Systemic Change: Study dismisses poverty, but try telling that to the poor

Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy is spot on when he blasts the Heritage Foundation and their portrayal of America’s poor.  Here’s an excerpt:

By the researchers’ reckoning, we probably shouldn’t be too alarmed by the Census Bureau’s announcement Tuesday that thenation’s poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 in 2010. And we probably shouldn’t fret that there are now more Americans living in poverty — 46.2 million — than at any other time in the past half-century.

Just numbers, they wrote dismissively of such poverty data. What the Census Bureau omits, they contended, is an accounting of the benefits that the poor receive from the “welfare state.” From what the government defines as poverty — for instance, a family of four with a household income of about $22,000 a year — a picture emerges of people who might well be regarded as rich anywhere else in the world.

I’m glad to hear so many people beginning to speak out against our nation’s dismal poverty rate.  Just because we can prove that their are exceptions who can escape poverty and be successful, does not mean that we stop fighting to end poverty.  Read more of Courtland Milloy’s piece here.

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Systemic Change: Public education’s biggest problem gets worse

As part of my Systemic Change category, I’ve found yet another article that sheds light on poverty’s impact on school reform.  Valerie Strauss, from the Washington Post, recently published Public education’s biggest problem gets worse.  In her piece, she underscores that we cannot truly fix schools without also addressing our nation’s poverty crisis.  Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

But we need to face facts: Problems in schools would remain even if every teacher were magnificent (show me a profession where that is true about every practioner) because teachers are obviously enormously important, but they are not the only factor that goes into how well children succeed.

The current direction of school reform is making it even harder to fix broken schools and improve the ones that do well even if they suffer from 20th century design and resources.

Making teachers entirely responsible for a student’s academic progress — regardless of whether the child eats enough or sleeps enough or gets enough medical attention — is counterproductive. Pretending that these issues can be “factored out” in some kind of mathematical formula that can assess how much “value” a teacher has added to a student’s progress is near nutty. That’s not just me saying it. Leading mathematicians say it too.

The effects of poverty on children matter in regard to student achievement. That is not to say that efforts to improve teacher quality, modernize curriculum, infuse technology into the classroom where it makes sense and other reforms should not be pursued. But doing all of that while ignoring the conditions in which kids live is a big waste of time.

Read more of the op-ed at the Washington Post online by clicking here.

Dr. Steve Perry is No Nonsense about Educating Our Youth

My friend and fellow University of Maryland alumnus, Joi Marie McKenzie, had the opportunity sit down the Dr. Steve Perry.  She asked him some great questions, including one I submitted.  Below is the question and response:

Loop 21: What role do you feel educators have in advocating for policies or programs that help to eradicate poverty?

Dr. Perry: I believe educators are professionally obligated to ensure that they, with all do haste, work for the betterment of children beyond just coming to work and teach somebody how to add. They must advocate for programs and policies that will enrich these children lives that means that if they see a policy that will provide a free reduced lunch for children, they have to support that. If they see a policy that will close failed schools, they have to support that. If they see a policy that will allow children to have choice, as opposed to the current system where the parent has to move the family or a parent has to win the lottery whether it be the economic lottery or the lottery of getting into a good school, then they have to support that. If teachers are truly to fulfill their obligation and represent the calling that is ours, then they have to advocate even when advocacy could lead to the loss of their own job.

What are your thoughts on what Dr. Steve Perry said?

Check out Joi’s entire interview at The Loop 21.

Systemic Change: Paul Tough’s “No, Seriously: No Excuses”

This week, I’m adding a new category to my blog:  Systemic Change.  In this category, I will post links to great articles published on the web that offer excellent insight into how we can best improve our nation’s public school system.   These articles will address one of the root causes of inequality in America:  poverty.

My first article, No, Seriously: No Excuses, was published in The New York Times earlier this summer.  It is a piece by Paul Tough, author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.

Here’s a short excerpt:

The reformers’ policy goals are, in most cases, quite worthy. Yes, contracts should be renegotiated so that the best teachers are given incentives to teach in the poorest schools, and yes, school systems should extend the school day and school year for low-income students, as many successful charter schools have done. But these changes are not nearly sufficient. As Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education, wrote recently in Education Week, traditional reform strategies “will not, on average, enable us to overcome the barriers to student learning posed by the conditions of poverty.” Reformers also need to take concrete steps to address the whole range of factors that hold poor students back. That doesn’t mean sitting around hoping for utopian social change. It means supplementing classroom strategies with targeted, evidence-based interventions outside the classroom: working intensively with the most disadvantaged families to improve home environments for young children; providing high-quality early-childhood education to children from the neediest families; and, once school begins, providing low-income students with a robust system of emotional and psychological support, as well as academic support.

Continue to read more by clicking here.

Education Reformers: We cannot ignore poverty


No matter how much people try to ignore poverty’s influence on the education of our nation’s most vulnerable children, as a teacher, I am hit head on with its power each day.  Last night, a teacher told me that one of her students is now homeless because their family has been evicted from their home.  Immediately, I thought about how this would affect his learning.  Yes, we can provide a stable environment for him at school, but that does not change the fact that he is homeless.  Also, one of my students has a skirt that is too small, but it is the only uniform skirt she has.  She wears the skirt pulled up and unzipped on the side.  I have to buy her a skirt.  These are just two of the countless experiences of students growing up in impoverished urban communities.  These are situations that they were born into and cannot control.

Being a teacher has created a heavy heart in me that impacts how I feel about solving our nation’s failing public schools.   I feel compelled to purchase everything my scholars need.  However, on my teachers salary, I am faced with the reality that I cannot but everything that my students need no matter how much I want to.  I read this week that someone said that the problem is not just on failing public schools, but it is also on failing communities.  As a nation, we must do everything possible to eradicate poverty.  If we really want to reform public education, we must also charge our elected officials to create policies that create more sustainable communities.  We also have to charge communities to unite and become a voice that takes back their futures.  As teachers, administrators, central office personnel, and other staff, we must also speak out against this injustice.  That’s how we truly level the playing field.

There is talk around some new school reformers that poverty isn’t a factor.  Yes, in the “exceptions” poverty may not be a factor.  However, success for all should be a rule.  I am becoming more convinced that people who say that poverty is not a factor have the luxury of escaping poverty in their daily lives.  They do not have to live in it.  They do not have to frequent the social circles of those living in poverty.  It is easy for someone who does not live or truly interact with people living in poverty to say to someone living in poverty that they can “just get over it.”  People with this mentality encounter poverty on the surface level.  As education reformers, we have to dig deeper.

Poverty is at the root of our nation’s public school monstrosity.  Yes, we do need to transform how public schools operate, increase the rigor and academic performance of our nation’s schools, and attract and retain the best and brightest teachers in the classroom, among other internal school issues.  Nevertheless, we must simultaneously address poverty.  If we do not do this, we are doing our students and their families a disservice for we know that economic inequality is an injustice.  And I refuse to be silent about it.

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Two quotes from great men:

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” -Martin Luther King, Jr

I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight. Malcolm X

Late Night Thoughts: I do not want to burn out

I got home about a half hour ago–not from having a nice dinner with friends–but after spending 4 hours planning after school.  Now don’t get me wrong, you know I love my school.  I love my students.  I love their families.  I even received a phone call from one student tonight as I was getting ready to leave, and I told her I was still at school preparing for her classmates tomorrow.  She was in shock.  She had no idea that her teachers spent so much time to create a positive learning environment for them each day.  Like my student, many people also are unaware of the late nights and weekends teachers spend regularly in order to stay afloat and push students to make significant academic gains.  It is only the second week of school, I must find a balance.

Moreover, the bottom line is that I do not want to end up like I did last year–burned out.  I dropped 5 pounds (weight my petite self definitely does not need to lose) and found myself spending Friday nights in a deep slumber instead of enjoying my youthful twenty-something years.  Many people may be wondering, “Why are you at school that late?  Why don’t you just go home?”  The fact is that I have way too much work on my plate and there are not enough hours to do it.  Most people can leave their work at work.  Teachers cannot do this.  Much preparation is done after work hours.  At my school, teachers are given a 45 minute prep period in order to prepare to teach 2 hour and 40 minute content blocks twice a day, daily twenty minute character building lessons, breakfast duties, among other necessary responsibilities.  The time just does not exist in the day to plan.  On top of planning, we also have to grade and track student work.  Each of these tasks takes multiple hours and each task must be done in order to produce the results we all want.

I am not complaining.  I am simply shedding light on the life of a teacher.  Starting today (I’m not going to include time spent prior), I am going to track the amount of hours I spend at school and at home doing the work of a teacher.  I will post updates of my hours in an attempt to showcase that teachers work relentlessly for their students.   I think many people will be amazed at how hard we work each day to prepare our nation’s future to live the lives of their dreams.   Many teachers could say, I’m off at such and such time and I’m not doing this, but we do it because we care for our students.  We want them to succeed and know that their futures depend on our high expectations, our top-notch lessons, and the sacrifice of our personal lives.  As a teacher in a turnaround school (a school that is labeled as chronically failing a.k.a. our nation’s worst public schools), I know that my work is crucial.  Teaching is truly a labor of love.

The First Phone Call

Around 9:00pm on the second night of school, I received a phone call from one of my scholar’s parents.  I answered the phone and heard the pleasant voice of my scholar’s mom.  She began by explaining that her son was upset with her because she had not completed the contact form that was part of his homework on the first night.  Since he had not completed all of his homework, he did not receive a sticker for Homework Hoopsters* earlier that day in school.  He was one of three students who had not had this part of his homework completed.

I was thrilled to receive the phone call because it confirmed for me that my scholar was invested in class.  He wanted to be a Homework Hoopster and his mom assured me that he would bring it in the next day.  I explained to her my homework policy and she understood that he would not receive a sticker for that day.  It is best to have a hard, consistent stance with homework or else I risk students making up excuses for not returning homework in the future.   I will be sure to give him a shout out in school on Thursday morning.

*Homework Hoopsters is a monthly homework incentive program that I created last year.  On Monday a homework packet is sent in each child’s homework binder with a class newsletter that includes a place for parent’s to sign each night.  The homework for the week is included in each packet, but students only have to complete that night’s homework.  The next day, the homework is checked by a City Year Corps Member and a sticker is placed by a student’s name on a homework tracker prominently displayed in the room.  At the end of the month, the top homework returners receive a sweet treats (ie cupcakes, cookies, brownies, etc) party.  The treat varies from month-to-month.  Those students also receive a Homework Hoopster certificate.

Supporting Students: Focus Five Plan!

I experienced my first challenge by one of my scholars on the first day of school.  He came late to school and although I greeted him with a smile and encouraged him to join the group, I could tell by the look in his eyes that something was wrong.  I knew him from last year because I taught his older brother.  His mother is supportive, and I know I can always count on her to ensure that lessons taught at school are enforced at home.  Additionally, the other third grade teacher and I had a home visit with him and his mom prior to the start of the year so that we could begin building a relationship with him.  Lastly, I knew he had a Tier 2 Intervention Plan called Check In, Check Out (CICO).  CICO is an intervention created by the school that targets students who need an extra layer of behavioral support.  Scholars receive 3-4 targeted goals and teachers check in and out with them at the end of the morning and afternoon blocks.  At the end of the day, if a scholar has a certain numbers of points, he/she receives a small prize.  CICO proved to be extremely successful for my scholars last year.

This scholar, who I will refer to as Trey, refused to take part in our whole group exercises and soon began to tear up the classroom.  He tore his cardstock desk nametag to shreds and threw the pieces around the room.  He then proceeded to throw crayon boxes and pencils around the room.  It was during this moment of the day that I knew that he would be the first student that I will begin my Focus Five plan with.  Over the summer, I came up with a plan called Focus Five to target students throughout the day who I need to build immediate relationships with in order to ensure that I have a positive classroom culture.  The Focus Five plan is for me to spend significant amount of extra time with these scholars each day by doing things like eating lunch or playing on the recess field together, and taking the scholar aside and giving positive praise, among other things.  It is through this plan that I will speed up the relationship process in an effort to get this scholar to buy-in to the fact that I want him/her to learn and that I want him/her to feel comfortable in my class.

When I taught in New Orleans, I used a similar plan to create an incentive program for one of my students who wore a hat to school each day and would refuse to take it off and constantly avoided learning by walking around the classroom picking on other students to mask his low self-esteem.  It took me a bit of time to realize that he did not want to take his hat off because he was embarrassed that he did not have a haircut.  If I had not developed a relationship with him, he would not have confided in me about something so personal to him that was partly affecting his ability to learn in class.   I knew he came from an unstable home environment and was practically being raised by his older sister.  I decided that I would create a special plan for him that would allow him to get hair cuts on a regular basis while we also spent time building our teacher-student relationship.  In no time, I saw a change in my former student’s behavior.   He knew that I cared and that made a major difference.

Our kids have things that they deal with daily, and as teachers, we have to get to the root of what is stopping them from learning.  We cannot solve all problems, but we can give it our best shot.  The Focus Five plan will begin today in an effort to tackle potential problem behaviors early on through purposeful relationship building with Trey.  I will be sure to blog the student’s progress and any details of the plan that I have implemented.  Let us hope this plan works!

The First Days of School!

The first day of school was Monday, August 22nd.  It was the first taste of turnaround year two for a staff of a little more than half returning.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  After going through a whirlwind year one, I did not think too much calamity could shock me.  The other third grade teacher and I talked briefly before walking to the blacktop to meet our scholars and their parents.  I told her I was not nervous and assured her that we are fourth year teachers.  We have done this for three years already.  Walking swiftly to a sea of staff, parents and scholars with khaki bottom combinations and array of colored shirts, I soon was surrounded by my scholars from last year.  Greeted with bear hugs and smiles, I was amazed by how much they grew over the summer–most nearly matched my five-foot stature.  The morning was so calming and it was the first sign that turnaround year two would be different.

During breakfast, I met most of my new third grade scholars for the first time.  I placed nametags on their shirts as we exchanged brief get-to-know-you conversations.  We soon headed up to my classroom and my show began.  I began by telling them how we are “The Best Class on Earth” to go with the circus-themed décor and they completed their do-now. One major aspect of my school’s program is our school-wide culture plans.  After teaching in the Scholar Academies (www.scholaracademies.org) model for a year, investing my scholars in our culture goals came naturally.

Nevertheless, what I was not expecting was for them to be as receptive as they were to redirection.  Last year, there was a lot of resistance to the school culture.  Our scholars were not used to receiving consistent consequences of any form and did not understand why we practiced procedures so much at the start and throughout the year.  “If we don’t do it right the first time, we have to do it again,” I said as we practiced how to walk into the classroom and the rest of my beginning of the day procedures.  “We practice so we do not waste our learning time,” I followed up.  They did it without much huffing, puffing or tantrums.  Some students made occasional small comments, but took redirection extremely well.  Their response time was quicker and I had little instances of what was coined “the Stanton stare” last year–the stare students gave us when thinking whether they wanted to comply with a demand.  It seemed as if the hard work put in last year made a major difference—our students were understanding why we come to school and why we “sweat the small stuff” when it comes to school-wide systems such as walking quietly in the halls on the blue tiles or practicing bathroom procedures or always tracking the speaker while talking.  Day one as a school was good.

Day two proved to be even better than day one for me.  I enjoy having a projector in my classroom now.  The scholars love how interactive my lessons are and how I incorporate video clips and music into my lessons.  I have found www.zamzar.com to be a great a resource for converting video and music files to be used in the classroom.  During my Daily Do Now exercise, students listen to inspirational songs such as R Kelly’s The World’s Greatest and Ashanti’s Dreams.  They love the music, and the songs make them feel good.  Today, my scholars had an opportunity to watch a short clip of The Little Red Hen, discuss how to be classroom helpers and apply for classroom jobs.  They also listened to a read aloud on how we are alike titled The Me Too Game and played Stand Up, Sit Down to illustrate how we have so many things in common.  In the afternoon, I experienced my first earthquake while teaching.   My students had differing reactions.  Some where scared while others laughed.   We had to evacuate the building and school dismissed early.

Yesterday, I was reminded of Tuckman’s four stages of group development:  forming, storming, norming and performing.  Last year, I would say we made it through the forming and storming phase.  These first two days of school have felt like we have made it to the norming phase.  Our school is beginning to feel like the “learning sanctuary” described in our vision statement.  Our school has grown leaps and bounds from where it was last year, hopefully results will show over time.  Here’s to the best class on earth!

Currently fixing a broken plane while flying it!

After taking a one-year hiatus from blogging, I’m so happy to be back.   When I last blogged, I discussed the end of my Teach For America committment, and my decision to move back to the east coast.  In an effort to be closer to friends and family, I left the Crescent City and everything I had known since graduating in 2008.  I loved living in New Orleans and maintain contact with my friends and coworkers (Hi Milestone SABIS Academy!).   Nevertheless, in June of 2010, my 5 foot, 1 inch self, packed up my car with everything it could fit and drove from New Orleans, LA to Knoxville, TN and finally to Washington, D.C.

In June of 2011, I took a job at DC Scholars: Stanton Elementary.  After interviewing with several schools and education nonprofits, I decided that Stanton Elementary was the right place for me.  Stanton presented a unique opportunity for me to be the founding teacher of a District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) partnership school.  A partnership school is a new endeavor for DCPS where schools implement a turnaround model.  DC Scholars Stanton is managed by Scholar Academies out of Philadelphia, P.A.  I was eager to teach in a school that is on the cusp of school reform and on the frontlines of the toughest work–taking a failing school and completing setting it on the path to be a high-achieving school.  I signed up bright-eyed and eager to be a part of such work, in an area of DC that has been overlooked.

More importantly, Stanton reminded me of home.  It was a chance to work in a community similar to the one’s my peers back in Bridgeton, NJ experienced.  It was a chance for me to learn and advocate on behalf of the people working tirelessly everyday in a system that is currently set-up to allow them to fail.  Little did I know that embarking on such a journey as turnaround would place me head first in one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences of my entire life.

Last week, my coworkers and I began year two of turnaround.  At professional development, our principal, showed the following video of year one at Stanton.  Take a look at it below:

Many people will watch this video, and think we crashed and burned.  However, what you just saw is what many experience in turnaround work.   We came in thinking that obstacles were normal turbulence, but found out later we were in the ride of a lifetime.  People involved in turning around our nation’s most failing schools require unique skills because turnaround is no ordinary undertaking.  As a staff, we developed our turnaround toolbox.  Dealing with the fact that we have little resources (ie no computer lab and teachers have to share projectors), we began and continue to problem solve in order to meet extremely high expectations.

Our principal went on to tell us that turnaround staff have what most consider an impossible task:  We have to fix a broken plane while flying it.  And while many would spew doubt on our ambitions, we know that the time is crucial to give all children an opportunity–and that means taking best practices from high-performing schools and applying them to public schools.   Our scholars in southeast DC, deserve every opportunity as their more affluent peers in northwest DC.  We are here to help put our scholars on the path to success–no matter what it takes.  I commend the parents of my scholars for joining us in the journey.

I hope that you continue to read my blog, feel my passion, and are inspired through my words to take charge in advocating and acting on behalf of the greater good.  Thanks for taking time to read my first post in quite some time.  Feel free to leave comments and engage.