BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER LARRY CIARELLI
I am an educator in an urban environment in western Pennsylvania. I teach first grade ELA. This is my 25th year of teaching. I have experienced many challenging situations in my career. After teaching online and adjusting to the new normal of teaching due to the Coronavirus, I have a few topics that I would like to address or share.
I feel that all students in Pennsylvania that return to school in the fall are going to need basic foundational skill review from the prior grade more than when addressing the usual summer slide. These skills were possibly only provided for half of the year leading up to the closing of schools due to Coronavirus. My first graders had a solid foundation, participated in online learning, but clearly did not close the year as I would have liked. Some of my first graders were still cracking the reading code, and others were almost there. I am concerned that frustration levels will run high next year. I don’t want my students feeling that in their second-grade year.
Educators like myself will need time to individualize instruction based on their students while providing grade-level standards. There will be times where I will need to take a step back and address unfinished learning with my new students that were not addressed. Modifying and scaffolding will be needed to address unfinished learning the students need.
I have had multiple students in my classroom in the past that closed their learning gaps after using small group instruction with targeted skills based on assessments. I used centers throughout all my years of teaching. This allowed me to meet with fewer students daily.
Two important steps for me will be gathering data and holding discussions with teachers from the prior year to get an idea of where to start with my new students. I believe a growth model that adjusts for students’ specific contexts is best suited for next year, not a standardized evaluation, or a hard focus on rigorous prescribed curriculum models.
This will require creativity with time and a lot of flexibility. I do not feel a “business as usual” approach is going to be effective. Districts need to understand that teachers are professionals, know their students best, and have the tools to make remediation successful. In some of my years of teaching my opinions were highly valued, and other years I was told to follow directions.
We need to voice our opinions, recommendations, and be allowed to move forward with covering the unfinished learning in our own creative ways. There have been so many changes in education since I started in 1994. It seems as if there is less flexibility and fewer freedoms given to teachers in our nation as a whole.
I hope that districts across Pennsylvania understand educator concerns, and take in the valuable recommendations and feedback that teachers have. Because we must look to those who best understand the learning needs of our students, I ask that decision makers consider Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee’s Recommendations for the 2020-2021 School Year. I know in my heart that everyone is trying to do their best in decision making, but I feel the teacher’s voice is not being heard enough.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER KAREN GENNARO
Have you heard of the ‘Bergson legend’? Well, if your curiosity is sparked, you are entering the realm of wonderment Roderick Gilkey, professor at the Emory University Schools of Medicine and Business, and Dr. Clint Kilts, director of the Psychiatric Research Institute’s Brain Imaging Research Center have called the “serious business of play.” Play provides opportunities for direct experiences. Gilkey and Kilts assert “direct experience remains the keystone of a person’s brain development” (2007).
I love legends! Legends link us and our imaginations with people, places, ideas, belief systems...bringing forth a zeitgeist we may never have fathomed but for the resilience of a transcendent narrative. So, who is this legendary Bergson? And how is all of this relevant to play, that universal heritage of childhood?
Before digging in, let’s take a moment to construct a common understanding of the word “play”. According to the free dictionary, it is derived from the Old English word “plegian” which meant to exercise....move about freely, to frolic. Present-day definitions of play are diverse, deceptively simple, encompass nearly all forms of engagement, and merge with a multiplicity of states of being.
Gilkey and Kilts toss up an educationally relevant definition of this ‘serious business of play’ both as a verb: “individual or group imaginative activity that promotes discovery and learning, or a social activity that promotes emotional and social intelligence; and as a noun: an activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation.” So, children play. Children learn. Children grow. Children change. Now, what about the ‘Bergson legend’?
Well, Henri Bergson was a French mathematician, thinker, writer, and philosopher. His ideas rose to prominence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. History has it that Bergson puzzled through many vast, intriguing, and enduring human perplexities. His ideas are set forth in texts such as Matter and Memory, Time and Free Will, and Mind Energy. He also wrote about laughter and intuition among other topics. Readers sensed a numinous clarity in his ideas. So it comes as no surprise that when he had occasion to formally declaim them, those ideas took flight for the future.
Legend has it that Henri heralded the new year of 1913 as the primary source of New York City’s first-ever traffic jam! You see, he was set to speak at Columbia University about his newest book: Creative Evolution. Turns out that Henri’s speaking engagement garnered public interest just like a telling TED talk would today! Truth be told though, the New York Times actually spurred the gridlock as it ignited an inquisitive public when it proclaimed Bergson’s views on a "vital impetus" or, in other words, the existence of a natural creative impulse inherent in human beings.
Central to the concept of this creative impulse is “duration”. Henri posits the notion that there exists among human beings, children, in particular, an individualized or personalized perception of passing time which is distinct from objective and measurable clock-time. He offers that his notion of “duration” can “best be understood through intuition.”
The concept of “duration” and other pillars of Henri’s legendary ideas remains relevant today. His influence is visible in the research of Howard Gardner, Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Mitchell Resnick, and Daniel Goleman. Each proclaims mental, emotional, cognitive, and physical health as necessary and functional contributors to academic growth. Henri’s contributions have reemerged to be reclaimed and reframed within the context of current discourse stressing the school’s responsibility to address the holistic well-being of children.
Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little and early learning advocate, identifies a “play impulse” inherent in all children. She declares this impulse to be an essential aspect of being when she states “Play is the fundamental building block of cognition.”
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp concurs. To forge an alliance between play, learning, and the affective brain, Panskepp tells us the joy children experience while at play becomes the necessary “emotional fuel”. A sort of multi-sensory synchronicity emerges as children delve deeply into their play. Teachers must have the agency to offer, provide opportunities for, and join with children to create and support teachable moments that emerge spontaneously while immersed in play. Play is a child’s work.
The Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee affirmed in its recent Recommendations for the 2020-2021 School Year that education, including early education, must focus on the holistic wellbeing of children to ensure they are mentally, emotionally, physically, and academically healthy. How is this to be achieved? One way is by ensuring that educators and stakeholders truly understand the historical depth and scientific breadth of the statement: experiences grow the brain. Schools must embrace this paradigm.
Schools must afford teachers the critical instructional agency necessary to move the field forward, away from the gridlock of the current largely decontextualized skill-driven test-prep curriculum. It is vital that teachers are empowered to design experiences that link academic learning with the playful, creative inclinations of children.
Further, administrators and teachers must accept that it is imperative for early learning settings to provide a consistent context for “complex extended play periods” (Christakis, 2016) during the school day. In so doing, we support young children in their intuitive search for patterns, structure, and cohesiveness among curricular outposts and each other. Framing academic learning in this way will engender growth patterns that engage the whole child.
Institutions amplify society’s messages. Author and speaker Thomas C. Murray reminds us that “Prioritizing the social-emotional aspects of learning helps us see more than what we teach. It helps us see who we teach.” Public educational systems whose mission is to school all children to a high level with equity and integrity must acknowledge and accept a commitment to continual institutional improvement through reflective practice and undertaking related action. Schools must accept that in order to truly contribute to the communities they serve, they must continuously grow and change to meet the needs of the people they educate.
As I mentioned, I do love a legend! But, I believe in a tangible legacy. These few words offered by Henri Bergson have impacted a multiplicity of thinkers and doers over time: “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, and to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” These words can also serve to spark a playful mindset and propel us into the future! Join me on the journey? #existtochange!
BLOG POST BY 2019-2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER MARILYN PRYLE
PTAC has recommended that every school district “provide literature choices that allow students to see themselves represented in the main characters.” When questions about representation in literature come up, I usually feel somewhat comfortable. Lately, however, I’ve begun to take a closer look, and I’m realizing that my class is not as diverse as I let myself think.
I teach 10th grade World Literature. World Literature is, by definition, about texts from around the world. In my class, we read the old stuff—Gilgamesh, the Torah, the Mahabharata and the Rig Veda, the Qur’an, the Tao te Ching, African proverbs, creation stories from a variety of cultures, the poems of Rumi, the Greek myths, the Iliad, and so on. This was the curriculum that was given to me ten years ago, and I really enjoy teaching it. I often think to myself that if many of my students didn’t read a text like the Mahabharata in my class, they most likely never would in their lifetimes. (I should note that we only read selections from these texts, as many of them are massive.) So I take it very seriously—this is potentially one of the only times some of my students will be meaningfully exposed to the texts that are foundational to the world’s major religions and the cultural values of various peoples.
Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish students tell me every year that they were both surprised and happy to see something they learned at home included in a public school curriculum—they had never had that experience and were grateful for it. One student whose mother grew up in China told me that through studying Confucius, she was able to better understand her mother’s upbringing, and that she was able to have insightful conversations about Confucius with both her mother and grandparents, who still live in China.
In addition to our regular curriculum, my students do monthly Book Clubs with books of their choosing. They can choose any book they want. Students can find books in the public library or on PDFs online; they are not expected to buy books, although many do, either in print or on their e-readers. I also keep my classroom library stocked with multiple copies of many books, both fiction and nonfiction. I make sure these reflect a diverse array of main characters and subjects, including black, Latinx, and LGBTQ people. Students often remark about how much they enjoyed their reading, or that a certain book spoke to them, or that they were grateful to read something so powerful for them personally that also counted as part of the class.
So when discussions about cultural representations and multiple perspectives arise, my usual response is, “We’re doing it.” But when I look a bit deeper into this default stance on my curriculum and practice, questions emerge: Am I really doing enough? Does my class genuinely reflect our world and the voices that inhabit it? What overall message is my class sending? As I examine everything more closely, I’m realizing how far I still have to go.
Even though students are exposed to many different cultures in the first semester of my class, the bulk of the prescribed curriculum (not including Book Clubs) is still extremely Euro-centric. Gilgamesh, Genesis (from the Torah), and the Greek myths are foundational for the “Western” canon. So is the Iliad, which we spend all of the third quarter on. From there, we read Virgil, Sappho, Ovid, Sophocles, Dante, and Shakespeare. Welcome to whiteness.
Some of this I can part with. (But some I can’t—Sappho is the only female writer in the prescribed curriculum, and the only LGBTQ voice, although we discuss the relationships between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Achilles and Patroclus, in depth). But what makes it so difficult is that like everyone else, I was taught that these texts and others like them are foundational, indispensable, and requisite to any kind of intelligent participation in our culture. In addition, I genuinely love all the texts I teach. They are brilliant and linguistically thrilling. They have stood the test of time and have much to teach us.
But part of what they teach, when stacked together in a curriculum, is the absolute dominance of one group over others. If about two thirds of my curriculum resides in the Western canon, I’m sending a message about what’s most important. I’m passing on the message that was sent to me. In The Racial Contract (1999), Charles Mills explained that underlying all social contracts is a racial contract that centers around global European domination and white supremacy. My curriculum, and I would venture most literature curricula in our country, reflects that.
As an English teacher, I’m not sure how to reconcile this. I know I need to revisit my idea of what comprises literary “essentials.” What messages do I want my students to take away from the class? And what skills? And can these messages and skills be communicated through texts that represent the world in a more balanced way?
In other words: How am I centering the class? Is it on a Euro-centric, linear, white, male trajectory with a few “other” cultures thrown in? How can I decenter it? How can I make it even more genuinely reflective of the entire world?
I also don’t want to ignore the dominance itself. I don’t want to have a happy, simple mix of cultures and texts and pretend that none of them interacted with each other. Mills explained that the global racial contract “requires a certain schedule of structured blindness and opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity” (p. 19). Even though the time frame in my class does not overlap with the modern era of colonization and enslavement, there must be a way to address the cultural thinking that laid the groundwork for this era. This is another question I will be researching this summer.
But what about Book Clubs? Book Clubs are how I let myself feel “covered” in terms of having diverse voices in the room. My thinking goes something like this: “Sure, all the students are reading Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, and Ovid in a row, but one Book Club group just read The Hate U Give this month.” I’ve done my job, right? Maybe. But maybe not.
Yes, the variety of books I keep in my classroom helps expose students to different voices. And yes, many students will gravitate to diverse voices, especially to stories that have made it to mainstream films. And yes, some students eagerly devour the biographies of their favorite rappers or athletes, many of whom are non-white. I’ve created that space.
But maybe I’ve only created it for the students who are already there. Is this important? Of course. But have I pushed the others to consider new perspectives? Not really. Here’s an example. For the past two years, I’ve had a couple groups of students—all male—read Stephen King’s It for the whole year. (Since the book is about 1100 pages long, they were permitted to read 200 pages each month.) I was delighted about this, and recently was explaining it to a colleague. Her reaction was not what I expected. “So that’s all they read, all year?” she asked.
“It’s 1100 pages long,” I replied. “It was definitely an accomplishment.”
“Sure,” she said. “But that means they were only exposed to one additional voice, a white, male voice.” This stopped me in my tracks. Obviously, Stephen King is one of the most brilliant and skillful writers of our time. But what had I done to show these students other voices, to broaden their perspectives? And wasn’t that my job?
What makes this so difficult is that I premise the Book Clubs on complete student choice. Students must develop the skill of figuring out what, out of the entire universe, they want to read. This is a deep-seated conviction of mine. But isn’t it my role, as an experienced reader, mentor, and fellow citizen, to make students aware of the variety of voices in literature, the country, and the world? Won’t my students need this knowledge when they leave our small, mostly homogeneous, town? Is there a way to preserve the ideal of choice and still nudge students to seek out the unfamiliar voice?
These are yet more questions I’ll be deliberating this summer.
And speaking of summer, I’ve also turned a critical eye to one of my most prized documents: my summer reading list.
My Summer Reading List
I love my summer reading list. Besides being comprised of some of my favorite books, it also sets students up with concepts we will discuss all year in class. Man’s Search for Meaning, for example, not only tells a story of physical, mental, and spiritual survival; it lays out the meaning of life (quite literally; it’s on page 66*).
Under closer scrutiny, however, the list brought up some questions. Sure, I have different cultures and perspectives, such as Coelho’s The Alchemist, Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, and Patel’s Life of Pi. But I realized that other books are other-cultured stories told through white voices, such as Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Buck’s The Good Earth. Even Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh is about the principles of Taoism applied to the stories of Winnie the Pooh.
Let me be clear: These are beautifully written masterpieces that portray the cultures within their stories with authenticity, respect, and love. They are wonderful books that everyone should read. But what message am I communicating as a teacher when these books are stacked one atop another on a recommended list? What is the cumulative effect?
What Is the Cumulative Effect?
To put it another way: What voices am I elevating? What voices am I not? My intention is not to clean house of all the white, male voices in my curriculum. But the overall effect is something I want to examine.
Many students won’t even remember the exact texts we read. (I realized this the hard way, in a discussion with my own son, whom I taught two years ago. Throughout the conversation, he said things like, “We read that in your class? I thought we read that freshman year,” and “Are you sure we read that? I don’t remember that book at all.”) For most students, the school year in any given class is like an impressionist painting. The details, up close, are grainy and seemingly unrelated. But the overall picture becomes clear when taken in as a whole. What is the general impression that remains with my students, either consciously or unconsciously? What messages do students internalize—about which authors are “important,” about who gets to tell a story, and about dominant cultural values?
* * *
We should all be asking these questions, no matter how integrated we think our curriculum is. We are all part of a never-ending journey of growth and recovery, in our communities, country, and world. In order to help our students grow, we must never stop questioning our own content, procedures, and methodology.
Our students are counting on us.
* “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Frankl, p. 66).
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.
Mills, C. (1999). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER PAUL BAKNER
When our children return to school, they will need the arts, humanities, librarians, physical education, electives, and mental health professionals more than ever. The Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee has called for equity in access to these areas in the organization’s Recommendations for the 2020-2021 School Year. I teach high school music in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I saw this need in my classroom every day even before the closure of schools in March.
When I started teaching roughly 20 years ago, a student confided in me that she only comes to school for band. This statement initially surprised me, but it has been shared with me by dozens of students during my career. An important part of my career as a teacher is to create a place where students feel safe and valued.
The arts, humanities, librarians, physical education, electives, and mental health professionals are well adapted to create spaces where students feel safe in schools. At the start of every school year, the first question I am asked by students is when I am handing out lunch passes so that they can eat in the band room instead of the cafeteria. These classes are the areas where students flock to find friends and allies.
The arts, humanities, librarians, physical education, electives, and mental health professionals are well adapted to create spaces where students are valued. In my classroom, students’ interaction and collaboration with peers is required and everyone contributes. One of my drum major’s favorite sayings is, “There’s no bench in band.” Everyone contributes, everyone counts, and everyone matters.
In my classroom, I teach more than just music. I teach students to be someone. I teach students that achievement and success are group activities. I don’t just help kids make great music. I use music to help make great kids. I think that’s what the world and our country needs most right now.
The arts, humanities, librarians, physical education, electives, and mental health professionals fill a void that other subjects cannot. Kelly Pollock, the executive director of Center of Creative Arts (COCA), has given me permission to share her insight. I think that the quote eloquently sums up the importance of sustaining access to these subjects and professionals at every school and every grade level as we move forward toward the next school year.
“The true purpose of arts education is not necessarily to create more professional dancers or artists. [It’s] to create more complete human beings who are critical thinkers, who have curious minds, who can lead productive lives.” – Kelly Pollock, Executive Director, COCA
Blog Post by PTAC Member Christian Wrabley
Think of the last time you got hurt. Pause and think about that before reading on…
Did you think of a physical injury or an emotional injury? We tend to experience psychological injuries far more frequently than we do physical injuries, yet they don’t first come to mind. Failure, rejection, loneliness, anxiety…discrimination, death, and other traumas.
These injuries are damaging and can get worse if we ignore them. They can be treated, but we usually don’t prioritize treatment for emotional injuries.
Oh, you’re feeling depressed? You’ve probably had people tell you, “Just shake it off; it's all in your head.” Can you imagine saying that to someone with a broken leg? “Just shake it off; it’s all in your leg.”
Last school year, I spoke at two different events and shared stories of the mental health “baggage” that too many young people carry with them into the classroom each day: obsessively high academic expectations, social media drama, demanding hours and pressure of sports and clubs, hunger, lack of sleep and security, etc. These conditions can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem.
If I were to give that speech again now, I’d have to add the following: a global pandemic, five months of social distancing, a skyrocketing unemployment rate, racism and discrimination at deadly levels, and lots of deaths without opportunities for comfort and closure.
To say that our students may return to school in the fall with new levels of trauma could be a dangerous understatement. Our kids are incredibly resilient, but I think many will bring more trauma-shock with them in the fall than ever before. To this end, the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee, in it's recommendations for the 2020-2021 school year, has made a point of saying that education must focus on the holistic wellbeing of children to ensure our students are mentally, emotionally, physically, and academically healthy.
Kids may be feeling angry, lonely, depressed, hungry, or scared. These conditions may not show up on an X-ray, but they show up when we pay closer attention to the full well-being of our students. These are social-emotional wounds that need to be rehabilitated.
A May 2018 study by the global health services organization, Cigna, found that chronic loneliness poses as significant a risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity. Cigarettes come with a warning and regulations. Loneliness does not.
When kids return to school in the fall, they will have been isolated from classmates for five months.
Teachers and schools have to be part of the rehabilitation. The school is not separate from students’ day-to-day lives. Too often it’s treated that way. There was a time when people seemed to think kids went to school to learn content, practice it, and be evaluated on it.
I think since school closures, people have realized that schools also serve as places for nourishment, play, exercise, socializing, competition, shelter, and performance. Wellness is essential for personal development, even more so than math, science, curriculum, and content. And, before we are “teachers of math” or “teachers of science,” we must be teachers of kids. The kids must always come first.
During Coronavirus closures, about 27% of students in urban schools became “truant,” according to an EdWeek Research Center Survey conducted in April. And in districts with more than 75% low-income students, 32% of students essentially disappeared.
At a district with over 30% transient student population, students are regularly moving in and out of the district. Typically, a student does not get dropped from our rosters and system until they are officially enrolled at a new district, to prevent students from “falling through the cracks.” This means that sometimes students’ names stay on the attendance roster for months even though they no longer live within our district boundaries. (We then know they have not yet enrolled in a new school.)
This also means that, when schools are not “open,” students are continuing to move (maybe even more frequently now) but they are not being registered by the school within their new home district.
During these devastating economic times, more families are also newly becoming homeless. To compound tracking issues, these families may be hesitant to contact authorities to ask for help or communicate their situation due to concerns of losing their children to Child Protective Services.
When a child builds strong relationships with people at school, they create a positive association with school, in general. Knowing that school is a place that can provide help, we keep those doors of communication open and students are more likely to stay in touch.
Schools provide students with the encouragement to engage confidently, the resources to gain wide knowledge, the incentives to work hard and apply themselves with intention, and the programs to spark incentive.
But if a child comes to school not having had a meal the night before, how can we expect her to schedule SATs and create a preparation plan to succeed? How can we expect students to think about their dreams and aspirations for what they want to do when they’re adults if they’re not confident they care to live beyond this month?
Some areas have seen a 400% increase in suicide prevention hotline contacts since the beginning of this pandemic. Teachers can implement Pinterest-worthy lesson plans and maximize instructional time by teaching “bell-to-bell” but the trauma of suicidal thoughts will surely inhibit any new learning.
Kids need opportunities for unstructured play and physical education. It is in these spaces that students learn to comprehend their own development and growth, and how to take on the world.
Kids need opportunities to play instruments and perform on stage with their peers. The greatest contributions will come when students learn to use school for their own advantages and apply their knowledge to authentic experiences.
Kids need time and space to draw and paint and create art. Art and imagination support every dimension of child development.
The best remedy for loneliness is face-to-face connection with others. These are non-negotiables when we return to our learning spaces.
I’m confident every school will have a Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) plan in place this fall. But if those plans don’t include opportunities to play, sing, dance, scream, collaborate, and socialize, they are not SEL at all.
This pandemic has devastated businesses, revenue, retirement plans, and more. Budgets will be squeezed as we prepare to give our kids the best we’ve got next year. It is imperative that our schools focus on the holistic well-being of children to ensure our students are mentally, emotionally, physically, and academically healthy.
Much of the burden and responsibility has been placed on young people to change, rather than the system. “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” (Alexander den Heijer)
Please don’t cut the programs that make our kids feel alive and valued most - the arts, humanities, physical education, and electives.
Let us recognize that librarians, band directors, school nurses, and guidance counselors are essential school employees.
If we deprive our kids of important developmental opportunities, it will eventually have ruinous social costs. Can we really look them in the eye and tell them they’re not worth the investment?
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ALEXANDER SLAUGHTER
My journey did not begin as an anti-racist. As a child of a Black father and White mother, I began life with the colorblind mentality. I was led to believe by various authority figures that the United States had solved any forms of racism back in the 1960s with Dr. King. The lessons that I was taught year after year from my Catholic K-8 education was that he did it pretty easily: get a whole bunch of people together, say a profound speech, and *poof* there goes racism! We solved it! Yay!
I, therefore, didn’t catch all of the microaggressions that stung me and my Black classmates, whom I didn’t meet until high school. People often praised me for things I had considered common like holding the door for someone. They also said things like, “You’re not even Black” or “You’re one of the good ones.”
By the time I got to college, I got to hear a gut-wrenching defense of the N-word as someone used to tell me, “If you’re Black and I don’t like you, then you are a (insert N-word here), so don’t get on my bad side.” I didn’t understand that I had the power within me to say no to the obviously misguided, uneducated, and racist peers that I had grown up alongside.
My first teaching assignment placed me at a school with a 96% Black population in the heart of Pittsburgh. We also had a large Black teaching force that was much higher than the national and state average. Unfortunately, my years of colorblind education had not prepared me for how to work with my students. I often thought and said things like: “What does race matter? It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
Here is the problem with that previous statement: no one waits for you to show what’s on the inside before making judgments about you and what you look like on the outside. I realized in my first full year teaching that my students faced a lot of racial adversity. Pittsburgh, like many other places in America, provides ample opportunity for Black students to find structural barriers because of their race.
It wasn’t long before I also felt the hurt and oppression that my students were feeling. My students, all below the age of 14, were coming in feeling the threat of the police, not because they did anything wrong but because their neighborhood was labeled as a place to watch. Students had to hear their neighborhood on the news as a place that was broken and helpless. Students also shared situations in which some of my teaching colleagues carried some of their implicit biases into the classroom and had unknowingly negatively impacted students and caused trauma.
I began to connect that I had been the victim of racist acts my whole life. I had faced the same experiences that my students had faced. My childhood neighborhood had a high Black population but was in no way high crime. This was the profiling I had faced. My glass ceiling had shattered. What was I going to do?
It took 24 years of my life before I realized that race is a defining feature of who we are. Race is a social structure that was created in order to “other” people. When we address race we are using it as a way to separate people by skin shade. Racism is a way to demean and belittle people who are not White. I say this because people who are White are the majority and therefore in a space to oppress others whose views may not be the same. Since race and racism are human-made inventions, we have the power to unmake it and disrupt systems of oppression. So this is my plea to you: begin to reflect and educate yourself on race and systems of oppression.
This work is not just to benefit Black students but also to open and engage dialogue with White students. I have transitioned to a new school where a White middle school student proudly asked, “Why don’t we get to have White history month?” I wanted to get upset. I felt like this was an attack on all of the hard work of many Black Americans who we don’t acknowledge but one time a year. Our curriculums aren’t mentioning major accomplishments of people of color and I felt like Black History Month is the only time that we celebrate anyone who is Black.
I was angry, but instead of responding with anger we had a dialogue regarding all of the White authors, musicians, TV stars, Presidents, and scientists that she knew. When I asked her to name Black people who were represented in the same categories, her answers were limited. I informed her that representation matters and we will continue to educate.
She deserved to have educators who are intelligent on race and oppression and are willing to educate her instead of dismissing her.
Often we look at race as a red button issue, but why? Race is one of the first things we see about a person whether we appreciate it or not. Often, many students tend to stay in their homogenous groups based on race. These students are staying there because they are comfortable in that grouping. I challenge that if we hope to make students that are knowledgeable, compassionate, and critical thinking then we have to teach them about the complexities of more than just one race or culture. We have to go deeper into representation and help students see the value and importance in everyone, especially diverse groups of people.
We need to begin to educate ourselves so that we are equipped to transform the lives of all students. I have spent many summers devouring books, articles, and videos regarding race in the hope to equip myself with enough knowledge and passion to educate not just my students but also any human around me, especially when those pesky microaggressions emerge. The journey begins with reflection and continues with transformation.
This journey is tough, and not everyone is always ready to listen, but we owe it to ourselves to be informed and continue to have dialogue. The work in this is a marathon, not a sprint, and just when you think you’ve learned enough - push yourself to learn more. The path is hard, but as our country has shown, progress and equality are even harder to attain without any effort.
Now is the time to begin the journey so we can follow through with the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
Some of my favorite books to begin the work:
BLOG POST BY 2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR FINALIST AND PTAC MEMBER PAOLO TOLOMEO
Being home during this pandemic has certainly presented many challenges, but it has also offered some blessings as well. During this time, I have been able to watch my two daughters, almost 3 and 1, grow and develop some personalities, for better or worse.
One of the greatest experiences has been watching my 3-year-old during her creative play. She loves building with blocks and playing with her toy kitchen, but she also loves pulling weeds with me and watering the flowers. What has been most incredible, though, has been that she has created a story for all these tasks.
Danica is never merely building with blocks; instead, she is building a castle to protect her toys from bad weather. She rarely is just “pulling weeds;” rather, she is searching for salad for the bunnies who live in the woods. Plus – she loves pulling weeds.
Watching the joy my daughter gets as she creates these stories is exactly why I gamify my classroom. In a gamified classroom, I can create a storyline, or theme, to go along with my class activities. Some use Harry Potter, others The Amazing Race, while some go for Legos. Your theme can fit your interest! Yes, it is OK to bring your interests into the classroom. I, for one, love Pirates and adventure.
My students have been able to present a convincing argument to the Queen as to why their voyage is delayed due to weather events while studying Natural Disasters and research in a nonfiction unit. My class has been able to analyze the lengths of bridges in Pittsburgh so that they could request the necessary materials to construct a bridge in a new land to span a previously hidden river.
A gamified classroom does not mean I infuse games daily. Instead, I include game mechanics into my pre-existing activities. I create a story to capture the students’ interest, I create challenges where students can explore a concept in a way that is interesting to them. I am working to build a learning experience for kids based on autonomy, overcoming challenges and obstacles, and building strong relationships.
Our students are surrounded by creative play every day, and I try to include those same elements in my classroom. Tech resources have taken notice and have worked to infuse gamification into their platforms as well. From Nearpod’s “Time To Climb” and Quizizz with their “Power-Ups,” to programs like Classcraft that is an all-in-one resource for gamifying your classroom. Finding new and exciting ways to approach our content and reach our kids has never been easier.
The strength of gamification is that we can all try it at any time! We do not have to recreate anything or throw out our favorite activities. Rather, we can think about a new layer to add on top of our work. We can find what we are truly passionate about and infuse that into our lessons. The possibilities are endless and can be adjusted to fit your class.
Resources like Nearpod, Quizizz, and Classcraft, as well as great books like Explore Like A Pirate from Michael Matera can help anyone get started. Online communities, like #XPLAP on Twitter, are filled with teachers sharing their activities and resources.
The aim of gamification is simple – create a learning experience for our students that they will never forget, where they will strive to “level up” as much as possible, and where we can infuse our love of learning with their love of play. The classroom is the perfect place to start building a game.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DOROTHEA HACKETT
For years, teachers have been told: “Be sure to differentiate your instruction.” “Individualization is key to reaching the students to provide the optimum learning environment.” We have heard it again and again. We believe it. The problem: how to make that happen effectively in a class of 30 high school freshmen.
Then along came Corona. Overnight, this changed what we have called education for years. How would we reach our students both educationally and socially/emotionally? The scramble began to provide the optimum learning environment to all of our students. Wait! We knew we had heard those words somewhere before.
My district may be more fortunate than others. When COVID-19 closed our school, we faced the issue of equity: internet and technology access. We are officially in a “town: remote” according to the state. However, when I can see cows in pastures on my way to school, and some students need to ride the bus for 45 minutes to get to school, I consider that rural. Due to the economically depressed area in which we live - even prior to COVID-19, many families do not have internet access or the devices to use that access. Our district gathered devices from all buildings and distributed them, along with district-purchased jet pack hot spots, to all families in need. Tech access? Check!
When the academics restarted, I was confident that my freshmen and AP English students would make the transition seamlessly because I had used Google Classroom and various other platforms throughout the year. That indeed was the case. Smooth sailing for me and for my students. We had this.
Now that we are weeks into this learning platform, I have had time to reflect on my students’ learning. I choose not to hold “officially scheduled” office hours through Google Meet since other teachers rely on those. I choose the “email me whenever you need me” method, and many different students email me daily with questions or ways to improve their assignments. Now it has hit me. I am truly differentiating! I am providing that individualized instruction that educators find so valuable! I am able to do it successfully because, serendipitously, I am exclusively using an online platform to deliver my instruction, my assignments, and, most importantly, my feedback. When students need face-to-face support, I can schedule with a small group without wondering if the other 25 will interrupt the learning scenario. With the online platform, they don’t. I am available to help that individual or small group uninterrupted by others.
A big difference I see occurs in discussion protocols. In the physical classroom, the students discuss in whole group or small groups. Even though I circulate among the groups, there still seem to be some students who hide in the shadows of the discussions. Since the change to all online discussion, I can schedule a specific small group of students for a discussion and “eavesdrop” on that discussion for the entire time period. I can vary the student groups and schedule students according to their individual needs staying with that group to assess their progress in meeting that need. In the physical classroom, I would lose this concentrated period of time believing that I would need to move to the next group to ensure contact with all students in a period. I see all students engaged in this type of discussion. Google Meet has no shadows.
Another difference I see is in students’ writing. I frequently assess comprehension through written responses/reactions to texts. When I ask for a written submission in the physical classroom, some students rely on others for ideas and then reiterate those students’ contributions.When they receive the graded response, they look at the grade - completely ignoring the feedback - and put the response in their notebooks never to be seen again. In online learning, I receive a unique response from every student. With this submission, I am able to assess both comprehension and writing skills. I am able to post individualized feedback for the students’ metacognitive opportunities. I continue to pose revision and metacognitive questions targeted to each student’s needs which forces a return to revision. For reference, I also post Mentor texts that target the students’ needs and direct students to what aspects of that text will enhance their particular writing skills. Students are more willing to revise their digital copies since the rewriting is less time consuming with copy, cut, and paste.(We are not a 1:1 school so most physical school writing is hard copy on paper.) In addition, I am just an email away if a student needs to reach out. I can spend as long as necessary without others getting impatient for my attention, therefore, providing that truly differentiated and individualized instruction.
COVID-19 has presented our state and our country with a multitude of challenges that we would not prefer to meet ever again. However, the success that my students and I have experience with differentiation and individualized instruction challenges me to find similar ways to make this work when we return. Yes, Corona has changed education, but, in some aspects, for the better.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DANIEL WOLESLAGLE
What’s Wrong with PD?
Professional development, the cornerstone of any well-functioning school system, and an indispensable part of keeping up with a world that is moving exponentially faster each year. As we begin to integrate 21st Century Learning Design into our schools, I am often left to wonder, “Why aren’t our teachers learning the same way?”
I believe that I, like most other teachers, am on a constant quest to update my skill set with the best possible tools for my students to be successful. While my classroom may function like a real-world simulation full of project based learning and successful technology integration, the professional development sessions that I often attend function more like they are run by Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Review the data?...Review the data?...Bueller?
I believe that I am much like Frodo of the Shire. I have taken up the mantle of the unknown adventure, and I set out to teach professionals like students. Along the way, I discovered three “quests” for great PD and, unlike our friendly hobbit, never plan on returning to the old ways.
So let’s examine professional development from the lens of a classroom teacher. As any first year teacher would tell you, students are only capable of learning when they are engaged. Once I really thought about this, I realized that I was often being taught strategies on how to engage students in deep learning by never allowing myself to stand at the board and lecture by someone standing at the board and lecturing me. After some retooling and a lot of going back to the drawing board, I have personalized the learning for each student in my classroom. In professional development we need to build time in for teachers to be able to learn, build and practice the necessary skills that are most relevant to them in a safe and structured environment. There is no better time to do this than when the information is fresh in our minds. It is because of this that I make sure that every session that I am involved in allows at least half of the time scheduled primarily for teachers to work.
Now that we have teachers who were eager to learn and who have had the time given to them to figure out what they need specifically, the next step is to get them to apply it in the classroom itself. After all, new ideas are only valuable if they can actually be implemented.
Well, I don’t know about you, but time is about the most valuable commodity that I have as an educator. If we are spending time training educators, we should have an expectation that they are using that training. Otherwise, was it really worth training everyone on?
Every training should, without exception, end with educators having a plan of how they will be implementing the skills or tools that they have just learned in their classrooms and schools the next day, week, month and year. This is how we will know that they have truly understood the information.
Now, the difficult part. Just as with 21st Century Learning, the outcomes for modern professional development should not be the same. Each person will have their own unique perspective, ideas and style that they bring to the table. We will ensure that learning has taken place and everyone is getting a maximum return for their time. After all, you don’t walk all the way to Mordor just to go home.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a team to run a school. Allow professionals to forge the fires of learning and create their own professional development based on what they are using in their classes. Create teams, build lessons, explore new ideas and encourage professionals to be the leaders in their own development. This is how 21st century learning leads to 21st century ideas.
BLOG POST BY 2020-21 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER JOE WELCH
Each week, PA Teacher of the Year Joe Welch will be sharing his experiences and thoughts as we all work through the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His pieces are cross-posted from his personal blog, Inclined to Teach.
For millions of students and teachers around the nation, the news has become official. We will not be returning to our home away from home. Our school. Our classroom. Our students. With that news, we are now immersed in this system of crisis teaching and learning for the long run. For six weeks, we have been able to show the world what makes teachers great. We don’t make excuses. We adapt for our students and families. We solve problems for our students. We connect with our students. We support each other. We counsel. We advocate. And we are not afraid to learn new skills.
I have recently heard politicians, doctors, and media members repeatedly refer to the response to COVID-19 with a similar term: a marathon. Terms like steady, pacing, and one step at a time have been tossed out into the public discourse, too, when discussing how the world will overcome this latest obstacle. Marathon terms.
Now, it’s been 8 years since I ran my first full marathon. It was May 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be exact. And when you are training for your first marathon, there are tedious times, times of joy, times of pain, times of frustration, times when you are alone for long periods, and undoubtedly, times of mental and physical exhaustion. You think you can do it. You know you can do it. Then, you think you just can’t run another mile, another half mile, or another step. You run the full gauntlet of emotions before you even get to the starting line for such a race. But you get to that starting line.
Ironically it was on the treadmill when a piece of advice came back into my mind. And it is advice that is there for the teachers out there who are trying their best day in day out to be there for their students, the parents and guardians who are trying to maintain a safe and supportive environment while being pulled in a plethora of directions, and the students who are coping with a loss of all sense of normalcy in this world. The survivor shuffle.
It was on my first "20 miler" when I heard this advice. The survivor shuffle? An experienced runner shared that there will be times when you need to use the survivor shuffle, times when you drop your pacing goals, trust what your body and mind is telling you, and just do your best to keep your feet moving forward. The survivor shuffle, huh? You set out to finish what you started for all the reasons you signed up to start it. It may not look like what you planned, what you envisioned, what you dreamed about, but you survive. You take a quick rest, you get a drink, and you get back in the race when you are ready. One foot in front of the other, and you get there.
But no, I did not want to hear about the survivor shuffle. I would not need it; I went into my first marathon overconfident. Then, everything changed. For me, it was hot, humid morning that came out of nowhere. This was not the race I was prepared to run. However, I started to run it as if it was under the exact same conditions that I trained for. And I broke down physically.
Now let’s fast forward to 2020. We had field trips planned. Traditions to carry on. Moments and students to celebrate. Colleagues to rejoice with as they entered into well-deserved retirements. Then March 13th came. We did not prepare for this sort of race. This was not our training as a teacher, as a parent, or as a student. Personally, I started into this race trying to maintain the same pace that I had before everything changed. As a parent, as a teacher, and quite frankly, I even had a desire for my children to do the same as students. Not surprisingly, I had the same result as my first marathon. I was insistent on “winning that race” in the first mile.
But you can’t. You shouldn’t. And here is the part that was the most difficult thing for me to understand and accept: nobody expects you to maintain the same pace you had before. What is going to save me as a teacher? The survivor shuffle. As a parent? The survivor shuffle. And I hope students around the nation recognize that it is perfectly okay to "run your own race" at this time and trust what your body, your mind, and your heart are telling you to do.
Conditions have changed. Take a rest when you need to. Look to others for encouragement and support when you think you just can’t do it. There will be more obstacles ahead for each of us. It’s okay to save a little in the tank for when you need it. In a marathon, you find things out about yourself that you never knew you could do. You deal with setbacks, both within and outside of your control. You push the limits of what you thought your mind and your body could handle. But you just never know when you are going to need that survival shuffle to slow the pace, reassess what is most important, and to get help when you need it. There is no shame in using it.
Students, parents, and teachers: It’s okay to just do what you can do, at the pace that you can go in that moment. It really is. Just get back into this race when you’re ready.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee