Take your curriculum, and throw it in the garbage (sácalo)!

And your pacing guides, and your required reading lists….

I firmly believe that if I were to enter the classroom again, I’d be fired before October.

But, hear me out…

“The child who is explained to will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving: to understanding, that is to say, to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to.” (Rancière, 1991, p. 8)

I have the privilege of taking a summer course with a professor who embraces intellectual emancipation.  We’re reading, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, by Rancière which reminds us that we are all born with intellectual power, but that power is stultified, or rendered stupid, because teachers become master explicators.  The above quote shows what happens when students are explained to.  They begin to doubt themselves, they don’t realize the true power of their intellect, and they become stultified.  How sad.

I have also had the privilege of meeting a 20 year old who despises reading.  He said he’s never picked up or read a book on his own, and he shared his frustration with me that he never understood why he was reading things that didn’t mean anything to him in school, like Romeo and Juliet.  He also told me that he loves The Freedom Writers movie, and wishes his school experience was more like that.

I brought him a copy of The Freedom Writer’s diary on Monday, and something that shouldn’t surprise us happened, he opened the book and began reading it on his own.

Imagine if we gave students the ability to realize their intellectual power?  Imagine if we threw our curriculum away and listened to what students wanted to learn?  Imagine if we allowed curiosity to take our students to intellectual heights instead of filling their heads with knowledge that one person decided was important enough to be a multiple choice question on a test?  That would be intellectual emancipation at its finest.

Some teachers are already doing this.  But if they’re like I was in the classroom, they’re doing it subtly while still meeting the demands of their “superiors”.  My question for all teachers is, “why do we continue to do things we don’t think are right for kids?”

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“Mr. Duarte, shouldn’t you be teaching at one of those white schools?”

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954)

It’s been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark civil right’s case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that separate but equal schools have no place because separate schools are inherently unequal.  When asked to write about the implications of this decision for school administrators today, I found myself lamenting about the responsibility we have to close the achievement gap.  Since, this gap, proves that many of our schools serving low-income and students of color are in fact, inherently unequal.  Here are the demographics and state accountability rating of the school I taught at:

  • 31% African American
  • 46% Hispanic
  • 88% Low Income
  • Among the lowest achieving and least improving schools in the state

In my second year at the school, I had a student ask me, “Why are you teaching here?  You expect us to do so much work, you should be working in one of those white schools somewhere near where you live or where you grew up.”  My heart was instantly shattered.  This was a student who had been completely critical of everything I had been trying to do, she would make an effort to derail my lesson on a daily basis.  She had been challenging me this whole time and up until this moment, I couldn’t figure out why.  You see, this student represents the typical feeling of a child growing up in a community with poorly performing schools.  As Brown v. Board stated, “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”  My heart broke in pieces when she said this because I instantly understood that up until her 8th grade English class, she had been lead to believe that she was inferior; that she didn’t deserve a good teacher, that she didn’t deserve a quality education or the chance to go to college.  She didn’t believe that the school I was teaching at was good enough to have me and that she was good enough to be in my class.  I finally understood why she was challenging me; she didn’t think she could perform in my class because she never had a teacher that made her feel that she could achieve.

Isn’t that an educator’s essential job?  Aren’t we supposed to be the cheerleaders for our students?  Aren’t we supposed to tell them that they can achieve their wildests dreams?  How can we look a child in the face and say, “No, you cannot be an astronaut beucase you attend one of the lowest achieveing schools in the state, which will put you behind everyone else that will be competing for that job.”?  Now, of course this sounds a little harsh, but isn’t it essentially what we are doing in our public schools?  If an eighth grader can look me in the face and tell me I’m too good a teacher to be working in her school because of where its located and who it serves, we are violating the very right cited in Brown v. Board;the opportunity of an education to be made available to all on equal terms.

 

Why standardized test scores are virtually useless to teachers

I spent the better part of the morning on Friday reviewing my student’s standardized test scores and here is what I learned:

  • My 2013/14 8th graders scored generally better than my 2012/13 8th graders in English Language Arts
  • My deep analysis of interim assessment data and focus on reader response writing seemed to pay off in 2013/14
  • Some students made great gains
  • Some students scores dropped from 7th grade to 8th grade
  • 69% of my students were proficient while only 44% of the 8th graders at the school were proficient
  • 79% of 8th graders in the state were proficient; while I’m narrowing the gap in my school, my students are still falling behind when compared to the state

Now, none of this really matters at this point.  These students are off in high school with some other teacher looking at their scores who knows very little about them at this stage in the school year.  To compare the 2012/13 students with the 2013/14 students seems odd to me since one of the classes I taught last year had higher scores overall than my classes the previous year.  I had more special needs students in 2012/13 and in 2013/14 I had zero special needs students and a handful of English Language Learners.  Also, the students I had in 2012/13 had different teachers in 7th grade than the students in 2013/14 did.  How can I truly tell that what I did differently from one year to the next made a difference?  There are some other clues, like interim assessment data that I received throughout the school year that do point to successes in my practice, but overall, to look at my data from one year to the next is comparing apples to oranges.

And this is why standardized test scores are meaningless to teachers.  Administrators, politicians, and parents want to hold us accountable, but how can you hold us accountable when we test students in the Spring and don’t receive the results until the Fall while we have a whole new group of students in front of us?  My point is that while the scores may tell us a little bit about our teaching practice, they tell us a lot more about our students; and by that time it’s too late.  I’m so proud of the students who made gains last year in my class, I’m also proud that I had a higher percentage of students proficient than my school did, but I won’t ever get the chance to see what went wrong with the kids who’s scores dropped or did not score proficient.  To reasonably hold teachers accountable for this data, we either need to receive the data while the students are in front of us or teach the same cohort for more than one year; otherwise, its a total waste of time and money.

Letter to an empty head

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Freedom Writer Teacher’s Institute with Erin Gruwell and her students in Long Beach, CA.  One of the activities we were asked to do was to use a graphic with the shape of a head on it to describe one of our most struggling students.  On the inside of the empty head, we were asked to use words to describe the student’s thoughts and feelings, and on the outside we wrote words to describe the external factors in this student’s life.  Below is a letter that I wrote to my “empty head” and it is a symbol of not only the challenges we’re up against, but of the painful reality that we don’t ever have enough time to reach all of our kids…

Dear Val,

I really wish you came to school more often.  Remember that conversation we had while I was sitting at my desk and you were standing over me asking what work you had to do to be able to pass for the semester?  You ended up doing all that work in just two days from the in-house suspension room!  Even though it ended up being a “D” on your report card, you were happy to have passed despite all the absences.  I know you really want to do well and you really want to be successful, why else would you ask me how I can afford to wear Ferragamos on a teacher salary?  I mean, what eighth grader even knows what Ferragamos are?!  I know that you deal drugs so that you can build an image for yourself, but I want you to know that with your determination, confidence, charm, and desire, you could do so much more than just “look” successful.  I know you were listening to me when I told you that clean money is better than dirty money and I hope you always remember that conversation, because I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.

Sincerely,

Mr. D