Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016: A Year in Review

2016 has been an amazing year, and it has served as another reminder to take the bad with the good. I would like to reflect on the top five educational stories, both personally and as a public school teacher in Tennessee.
At the top of my list is having the privilege of attending the national teacher of the year ceremony at The White House. I traveled to The White House because I was recognized as one of America’s most distinguished educators, and I participated in honoring Ms. Jahana Hayes as the national teacher of the year. The ceremony itself only lasted 30 minutes, beginning with a short speech from Ms. Hayes, who is a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her passion-filled opening remarks set a powerful tone and her enthusiasm for the teaching profession was palpable.

On the way back to Nashville, I had time to reflect on attending this absolutely sublime White House event. Continuing the spirit of this ceremony the best way I know how, I am committed to help my fellow educators elevate and express their voices and tell their stories. Teachers matter. No one knows how to improve the educational landscape better than us. We are the experts, and when we speak in unison, educators have a remarkably strong voice. It begins with educators telling their own stories and having honest conversations with stakeholders about what’s working in our profession and what’s not.

Next on my list is the complete meltdown of TNReady. Though not completely their fault, the Tennessee Department of Education took a black eye on this one. The failure of TNReady sent shock waves throughout the state’s public education system. Elementary and middle school students didn’t even get to take the exam, while high school students across the state went through the motions of taking the test and didn’t take it seriously. A state law was passed holding teachers harmless on their evaluations from these test scores, but this law doesn’t apply to schools and school districts. Meanwhile, TDOE changed testing vendors from Measurement Inc. to Questar and has some significant rebuilding to do in terms of its efficacy.

Number three on my list is something that happened within the last few days, when TDOE released its plan for public review of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In case you haven’t been following, ESSA is the federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind, and it requires each state to develop its own plan on how it will meet the needs of its own students. Along with three other teachers from the high school, I recently attended a town hall meeting in Nashville where Commissioner McQueen and some of her TDOE cohorts explained the overview of their plan. I believe that TDOE’s ESSA plan needs some revision, but, overall, it sends a clear message that “all means all”--that TDOE is committed to educating all of Tennessee’s students, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, receiving special education services, or English Language Learners who just moved here from another country.

Number four on my list is the revelation from TDOE that the state’s science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are “above the national average for the first time ever, doubled the national average for student growth, eliminated the performance gap between male and female students, narrowed the performance gap between white and black students in both grades, and narrowed the performance gap between white and Latino students in fourth grade.” Tennessee had previously scored above the national average in English Language Arts and math. This announcement is further proof that the public education system in Tennessee is on the right track. Historically, Tennessee has ranked at or near the bottom in public education.

Rounding out my top five education stories of 2016 is Mr. Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as the future U.S. Secretary of Education. Putting a pro-charter and pro-voucher champion at the head of the nation’s public schools will certainly have “yuge” ramifications. One only needs to look at the education systems in Michigan and Louisiana (both are below the national average and dropping) to understand the devastating effects of diverting money from public schools in the name of school choice.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Going Gradeless: My Q2 Reflection

As I mentioned previously, this is my first year of going completely gradeless after trying it with only my honors classes last school year. The process is amazingly simple: Instead of grades, I provide feedback on assignments, telling students how well they have mastered the purpose of that assignment. Because I am operating a gradeless classroom within the confines of quarterly report cards, I ask for my students’ input for their report card grades. At the end of the first quarter, I had my students write reflections over their assignments and what they had and had not mastered. This time, I had my students reflect on specific questions that I asked them in an online Google Form, and then I sat down and conferenced with specific students who I felt had inflated their averages. In all but one of those ten cases, students cited external factors (i.e. getting in trouble at home or maintaining a specific GPA) for why they admittedly inflated their grades. In the other case, the student had turned in some work online in Google Classroom that I did not realize was there.

The most common concern most people have when they hear that I operate a gradeless classroom is the fear that students will inflate their averages. The data that I have collected throughout the first semester clearly indicates that nothing could be further from the truth. I have four regular English classes and one honors class. For the second quarter, among all class periods, 28% of students have an A, 17% have a B, 24% have a C, 13% have a D, and 19% have an F. Here is a grade breakdown by class period. The above percentages are remarkably similar to the first quarter, except that the failure rate dropped by 13%. Instead of one-third of my students failing, one in five students are failing. I’m still not happy about the failure rate being so high, but it is a clear sign that my students made progress over their prior performance. They experienced growth.

I need to keep this momentum going. If I’m being completely honest with myself, then I would have to admit that most of my students are not prepared to take TNReady, Tennessee’s end of the year summative assessment. My shift from a completely paperless classroom to a hybrid one has definitely helped. I still need to work on increasing student engagement, even though I saw an increase in that from the first nine weeks. I also need to continue working on providing more timely feedback. Personally, it was a rough nine weeks for me, and my personal life interfered somewhat with my concentration level.

Looking forward, I continue to be energized by the difference that this gradeless classroom is making for my students. I plan on spending a significant amount of time during Christmas Break thinking about how I can make the classroom experience better for my students. With only three-and-a-half months until my students take their TNReady exam, this is not the time to be complacent. What my students do in the classroom, and how they do it, need to push them forward in a monumental way. I am confident in my abilities as a teacher and in my students’ ability to learn material that is presented to them in an interesting way.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

CCEA and TEA Stand Up for Teachers

Official CCEA Logo

In my role as the acting Vice President of the Coffee County Education Association, I spoke at the Coffee County School Board work session on Monday of last week. I brought with me a concern that was expressed to the Association by some teachers, and I left that meeting quite impressed by the Board’s and Dr. McFall’s dedication and desire to stand with CCEA in supporting Coffee County’s teachers. During our discussion, we eventually got on the topic of the importance of continuing to raise teachers’ salaries so that Coffee County Schools can be more competitive in attracting qualified teachers. The school board reassured me that they are dedicated to continue to raise teachers’ salaries.

On that topic Dr. LaDonna McFall, our Director of Schools, also made sure to point out that while other school systems eliminated their step raises for years of experience and advanced degrees, Coffee County has kept theirs in place. These step raises are, in fact, a type of raise that most of the Coffee County teachers receive every year. Dr. Shannon Duncan then reiterated her offer to meet with any member of the Coffee County Commission at any time to discuss the county school’s budget. I sincerely hope that she is taken up on that offer. I have personally talked to several County Commissioners about increasing funding for the county schools (an admittedly tricky thing to do with two city school systems) and, inevitably, they blame the School Board for not sending them a “clean budget” that they feel puts teachers first. As long as both sides are blaming the other for a lack of action related to funding public education, then the stalemate will continue indefinitely. Clearly, an increase in the quantity and quality of communication between these two governing bodies is needed desperately. Dr. Duncan has once again opened her door to that communication and, for the sake of our teachers and especially of our students, I dare say that it would be foolish for the Coffee County Commission to not take her up on her offer. They have nothing to lose, and risk gaining a greater understanding of how the county school’s budget operates.

Missing from this scenario are Coffee County’s teachers. Coffee County Commissioners are much more likely to work with the school board to increase funding for public education if the teachers in their respective districts made their voices heard. They’re more likely to listen when teachers of #TeamCoffee show up to County Commission meetings and make their presence felt. Every educator should ask him or herself who is in the driver’s seat when it comes to funding public education. The answer should be the teachers. We wield an astounding amount of influence when we stand together.

Later in the week, I attended a meeting for officers of local TEA affiliates, and I learned more information about several of the educational laws that passed during Tennessee's last legislative session. For the sake of brevity I will not go into great detail about these bills, but suffice it to say that special interests have a louder voice with our elected officials than teachers. Case in point: The State Board of Education now has the authority to grant charter schools--a right that used to belong exclusively to the local school system. In exchange for the State Board allowing charter schools into local districts that probably don't want them, they will receive a 4% annual kickback of the school's funding. Yes, local taxpayer money can now legally be funneled to the State Board of Education and thereby make it easier for them to allow more charter schools into the state. This, combined with President-Elect Trump’s pro-charter and pro-voucher education agenda can be a dangerous cocktail for a downward spiral of public education in Tennessee. Stay tuned. In the meantime, the Tennessee Education Association is the only organization with a proven track record of defeating special interests, and they will work hard to defeat all voucher schemes while fighting against radical charter school expansion. After all, it's in every student’s best interest to restore local control of school decisions.

Monday, December 5, 2016

It's About Them

I watched “A Very Merry Mix Up,” one of those Hallmark Christmas movies, last night. I can tolerate them, but my wife absolutely adores them. In this particular movie, Alice was engaged to Will because their partnership was convenient; they had a similar vision of where their lives were headed. Through a strange twist of fate, when this woman traveled to visit his family for the first time for the holidays, she ended up at the wrong house and met another man, Matt, with whom she truly fell in love. The moral of that movie is that love is all about timing. When Alice broke up with Will, he said he knew it was coming because something didn’t feel right; their timing was off.

Like Will at the end of this movie, something doesn’t feel right to me in the field of education. But it’s not just me. Other teachers feel it, too, and so do the students. We’re all in a partnership together because of convenience. Entire groups of students graduate together because they were conveniently born in the same year and go to the same school. I happen to work at a particular school, which means that I teach this group of students. I’m not chosen to be their English teacher because of my specific interests, skill set, nor my extraordinary teaching talent; I’m their English teacher because I am in the right place at the right time.

Will Richardson, a former English teacher turned speaker and school consultant, at the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference said that “We are at a point in schools when we have to change our internal reality.” The current reality is that teachers attempt to find new ways of doing the same thing that they have done for years, and a standardized test is given at the end of the school year because it’s an easy and convenient (and unreliable) way to measure students’ growth and, in Tennessee, teachers’ abilities to create that growth.

So what would this change in our internal reality look like? It has to begin and end with the students. At my high school, they go to seven classes a day and experience seven teachers with sometimes complete opposite teaching styles, teaching philosophies, and academic expectations. This student experience is common across the country, and it results in students nationwide being sent the message that the school experience isn’t created for them. They’re correct. It’s interesting, and somewhat amazing to me, that high school graduation rates in Tennessee and across the country continue to climb and are at an all-time high. I wonder if the high school diploma means that we have successfully met the needs of that student, or if the student has done a good job of complacently jumping through hoops. My hunch is that the honest answer is somewhere in the middle.

In any case, we are teaching a millennial, “it’s all about me,” generation and if public education is going to thrive in the future, then we have no other choice but to adapt and meet the needs of our students. Instead of teachers finding new ways of doing the same things they’ve done before, more of us really need to try new things. Some will work, and some won’t, but then the students will see that we’re learning with them. The answer to the question “How do kids learn best?” should drive everything we do in our classrooms. When students ask “Why do I need to learn this?” then the relevance of the lesson isn’t clear, and the teacher should be able to explain it. Since I’m asking questions, I’ll throw one more out there. It’s good practice, I think, for teachers to ask themselves, “Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?” I frequently think about my daughters, who are 11 and 6, when I ask myself this question. I give the great Dave Burgess credit for planting that last question in my brain.

Providing a quality education is not necessarily convenient. Returning to my original analogy: in the education field, it feels like our timing is off, like we’re merely going through the motions. At the risk of sounding cliche, life really is all about timing. It’s time to reduce or eliminate standardized testing, because there’s nothing standard about the students I teach every day. It’s time to reinvent our lessons and try something new. It’s time to put students at the center of our lessons and learn with them.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Future, with Betsy DeVos

I heard a commercial on my car radio from an over-eager pitch man on the way back from working out on a mild summer morning in early June: “Parents! Don’t delay! Enroll your student at Freedom Preparatory Academy by July 1st, and you’ll receive a $50 Visa gift card and be entered into a drawing to win a FREE Chromebook. You have many choices where you send your child to school. Experience the freedom of Freedom Preparatory Academy.” I quickly snapped off the radio. These charter school advertisements are so abundant that you’d think there was another presidential election going on. Instead, after two years of Betsy DeVos running a U.S. Department of Education that greatly incentivized states to create more charter schools, and with a Republican supermajority in our state legislature, charter schools have been popping up everywhere.
President Trump sold it well. I have to give him credit for that, at least. He fed the country false information about how we should have more choices of where to send our children to school, and that the competition created by charter schools will improve the education system for everyone. “It’s like a business,” he said. “It’s good for the consumer when businesses compete with each other, and it’s good for students when schools do the same.”
On the surface this sounds like a logical argument. Teachers tried to be the voice of reason and educate the public about why this didn’t make sense and why the expansion of charter schools is harmful to students. Well, many of us tried, anyway. Unfortunately, even on this crucial issue, teachers did not present a united voice. Too many voted against our students’ interests and voted for political candidates with an “R” next to their names. It was clear what would happen to the country’s public education system under Republican control. They’ve been busting teachers’ unions and pushing “school choice” initiatives for decades.
Those of us who tried to raise awareness about the dangers of “school choice” expansion pointed out that these initiatives steal money from an already underfunded public school system. We attempted to explain that schools can’t be run like businesses because, quite simply, they’re NOT businesses; they’re a bureaucracy. A business has the ability to choose from the finest of materials to make their products. Public schools take everyone. Competition among businesses drives down prices and benefits the consumer. Competition among schools lessens the quality of education because schools fight for the same raw materials--students and teachers. The good teachers and the good students become spread out across several schools. With a lower enrollment at each school, the schools themselves are more costly to operate. It used to be that charter schools were regulated, but now, under the new Trump administration, businesses are allowed to run publicly-funded schools with no expectation that they actually perform on the same level as other schools across the state.
This is exactly what happened in Michigan before Betsy DeVos took responsibility of the nation’s public school system. The warning signs for the downfall of the American education system were there. The New York Times ran several stories about this, like “A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Amiss” and “The Risk with Betsy DeVos,” but people blew them off as being from a biased liberal media.

So here I am, living in the new normal in 2018: where schools are so desperate for students that they’re offering gift cards to get parents to enroll their children there, where states accepted federal money to pass anti-union legislation and made teachers’ unions a relic of the past, and where “school choice” has led to an uneven playing field that clearly benefits the wealthy. If only teachers across the country had inspired their local communities to contact their U.S. senators and implored them to vote against Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education. A website was even created for this: Oh well. It’s time for me to put on my Freedom Prep Academy polo, and go to work.

It's the Small Things

Every Monday at the high school during our homeroom period, we have a time called “Monday Matters.” During this time, teachers discuss topics that students may need to know, such as: good sportsmanship, maintaining a positive school culture, the importance of having good attendance, and why voting matters. This past Monday, the topic was gratitude. It was a time for the high school community to reflect on the true meaning of Thanksgiving and to consider life’s blessings.

Life moves way too fast and, as much as a technology geek as I am, I have to admit that it occasionally exacerbates this problem. Society stares mindlessly at its smart devices while life, and all it has to offer, passes them by. One of this country’s greatest philosophers, Henry David Thoreau, once paradoxically noted that “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” As I’ve aged and matured, I have started seeing things with greater appreciation.

For example, I Iook at the blessings that surround my dog, Trinity. As I wrote about in a recent post, she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her right hind leg and she has now undergone surgery to remove that leg to keep the cancer from spreading. The support that I have received from family and friends helped make this operation a reality, and she is on the road to recovery. I watch her learn to how get around on three legs and she’s overcoming that obstacle better than I could have imagined, though there’s still a learning curve ahead of her.

Thanksgiving break could not have come at a better time for me. I feel like I have a million things to do during the nine days that I, thankfully, get off from school. Spending time with family is, of course, at the top of that list, along with eating some delicious food offerings that I generally only get to eat during this time of year. I also plan on providing feedback on student papers (still trying to get myself caught up from starting the nine weeks behind the eight ball), finishing a couple of professional development books that I’ve been reading, having a yard sale, and going to some Vandy football and basketball games. I’ve been going to Vanderbilt men’s basketball games for twenty-eight years, and I am excited about the upcoming college basketball season, as well as their upcoming home football game against Tennessee.

This seems like plenty to do during my break, but I also intend to set aside a few minutes each day to appreciate life and to continue working on being more gracious. Noticing the small things helps keep me grounded and feel like my life is fulfilled. In general, we need more of that feeling of fulfillment across the country. We just experienced a divisive election process where we, once again, have forgotten that “the other side” consists of real people with real emotions. Blanket statements that describe large groups people are almost always false and hurtful. I can’t help but think that if we became more focused on our own contentment, then people would not feel the need to attack and belittle others.

Thanksgiving provides an excellent opportunity for us to come together and have fellowship as families and, more broadly, as a community. It gives us time to heal from a barrage of hate-filled remarks that has destroyed friendships. It allows us the chance to, quite simply, improve ourselves. I hope that we take advantage of these opportunities, and more, that lie in front of us, and stop, if only for a brief moment, to absorb the beauty of the morning sunrise

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ending the Echo Chamber

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Julie Jee, a high school English teacher from New York whom I follow on Twitter (@mrsjjee), posted, “This election is making me realize that we're all just screaming inside echo chambers of our own making.” Sadly, friendships both on and off line have been lost during this last election cycle. Regardless of the outcome, roughly half of the population was going to be upset.
It’s human nature to surround ourselves with others who are like us. Therefore, it stands to reason that the people we interact with on social media will likewise share similar views. The media was steadfastly against Trump becoming our next president. Even conservative newspapers supported Clinton over him. Was this an indictment on Trump’s ability and mindset to lead the country? Probably. Only time can answer that question. But it’s also fair to say that the media, like many of us, got caught up in its own echo chamber full of inaccurate polling and a lack of focus on the very thing that made Trump’s rise to power so strong--many Americans feel ignored by the political system.
If this country is going to heal, then we have to stop echoing thoughts that agree with our preconceived notions and biases. People who are against Trump are protesting and rioting in the streets; meanwhile, Trump supporters--even school-age supporters--are doing egregious things to their classmates, to women, and to minorities. It's time for people to treat each other with respect and dignity again. We will not all agree with each other's political and religious views, but at the end of the day, we are all human beings; we are all Americans. Discussion on these topics with the intent of understanding the other side is what helps us grow and become more accepting of each other. Life is not a binary code composed entirely of 0s and 1s. Parents need to stop teaching their children to hate. Life is too short for that. Love will always conquer hate, and it's time for the healing to begin. This means turning off openly biased Fox News and MSNBC. It means not sharing hateful things on social media; we know that war leads to more war, and hate only leads to more hate--the current divisiveness of our society is proof of that. It means standing up for minorities when people are ugly to them. They need our help now, more than ever.
For that reason, if you see me out in public, I will have a safety pin attached to my shirt. I will wear it as a symbol of solidarity with victims of racism, homophobia and religious discrimination. I will remain an ally to marginalized groups. I want others to join me.

Trump’s presidency is expected to be unapologetically anti-marriage equality, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority. (There’s a reason why the KKK openly supports him.) Reverting progressive policies opens the door to an increase in racism and xenophobia. It’s crucial during our unification that we be highly self-conscious about spewing hate toward each other. As a father of two young girls, as a teacher to over 100 students each year, and as a lifelong Democrat, I intend to set an example for the future generation to follow. The Law of the Prophets teaches us to “do to others what you would have them do to you.” To me, the safety pin is a perfect representation of this law. If I were an American-born son of immigrant parents facing classmates who yell “build a wall” and “go home” at me, then I would hope for someone to be in my corner.

Image from

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Life Happens

The great John Lennon once said that “Life happens while you’re busy making plans.” As a teacher, my life is almost entirely composed of making plans. I have to turn in weekly lesson plans to my school, and outside of school, I have to plan out my afternoons and evenings--often times weeks in advance. Then, when I least expect it, life interferes with my plans, and monitoring and adjusting becomes a survival tactic.

It’s been a rough month for me. We all, at times, go through spells where one bad thing after another happens to us. For me, this includes the unexpected passing of my father-in-law and a recent diagnosis that my dog has a bone tumor in her leg that will require amputation. Both of these events have dealt an enormous emotional and financial blow to my family. I have never done anything like this before, but I have set up a GoFundMe account to cover the expenses of my dog’s pending amputation. If you care to donate, the website is

In times like this, being a teacher is both a blessing and a curse. While I’m in my classroom, my job requires that I be present, in every form of the word. I owe it to my students and they deserve nothing less. Therefore, I mentally tune out everything that isn’t important to the lesson. School provides me with a sanctuary where I can compartmentalize. Likewise, my family deserves the same when I am at home--especially now, with these two unfortunate events. The last thing that I want to do at home is provide feedback on student papers and take time away from them. I have been doing what I can while at school, but it’s not enough; the papers have been snowballing in a horrific way.

The home/work balance is difficult for most teachers, and it’s something with which I have always struggled. I realize that part of my job requires me to evaluate my students’ papers. This is also important to my students so that they know how to improve their performance on future assignments and, ultimately, grade themselves at the end of the nine weeks in my gradeless classroom environment. At the same time, when I’m not physically in the school building, my head and my heart have recently been veering away from my responsibilities at work.

I remember some advice that my principal, Dr. Joey Vaughn, gave to the entire school system during our opening day convocation at the beginning of this school year. His advice was, when times get tough, just remember: “Left foot, right foot, breathe.” Teachers are among the most stressed individuals that you will ever meet--especially in this age of accountability and the overemphasis on standardized testing. Add to that mix stressful situations that happen outside of our job, and it’s almost too much to handle.

Cliches are cliche for a reason--they’re oftentimes true. To those who are also experiencing high levels of stress in your life right now, regardless of whether you’re in the education field, just remember to breathe. You are strong, and you will make it through this, and ultimately, I will, too.

In the meantime, I have paperwork, a family, and an ailing dog that all need my attention. With progress reports coming out this week, my focus will be on my students’ papers. I have never really looked at progress reports as being a particularly accurate representation of my students’ progress, but many parents do. I hope I can finish everything in time, and I will give it my best effort because I really hate missing deadlines. If not, I hope that my students and their parents will understand.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fool's Gold

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The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) received some excellent news last week. Tennessee’s students are continuing to improve on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which releases the nation’s report card that compares the respective education systems of every state in the country. Previously, Tennessee was hailed as the fastest improving state in the country for our gains in math and English/Language Arts. This time, Tennessee is being called “the star of the states” for our improvement in 4th and 8th grade science scores.

As a public school teacher, I am proud of my colleagues’ achievement--one that is all the more remarkable when you consider that Tennessee is 41st in the country in per-pupil spending and 39th in the country in average teacher salary. (Both of these figures are as of 2014.) It’s quite ironic that Tennessee’s students are making groundbreaking gains in math, English/Language Arts, and science, but remains near the bottom in education spending. Taxpayers across the state are certainly getting a huge bang for their buck.

TDOE cites two reasons for these huge student gains: higher standards and incredibly dedicated teachers. I would argue that Tennessee’s public schools are doing more with less than any other state in the country. Teachers and schools have learned to become incredibly resourceful. Not to rain on TDOE’s parade, but I can’t help but wonder if student growth on NAEP on the backs of underpaid teachers in under-resourced schools at the beginning of a teacher shortage crisis is a sustainable model.

Governor Haslam has mentioned many times that he wants Tennessee to become the fastest-improving state in teacher pay in the country, and he has recently approved the largest teacher pay increase without raising taxes in the state’s history. This is great for headlines and equally poor in practice. While not the case in my district, many Tennessee districts have withheld money that is owed to teachers from the state and will only give it to them in the form of performance bonuses. While legal, this practice is definitely unethical.

If TDOE and Governor Haslam are truly serious about continuing this momentum of NAEP gains, a few things need to happen, and quickly. First, the state needs to update and fully fund its BEP formula while ensuring that future raises go directly to teachers with no strings attached. Second, the option for performance-based pay needs to be taken away from school districts. Paying teachers for good test scores is a horrendously ignorant practice. Not only does it fail to work as intended, but it also encourages teachers to treat students as a means to get those bonuses by focusing too much on the state test. That, in turn, contributes to the teacher shortage crisis by giving students one more reason why they don’t want to become teachers themselves. Third, use some of the state’s nearly $1 billion surplus and give teachers another raise. The state has a large amount of ground to make up if we want to keep pace with other states in attracting the best and brightest teachers in the country.

I would love for Tennessee to be recognized among the best states in the country in public education. Just think what that would mean to the higher education community and to attracting more companies to set up shop here. As Tennesseans, we inherently have an independent spirit that uniquely enables us to be trend setters. The recent NAEP scores indicate that we are on the right track. I just hope that this train of public education improvement can avoid be derailed.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Remaining Neutral in a Time of Polarization

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As a teacher, I have always tried to remain politically neutral in class. Part of the reason for this is because I am in a position of authority, and I don’t want to impose my beliefs on my students, whose views, though less informed because of their youth, are every bit as valid as my own. The other reason why I try to remain politically neutral is because I want my students to think for themselves. I provide them with articles about what’s going on in the world, and I allow them to write and discuss these articles with as little input from me as I can muster. As a high school English teacher, I also attempt to connect centuries-old literature to modern-day events while allowing my students to find their own evidence-based paths toward truth.
Remaining neutral is incredibly difficult for me--especially during what has been, arguably, the most polarizing presidential election cycle in our country’s history. It’s also difficult because I have been politically active since I can remember, and I love having reasoned political debates with others. Further, I know of teachers who are not neutral, and that increases my desire to discuss my own beliefs and provide my students with an opposing viewpoint.
At the same time, I wonder if my silence is misconstrued as complicity for the racist, misogynistic, and deplorably unintelligent child-like banter that’s unbecoming of a world leader. Elie Wiesel, who wrote a novella titled Night about his experiences surviving the Holocaust, once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Therein lies my dilemma. Supporters of Trump and Clinton each claim that they are the tormented and the other candidate is the tormentor. Who am I to say that either of them is wrong? At the same time, when I don’t publicly stand against hate-filled rhetoric, what example am I setting for my students, and for my two young daughters?
As written in a recent Washington Post article: “Words matter. So do actions. Even when children don’t listen to what we say, they pay very careful attention to what we do. Children are watching. They are listening. They are learning from the example we set as their parents and teachers—not only from what we say and do, but from what we accept when it comes to the words and actions of others. We have to show them that hatred, sexism, racism, disrespect, and threats of physical violence are not okay. They’re unacceptable at any age — for a kindergartener, a high school student, or a presidential candidate.”

Trump’s words and actions go against everything I teach my students and my children. At the same time, the political polarity that straightjackets our democracy will eventually ruin it if people don’t start thinking for themselves again. I want my students to take a stand against social injustices because their minds and their hearts move them to speak up. I want my students to discern false from factual political arguments so that they can make informed decisions, thereby forcing political candidates to stop appealing to the lowest common denominator by using words that say a lot but mean nothing. In the end, it is the children who are going to continue making this country great. Perhaps there is room for me to assert my own views and be a little less neutral, but, in doing so, I must be careful to keep from hindering my students’ thinking. After all, that’s what they enter my classroom for in the first place.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Going Gradelless: My Q1 Reflection

At the beginning of the school year, I wrote about the necessity of throwing out grades and how that will improve my students’ ability to learn the objectives of the course. Now that the first quarter is over, it’s time for some self-reflection on how well this process actually unfolded.

This is my first year of going completely gradeless, after trying it with only my honors classes last school year. People told me that this would never work with “regular” students, but I also kept in mind that these same people are deeply ingrained in the antiquated cogs of an education system that is desperate need of grassroots reform. The process is amazingly simple: Instead of grades, I provide feedback on assignments, telling students how well they have mastered the purpose of that assignment. Because I am operating a gradeless classroom within the confines of quarterly report cards, I had students write a reflection of what they have mastered this nine weeks and then I sat down and conferenced with them at the end of the grading period.

The conferences were enlightening. Students told me what grade they should have on their report card, and they defended that grade with evidence from the assignments they completed over the course of the grading period. In talking with students, I learned about their successes and failures, what’s working for them in my class and what’s not. I learned more about their home lives. In several cases, changes in their home lives impacted their academic performance. I learned that students were occasionally clueless about what grade they should have on their report card, but they were almost always brutally honest.

For those who think that students choosing their report card grades would inflate them, nothing could be further from the truth. I have four regular English classes and one honors class. Across all class periods, including honors, 24% of students have an A, 17% have a B, 26% have a C, 1% have a D, and 32% have an F. Here is a a grade breakdown, by class period. Yes, nearly one-third of my students not only failed themselves for the nine weeks, they admitted to me during the conference that they haven’t mastered very many objectives because they have been lazy and need to try harder. It is refreshing to know that the students know exactly what they need to do to improve.

From my perspective, I have learned a great deal from operating a gradeless classroom. What I am currently doing in my classes is working in various degrees for two-thirds of my students, but the one-third that are failing are unmotivated. Some of the reason for this is out of my control, like hectic home lives and chronic absenteeism, but I also need to do a better job of building enthusiasm and increasing engagement. Additionally, I need to do a better job of providing timely feedback. As an English teacher, this is a monumental challenge, and it is something with which I have always struggled. Still, this is an essential component of a gradeless classroom, and my students need more feedback from me. I have also learned that this year’s students are struggling more than last year’s students with the paperless classroom concept. This has lead me to collect more work on paper than I would like, but my goal is to get the most out of my students, and the online coursework is a literal impossibility for some of my students to complete.

Going forward, I am energized by the difference that this paperless classroom is making for my students. Time will tell how much growth students will demonstrate during the second quarter, but, so far, it looks very promising.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why We Should Win with Winton

During my first six months of writing this column, I have made a concerted effort to focus on education topics that move me and, hopefully, are interesting to you, the reader. At some point, I always try to focus on the most important part of the education system--the students--and how they are affected by these different topics. Occasionally, it is necessary to delve into the political realm because politics and education are unfortunately inseparable.
There is currently a tightly contested state senate race in district 16 between the incumbent, Janice Bowling, and her challenger, Mike Winton. As a public school teacher and as a father of two girls who attend public schools here in Coffee County, education is my life. If you care about public education, as I do, then I implore you to cast your vote on November 8th for Mike Winton, who took time out of his day last Monday to talk to educators from across the district about how he could help us if he is elected.
In case you haven’t heard much about him yet, Winton comes from humble beginnings, being raised by a single mother who instilled a relentless work ethic that he carries with him every day as the owner of Sears in Tullahoma. During his meeting with teachers last week, I was impressed when he explained how he will use his work ethic to benefit teachers. When he’s not busy in the legislature, he plans on attending every school board and county commission meeting across district 16 that his schedule will allow. He wants to be visible and and available to his constituents. When asked what he would do if an education bill came along and he wasn’t sure how to vote on it, his answer was remarkably simple. He’d ask teachers. If time is pressing, then he would ask the state’s largest teacher’s association and greatest collector of teacher voice, the Tennessee Education Association, for their input.
Perhaps the thing that impressed me the most about Winton in meeting with him on Monday of last week is his understanding of how crucial it is for teachers to get their voices back by reinstating their collective bargaining power. Quick history lesson time: In 2011, the Republican supermajority damaged teacher voice by passing the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA). This law severely limits what teachers can “bargain” about, thereby making it infinitely more difficult for teachers to improve their own working conditions. As a result, experienced teachers have been leaving the profession in droves, enrollment in teacher preparation programs in college has significantly decreased while our population is increasing with new schools being built every year, and Tennessee is in the beginning stages of what will become a severe teacher shortage in the near future. Naturally, all of this affects students who eventually will not have qualified teachers to instruct them.
Democrat Eric Stewart was the state senate representative for our district in 2011 and he voted against PECCA. Around the same time, this district was being redrawn, and the following year in 2012, Republican Janice Bowling was elected. She has, unfortunately, continued the legislature’s attack on teachers, as evidenced by her voting in favor of Senate Bill 151 last year, which makes the process more difficult for teachers to pay their teacher’s association dues. Also last year, she supported Senate Bill 027, which diverts public money into private schools for students who have individualized education plans and have one of seven specific disabilities. Senate Bill 027 opens the door for an expanded school voucher bill (like Senate Bill 999, which she supported) to pass the legislature in 2017--something that the Republican legislature has unsuccessfully tried to pass the previous five years under the guise of “school choice.
I truly hope that Mike Winton is elected our next state senator but, if that is not the case, our teachers and students need a representative who will not merely vote along party lines and will work with her colleagues to reverse the legislature’s assault on the education system. We need a representative who will listen to teachers and stand by our side when potentially hazardous education bills are introduced by lawmakers who are working on behalf of special interest groups who want to privatize education. We need a representative who recognizes that a state with a strong PreK-12 education system keeps people out of jail and is good for business.