Student X and Why We CANNOT #evaluatethat

In response to an email I received from a student just two days ago and a conversation I had with a former student in the Spring of last year, I am compelled to add my two cents worth to an invitation from BATs (Badass Teacher Association) to flood Twitter with reasons teachers should not and CANNOT be evaluated by the standards set by SEED or Common Core. #evaluatethat 

StudX twitter 2I’ll begin with the conversation last Spring. I’ll call it The Nevin R Factor.

This young man, who had graduated from high school five years earlier, came back to visit some of his old teachers. He approached me by name. While he looked familiar, I couldn’t place him (as one could well imagine after years of teaching thousands of kids).

He fumbled, “You probably don’t remember me.” After saying his name, I did remember him– a funny, nudgy  type who didn’t want to do much and was capable of so much more. Nevin continued, “I really just wanted to say thank you. I was in your creative writing class. You failed me. I deserved it. Writing is my thing and I should have passed that class easily. In fact, my job is as a writer today. I wanted to say thank you because you being hard on me and failing me was the best thing that could have happened to motivate me to do well in college. Not only did you motivate me, but that class inspired me to become a writer.”

Next story of a similar nature. One I pass on to seniors every year. They are awestruck when they hear the audacity and result of it and I’m hopeful I reach some, if not all.

The Nick S Factor:

Nick was a student I’d had as a student in three English classes: American Literature, Reading Literature/Film, and British Literature. A student who liked English, was good at it, respectful, eager to please and had a mature, dry sense of humor, I was fond of him; so when he asked me to write his college letter of recommendation, I agreed without reservation.

Fast forward to almost Spring of that year when most students had decided upon their colleges. A colleague who had Nick in a Speech class approached me out of concern; Nick had just delivered a speech entitled “How to lie to get into college.” At first, I told her I thought it was a joke, something he’d contrived to get a laugh and win some street cred from his peers. When I spoke to Nick about it, he seemed very coy in admitting it wasn’t a lie. He had, in fact, lied on his resume and to the admissions officer in an interview to get into college. Guidance got involved and his parents; it was decided that we would do nothing, although I had revealed I was considering rescinding my letter of recommendation. Nick was able to loosely verify a minimal involvement in said activities he’d bolstered his participation in. I was uncomfortable about the decision and let Nick, his parents and guidance know.

Not two weeks later, he completely– I mean completely– plagiarized an essay for my class. As I read it, I recognized that it was not written in his voice and there were ideas in it that we’d never touched upon in class. This lead me to the computer where I found he’d lifted the whole thing.

My concern mounted on several levels:

#1 How/why was this seemingly nice kid doing everything in his power to reel out of control at the end of his senior year?

#2 How could I not rescind his letter of recommendation, something I’d never before or since been forced to do? Wasn’t it in his best interest to nip his arrogance in the bud to teach him that taking the easy way out is not okay?

#3 I write many recommendations every year to this college. My testimonial to a student’s character carries weight for all the future students I will write letters of recommendation to this college for.

I decided to rescind my letter. When the Dean of Admissions, with whom he’d had his interview, called me, I told him what I believe to be true. This is a good kid making some bad decisions whether out of fear for the future, laziness (seniorities, which is something most seniors feel a sense of entitlement about, today), or sheer arrogance that he’d get away with it.

I explained to Nick that I was acting in his best interest. The failing grade for the essay turned into a failing grade for the quarter, but not for the course. The letter I rescinded resulted in Nick having to go before a panel at the college, not to lose his admittance into the school, but to learn he’d begin college on probation. It was the hardest decision I’d made as a teacher. It effected me emotionally and personally, but in not taking the path of least resistance, I did what I wholly believed was in Nick’s best interest. The remainder of the year was uncomfortable; I don’t think he made eye contact with me once.

The following summer, I received a manila envelope in the mail, a letter from Nick, apologizing for his arrogance and his mistake. He said that he, now, respected my decision, stating that something I said would forever remain with him “It’s not about making mistakes. It’s a teenagers job to make mistakes. What defines your character is the what you do as a result of making mistakes. It’s all about what you learn from the experience.”

In addition, Nick wrote the essay he’d earlier plagiarized– his own words and original thought–  because he “respected” me “a lot” and he didn’t want my last memory of him to be of the “student who took the easy way out.”

StudX twitter3

While these stories have measurable indicators attached to them, they speak more to the far greater lesson these students learned which can’t be measured: lessons about motivation, hard/authentic work and character. In both situations, if the only the numbers were considered, I would have failed. 

These next three stories can’t be measured by numbers or grades; they simply speak to a teacher affecting human beings. StudX twitter 1

Using The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, as an anchor text, I teach a unit I call Words Matter (written about in an earlier blog). The essence of the unit centers around how we use language. In reading Huck Finn and other selections of non-fiction centered around the use of the “N” word, we talk about censorship, hurtful words/terms, racism, oppression, bullying, cultural diversity, audience. Finally, we deconstruct the use of the “N” word as a model for students deconstructing words/terms of a personal nature that have had an effect on their own lives.

Words Matter: A Lesson from Mark Twain

Consequently, the timing of this unit inevitably falls around the time of our B-1 day (also blogged about earlier) where our students come together to celebrate diversity within our school. It is a day when we abandon our classes and routines to attend events completely organized and implemented by the students for the students (an annual event that takes place founded upon reaction to the events of Columbine High School Massacre some 15 years ago).

Be One World

Student 1:

Steve B is a student I had in class two years in a row. First, sophomore year, he was a bit of a scooch who liked to seek attention whether it be positive or negative. I’d learned, as a young boy, he lost his mom which explained so much of his behavior. After the Words Matter unit, the second year he was in my class, and at the B-1 day open mic event, Steve approached the microphone to declare to the whole student body that he’d learned a lot about words recently and how they affect people. He said while he never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings, and he singled out a boy who he was sure he had, Steve apologized. Later, in class, when I commended him on this act, he shared with the class why he used sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism and attributed this realization to what he’d learned in my class.

Student 2:

Izzy G, post Words Matter, a tough-around-the-edges kind of girl who tried not to show others her weaknesses, sent me an email apologizing for not being in class. She went onto explain how a close friend had just committed suicide and she couldn’t help but think that if she’d been part of our Words Matter classes that she might not have. Izzy went on to say that she learned that what we say to others could have a deep impact and life altering results. She asked that I read her email aloud to the class and begged them to go out of their way to say something nice to someone on that day.

Student 3:

This year, I’ve just begun the unit a week ago and received this email from a student who already feels impacted enough to make this connection to the Ellen Page video she found on Tumblr.

Stud X email final

The truth is teachers impact students like this every day. Some, we are lucky enough to know the impact we’ve had on them and some we never will. THIS is why I teach. Because I affect peoples’ lives. This CANNOT nor will it ever have the ability to be measured, attributed a standard, or aptly documented. What we teach is far greater than the sum of any indicators or any amount of data. And as I said to Student 3, “While we cannot change the world, if we can alter the thinking of some, we are moving the world to a better place.” I challenge those behind SEED and COMMON CORE and data-driven instruction to #EVALUATETHAT.




NOT Giving Up on Education


Over the summer, the book One Size Does Not Fit All by Nikhil Goyal caught my eye. It crept up on a few different occasions before I bought it. It wasn’t the title that first sparked a curiosity; instead, it was the age of it’s author– 17 years old, yes, 17. I did not read the book when I purchased it. Rather, it sat in my to-read pile for months. When I returned to school, the title of our principal’s professional development workshop was “One Size Does Not Fit All.” I assumed that he’d read the book, but he never mentioned it in his lecture/power point which focused on differentiated instruction. One of his primary messages was to provide students the opportunities to do-over their work until they reach a comprehensive understanding. I walked away from the workshop thoughtful about his messages.

I recall, as a young teacher– some twenty-ish years ago, I was like a sponge at workshops like this, soaking in all of the information I could. Over the last four – eight years, let’s say I’ve become somewhat jaded, if not skeptical, because I don’t readily “buy” the information put in front of me. I’m confident and experienced enough to question when I don’t think something is right– especially where it concerns my passion which is educating young people– the doers and thinkers and leaders of our future.

On a cold January night, I recalled Goyal’s book, sitting in my to-read pile, so I cozied up on the couch and began to read. I found myself connecting to so many of his assertions in the book. How we are dumbing down education and not focusing on the right things. How education, today, is more about political agendas (such as ‘No Child Left Behind’ and ‘Race to the Top’) and financial interests. I was encouraged by his proposals regarding how to engage kids in today’s society. He inspired me to want to DO something as a result of reading this book, which I read cover to cover in just two hours.

We, teachers, have been so entrenched in data-driven instruction, common assessment, common formative assessment, national testing. For God’s sake, we are now administering the P.S.A.T.s during school. As both a parent and a teacher, I find no relevance for the P.S.A.T.s (which is touted as a practice S.A.T.); it certainly was not an indicator of how my children scored on the S.A.T.s. It’s a money maker for College Board is what it is, as are all of the mandated tests, in my opinion. Furthermore, we are moving in the direction of Common Core, a new educational movement to streamline all education. In my discipline, at least, it seeks to move away from teaching classical literature to non-fiction. While I do believe there is a place for non-fiction in our English classrooms, I don’t believe in sacrificing the history of the body of canonical classics that have both reflected and shaped our society. It is in knowing what has come before us that helps us understand what lies ahead of us. The classics teach us to become literate people. I mean literate in the sense that we share a common language of race, segregation, feminism, religion, freedom, success, civil rights, war, coming of age… and the list goes on an on. My stance is not about not wanting to change. I am a huge proponent of change, most recently infusing technology in the classroom. I believe in making education relevant for our youth; moreover, I strongly believe that in making it relevant is where true learning occurs. Students don’t want to be taught a novel, for instance, in isolation. It’s in the way a student can connect it to his/her own life that matters.

But with all of this… minutia… that we are required to address, what truly shapes our students into educated, self-advocating, creative, community-minded, life-long learners is getting lost. Goyal quotes Robin Hanson, when he says “Our schools are creating less creative people.” Why?? Because in order to measure data, one needs to teach measurable information– that is the black & white, right or wrong information of old. It’s in the grey areas where ideas and creativity emerge. To support this, Goyal refers to studies that have found, as noted on Edutopia, submitted by Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond who conclude:

1. Students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems, and when they take part in projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.

2. Active-learning practices have a more significant impact on student     performance than any other variable, including student background and             prior achievement.

3. Students are most successful when they are taught how to learn as well as what to learn.

Time and time again, I have referred to Ken Robinson’s TED talk asserting that only through developing creativity in students are we doing our jobs in preparing them for the future.

In my experience, the complex group projects which present a problem to solve or a task to accomplish without providing step-by-step directions are the ones students learn the most from. Through these projects, they acquire life skills in working as part of a team, creating a product, figuring out how to create the product, researching, reaching dead-ends, problem solving, goal setting, working towards one’s strengths, overcoming obstacles, time management… the list goes on and on. Skills such as these will long take precedence over the content knowledge they’ve gained. I receive letters from alumni, who had whined through these kinds of  projects, stating something like, “Just tell us what you want,” who come to thank me for the knowledge they’ve acquired as a result, something that puts them one step ahead of their college peers.

Goyal states, “The purpose of school is to create lifelong learners. Period.” Students who need to learn only to pass a test, learn what they need to in order to pass the test, then forget about it the very next day. Further, Goyal asserts that assessment shouldn’t be a paper trail of who met the goals we set out for them; instead, it should be a conversation. He suggests we allow students to question and critique other students. This reminds me of the way I structure writing workshops. Students are provided with others’ writings, given time to comment in writing and, then, they do so orally in a round-table, workshop fashion. It becomes of conversation of what is and is not working in the pieces. Students come away from this experience asking when we can do it again because they learned so much from hearing the critiques of their peers. If we are asking students to write essays and norm their responses,  how are we honoring their individuality as writers and communicators?

I scarily envision the goals education in the future to create little clones of all the successful models who have come before them. For we will have a precise model if we study the data accurately enough, won’t we?

education wordle

What I respect about Goyal’s work is how well researched it was– he covered such a wide platform of issues that have arisen in education, speaking with leaders in education– those immersed in the field of education. Moreover, he provides plausible recommendations for how to make education better for the future.

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Creative Thinking
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Curiosity
  6. Risk-taking
  7. Overcoming Failure

He proposes that we re-think education. We change our mindset about failure, realizing that one needs to fail many times before one meets with success. Instead of coddling students with a false sense of accomplishment, we should herald failure when it’s an honest attempt to succeed. Goyal further proposes we allow students a  voice in where the path of their education goes– allowing them to work to their strengths and interests– because people are happier and more productive when they enjoy what they do.

If teachers become so sidetracked through all of the hoops we need to jump through for state-mandates and funds, the real business of education becomes lost. The creators and thinkers and entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow will be the victims.

I urge you to read this book if you are an educator, a parent, a student, a supporter of education. I purchased one for each of my administrators, hoping Goyal’s message resonates with them, so they could pass it on.