While this first week of the spring term didn’t feel especially long, it definitely was a journey. This may be a long post; I apologize for my lack of brevity, but, well, there’s a lot to say.
On Monday, I arrived for staff development day – in a snowstorm – a bit late, and joined the plenary session (our staff is so large that we use this lofty term for a full staff meeting) run by our principal in time to hear him ask for new courses to meet the needs of our students.
[I need to take a brief moment to explain that the large urban school in which I work has a population comprised of students who enter through both screened admissions and through the local zone. The split is fairly even, and this mix creates a diverse atmosphere which does not fully integrate the two groups of students, nor does it completely segregate them. While it’s not quite a Tale of Two Cities, there are definitely distinctions drawn along academic, and in part, but not completely, racial lines between the two groups of students.]
“We need to adjust our expectations to meet our students where they are at,” the principal announced. “Take Geometry for example – a lot of these kids – they’re never going to need Geometry. Why are we setting them up for failure?” While his exact verbiage may be slightly off, these words – or very, very close to them – were uttered by the instructional leader of our 3800 student building. My mind went blank, or perhaps I saw red, but some switch, some alarm went off in me when I heard this. I was incredulous – was the principal of one of the most sought after high schools in New York City telling us to lower our expectations? Was he saying this right after he told us that while our ‘gifted’ students loved our high school, those who were ‘lower achieving’ left without the same warm fuzzy feeling after we had somehow managed to help them graduate?
I wrote in my last post about my on-going efforts to educate myself in order to be a better ally, or to begin to become an ally to those who were oppressed by or excluded from mainstream systems. And I decried the attitudes of my colleagues who look at some students and only see failure; those teachers refuse to modify their own output in order to achieve a different outcome in their classrooms. But I never anticipated hearing such explicit condemnation of an entire class of people from someone who was supposed to be acting in their best interests, the alleged guardian of their education.
This exhortation cast a pall over the rest of the day. In our math departmental meeting, we debated long and painfully about what type of courses we should be offering to students who failed repeatedly, and whether we should be encouraging or ‘inviting’ them to take Regents exams (which they are by law entitled to take once they have completed a Regents-based course). Thankfully, several teachers besides me spoke up against telling adolescents that they didn’t need any higher levels of math because they weren’t college material and never would be. But the lowering of expectations had begun; the principal’s priorities were already causing their downward effect.
Tuesday was the first day of classes. Four of my five classes are ‘regular’ and ‘gifted’ track students, but I have one team-taught inclusion section of Term 3 of 3 Geometry (the slower track of Algebra 1 and Geometry are broken down into three terms each). There are currently thirty five students on the roster, with a huge range of ability, as well as a range of class year and credit accumulation. On our first day – we had a very brief period – I gave them an activity from Illustrative Mathematics, in which the students were asked to find the area and perimeter of each composite figure. Ever overplanned, I had created a worksheet I thought we would complete.
The students were intrigued by the process of finding the area of the purple figure, and began sketching, calculating, and arguing with one another. A lot of them. We just had time to finish the area portion of the problem when class was over.
I was thrilled (and a bit surprised) by the level of engagement – of perplexity! – of the students. And I loved what I saw – this desire to solve a problem, to look at something they had never seen before and tackle it. I realized in that moment – my own personal Aha! – that this is THE class for me this term. This is the class to defy those lowered expectations. I know I must rise to this occasion and bring everything I have to [try to] transform the mathematical experience many of these students have had into something positive and affirming.
I consulted with my mentor, inspiration and dear friend – the ELL Coordinator for our school who is currently an intern for a supervisory license. Lucky for me, her office is just down the hall from mine, and even luckier, she was equally cognizant of the high level of need of these students, and the opportunity presented not only to create a uniquely student-centered and differentiated classroom, but also to demonstrate to the nay-sayers, purveyors of low expectations and thinly veiled racism that which can accomplished when we acknowledge that it is our responsibility as educators to be thoughtful, intentional and work as hard as we can to – yes – meet our students at their level, and then bring them beyond it.
Realizing how intriguing the composite shapes were, I decided to postpone my lesson plan for the next day in order to continue this exercise; the students would work in self-selected groups (I was still getting to know them and wanted to observe their choices) with the large whiteboards. My colleague offered to observe the class and share feedback and insights, as well as support me as I undertook the task (which was beginning to loom as I looked forward) of creating a classroom in which there were high expectations of every student: that each student would honestly acknowledge where they needed help and where they could grow, and do their best, in cooperation with their teachers (my co-teacher and me), to move in that directions.
It has taken all evening just to set this thought process down; another post will follow (hopefully tomorrow) about what we actually did in class this week, what my plans are going forward, and a plea from the #MTBoS for help and ideas.