own experience with this institutional practice. Five years ago, I refused to comply with a school-wide political action: the March 4th Day of Protests, a semi-organized demonstration against budget cuts to California public education. While universities saw the most action, Oceana High School stopped instruction and dedicated an entire day to protests and political propaganda.

As a teacher, I was troubled and conflicted by the entire exercise. Troubled, because public instruction time and the students themselves were being used for political objectives. Conflicted, because I was a first year teacher who really didn’t want to go job-hunting over the summer again. So, for a period of about 6 weeks, I was constantly faced with the choice: do I go along to get along? Or do I ensure my students are making informed decisions about their use in a political exercise?

In late January of 2010, two Oceana teachers proposed that the staff participate in the March 4th action. We were given a “fact sheet” in the staff meeting to read to our students and told to encourage them to volunteer for “student planning committees”. No opposition was expected or given. At the time, I assumed the action would be voluntary and brief—and even on that basis my concerns were non-trivial. But I said nothing.

The humanities teachers were coordinating the participation, as they met daily with their students instead of every other day in the school’s multi-block schedule. Each teacher also has a single grade advisory. I had 20 of the approximately 140 freshmen as both my advisory and humanities class, a unique situation. The rest of the students had one of two other teachers for humanities, and one of six other teachers as an adviser–all of whom were passionately committed to the activity. Had my humanities students been randomly distributed among the different advisories, the other teachers would have learned of my perfidy sooner, and the results might have been different.

I kept all emotion from my face as I read the fact sheet aloud. My students quickly translated my lack of expression as lack of enthusiasm.

“You don’t think we should do this?” someone asked.

“I think you should absolutely do this if you want to,” I responded.

“But you don’t think we should?”

“No, that’s not it. Crap,” I sighed. “Look, I am just uncomfortable with schools getting their students involved in their political objectives.”

“Can’t schools teach their kids about politics?”

“They aren’t teaching you about politics,” I said. “They are involving you in achieving a political goal.”

“Yeah,” said Isaiah. “The school expects me to care about the budget cuts, but I don’t.”

“There’s another point of view entirely,” I said, and waited.

Not a single student was able to identify the other point of view. That fact, more than anything, led me to carry on with my non-compliance. After they tried to identify another side to take for a few minutes, I broke in:

“You’ve only identified students who support the protest and students who don’t care. What about any student who thinks the tax cuts are a good idea?”


“You mean, like we could demonstrate supporting the budget cuts?”

“Can you even imagine someone doing that here?”

No, they could not.

“This school believes it’s acting in the best interest of you students,” I offered. “ I’m just…not comfortable with the schools giving so much time to a single point of view while not even considering the possibility of opposition. I encourage you to take part if you want to. I would never oppose that. But never feel you have to participate.”

I hoped that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, a few meetings later, I learned that the protest would include off-campus activities, with the kids handing out pamphlets in public spaces.

Then we got a mandatory survey. Did we want to participate in a “teach in”, to explain the budget cuts to our students?

Protest participation had evolved from “opt in” to “opt out”. I checked the box for “I plan to teach my usual curriculum”, and hoped for the best.

A week later, I learned that the entire day was going to be given over to “teach ins”. We humanities teachers were to distribute permission slips for off-campus activities and “push” for their quick return. Students who didn’t return permission slips would have to watch a movie: Walkout, about student political action in East LA. I distributed the forms, reminded everyone that participation was their choice, and didn’t mention it again.

In another curriculum meeting later that week, another humanities teacher said, “We’re not even going to be on the campus that morning, since we’ll all be at the beach” before classes start. Oh, by the way, she added casually, I was the only teacher who wasn’t going to do a “teach in”.

I emailed a counselor privately, telling her that none of my students were turning in slips, and that I wasn’t sure how I could legally require them to do so. The counselor reassured me: under no circumstance was I to require the students turn in slips.

Ultimately, only one of my students turned in a permission slip, saying he “didn’t want to be stuck watching a movie” (score one for activism!). The rest of my students went against the tide.

On March 1st, all the freshmen teachers were working on the logistics of having the entire freshman class forming a huge SOS on a Pacifica pier.

“So we have just 19 students who didn’t turn in permission slips in our two classes,” said Jen. “Michele, how many in your class aren’t participating?”


“No, that’s how many have turned one in, right?”

“Only one student turned in a slip.”

The entire meeting stopped cold. I was suddenly the target of many narrowed eyes in unhappy faces.

“Did you push them?” one of the teachers asked.

“I can’t make them participate,” I said.

“Yes, actually, you can,” insisted a science teacher. “It’s required.”

I said, very carefully, “Look, I’m pretty sure it’s not required. I am extremely uncomfortable forcing kids to participate in political action.”

A counselor (not the same one I’d asked earlier) said casually, no big deal, “Of course it’s not required.” and the conversation ended.

The news of my recalcitrance spread rapidly. An assistant vice principal towed a brand new humanities student to my classroom during geometry, asking me for a permission slip. This was a very public rebuke, since the office had plenty of blank permission slips. After the AVP left, a freshman from another humanities class said “I heard your kids don’t have to go?” Several other freshmen chimed in: they’d been told the only way they could get out of the event was for their parents to write a letter explaining why they didn’t care about the school budget cuts.

During the final March 3rd planning meeting, that AVP mentioned that I’d only turned in one permission slip, but she was “trying to make it two”. (She didn’t succeed; the new student didn’t attend the protest.)

The planning meeting was somewhat brutal. Imagine all the school’s teachers sitting in a huge circle of tables, facing each other. Each teacher doing a “teach in” is given a huge curriculum packet in an envelope. Except me. So everyone is in a big circle opening and examining the contents of huge packets. Except me.

The day of the protest, word had gotten out among the students. More than one student I’d never seen before asked me why I “didn’t care about schools”.

On the other hand, my non-conformers were pretty proud of themselves, while I reminded them constantly that non-participation didn’t mean opposition. One student was kept home by her dad to ensure she wasn’t part of the demonstration. Another mentioned that he’d written a letter of protest to the principal. I read it aloud to the class and encouraged him to send it into a newspaper. His passionate protest led me to document my experiences in an email to Debra Saunders, a well-known local columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. I didn’t want to go public, but my student was more than willing to share his letter.

So the same week that the staff celebrated the mention of our school in coverage of the state-wide demonstrations, Saunders wrote critically of the March 4th event and included quotes from my student’s letter to the principal. Huge thrill for my humanities class, less so for the staff. Several wrote letters responding to Saunders’ criticism.

Then Jay Mathews of the Washington Post read Saunders’ column and wrote approvingly of my student’s letter. Another thrill! One of my other top students asked if she could respond to his column and I confess I actively encouraged it, since I know Jay Mathews pretty well (he wrote about my Stanford travails). Jay published Meg’s entire response.

So in the space of a week, two of my students’ essays were discussed by nationally known columnists in major media outlets. While this normally would be cause for celebration, it was understandably not mentioned much at the school.

Unsurprisingly, Oceana didn’t renew my contract. While my first year included the best moment I’ve had as a teacher–so far, anyway—I’d been convinced as early as September that the school wouldn’t ask me back. We weren’t a good fit. While I’m both certain of and troubled by the fact that the school considered my personal beliefs a factor in the decision, I can’t know if my actions with regard to the protests were a factor in my non-renewal.

While Oceana doesn’t seem very different from a typical high school, few comprehensive schools could engage in a similar school-wide political action. Oceana is designated as alternative, unbound by many public school restrictions. But while blatant politicking is rare, all schools—public, charter, private—engage in their fair share of ideological mandates, from anti-bullying week to extra credit for “going green”, that often don’t consider whether the students are giving informed consent to participation. Meanwhile, many students are confusing “I don’t care” with “I oppose”. Avoiding participation becomes their primary objective. If that’s impossible, they become practiced at just going through the motions, rather than finding the internal fortitude to resist.

Everyone has the best of intentions. The teachers and administrators at Oceana meant well. So do the schools and teachers Rick Hess refers to, from Eva Moskowitz and all the Success Academy teachers, to the teachers and schools busing Newark students to a protest in Washington DC. So do I. Without question, my actions at Oceana were an expression of values, just as the other teachers and schools were expressing theirs. The difference lies in what we each want our students to do. I want my students to share my values about open expression, and could care less whether they agree with me. Oceana High School and Eva Moskowitz, as well as many other schools and teachers, see no valid alternative to their opinions, and so consider any efforts at “hearing all sides” to be wasted. They see agreement as essential, conflicting opinions as harmful and—I believe as a consequence—don’t really think much about the need for open expression.

This is a problem. I’m not sure how we address it as a society in our polarized times. But all teachers should think carefully about their expectations, and whether their desire to create “enlightened” students conflicts with their responsibility to educate students to form their own opinions.

Ed School Writing: Can Opinions Subjugate? and the Gingerbread Man

This is an interesting piece in retrospect, because of the collapse of the culture wars. You can see my skepticism of the argument: people who I considered extremists were arguing that it was fair to shut down the speech of anyone they considered the “dominant ideology”. If anyone met any one of the adjectives “white”, “male”, “heterosexual” (god, such a quaint word these days) or “Christian”, then the teacher should shut these students down aggressively, not allowing them free speech or support. Both then and now, I find such thinking incomprehensible and repellent—and certainly, my opinion isn’t a popular one six years later. What was once an extreme view is now pretty mainstream. These days, the woman who thinks homosexuality a sin would probably be expelled, not just shut down by her professor. And far too many people would think my objections evidence that I also have evil thoughts, as opposed to a strong belief that opinions can’t subjugate.

Moving from the specific to the general: many ed school critics would see this piece as evidence of brainwashing, of the sort of timewasting crap that ed schools perpetrate instead of time well spent covering best practices (thus ignoring the pesky reality that teaching has no best practices).But what I’m struck by most of all, rereading and remembering the day, is that we weren’t told what to do. Those of us who thought that was nonsense weren’t shut down, at least by that professor. The class objective was for us to think about what we’d do as teachers when a student said something that shocked us, when we had to make decisions about what dialogues to encourage, which to shut down. Or, as Kate Walsh says disapprovingly, STEP didn’t try to train us, but rather prepare us for teaching challenges. I did think about it, prepared, and have found that preparation invaluable over the years–without ever once changing my opinion about Applebaum and Boler. And yes, managing student discourse is an essential teaching practice, one I really hadn’t given much thought to before this class.

Do I think STEP wanted us to take Applebaum’s side? Well, I think they tried to restrict their admissions to people who already agreed with Applebaum. However, from a pedagogical standpoint, I am fully on board with the class objective, even though I would have taught it quite differently. Once again, there’s more to ed school than its critics understand.

But even now, I can’t justify the gingerbread man.

And now, day one of Equity, Democracy, and Education. AKA Social Justice.

I am keeping an open mind on the subject, as our section leader seems pretty unshockable. We discussed H.G. Wells Country of the Blind and applied it to the classroom. Is the sighted man who is handicapped by living in a blind society the student entering an alien culture, or the teacher entering an alien classroom? I could brief both ways, but ultimately see Nunez as the teacher who refuses to use all of his power to subjugate the culture, even though he could (not everyone agreed that he could).

We touched on David Tyack’s “Constructing Difference: Historical Reflections on Schooling and Social Diversity” but spent much more time on Barbara Applebaum’s Social Justice, Democratic Education and the Silencing of Words that Wound. Really, where do they get these titles?

Applebaum is speaking out in support of Megan Boler’s affirmative action pedagogy, which for some reason we weren’t assigned.

Boler argues that teachers can and should shut down the students who are members of the dominant culture if they don’t express sympathy for oppressed classes.


(except when they’re gay, she says later)

Applebaum agrees with Boller. Actually, what happened is that a white, Christian student of Applebaum’s said that she’d have no problem working with homosexuals because she “loved the sinner, even if she hated the sin.”

Applebaum, by her own admission, lashed into this student.


So after the fact, Applebaum realized she might have abused her authority, oh, just a friggin’ TAD–even if it was in a good cause, like shutting down a purported bigot who did nothing more than explicitly say that she wouldn’t discriminate against gays. But instead of just saying so, she spends an essay rationalizing her behavior in the name of affirmative pedagogy.

“Speech that supports and is supported by dominant ideology becomes, at the moment of its utterance, the reproduction of power.”

In short, an opinion can subjugate and subordinate.

The teacher asked us if we agreed. I said “No, of course not.”

Someone said, “You don’t think opinions can subjugate?”

“Absolutely not–and please, don’t let my opinion subjugate anyone here.”

I could tell from the body language in the room that some (but not all) of the class disagreed. But we let that all pass by.

At one point, Applebaum tries to analogize her Orthodox Jewishness to homosexuality. The Christian student didn’t call her a sinner, because it was less acceptable to be anti-Semitic. P points out how odd it was that, in an article focused on power relationships, she didn’t acknowledge that the student might not have called her a sinner because as the teacher, she might have more power.

Several students pointed out that her goal was to show that there were acceptable and unacceptable forms of bigotry, and so it didn’t matter if her analogy was apt because her larger point was on target. (Sez you, thinks I.)

A good number of other students argued that her entire determination of who is “powerful” and who isn’t is extremely problematic. I was much cheered to see that this was an actual debate, but I fear that all these skeptical opinions may be subjugating the dissenters.

By far the most aggravating aspect of Applebaum’s article, by the way, is her open bigotry towards Christians, who she refers to as “religious” people–ironic, given that Applebaum is an Orthodox Jew.


So since Applebaum, an orthodox Jew, is presumably “religious”, who does she mean here? The class agreed with my observation that she doesn’t really mean “reasonable people” but “reasonable Christians”. And of course, to people of Applebaum’s ideology, Christians who aren’t “reasonable” are of the evangelical ilk. But she doesn’t say say “non-evangelical, reasonable Christians” because it would lay her bigotry out there in the open.

The teacher agreed that she was explicitly saying that dominant cultures must be held to standards that oppressed cultures must not.

So presumably, Muslims can be religious bigots in America. Back in the Middle East, though, their teachers should be shutting them down cold and oppressing them in the name of affirmative action pedagogy.

After that, we were given a blank gingerbread man–ironically, the paper was white so the point was lost. Then we had to label the figure with the goals we think are the purpose of education.



Self-Concept and Lowered Expectations

I’ve been writing a few pieces on and off, trying to get focused, and suddenly I thought of Darryl Yong. I’d forgotten his name, but I just googled “professor teaches high school math”.

Darryl Yong, a math professor at Harvey Mudd, decided to teach for a year. He didn’t teach calculus, he taught algebra and geometry, and he taught at a low income school worried about test scores and gangs.

You should read his entire excellent paper. He outlined four key lessons:

Lesson 1: Schools Are Complex Systems Involving People, Culture, and Policies
Lesson 2. Student Self-Concept Is the Best Explanatory Variable for Student Success
Lesson 3. Teaching Is a Far Less Respected Profession Than It Should Be
Lesson 4. It’s Not the Written Curriculum That Matters, It’s the Assessed Curriculum

Yong is writing for math professors, but his essay ought to be required reading by reformers and politicians all. I came into the game knowing 1 and 4 already. (Lesson 4, in particular, is something that no test prep instructor ever needs spelled out.) I’ve never felt disrespected as a teacher, so I can’t speak to lesson 3. His description of typical professional development is very similar to my experiences at my previous school. However, my first school and particularly my current school do a good job with PD. It’s not so much that I find it all useful, as it’s not a waste of time and it’s blissfully short of jargon. We are also given lots of department time. However, I don’t see why pointless PD has anything to do with respect or lack thereof. The administration gets mandates, it all rolls downhill.

But the first four or five times I read of his experiences, I growled when I got to Lesson 2. Self Concept, blah blah blah:


That’s the purview of happy talkers like Carol Dweck, I snarled mentally every time I read it previously.

So why, tonight, did I reread it? Couldn’t tell you, but for some reason I saw something I’d missed the first times I’d read Lesson 2. Yong gives an example of the need for “scaffolding” using factoring quadratics. It’s perfect. He gives a list of quadratics and points out that math professors (and many textbooks) think of all quadratics as roughly equivalent: easy to do, functionally indistinguishable. But to struggling algebra students, they are tremendously different activities. Hardest to factor are a>1 and b=0. (And then, after you beat that into their heads, they are suddenly stumped by c=0 cases—which they thought were easy before. Sigh.) He then goes on to describe a student who was stumped by solving simple equations but could do the same task if it was finding the x and y intercepts of a linear equation in standard form.


And I sat up and thought Hey.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve expounded on this to my colleagues. I write about it, too, of how I redefined an algebra curriculum so that I could keep my weakest kids engaged and passing. In The Driftwood and the Vortex, I delineated the careful sequencing needed to keep struggling students engaged:

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’ve also seen amazing things happen when I just let kids listen to poetry and think about it, rather than insist they read, understand, and analyze it as standards would dictate.

In the TEACH! documentary, Lindsay Chinn achieved improvement by teaching less, and giving her students a sense of success.

But read Dweck or others on “self-concept”, and they mean something quite different: If students believe that intelligence is malleable, their story goes, teachers can convince them to work harder.

Yong is not really talking about self-concept as it’s understood in the education policy world. And yet—he is. Which means that I, too, think that student self-concept is important, even though I’ve been sneering at the idea for the past two or three years. I just go about it, like Yong did, like Lindsay Chinn did, in an entirely different way than the one pushed by experts. I give my students the experience of success, of taking on a task they find difficult and then triumphing over it.

But you don’t achieve this by lying to students about intelligence, which is not terribly malleable.

The way to give students an improved self-concept in math is to make the math easier.

Not easy. Not, as it is usually dismissed by politicians and reformers, by “dummying it down”. But by setting reasonable goals for the students you have.

Do you teach the math or teach the students? I’ve asked this before. It’s a fundamental question for teachers working with populations that so obsess education reformers. Yet reformers spew trite platitudes about “higher expectations”, as if teachers can eliminate struggles simply by superior pedagogy and refusal to tolerate failure.

I wish Yong had taken this issue on directly, rather than hinting at the problem but wrapping it in a popular buzzword that hid his message. Plenty of people read his work and think “ah, that’s the key! Get the kids to believe they can succeed at math!” when in fact, I think the message is closer to “give the kids mathematics tasks they can handle” which isn’t at all the same thing. I don’t ever let my kids think they are math rock stars. Many of them don’t, in fact, have the ability to learn the math necessary for advanced understanding of chemistry or engineering. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged, shouldn’t begin to understand the confidence necessary to dive in and give it their best shot.

But no one really dares advocate making math easier, particularly in the era of Common Core. Instead, we get platitudes like this paean to an old-school music teacher, advocating drill, failure, and, god save us, “grit”.

Both Yong and I are guilty of what education reformers everywhere decry as “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. It’s rhetorically convenient to ignore the fact that teachers lower expectations because they want to give their students the experience of struggling with intellectually challenging material.

Reading Yong again led me to realize that I need to start talking more about “self-concept”—not to dismiss it, but to redefine it. I care about my students’ self-concept. That’s exactly why I lower expectations, creating a rigorous yet achievable curriculum that dangles a reachable carrot in front of my students. In doing so, I get them to try.

Ed School Writing: The Tyranny of Raised Hands

This was also written about five years ago, during my literacies class. It wasn’t an assignment, but something I wrote for my blog, a writeup of a class experience. While this may seem much ado about nothing, the issue of calling on students is a big deal today. For example, Explicit Direct Instruction orders teachers to randomly call on students, and many teachers protest. My own policy is much as I describe it here–it held up to reality!

Why do so many teachers ask a question of the class and then look for students who raise their hands? Hand to god, I don’t understand this. Why give students all that control?

I’ve wondered this for years now, particularly when I watch beginning or simply ineffective teachers. But today, I learned that there might be a genuine philosophy behind such madness.

The “Literacies” class has very little to do with actual literacy, but every so often we have some interesting discussions in our section. Today, we were talking about the assessing silence. Why don’t some students talk? How do you determine the cause of their silence?

I observed that silence shouldn’t be pathologized. Some students are just more reserved than others, or maybe they just aren’t interested. But we all agreed that some students are quiet because of confusion or unhappiness, and that teachers should reach out to these students to ensure they understand.

Gerry asked, “What about the students who simply refuse to participate?” and I know he’s thinking about one of our students in our placement.

Another STEPpie talked about her teacher’s use of “name cards”. Sometimes, instead of selecting from the students who are raising their hands, the teacher will randomly pick a name card and call that. The STEPpie said that people could even just pretend to use namecards and just pick the person they want to call on–but the random nature of the cards will ensure that no student feels picked on.

God forbid that a teacher should give the impression that it’s her damn classroom and that she can call on whoever she wants because she wants to know whether or not the kid in question knows the answer. Heaven forfend that a teacher should be anything other than subservient to her students’ wishes and preferences. Such is the abiding finality of the student preference that if a teacher is to actually request a response from a student without first ascertaining his interest, then she must be able to blame the Fickle Finger of Fate. Certainly, such blatant disregard for the comfort level of her students can’t be attributed to anything like the teacher’s determination that this particular level of discomfort will just have to be endured. Or, perish the thought, that the discomfort of answering a question might be in the student’s best interest. No, the teacher has to blame an outside agency if she wants to solicit a response from the Bartleby students who “prefer not to”.

I’m sitting there trying not to mutter when the class instructor says, “Actually, I set an entirely different standard when I teach. I tell my students that I have three modes of requesting response. The first is open–anyone can respond without raising their hand. The second mode is show of interest–I’ll ask for people to raise their hands. The third is directed–I will call on someone specific. I invite anyone who doesn’t want to ever be called on to talk to me privately, but your objections can’t be anything like ‘I don’t want to talk in class.’ I find that this gives me more freedom to assess students and ensure that class participation is balanced.”

Well, didn’t that ruin all my fulminations.

I raise my hand. “That’s exactly what I do, except the part about students bringing their objections to me because I could care less if they don’t like it. In fact, I have to break my students of the habit of raising their hands every time they have an answer. I tell them that they don’t have to raise their hands unless I say to, but they do have to take a beat to see if I’ve called on someone else, because I do get cranky if the wrong person answers when I’ve pointed to someone specific.”

“What do you do if the same person answers all the time?”

“I have a conversation with the kids who know all the answers and tell them to ratchet it back.”

“But don’t they get upset?”

“No. ‘Hey, I want you to stop responding for a while, okay? I know that you’re on top of things, so try not to answer unless I call on you for a while. Otherwise, everyone in the class will let you do all the work! You’re doing great, and you’re not in trouble. But until everyone else is participating at your level, I need your help, okay?”

Another math student bursts out, “But look. I think it’s…cruel, really, to call on students who don’t want to be called on. Think about how fearful they are. Think how afraid they are of being wrong.”

(While I’m presenting my response as if it were immediate, I actually waited through several other comments because we’re supposed to “self-monitor our class discussion participation” which means Shut UP, Yappers, and I’m a yapper.)

“We always talk about how students are fearful of making mistakes and how we have to encourage them to stop being so afraid, that mistakes are no big deal and just part of learning. Then the same people who talk about how the answer isn’t important, the process is important go on and on about how we shouldn’t call on students because they’re terrified of making mistakes. So we validate their fears?”

(What I didn’t say: And oh, by the way, the same people who say we should choose whatever makes students comfortable when it comes to interacting with the teacher firmly believe that students should be given no choice about being forced to work in small groups and be graded on how well they participate in said groups. But no matter.)

Anyway. It appears that many teachers don’t call on students randomly and accept the limitation of just a few students to choose responses from. They do this because students may feel “picked on” or “terrified”.

But to any new teachers reading this blog: don’t live by the tyranny of the raised hands. Make your own destiny and ruin some poor kid’s day.

Ed School Writing: Reflections on Lisa Delpit’s “Silenced Dialogue”

One of the things I hope to do in this blog is write about ed school. Many people want to change it, but they’re usually wrong in both goal and method. I’m also interested to see if my views have changed much. Since I kept a lot of my early writings on my blog–the one that had to be shut down–I still have electronic copies of them. Some of them are pretty good, I think. So this piece was written for Literacies class, July or August of 2008. Five years. Gleep. They are copied verbatim; if you spot any typos let me know.

Lisa Delpit’s “Silenced Dialogue”, a seminal article in education literature, offers a number of piercing insights into a perceived flaw of progressive education. However, Delpit chooses to frame her arguments through a dichotomy of race and culture that ultimately distorts her message in a way that probably ensures it won’t be heard by the audience that most needs to hear it.

Delpit aims at a fundamental tenet of progressive education: the “guide on the side” position of teacher as “co-learner” and adviser, questioner and consultant, as opposed to the “sage on stage” model (teacher as dispenser of knowledge). To Delpit and other non-white educators, the hippy dippy froufrou passive-aggressive control of progressives is so ineffective for children of color, so “coded” in white power structures, that in their admittedly paranoid moments they wonder if white, liberal educators have devised this method purely to ensure that the power circles stay intact, with their children protected and the outsiders kept out.

I am deeply skeptical of the “guide on the side” approach , and I applauded wildly when Delpit pointed out the degree to which teachers using the “guide on the side” method are relying on passive, unstated authority. I have, on more than one occasion, pointed out that certain “norms” in progressive classrooms are little more than lies. For example, many teachers will review a student’s work and say “I have a question about…..” But this is simply untrue. The teacher has found an error. She doesn’t have to point out the error and she can make the student aware of the error with a question. But she should not imply that she is questioning the student’s work. (Worse, many teachers require students to point out what they believe are mistakes with the “I have a question” construct.). Delpit herself points out another pet peeve of mine–the verbal directive framed as a question. “Would you like to get your books out?” leaves the literal student a chance to say “no”. The teachers believe that they are modeling polite behavior, but the iron fist is right there behind the velvet glove.

However, Delpit apparently sees the progressive tradition as stemming from racial culture–specifically, the white race has established these norms and are now insisting that all other races follow along. Her stance completely ignores the enormous debate about progressive methods that exists within the overall educational community, independent of race. By framing it as a racial and cultural debate, Delpit lumps all white educators and parents into a belief system that many white parents, at least, profoundly oppose. (I wouldn’t be surprised if 50% or more of white parents would rather an expert teacher than a “co-learner”) Asian American opposition to progressive education tops that of whites. Likewise, many African American and Hispanic teachers strongly support progressive methods.
In class, I noticed that our discussion centered on the “silenced dialogue” and the “culture of power” metaphors in Delpit’s work, thus validating her framework of race and culture. This plays nicely into the “liberal” (Delpit’s word) world view and thus we spend another lesson on how we can “norm” our classroom to accept all cultures and try not to enforce our white values on other people. I have read other responses to Delpit’s work that also focus on the racial and cultural aspects. I have yet to see a discussion on whether or not the progressive tenet of “student-centered learning” might need adjustment or even abandonment.

Had Delpit aimed her barrage directly at progressive education, educators would have been forced to defend their methodology. Had she made more of her point that no data exists to support the notion that progressive methods are superior learning tools, she could have started a dialogue on whether or not progressive education itself meets the needs of all students. By framing it instead as a racial and cultural debate, she placed the war in comfortable terrain for the progressives themselves, who are able to ignore the implications of her argument. Delpit is correct that dialogue is silenced, but she’s got the players wrong. It’s not whites who are silencing dialogue, but progressive educators.