Speaking Up for Equity Takes Courage — But the Standards Have Your Back

Ruja Benjamin’s keynote at the 2018 Rowland Conference was a call to action.  She implored us not just to talk about equity, but to put that knowledge to use, to act!  It can be a challenge to determine how to take action against inequity. As educators we can feel disempowered, we may not know how to disrupt systems that protect privilege.  This piece was written for school librarians to illustrate tangible opportunities for action against inequity. I hope it serves as inspiration for action in your classrooms, schools, and districts.  Please share your stories of putting equity into action!

Speaking Up for Equity Takes Courage–But the Standards Have Your Back

In today’s politically charged climate, school librarians may feel vulnerable when we raise questions about equity, inclusion, and social justice. On the other hand, we cannot and should not avoid this fundamental question: Who does my school library serve?

School libraries can be equity hubs. Scholars recognize equity as an interdisciplinary, system-wide goal, and school librarians are well placed to be equity leaders because of our connections to all learners. Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell make an explicit call for interdisciplinary equity work in all content areas at all grade levels for students of all backgrounds. They remind us that “teaching for equity literacy is a political act—but not more so than not teaching for equity literacy” (2015, 39).

The National School Library Standards require school librarians to make equity a value that permeates the entire school library community. Creating displays to celebrate diversity is not enough. We cannot allow ourselves to approach diversity as a “social good,” in which isolated programs serve marginalized students without challenging the overall structures of oppression (Watt 2015, 9). Instead, the AASL Standards challenge us to embrace the systemic value of diversity as we work to remedy structural barriers to equity.

This focus on systemic equity is also in line with efforts to include school library communities, collections, and curricula in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This 2015 reauthorization and expansion of long-standing education policy and civil rights law renew our focus on equitable opportunities for all students, and libraries are part of this vital work. The AASL Standards are organized into six Shared Foundations; we will explore each through the lens of equity, providing a rationale for action and examples of school library practice.

IncludeInclude

Key Commitment: Demonstrate an understanding of and commitment to inclusiveness and respect for diversity in the learning community.

When the AASL Standards were introduced at the AASL National Conference in November 2017, there was a consensus that the Include Shared Foundation and Key Commitment were both “new” and “necessary.” They ask us to teach students to seek and include balanced and diverse perspectives, exhibit empathy and tolerance, and demonstrate a commitment to equity as they build their own understandings. Include situates our learners within a global learning community and asks us to prepare them for full participation in that community (AASL 2018). And the Include Key Commitment demands that we provide authentic learning opportunities, create an accessible facility, and maintain a diverse collection that meets the needs of a broad range of learners. Include does the lion’s share of equity work, and we use it as we share examples that demonstrate how equity and inclusion are embedded in all the Shared Foundations and Key Commitments.

2Inquire

Key Commitment: Build new knowledge by inquiring, thinking critically, identifying problems, and developing strategies for solving problems.

Inquire is focused on cultivating curiosity and the capacity to pursue it. Unfortunately, some students have been left out of the inquiry process and relegated to rote skill development or fact-finding missions without opportunities to exercise their voice and choice. However, the National School Library Standards call for all students to have the opportunity to inquire meaningfully and authentically. Inclusive inquiry also asks us to think about how we question representation; do we teach learners to probe the stories they read, the resources they use, and the perspectives they seek for inclusiveness? Inquiry is a powerful lens that students can use to explore justice in our world.

Inquiry for All 

Shelly Buchanan, former school librarian and now lecturer in the MLIS program at San Jose State University, researches student-driven inquiry. Buchanan argues that “all kids need to play the whole game of inquiry from the beginning because it is meaningful, real, relevant work with an authentic audience.” Her research shows that, regardless of readiness or achievement, students experience deeper, more satisfying learning when they choose a topic of personal interest, design and execute the research, and create artifacts and new knowledge for presentation to their peers and larger school community (2016).

Anita Cellucci, librarian at Westborough (MA) High School, agrees. She uses guided inquiry design to create opportunities for every single learner—including English language learners and students with individualized education plans—to be curious, ask genuine questions, create keywords, and use meaningful resources to explore their interests. Equity doesn’t mean that all students have the same experience; Cellucci uses individualized instruction to scaffold learning at all levels of readiness, which means that all learners get to learn how to inquire (2018).

Inquiry about Inclusion

Lauren Perlstein, librarian at the Putney (VT) Central School, engages her learners in critical thinking about stereotypes and generalizations. When We Forgot Brock! by Carter Goodrich (Simon & Schuster 2015) was selected as one of Vermont’s Red Clover Award Books, she did some detailed planning to prepare her learners to analyze the gendered stereotypes in the book characters’ imaginary friends. Before she read the book aloud, she had her young students sketch their own imaginary friends. Then they talked about gender stereotypes. By the time they saw the book they were prepared; when they spotted a stereotype their hands went up. Perlstein taught them how to critically analyze a text, and to question it for bias and stereotypes (2017).

CollaborateCollaborate

Key Commitment: Work effectively with others to broaden perspectives and work toward common goals.

Often educators translate “collaboration” to mean “group work,” but the AASL Standards remind us that true collaborations include diverse perspectives. The Collaborate competencies require us to go beyond superficial group work in pursuit of real conversations and problem solving opportunities that require stakeholders to examine and value diverse perspectives.

Supporting Discussions in the Library Community

Collaborations in the library can happen at the school, classroom, and small-group level. This year Diane Brown and Chelsea Sims, school librarians at South East Junior High in Iowa City, collected demographic information with their annual survey to allow them to discover how welcome students within gender, racial, and sexual orientation groups felt in the library. Although the survey showed that 86 percent of Often educators translate “collaboration” to mean “group work,” but the AASL Standards remind us that true collaborations include diverse perspectives. 58 Knowledge Quest | International School Libraries All materials in this journal subject to copyright by the American Library Association may be used for the noncommercial purpose of scientific or educational advancement granted by Sections 107 and 108 of the Copyright Revision Act of 1976. Address usage requests to the ALA Office of Rights and Permissions. students feel welcome in the library, Sims and Brown also learned that some demographic groups felt more welcome than others. “Of course, the negative feedback received was difficult to read,” Sims notes, “but we had to take a critical stance on what we are doing so can we make it better” (Sims 2018).

Jen Dovre, K–12 school librarian at Ballard Community School District in Iowa, reminds us that equitable collaboration also requires inclusive curriculum and resources. She collaborated with a ninth-grade social studies teacher to help students broaden their perspectives about hate and genocide (2018). The resulting literature circle unit leveraged the study of genocide narratives in diverse cultural contexts and collaborative conversations between peers to help students “understand that learning is a social responsibility” (AASL 2018, School Librarians, III.D.2).

Collaborating for Equitable Access

Kelsey Barker, school librarian at Longfellow Middle School in Norman, Oklahoma, collaborates with students, families, and communities to ensure a culture of 24–7 access to the library, to nurture partnerships with the public library, and to promote reduced-cost WiFi connections for qualifying families. Barker further supports equitable access by providing digital literacy resources to complement the district’s 1:1 initiative, and says, “This has been especially beneficial to students with disabilities or students whose parents lack digital literacy skills” (2018).

CurateCurate

Key Commitment: Make meaning for oneself and others by collecting, organizing, and sharing resources of personal relevance.

The school library collection is a natural place to consider equity, and the AASL Standards challenge school librarians to curate “a collection of reading and information materials in formats that support the diverse developmental, cultural, social, and linguistic needs of the range of learners and their communities” (School Libraries, II.B.1). School librarians can use a variety of collaborative and reflective strategies to pursue an inclusive collection that offers both windows to and mirrors of the world.

Reflecting on Bias

Former school librarian and current doctoral candidate Jenna Spiering’s research encourages school librarians to be on the lookout for biased language in book reviews that might unintentionally limit the audience for a title by suggesting that LGBTQ+ books are supplemental purchases that are only “for” students of particular sexual orientations or gender identities. She calls attention to warning statements in reviews that call out LGBTQ+ characters or topics as controversial, and reminds school librarians to think about how such warning statements contribute to self-censorship (2017). While Spiering’s work focuses on LGBTQ+ issues, her suggestions can also help us consider other forms of dominant-culture bias in reviews.

Around the 2016 elections, school librarian Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley heard her Northview Middle School students in Iowa voice a range of political sentiments, from antiimmigrant, anti-Muslim comments to confused, curious, or dismayed questions about political controversies. The political climate pushed Shelley to renew her commitment to curating a diverse library collection that would give her students the chance to read books about people and cultures with whom they may not often interact. Moreover, now that she has become politically active in the community, both through progressive organizing events and through her election to the Des Moines Public Schools school board, Shelley knows that she needs to be particularly aware of how her biases are reflected in the school collection. She continues her commitment to diverse collections, and she is careful to do so with a keen eye toward balance and careful references to her district’s selection policy (2018).

Collaborating for Inclusive Collections

Rachel Small, school librarian at Pine Glen Elementary in Burlington, Massachusetts, curates equitably through collaborative weeding and selection. Small targets specific parts of her collection, and she asks experts to help. For example, her district’s social studies coach helped her weed the Thanksgiving books that perpetuate inaccuracies about the holiday. And when she decided to genrefy the library, Small enlisted a team of teachers, staff members, parents, and district coaches to help weed books with obvious biases and help recognize equity gaps in specific areas of her collection. For inclusive selection, Small uses social media to help her connect with authors and illustrators to find books that support equity, and she purchases a variety of high-interest, low reading level books to make sure all of her students can be passionate about what they read. She also takes recommendations from students seriously, using Destiny’s Wish List feature to solicit and collect requests from her students (2018).

Explore equity

Key Commitment: Discover and innovate in a growth mindset developed through experience and reflection.

Explore is focused on self-discovery and innovation through reading for personal enjoyment, tinkering and making, and solving problems of personal interest. Librarians are finding ways to help students interested in equity and social justice explore these areas in meaningful ways. They are also providing equitable opportunities for learners to read, make, and solve problems.

Exploring Social Justice

Meg Allison, Union 32 Middle and High School librarian in Vermont, began the school year by curating a social justice reading list and publishing it widely on social media. Meanwhile, a U-32 student spoke out at a school assembly because he had heard the n-word on the bus ride to school. He implored the student body: “We are better than this!” Allison reached out to the brave student, and a social justice club was born. Students are using an online system to report instances of hate speech witnessed at school and to slowly build the case that the school has a climate issue. Their plan is to provide resources that both staff and students can use to speak up and speak out. In the meantime, they themselves are speaking up through art exhibits, student-led protests, and other social action (2018).

Reading for Empathy

Peter Langella, librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School in Vermont, believes that schools have a mandate to teach students how to be good citizens, and that good citizenship requires knowing something about the lives of others. Enter literature, Langella says, “Reading books by diverse authors, about diverse characters and diverse populations is a way to educate students about the world.” Research linking reading fiction to empathetic brain activity led Langella to approach his administration and faculty to argue for more free-choice reading in school. Now, students have the opportunity to read for choice in their ELA and social studies courses. And Langella offers a course of his own: Story as an Essential Experience. Students explore empathy through related themes like windows and mirrors, resilience, love and hate, race, and identity (2018).

Equitable Tinkering and Leading

The principal at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, where Jen Hill is librarian, made an interesting observation: most student leaders are “good at school.” The Makerspace Leadership Team, on the other hand, has a variety of leaders, some of whom don’t always shine in the classroom. And that gets to the core values of the makerspace: access and interest. Hill and her students have designed their makerspace so that all students have access, and student interest is at the center. Equity is an issue when making and tinkering are seen as “extras” or enrichment, but the Crossett Brook school library provides the entire student body with the opportunity to make, tinker, play, and problem solve. Exploration in the Crossett Brook makerspace lets kids who don’t always excel in the classroom create amazing things; students who don’t always get along learn to collaborate to solve problems; and all kinds of kids get to grow their leadership skills (2018).

Engage empathy

Key Commitment: Demonstrate safe, legal, and ethical creating and sharing of knowledge products independently while engaging in a community of practice and an interconnected world.

The Engage competencies recognize that all students are information evaluators and producers. The AASL Standards provide pathways for school librarians to think about evaluating sources and about creating and sharing new knowledge with attention to ethics and privacy.

Engage in Thoughtful Knowledge Consumption and Creation

Shannon Walters, school librarian at Burlington (VT) High School, does not assume that access to technology means that her students know how to use it well. In her community, as in most, an enormous skill divide exists. Walters believes it is the school library’s duty to democratize these skills by closing that gap. She uses technology to help students analyze information and evaluate news for accuracy as they search for authoritative sources. In her library, students also have opportunities to create new knowledge, cite their sources, and share their work in ways that are meaningful and relevant. “We have to go beyond selfies,” says Walters, and ensure that all students have meaningful opportunities to create through moviemaking, coding, graphic design, and more. Walters believes that libraries help students discover what they didn’t know they needed (2018).

Likewise, when Norman (OK) Public Schools adopted and trained faculty districtwide in the Guided Inquiry Design model, Teresa Lansford, National Board Certified school librarian at Lincoln Elementary, began to see students creating more meaningful products. As one group of students inquired and created a video to teach their peers about water waves, the opportunity to share their new knowledge in a format tailored to their audience gave them confidence and a sense of pride. Lansford noted, “This group of students hadn’t seen themselves in the past as having anything to contribute to our learning community and here they were with a valuable contribution to our learning. You could tell they felt more important in school than they had before” (2018).

Privacy in an Equitable Library

Kelsey Barker from Norman (OK) Public Schools models her understanding of ethical use of information by respecting her students’ privacy rights and creating an environment where privacy is a key part of information ethics and intellectual freedom. Barker says, “My students understand that their library records are private and that they can access digital materials for even more freedom. This allows students with learning disabilities, for example, to select materials on their reading level without fear of ridicule from peers.” Working with her school staff to help them understand every student’s right to read also helps create a library environment in which all community members’ intellectual freedom rights are protected (2018).

Action Steps for Equity

Let the National School Library Standards be your call to action! Consider the action steps below as you create equitable opportunities and outcomes for your students and help them become thoughtful global citizens. Librarians all over the country are building on a longstanding democratic tradition of serving the public via access, instruction, and community. We strongly encourage you to aspire to new ways of championing equity, inspired by the stories told here and ideas outlined in table 1.

Table 1. Examples of action steps for equity.

Action steps
Inquire: Ask tough questions.
  • Where does bias show up in my library culture and policies?  
  • Whose stories are missing from my collection? What perspectives are not represented?
Include: Recognize bias and seek diverse perspectives.
  • Reflect on your instructional practice: are you teaching ALL students in ways that are meaningful and appropriately challenging for them?
  • Take an implicit bias test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) and reflect on how the results might inform your practice?
Collaborate: Work with others to identify and address assumptions and biases.
  • Collaborate with your faculty to share your work and ask each other hard questions about equity.
  • Collaborate with students to create a library where all learners feel welcomed and respected. Be sure that your Library Advisory Board is diverse!
Curate: Build a collection that does not “celebrate diversity” but represents all perspectives equitably.
  • Read diverse books, and add them to your collection!
  • Ask students and teachers what perspectives are missing, and fill those gaps.
  • Subscribe to Teaching Tolerance.
Explore: Provide opportunities for ALL students to read, make, tinker, innovate and grow.
  • Survey student interests and look for opportunities to provide related resources.
  • Collect data: who gets to make and create in the library?  Who doesn’t? How might you address the gap?
  • How might students take leadership roles in your library?
Engage: Take

responsibility for your library and rectify inequities.

  • How “accurate” is your collection?  Evaluate your resources for bias and stereotypes.
  • Showcase learning products from a wide variety of learners.

Works Cited:

Allison, Meg. 2018. Interview with the author. January 9.

American Association of School Librarians. 2018. National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. Chicago: ALA.

Barker, Kelsey. 2018. E-mail message to author. January 2.

Buchanan, Shelly. 2016. “Exploring the Lived Experience of Middle School Students Engaged in Inquiry Based Learning.” In Information Literacy: Key to an Inclusive Society, 490– 98. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Buchanan, Shelly. 2018. Interview with the author. January 9.

Cellucci, Anita. 2018. Interview with the author. January 8.

Dovre, Jen. 2018. E-mail message to author. January 5.

Gorski, Paul, and Katy Swalwell. 2015. “Equity Literacy for All.” Educational Leadership 72 (6): 34–40.

Hill, Jennifer. 2018. Interview with the author. January 9.

Langella, Peter. 2018. Interview with the author. January 8.

Lansford, Teresa. 2018. E-mail message to author. January 7.

Perlstein, Lauren. 2017. E-mail message to the author. December 27.

Shelley, Kyrstin Delagardelle. 2018. Interview with the author. January 12.

Sims, Chelsea. 2018. E-mail message to author. January 12.

Small, Rachel. 2018. Interview with the author. January 3.

Spiering, Jenna. 2017. “Reviewing to Exclude? Critical Discourse Analysis of YA LGBTQ Book Reviews for School Librarians.” ALAN Review 44 (2): 43–53.

Walters, Shannon. 2018. Interview with the author. January 12.

Watt, Sherry K. 2015. Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications, and Facilitator Considerations. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

 

Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. She is a member of AASL and was a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. In 2016 she received the Frances Henne Award. Kate is also a news editor and monthly blogger for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

 

Jeanie

 

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education. A 2014 Rowland Fellow and a Collaborative Practices Facilitator for the School Reform Initiative, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. She is a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Creating Change Through What We Have in Common

This year, I am spending most of my day in the central area of MVU, called The Commons.  This has caught many people off-guard for a few reasons. For one, I’m on sabbatical, so people assume I would be off traveling, or, as I imagine people who have no idea what a sabbatical of fellowship is, in a wizard’s library in the sky.  Most, however, are concerned that I lack any other options for a workspace. Each day,
I receive no fewer than five offers of a quiet space to work, and an equal amount of jokes about how crazy it is that I choose to be here.

I made this ostensibly crazy decision to base myself in Commons fairly last minute.  In June, by the kindness of our librarian, I secured a quiet, dignified, fellowship-appropriate space in the library. In early August, I came in to get settled, and I immediately felt I needed to be in the Commons instead.   

I was not sure at the time what was driving this decision besides the ease of others being able to find me, and vice versa.  I have always been a cart teacher, so having a location to be found at all times seems magical.

(Side note about cart teaching: I am unsure if this condition has caused me to be a roving viking educator, longing to see the sights of other disciplines and grade levels, or if I was destined to be that way even if I had the cushy confines of my own space, free to design the seating arrangement of my pedagogical dreams)

What I have realized over the first six weeks of school is that I am exactly where I need to be.  And my placement, though odd to some, is actually the key to the change I want to start with this fellowship.

The rest of this post is about to get a little creative. As a social studies teacher I live in the world of informational text, but part of the magic of sabbatical is expanding one’s horizons. Thanks are due to the last English course I took, Creative Writing, in my senior year….of high school.  

Now that you have the proper preparation and expectations….

The Glorious Glossary Guide to the MVU Commons:

Commons:

Our central area of the school. Used for lunches, primarily, but sometimes for meetings, a senior area, celebrations, quiet space, loud space, prep space, formerly Academic Round Table (all study halls combined, much maligned or beloved, depending on who you ask).  An open area that is closed to most people most of the day. Very inviting. If you are a student, you will be asked to leave. If you are a teacher, you will be questioned about why you are there. Bright skylights, bright white walls, bright ideas.

IMG_6060

 

The Tragedy of the Commons:

Economic principle to explain when when bad things happen to public goods.  Without formal ownership, spaces will be neglected to the point of, well, tragedy.  If we do not own a space, it is off our shoulders to care for, decorate, love, clean, and maintain it. We trash it, walk through it, ignore it, refuse to be comfortable in it.  The real tragedy is that we neglect, or damage, a space that is at least twenty to forty minutes of our reality every day.

1016181125

Common Denominator:

What we all share, often involuntarily. All are allowed in the Commons (at least temporarily). It is often the first thing we see when we walk into school. The first stop of: class-skipping, romantic rendezvous, emotional regulation snafus, confusing classroom changes, excited chatter at the commencement of an out-of-classroom experience, and general non-conformity.

Commoners:

Those who are not of special note in the history books. No one is scoring goals, winning awards, or jamming a drum solo in Commons.  There are no AP sections of Commons. Social capital creates hierarchy, but it is transient. After twenty one minutes, the crowd leaves, never to return in the exact structure.  No scorebook is kept.

Commotion:

This space is visually and auditorily OVERWHELMING to many.  The undecorated white walls offend some, the murals of student work that pop up every few weeks offend others. The sea of faces at lunch, round tables in slightly different spots each day, the lack of clear pathways from one end to the other, the uproar of laughter and chatter, chairs scraping tile, swearing or possible unkind words, music being played though cell phone speakers, sticky table surfaces. There is at least one sensory nightmare awaiting even the most resilient extrovert.

 

                                                                                Community:

IMG_6057A space we all can identify with.  We all have memories there, and most everyone can find positive ones.  Meeting new people, laughter, taking an extra slow walk back to class from the bathroom to look out the window.  

Connections:

This space literally connects all parts of the school.  Most cannot go a day without passing through it at least three times. From class, to class, to lunch, to the nurse, to the library, to the office. Each person passing through has unique ideas, skills, and knowledge, potentially of benefit to so many others, or even just one in desperate need.  Inspiration, support, lunch money, a laugh, a hug, a ride home.

Common Core:

Homonyms/Homophones for Core: Cor, Latin for Heart: The center of life for the larger entity.  Sends vital nutrients to the far corners, and pulls them back to recharge.

Corps, French for Body: Often used to describe an army or force. The mass of people who work together as if they were one to achieve an awesome task impossible for just one alone.

What is most important, what will be tested. In the MVU Commons, I have benefited the most in my work, and personally, from the relationships. I see former students, for a quick smile and nod or a lengthy discussion on the importance of the arts in school. I have spoken more this year to the people who know our students best: our student attendance support person, our SRO, our custodians, our special educators, our IAs, than over the previous eight combined. Every day in the Commons, I see and hear and feel the Cor/Corps/Core of our school, the vital signs of our community.

Catalyst:

The necessary conditions for the success of my work will be a feeling of belonging, shared ownership,  equality, and collective efficacy. To create a system of shared leadership and ownership of our school by our students and our community, it is crucial for all parties to feel that their voices are equal and important.  What better way to create this feeling than by using a physical means to set the mood?

Change:

This space, more so than any other in the school, changes.  There are no assigned seats, career-enduring wall decorations, distinguished overhead projectors, or rogue chalkboards.  The furniture is completely removed every day. The kitchen creates new smells each day. If you took attendance in Commons, there would never be two ten minute blocks with the exact same roster.

Common:

Synonyms: everyday, familiar, prevailing, routine, simple, trivial, typical, universal, bourgeois, general, humdrum, plain, regular, standard, stock, casual, colloquial, conformable, conventional, customary, habitual, homely, informal,run-of-the-mill, stale, stereotyped, trite, undistinguished, unvaried, usual

Yet, there is only one Commons, which defies all of the above.  How special, how unique, how loved it should be. Classrooms are common. For every school, there are dozens of classrooms. Why do we dote on them so?  Numbers and names, bean bag chairs, couches, soft lighting, posters, student work, mini-fridges, music, microwaves, snacks, sweets, toys, all hidden away.

Commonalities:

What we all share, and can relate to. Even if the space or spaces in your school go by different names, maybe there is something special in the common that can help you in your work the way it has helped me. The first step for me in finding what was special in the common, was for me to bring my own specialness to the Commons.  My cart, my duct tape, my computer, my scented markers, my posters, my stickers, my mug, my speaker. This is much easier for a cart teacher, and for a teacher on sabbatical. However, I see other teachers out here, eating lunch, grading, socializing. Students see them too.

Challenge:

0918181806b

 A task that is is difficult, but often rewarding.  While there are certainly times when isolation and quiet and control is necessary for learning, there are just as many, maybe more, when it is not.  What I will challenge myself to do back in my regular schedule? Become as common as I can. Could my students benefit from doing group work in the wide open space of the Commons?  Could I bear to have my lunch in the same conditions that students do? Could I incorporate a Commons survey task into the learning for the day? Would doing my prep in the Commons have unintentional benefits, like connecting with teachers from other disciples, snagging a free bulletin board the custodians are carrying off, spotting a struggling student on a walk and giving them a pep talk to make it through class?  I am ready to give up some of my control, all in the name of the common good.

 

 

1016181537b

 

 

Alyssa Urban is a 2018 Fellow and Social Studies Teacher at Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School where she spends her teaching and non-teaching time with several awesome and tolerant English teachers.  She lives in Cloverdale with her husband, daughter, and fantastic neighbors.

 

More about her fellowship project at:  MVUnity.org

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When School Choice Isn’t Really a Choice

When school choice isn’t really a choice…A version of this piece originally appeared at VTDigger.org on 07/02/18

Much has been written about public schools vs. private schools (and vouchers, choices, etc.) in Vermont lately, but nothing I’ve read has gotten to the true heart of the conversation:

School choice isn’t really school choice because not everyone can access that choice.

school choice

I’d like to tell you about Alex, who was a student of mine at Champlain Valley Union High School a few years ago.

Alex’s parents came to Vermont from another country, and Alex spent the first few years of his life speaking a language other than English in his home. Throughout elementary school, Alex worked with an English Language teacher and a Speech-Language Pathologist. By the time Alex reached high school, he was a fluent English speaker, but he still had reading and writing deficits. Alex then worked with a Reading Specialist, and he was placed in Humanities classes that contained embedded Special Educators and paraprofessionals. He worked hard, and by the end of 10th grade his skills were improving, and he was coming to school with added confidence.

Alex’s family didn’t have much money, so when he turned 16, Alex got a job restocking shelves at a big box store, and he worked after school and on weekends to earn money for his family, sometimes nearing 40 hours/week. Alex’s school work suffered during this time as the daily grind took hold of his life. He’d often beg his older sister to drive him to friends houses for a little respite, as most of his friends didn’t live on a public bus line, just like most Vermonters don’t. It was the bus to school, a full day of classes, the bus home, a walk to work, a walk home in the dark, sleep, repeat.

Upon the recommendation of his School Counselor and me, Alex freed up time in his schedule to do extra work with math, science, English, and art teachers (as well as tutors in our Learning Center), and he took advantage of his connection with me to learn how to better access the library. He put in the work necessary to finish his assignments and, yet again, improve his skills. He reached the end of that particular plateau, and, for the first time in his life, he could see the end of high school as a realistic possibility.

At CVU, we have a community-based capstone project called Graduation Challenge that all seniors must complete. Alex wanted to work with a forestry mapping service, but his work schedule was still intense, and he didn’t have transportation to complete the required hours with his mentor in the field. So, many of us pitched in with rides when we could. It took Alex much longer to complete his project than it takes most students, and there were a few bumps along the way, but he passed the experience with solid performances on the final two components: a research paper, and a presentation of learning in front of a panel of faculty and community experts.

Alex graduated from high school.

It was hard work all around, but it was our work. It is our work.

Alex got a chance at a better life, and it was partly because of us — his educators.

The ELL teacher and the SLP, the embedded Special Educators and Paras, the Reading Specialist, the tutors and librarians, all of us who drove him to his field work, and a conscientious and gracious group of teachers who helped him in many ways that I know of and countless ways that I don’t.

We serve ALL students.

Because many students, like Alex, don’t have the luxury of choices because of their lack of privilege.

Could Alex have commuted to another school? No. Could he have participated in afterschool activities? No. Could he have accessed almost anything “available” to him? No.

Alex was lucky to live in a district with great local schools. If he had been raised in a rural, choice district, he would have only been able to attend the school who decided to send a bus to his town, if not directly to his house.

I hear stories about students using their state vouchers to attend prestigious private schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that’s great for them, but please remember that for every perceived success of “choice” there’s an Alex 

povertysitting at home because there are no choices. There is no access. The easiest option, the closest option, the least-expensive-to-the-family option: that is the only option.

Please don’t forget about Alex and students like him.

Please don’t let school choice become one more place where our society makes it clear that we care a great deal about the haves and not at all about the have nots.

______

Further Reading:

Slow Motion: Traveling by School Bus in Consolidated Districts in West Virginia” by Lorna Jimmerson for the Rural School and Community Trust

Private School and School Choice” resources from Stanford University’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society

Three Big Problems with School ‘Choice’ That Supporters Don’t Like to Talk About” by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post

Peter

 

Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, an English Instructor at Northern Vermont University, a library instructor at the University of Vermont, and a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He is currently reading Pride by Ibi Zoboi.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Fate of Proficiency-Based Learning in Vermont

 

The topic of proficiency-based learning continues to dominate conversations in schools across the state of Vermont.  We are rapidly approaching 2020, the first year that students must graduate high school based on proficiency, instead of merely from the accrual of Carnegie units.  This deadline has some school and district administrators a bit anxious and many others wondering how this whole proficiency thing is actually going to shake out. As a backdrop to the Vermont implementation context is the recent rollback of proficiency-based graduation requirements in Maine.  This has created a bit of a stir in Vermont.

MaineOver the summer, the Maine legislature and senate voted to rollback the original proficiency-based graduation requirement policy.  In 2012, Maine became one of the first states to adopt a policy that included proficiency requirements for high school graduation. Only four years in, there was major pushback from a variety of stakeholders about the proficiency graduation requirements set forth in the state policy.  Though Maine did not completely repeal the law, they did restructure it by removing the high school proficiency requirements for graduation. Instead of being a state mandate, individual high schools can now decide if they want to have a proficiency requirement or not. It is unknown how many schools in Maine will continue with requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate high school.  The decision in Maine is having a bit of a ripple effect in Vermont.

Depending on your particular school district and community, the Vermont response to proficiency-based graduation requirements and proficiency-based learning has been mixed at best.  report cardThere is certainly push back from many different corners, including: parents, students, teachers, and community members, among others. It seems that every few weeks there is an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald or VTDigger about someone not happy about the shift towards a proficiency-based system of education.  Despite some pessimism, a vast majority of individuals understand the basic premise of proficiency and that certain “legacy” practices are flawed.Parents and educators recognize that though proficiency-based systems of education are different than what they are probably familiar with, the “traditional” system is not adequately serving many of our students.

If Vermont happens to roll back or repeal aspects of proficiency-based learning set forth in the Educational Quality Standards and Act 77, it doesn’t mean schools have to abandon their efforts.  Vermont educators have put incredible amounts of time and energy into shifting their practices, that it would be a major blow to abandon all efforts. In Vermont we haven’t fully implemented proficiency-based graduation requirements yet, so we don’t really know the impacts.  Too often it seems in the world of education, many reform initiatives are never seen to fruition and are ditched when any challenges or roadblocks are encountered. We need to see this effort through. Proficiency cannot become “that thing we used to do”. The work is too important and the stakes are too high to stop.  We know that many traditional education practices are faulty, so we cannot go back to what we were doing before. Change takes time and hopefully those in the legislature and elsewhere understand that we will not see immediate results, especially given that many schools have only just started implementation two years ago.   

Rowland work 2

Teachers from across the state learning about Proficiency Based Learning at a Rowland Conference.

We do not know what the future holds for proficiency-based graduation requirements and proficiency-based learning within Vermont.  Regardless of what happens at the policy level, we must always act with students’ best interest at heart. The reasoning behind implementing proficiency-based learning or PBGRs should never simply be: “We have to, it is the law”.  Though we might be bound to follow policy, moral imperative should always trump political cover. Personally, I want to do what is best for students.happy students A proficiency-based system provides a more equitable school experience and offers much better data on where students are at, allowing educators to provide better interventions.  I hope that Maine’s recent rollback doesn’t distract from the amazing work educators across Vermont are engaged in around proficiency-based learning. Implementing systems of proficiency-based learning is hard work but it is best for students. Therefore, regardless of whether we are “supposed to” or not, proficiency-based learning is the right thing to do.

 

Andrew

Andrew Jones is the Director of Curriculum for Mill River Unified Union School District in North Clarendon, Vermont. He is a 2015 Rowland Fellow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Entrepreneurial spirit in school: fostering a new mindset through meaningful project-based learning

I have to admit: so much of what I consider my best maneuvers in education have been largely due to simple serendipity.  Stumbling over opportunities by being in the right place at the right time led me to one of the most meaningful experiences of my year–a jump into entrepreneurship with a small and unsuspecting group of high school students.  

I am no business teacher, and I don’t know the first thing about running a business.  But I can recognize a great opportunity when I see one, and that’s what I saw last year when I listened to a panel of teachers speak about their experiences with Real World Scholars (RWS) at SXSWEdu.  Stories of first graders stocking their local food shelf for three months with funds they had earned selling sugar scrubs, stories of students who helped their peers manage stress by creating fidgets with 3D printers, and stories of the Chemistry class transformed into a soap company that started it all….these left me jumping out of my skin to bring home and offer our students the same opportunity.

Doing so was a classic cannonball experience.  I somehow convinced the business teacher (Bob) that this was an amazing idea and that he should let me co-teach with him.  We pitched it to the kids: this business class you signed up for? You’ll be running a real business. No lemonade stand simulations for you.  Honestly, they didn’t know what to make of it. We’re doing what? Starting a business? Like for real?

It felt a bit like skipping rocks as opposed to cannonballing at first–gentle splashes followed by leaps of faith.  Once we had successfully applied for and received approval from RWS, we held an initial meeting to brainstorm business ideas.  It felt disjointed. Students didn’t understand why we would be meeting when the class wasn’t running until the following spring.  Although we as teachers knew how much work was to be done, it was difficult to impress upon students that idea. It was our first lesson about the amount of time it takes to launch and realize meaningful project-based learning.  We had one semester in the spring and as I write this in June, it feels as though we are just getting started.

 

IMG_9287

Sophie & Anika happy about a successful bath bomb recipe

 

 

By the time our class convened for the first time in late January, we had some initial ideas about potential businesses, but that is where the real work came in for me.  Bob had clear ideas about what needed to be taught in a business class (drawing on years of experience in the field and in the classroom). Shifting to a model of discovery as opposed to frontloading information was a struggle to balance.  We spent a lot of time creating a foundation of knowledge about good business practices–perhaps more than I would have liked and likely less than he would have liked–before we jumped into ordering supplies and actually starting businesses.  We had many conversations–often where I asked questions about what it might look like to give students the responsibilities we were planning ourselves–and gradually we shifted. With a healthy dose of humor and humility, we were able to navigate teaching together and shifting practices that were once teacher-centered to truly student-centered.

 

IMG_9613

Bob guides Ben through the process of in-person marketing with a potential customer

Of the many highlights this class provided my days, one of the best happened in a simple yet momentous conversation.  Three companies–one making candles, one making bath products, and one making tee shirts–all at different stations worked busily through their tasks for the day.  

Bob looked at me and said, “I’m not sure what to do.”  

“Exactly!  It’s happening, right?!  They know what to do! And you get to circle around and check-in, see how you might support them (with that incredible business mind), ask questions, and encourage.”  

That cannonball was feeling like a true splash–exhilarating.

IMG_9616

Caption: Mariah & Cora exhibit their candles to a potential customer

Even in a student-centered model, we seek balance.  Our students and class would not have been nearly as successful as they were without Bob’s incredible knowledge of the business world and his desire to share that with our students.  Although we are asking teachers to step back so that students may step up, they can’t step too far. Students still need us–just in a different capacity. Whereas our students may have learned the basics of business models by participating in a lemonade stand simulation, building their own businesses from the ground up offers the best teacher–real experience–and they had the best of both worlds in a knowledgeable mentor to guide them along in the process.  

Co-teaching has provided me with multiple opportunities to expand my thinking and improve my teaching practice, and I believe it’s an incredible tool we should use more often as we make the shift to student-centered models of learning.  Matching up cannonballers with teachers who are ready and willing to take the plunge might be a good first step. While the water may feel cold at first, it’s nothing if not invigorating!

 

image1

Lori Lisai spent her 2015 Rowland year looking to recapture the adventure in learning through games and technology integration.  (If you haven’t already considered student-created games as authentic assessments, give it some thought!) Lisai is the Innovation Coordinator for the Lamoille Union campus where she tries to lead with an equal balance of empathy and enthusiasm.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Loss Beyond Words

rowlandsVermont has lost a visionary philanthropist. Teachers have lost a passionate advocate and schools a committed partner. And I have lost a dear friend.  I speak, of course, of Barry Rowland who passed away on June 25, 2018. I can’t imagine anyone living a fuller life!

 Back in 2008 when I approached Barry and Wendy Rowland to start a foundation that recognized teachers as the key agents for change in Vermont schools, Barry looked to Wendy and simply stated, “We need to do this.” Ten years later there are 69 Rowland Fellows in and around Vermont, 35 schools are the direct beneficiaries of the Rowland generosity and Barry’s legacy can be found in every successful project he helped launch.

Barry started The Rowland Foundation because he loved his adopted state, because he believed in the power of education and the teachers who step into our classrooms each morning,  and mostly because he cared so deeply about young people, particularly those facing socio-economic obstacles. I often saw a tear in Barry’s eyes as our Board of Trustees read over grant applications and eavesdropped on the climate for learning found in some schools and the hardships faced by too many of our students. His philanthropy and generosity came from somewhere deep in his heart. Nothing gave me more pleasure than observing Barry’s pride as Rowland Fellows shared their work at our annual dinner or as he read the many letters of gratitude that he and Wendy have deservedly received over the years. Barry, Wendy and I met often where Barry would inevitably ask how a certain Rowland Fellow was doing, even years after the Foundation had funded his or her initiative.  When The Rowland Foundation celebrated its tenth anniversary this past May, Barry’s health was failing, but there he was enjoying the company of our Fellows and sharing in the festivities. It was at this event that we announced that The Rowland Foundation had received the highest award offered by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, “The Distinguished Service Award for Service to Education.”  I am so grateful that Barry was able to learn about this honor for one small family foundation from one small state!

Barry insured that the work of the Rowland Foundation would continue long after his death through an endowment which generates an annual income that for years to come will support the dreams of Vermont teachers who wish to take a leadership role in improving the culture and climate of their schools. Barry Rowland was a true visionary.

A few days before Barry died, I visited him at his farm in South Londonderry. I spoke quietly to him as he drifted in and out of consciousness. I wasn’t even sure if he was aware of my presence.  But when I told him that my greatest professional honor was running a foundation that bears his name, Barry opened his eyes for a moment and squeezed my hand. I got up, hugged Wendy goodbye and drove home in tears.

I know that I speak for every Rowland Fellow and for the principals of every Vermont school which have benefited from Barry’s generosity in expressing my heartfelt sympathy to Wendy, her two daughters and her four grandchildren for their profound  loss.

Rest In peace, Barry Rowland, a giant of a man.

Chuck Scranton
Executive Director
The Rowland Foundation
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Finding the Right Balance Between Transferable Skills and Content Knowledge

A central component of Vermont’s proficiency-based graduation requirement set within the Educational Quality Standards (EQS) is that students must demonstrate proficiency in both content knowledge AND transferable skills.  Most schools in Vermont have embraced the inclusion of transferable skills, but how this shift is framed varies considerably from district to district. Some districts have struck a balance between content and skills, while others put content in the backseat.  The successful implementation of proficiency-based learning hinges on how districts approach the skill vs. content debate.

Over the last decade or so, there has been an increased focus on transferable skills, sometimes called 21st century skills.   This emphasis makes sense and plenty of research over the last few years has shown these skills are necessary for students to be successful in college, careers and as citizens.  Being able to problem solve, communicate, collaborate, and be self-directed are critically important, especially with the changing landscape of available jobs.

Requiring educators to teach AND assess transferable skills can be a heavy lift.  To incorporate more standards into an already full curriculum requires something to give.  Many teachers in Vermont are struggling to implement transferable skills in their classrooms.  There are numerous potential reasons for this struggle, one of which is that the subversion of content to transferable skills goes against teacher beliefs and values about what is important for students to learn.   If content takes a back seat, this can be alarming to some teachers who value the content that they have historically taught.

At the high school level, content is king.  Many high school teachers went into teaching for the love of their subject. Teachers have assessed transferable skills such as collaboration, communication, and others for some time.  However, the active teaching of these skills alongside ongoing feedback is not as common. Though there are ways to assess transferable skills through content, such as using the content as a “vehicle”, sensitivity to content should be considered.  Eclipsing content knowledge for the sake of transferable skills will not support the successful implementation of proficiency-based learning in Vermont schools.

I know my position may not be popular with some.  However, I’m certainly not the only one with this perspective.  The well known education researcher E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (2016) writes in his recent book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, that schools in the United States have gone down the path of “skill-centrism” which has led to the “dilution of the curriculum”.  Hirsch argues that though skills are important, they are useless without some level of content or “domain knowledge”. Going against what many believe, he states that “When looking anything up, there is simply no substitute for already possessing a lot of knowledge relative to the subject” (Hirsch, 2016, pp. 83).  Hirsch’s thesis centers on the importance of content knowledge to apply skills. At no point does he dismiss the need for skills, such as problem solving, but emphasizes that the current thinking that content knowledge is irrelevant is short sighted.

So, what is the takeaway?  Simply put, skills are important, but so is knowledge.  When framing the shift to proficiency-based learning, it is important to emphasize the importance of both content knowledge and skills.  Education leaders should be aware of the possible pitfalls of undermining the role of content. Like many things in life, balance is the key.  

AndrewAndrew Jones is the Director of Curriculum for Mill River Unified Union School District in North Clarendon, Vermont.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment