Image to Image: The Evolution of a Teacher

By Sandy S. Lish

Mrs. Lish recently retired as a Family & Consumer Sciences educator at Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, Massachusetts. She currently serves as the Extended Learning Opportunity and Internship Coordinator, where she mentors high school future educators throughout the school district.

The sounds of my squeaky sandals echoed throughout the dimly lit, empty hallway. The school year had finally ended, but not like any other. Instead of the norm, this particular day ushered in a new significance: the first seconds of my retirement. After cramming the last box of classroom keepsakes into my car’s backseat, I pulled away—but not without glancing twice at the school building in my rearview mirror.   

My mind journeyed back to a time when my childhood, like that of countless other educators, was filled with imagination and role-play. My small bedroom was magically transformed into a pretend classroom with strategically placed dolls and stuffed animals. My tiny fingers curled around an entire piece of white chalk as I scribbled unrecognizable letters on the little black chalkboard. On that day, I morphed into my preschool teacher.

My real preschool classroom was just as exciting as the one I created at home. The whiff of Play-Doh, molding clay, and crayons filled my nostrils the second I walked through its giant door. The room was large and somewhat intimidating, but my shyness melted with the teacher’s smile. Without knowing it, she planted the first seeds in my quest to become a teacher.

Over the ensuing years, I subconsciously formed a “Classroom Hall of Fame.” Among those top teachers, my superstar was Mrs. Carver, my sewing instructor. In her class, I fell in love with the craft of methodically turning fabric pieces into wearable art. By the time her class ended, I had envisioned a future filled with multi-colored threads, boxes of patterns, and shelves of textured fabrics.

Teaching, meanwhile, took a back seat when I located a design school out of state. Although my parents always supported my career ideas, I thought, This should be an easy sell.

Unfortunately, this time, they didn’t see it my way and quickly kiboshed the idea. They feared for my safety away from home—something my 17-year-old brain didn’t wish to acknowledge. I sulked for what seemed like days, not hours.

I partly accepted my parents’ verdict, but not without confronting the overwhelming and consequential waves of uncertainty. Mrs. Carver noticed my sadness and moved her chair beside me. “Are you okay?” she simply asked. Then, with a resurgence of hope, I listened to her words of comfort as she provided her empathetic and practical advice.

Mrs. Carver provided more than just guidance. On that day, she opened a window into the soul of a teacher and joined an ensemble of role models who represented the standard I decided to emulate as I pursued my education into adulthood.

Eventually, the day arrived when I, too, stood before a classroom filled with young, malleable minds. Sleepless nights and long days filled my usually empty calendar. Often, I questioned how I would survive through the first vacation break. I always did, though, with the help of mentors.

After that first challenging year, I realized the importance of support, not only for those seeking to join the teaching field but for the apprehensive newbies who lacked the confidence and courage to get through that first year on their own. For those individuals, I wanted to provide a life preserver through their most tumultuous waters.

By the twilight of my career, I had shared my classroom with student teachers, championed new hires into the district, and coordinated internship placements for hundreds of high school students. Along their roads toward discovery, I often asked, “Are you okay?” Before leaving on that last day of my career, when the last bell stopped ringing, I reached for a piece of chalk near the dusty chalkboard. Time moved in slow motion as I scanned the empty classroom before carefully scribing a farewell note. I wiped the dust from my fingers, walked to the door, and turned off the lights.

Reflecting on Our Classrooms, Yesterday and Today

By Adele Phyllis Unterberg

How many of us realize the impact we project on our students?

I can clearly reflect on my own childhood memories—the smell of my teacher’s perfume, the beautiful brooch worn on a suit jacket, the tone of one’s voice, the excitement in sharing ideas, the visits to the back of the classroom where our teacher displayed interesting objects brough back from a summer vacation with maps and artifacts. Those memories are deeply set in our minds and are often influences on future career choices.

I was walking along the avenue near our local hospital when I heard a voice call out, “Oh, Ms. Unterberg, how are you?”

I turned to see a woman in a spring coat and recognized her immediately—“Donita, how are you?”

We chatted and she shared that her husband had a heart attack and was in the hospital.

I last taught her in the early ‘70s, but I remembered her name—it flowed through my voice—as she remembered me.

During these challenging times of online performance, teaching has become more than demonstrations and a sharing of ideas. The teacher has become a full-time actor, keeping the attention flowing as the audience, the subject matter, and the hands-on devices meet the needs of varying age groups and home situations.

Having to devise creative lessons is always a challenge, but so much harder on a Zoom connection. The classroom, a haven of inspiration, sharing, and nurturing for so many children, is not available, and it has become an incredible challenge to keep the attention of distanced audiences focused.

Reflecting my own childhood experiences, my classroom was a haven and a comfort. Being with one’s peers, talking, playing, eating together, and sharing ideas was joyous and spiritual.

It has been a great loss for so many today, yet it is undeniable that during this crisis, much credit is due to our classroom leaders, wherever their classrooms are.

I have been with KDP since the ‘60s at NYU. It was such an honor to be chosen by my professors, and the candlelight ceremony was deeply touching. It is an honor to write for you.—Adele P. Unterberg

Telling Stories: The Need for Strong Leadership and Qualified Teachers

By Carlos J. Minor

Dr. Minor is currently an educator with the Clayton County School System in Metro Atlanta. He has served as an elementary, middle, and high school educator. Additionally, he has served as both an adjunct and full-time professor of education.

I am currently ending my 20th year in education and will be back next year for my 21st. I am a career educator, highly qualified, and have served at every level of the P-20 continuum in more than one state. The studies always tout what is wrong with K-12, but this educator thinks he has at least a partial solution: Highly qualified (and dedicated) teachers and strong, school-based leadership.

At one point I was a K-12 educator in Middle America. The pay for teachers was very low compared to other jobs in the area. One could become a firefighter, a police officer, or literally a manager at a convenience store and make 10-15K more than a beginning teacher. Thus, the urban district I worked in struggled to staff, and they literally took anyone off the street with a degree and plugged them into a classroom. There was no training, no regard for GPA or work history, and some people bounced from school to school and district to district after being repeatedly fired. For most of them, teaching was not a calling or a sense of duty; it was merely a job.

The elementary school where I worked (since closed) was one of the worst in the state. Of the 16 classroom teachers, only four were actually certified educators. Three of those were Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers, so it was entirely possible for a student to go through that school and never have an actual teacher. Adding to this, the school served a high-poverty area, where the need for highly qualified teachers is the greatest.

To say that the school administration was weak would be an understatement. The “teachers” were allowed to come and go as they pleased with no repercussions. The “teachers” were allowed to stand in front of a classroom dressed in wrinkled t-shirts and sweatpants, jeans full of holes, hoodies and leggings—you get the point. Additionally, one “teacher” would come in 45-60 minutes late daily while his students sat idle in the hallway…and this was never addressed. Another “teacher” was allowed to spend the day walking the halls talking on her cell phone while her students sat idle with a paraprofessional…and this was never addressed. A third “teacher” went off on an administrator in front of students because he did not feel that he should have to come to work on time. In fact, this third “teacher” went around the building telling all who would listen that the administration was “tripping” by expecting folks to come to work on time…and he kept his job.

These behaviors (and others) would not have been tolerated from teenagers working at the mall or at a big box store, but this went on with the full sanction of both the building administration and the Central Office. As the student body was overwhelmingly Black, Brown, and indigent, the message was clear: The Powers That Be could care less if poor minority students learned.

This school was for years an F school and eventually the Central Office made the decision to close it and lease the building to KIPP. However, most of the “teachers” at the school, many of whom could not pass the Basic Skills Test for Teacher Certification and who did nothing but give worksheets, were given good teaching evaluations and positive recommendations to move on to other schools.

This stands in stark contrast to the school district where I am currently employed. I am at a middle school in Metro Atlanta that also serves a high-poverty area, and the student body is also overwhelmingly Black and Brown. However, the educational outcomes are completely different, for several reasons.

First, the pay in this district far exceeds that of the district I worked for in Middle America. A first-year teacher here starts off making about 20K more than a first-year teacher in the other district, and this is not the highest paid district in the area. This means that this district is able to both attract and retain actual, trained teachers, and not have a staff of what can best be described as long-term subs.

Second, there are multiple Instructional Coaches working full time in the building. They are there to help that new teacher improve, to help that good teacher become great, and help that great teacher become excellent. This is reflected in the educational outcomes, as our students perform well academically given their circumstances. At the school I wrote about earlier, the administration refused to allow the hiring of an Instructional Coach, likely because they knew that the school was a veritable zoo and did not want those aforementioned staff behaviors to come to light.

Third, four strong administrators work in the building: Three Grade Level Administrators and a Building Principal. These administrators have a presence in the building, coming into classrooms and offices. They keep constant tabs on their grade levels and the other personnel in the building they are tasked to supervise. The teachers and staff under their purview are held accountable: The standards must be taught. Teachers and staff must adhere to district policy in terms of attendance, dress, conduct, and phone usage. This stands in stark contrast to the situation at the school in Middle America, as previously stated. If one were to walk into 10 classrooms at the Middle America school, 8 teachers would be seated, on their phones, while the students had busywork. Additionally, the principal was caught sleeping in the teacher’s lounge and spent a good bit of time every day playing games on her phone. Departing teachers would state in their Exit Surveys how the administration never came into their classrooms.

Fourth, my school places a premium on educational attainment. Diplomas are up on walls. College alumni status is displayed both in attire and material placed in classrooms. Teachers come to work in professional attire and present themselves in a professional manner. Instruction incorporates minority achievement and students are taught that education is The Great Equalizer.

Educational attainment was maligned in the previous district. I was considered “uppity” (among other things) for wanting to be addressed by my proper honorific of Doctor. I actually had a human resources official tell me that I (an Afro-Latino) should have hidden the fact that I have an earned doctorate. I was criticized throughout the district for having my degrees on the wall in my office. I became a target, and the message was clear: They did not want a highly educated, experienced, certified male educator of color, ostensibly because the presence of such might inspire students of color to want to be the same. Instead, the district sought to employ those who would miseducate indigent, minority students, likely to create and perpetuate a permanent underclass comprised solely of people of color.

Studies show that we educators cannot control the neighborhoods our students come from or what goes on in their homes. We can, however, control what goes on at school. When students have a highly qualified and highly dedicated teacher who comes in prepared, can relate to the students, and holds the academic bar high, the result is improved academic outcomes. When students have a well-dressed, erudite professional in front them, holding them to high standards, the students tend to reach higher. No profession is possible without a teacher. Speak with anyone who is doing something positive, and they will tell you that, at some point in their educational career, a teacher inspired them. I myself was greatly influenced by the Dean of Students at my undergraduate institution. This gentleman was always nattily attired, spoke and carried himself well, and was the consummate professional. I wanted to be like him: A nice home, a nice office, and being a positive influence the same way he was. Again: Not one professional can honestly say that they were not influenced by at least one strong teacher.

This is why we need highly qualified, dedicated teachers supervised by strong educational leaders, particularly in the urban setting. With this we will produce more people of color doing positive things who will hopefully reach a hand back. Without a doubt, teaching is the foundation of all professional work. We have a duty to prepare our students not only academically but socially as well.

5 Strategies to Use Assessment Purposefully

By Ruthmae Sears and Caree Pinder

In the 2020-2021 school year, many schools moved to remote instruction. It posed challenges and was also a catalyst for new possibilities. It disrupted face-to-face instruction and increased the demands for synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Nevertheless, it created and expanded opportunities for teachers to reflect on creative means to formatively assess students, while also being aware of the constraints students may have.

Students may vary in their abilities to access the internet and other resources, and on their abilities to make vertical or horizontal progression through the curriculum. To provide an equitable learning experience for students during this pandemic, assessments had to be purposefully used to move students’ learning forward. We found the following five strategies effective in ensuring that assessments move the learning forward. Make your assessments….

Familiar: Ensure that you are familiar with your students’ interests, backgrounds, and culture. Develop tasks that they can connect to their everyday lives. In doing so, exhibit culturally responsive teaching. 

Flexible: Give students options to communicate what they learned via a video, a poem, a song, or creating games such as an escape room. Posing assignments that students can complete outside of class can increase opportunities for students to take ownership and gain autonomy in their learning. It can also motivate them to exhibit creativity and critical thinking skills. 

Fair: Establish clear expectations and use detailed rubrics that describe the criteria of what you will be evaluating. Additionally, be aware of implicit bias and unproductive beliefs that may impact how you evaluate students.

Feedback: Providing a score alone is not sufficient to move the learning forward. Instead, seek to provide a strong formative assessment, giving students feedback on the accuracy of their responses and specific items they need to address to improve the overall quality of their work. Give them personal comments or notes often, highlighting the strengths of their work and suggestions for improvement.

Forgiving: Students make mistakes. Failure is part of the learning process. Motivate your students to exhibit cognitive rigor, even if they may experience some degree of difficulty. Additionally, utilize positive affirmation to enhance their self-confidence and develop their identities as they explore new terrain. Therefore, exhibit affective domains of learning to promote student success.

Assessment is more than testing, and you should employ it throughout instruction to facilitate students’ learning. You can use formative assessment to orchestrate rich classroom discussions, clarify learning outcomes, promote critical thinking skills, and provide feedback that can support students’ learning and move their learning forward (Wiliam & Leahy, 2016). 

Reference

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S. (2016). Embedding formative assessment. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Dr. Sears is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida for mathematics education, and KDP advisor. Her research focuses on curriculum issues, reasoning and proof, clinical experiences in secondary mathematics, and the integration of technology in mathematics.

Ms. Pinder is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in mathematics education at the University of South Florida, and the KDP chapter treasurer. Her research interest focuses on technology in mathematics, developmental mathematics courses, and equity in mathematics.

Fostering Critical Thinkers and Innovators Who Will Create a Sustainable World

By Lucijan Jovic and Matteo Itri

Education is an integral component of students’ lives and it is rooted in instilling the respective skills needed to read proficiently, think critically, and write with clarity, all of which are essential with today’s complex and rigorous academic standards. Learners begin to develop literacy through their experiences and paying attention to their surroundings. Students begin to acquire academic and cultural awareness through their educators’ instructional approaches. Reading and writing proficiently are two skills that not only prepare students for their years in academia, but in the workforce that follows.

KDP and the United Nations

Being a student at Molloy College and a member of the student government association, Lucijan has “acquired the specific knowledge, attitude, [and] skills [which mediated] the sources of [his] cultural identity” (Cushner, et al, 2006, p.53). Molloy College has taught him to become resilient, never give up, and continue to work hard to become successful. Although any institution can focus on these, Molloy does so through the development of a community. Regardless of one’s position at the college, all are clearly committed to the value system of creating a welcoming and respectable environment where everyone can share their opinions and acquire academic/cultural discourse together. Using a sense of community as a socializing agent in the classroom, Lucijan will work to mold his future students into community builders who value the various backgrounds that exist in the class. Through this, students will gain a skill that is essential in academia and the workforce, collaboration.

As a United Nations Representative, Vice-President for Kappa Delta Pi (Molloy’s Chapter), and former Academic Chair of the Molloy Student Government Association, Lucijan serves as the liaison between students and faculty and works to not only promote awareness of various academic disciplines, but to lead a team in addressing academic concerns that arise. These major leadership roles have shaped Lucijan into the leader he is today through the socialization or “social patterns of behaviors” he executes on a daily basis (Cushner, et al, 2006, p.55). Even though most of his time is spent with upset or frustrated students, he makes it a priority to actively listen to students and faculty and work with them to arrive at possible solutions. He communicates with educators, professors, students, and other members of the learning community on a weekly basis.

The United Nations has designed 17 sustainable development goals to create a more realistic future for communities. College students must make themselves familiar with and implement these goals, because they will have an impact on society for the generations to come. The knowledge and skills acquired at colleges and universities combined with the sustainable development goals set forth by the UN will foster civically engaged individuals who will make their communities more sustainable. Through these collaborative exchanges of discourse, Lucijan has broadened his teaching/learning horizon, which has fueled his drive to best meet the needs of students and foster critical thinkers.

Adapting a Growth Mindset Is One Approach

Encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset will not only be invaluable to their success as students, but as individuals beyond the classroom who understand that struggle and adversity are the foundation of success in all areas of life. Dweck (2006), articulates that a fixed mindset is the belief that we cannot improve upon our basic abilities and talents and are limited to these fixed traits. However, a growth mindset is the belief that we can improve our basic abilities and talents through persistent effort and dedication to our craft.

As educators, our job is to not only provide students with the highest quality of instruction, but to also give them the necessary tools to be successful beyond academia. We can use several pedagogical approaches in our classrooms to promote a growth mindset, and it all starts with teaching students how the brain works. Teaching students about the concept of neuroplasticity, how our brains form new neurons when we learn new concepts, will help them become actively engaged in the learning process (Robinson, 2017). When we are introducing a new concept to our students, we demonstrate the intent to them, so they’ll buy into our pedagogical approaches. We can help our students adapt a growth mindset by utilizing strategies such as retrieval study methods, normalizing mistakes and failures, using positive reinforcement when giving feedback to students, and encouraging students to set goals for themselves (Robinson, 2017).

Additionally, demonstrating to students the major difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset is crucial to instilling this concept in our students. Those who develop a growth mindset believe that we have the power and ability to reach any goal. Dweck (2006), explains that children need honest, constructive feedback to truly grow from moments of adversity and struggle. We must challenge our students to reflect on the mindsets that they adapt, teach them that growth is a never-ending process that gives us the necessary tools to succeed. Through this approach, we are fostering independent individuals who will create a more sustainable world.

References

Cushner, K., McClelland, A., & Safford, P. (2006). Human diversity in education. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Culture and the Culture-Learning Process. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. Robinson, C. (2017). Growth mindset in the classroom. Science Scope, 41(2), 18-21. https://molloy.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.molloy.idm.oclc.org/scholarly-j ournals/growth-mindset-classroom/docview/1942178538/se-2?accountid=28076

Lucijan Jovic is a Graduate student in the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy College. He currently serves as the Vice-President for Molloy’s Kappa Delta Pi chapter and is a Representative to the United Nations in NYC. In addition, he served as the Academic Chair of Molloy Student Government for three years, Head Orientation Leader, Student Ambassador, Peer Mentor, sits on several committees, works as a Graduate Assistant, and is also an Intern for the Department of Special Education.

Matteo Itri is also a Graduate student in the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy College. Aside from teaching, Matteo is the captain of the Molloy College Cross Country/Track and Field programs, Student Ambassador, Social Media Ambassador, Orientation Leader, served as a Resident Assistant, and Executive member of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee.

Bringing the 21st Century to an Academy in Ghana

By Brittney Caldwell

Brittney Caldwell is a high school social studies teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently pursuing her EdD in Curriculum and Education. Brittney has spent her career advocating for teachers and students. Brittney is passionate about Social Studies being taught through culturally relevant, inclusive, and authentic strategies. She spends her summers traveling and observing school cultures in various countries. Her ultimate goal is to develop a program that allows her to bring other teachers along. She is currently serving KDP on the national level as a member of the Knowledge Development Advisory Council. 

As a public-school teacher at a Title I school in inner-city Atlanta, I am accustomed to complaining about the resources that I do not have.

I have complained to my administration and academic coaches about the lack of software that would assist me in raising test scores, or the old textbooks that were not updated with content required in the standards/objectives. I look at my old-fashioned desk with disdain sometimes, when I compare my classroom to the 21st-century learning environments that I see on Pinterest and Instagram. I even had the nerve to get upset that my county was not yet 1:1, and we had to share a Chromebook cart with my entire department if the computer lab was booked for the day.

As a teacher, I could sometimes only focus on the resources that I was lacking. Poor American public-school teacher, spending her own money on classroom supplies and only being handed the bare minimum. This attitude completely changed once I visited Press On Academy in Accra, Ghana.

I did not arrive in Accra with the intention of coming across this local community school. My boyfriend’s aunt had passed away abruptly, and we flew to Accra. We made plans to stay for the month and, since I was working remotely, it was not a problem. I passed Press On Academy several times. I finally decided to try my luck and visit the school in hopes of a tour. Being a U.S. history teacher to a 99 percent African American school population, I was genuinely curious and wanted to speak with the local social-studies teachers about African history.

Ghanaian public schools are overcrowded, severely underfunded, and full of poverty-stricken students. The economy in Ghana has created a very wide gap between the rich and the poor, leaving a small middle-class population. Most middle-class families cannot afford private schools, but do not wish to send their students to public schools. Press On Academy is technically a private school, but the tuition and resources are much lower because the parents consist of middle-class workers (welders, maids, and merchants) who pay tuition with hard-earned money. The school does not receive money from the government, and solely relies on tuition to pay for all school expenses, including teacher salaries.

The headmaster of Press On Academy opened the school up to me immediately, welcoming me and offering me a tour. He was excited to hear that I was a teacher from America. Visiting the grounds was hard for me and I had to hold back tears.

The children were sharing used workbooks. Several of the desks in the classrooms had nails sticking out or were barely holding together. The teacher’s chair was falling apart as well. They were using chalkboards. There was no air conditioning. There were no textbooks, computers, or even anchor charts on the wall. There was no pencil sharpener.

I hid my feelings well, continuing to smile back at everyone who was smiling at me. The students were so happy and friendly. The teachers were very welcoming. The teachers urged students to go up to the chalkboard and show me the work that they had been learning. First graders were doing three-digit multiplication problems and breaking down fractions! Many of the students were very advanced and excited about learning. The teachers had taught the students so many skills with so few supplies. They were ahead of my own first grader, Brason. My heart automatically called me to help.

I spent the next month, December 2020, in Ghana crowdfunding for Press On Academy. I ultimately raised $4,500 and built a computer lab for the school. I took a vacant room in the corner of the building and dedicated my time to perfecting it. The room needed new flooring, electrical outlets, windows installation, door installation and a paint job. I was able to afford four computers and a projector, computer tables and group tables for students to use when viewing the projector. I also dedicated funds to repainting two classrooms and replacing their chalkboards with dry-erase boards. The children were so grateful and excited when the room was revealed. It was the best feeling in the world.

The teachers were very thankful as well. We all spoke about how teaching is really universal. We all face the same issues on different scales. They have fewer behavioral issues than I, but could relate to distractions in the classroom and lack of resources. In Ghana, teachers are expected to live below middle class and be content. Anyone choosing to be a teacher is dedicating their life to struggle and accepting the Lord’s blessing in return. The headmaster described it as “hand to mouth” living, and told me that teachers would never be able to own a home in Ghana. It was neither realistic nor expected.

I recorded the entire visit and renovation process for my Instagram, Caldwell’s Classroom. Teachers all over the world watched and supported me as I invested my time and energy into helping Press On Academy. Many of them donated to my crowdfunding, and in exchange I sent handwritten letters from the students. So many teachers asked how they could help or be a part of the process. Because of this, I planned a trip for July 2021 to return to Press On Academy and continue raising funds. My goal is to assist them in reaching full completion of the school and connect them to our global education network.

The school is rich in pedagogy and the teachers are talented. They have so much talent, and practices that they could share with the world, but need help connecting and entering 21st-century learning. I am continuing to raise funds for the school and sending supplies as donations are received. I and a group of five teachers, two of them Kappa Delta Pi members as well, are visiting Ghana for a week in July. I am hoping to make this an annual trip and increase participation every year.

We teachers have to take care of each other, and I will be very careful not to complain as often as I do. As a teacher in America, I already have privilege that I am not always aware of. Many teachers worldwide are making do with much less and are perfectly successful.

If you feel compelled to donate or send supplies, please visit www.brittneycaldwell.com or follow my Instagram, @CaldwellsClassroom. Here is the link to my GoFundMe.

What Do Equity and Equality Mean in a Pandemic?

By Emily Hodge

The author contributed a related article to The Educational Forum, Volume 85, Issue 1, “Conceptions of Equity in Common Core Policy Messages in a Metropolitan District,” which is currently available for free online here.


Dr. Emily M. Hodge is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at The Pennsylvania State University. Her work uses qualitative methods as well as social-network analysis to understand the changing nature of strategies for educational equity. Recent projects have explored how educational systems, schools, and teachers negotiate the tension between standardization and differentiation in the context of the Common Core State Standards, and the varied strategies state education agencies are using to support standards implementation.

While scrolling on your social-media feeds, you may have seen the side-by-side images of three children behind a fence trying to watch a baseball game with captions about equity and equality. This image represented “equality” as providing the same amount of the same resource to children of three different heights: a box of the same size for each child to stand on, resulting in only two of them being able to see over the fence. In contrast, the figure depicted “equity” as providing each child with a box of a different size, so that each was able to see the baseball game. Many viewed this image as illustrating the limitations of treating groups in the same way, arguing that groups need varying amounts of resources to achieve similar outcomes. Many have also adapted and critiqued this image, as summarized in the link above, arguing that the children’s different heights implied that inequalities were problematically located within the children themselves, signaling a deficit view. Others changed the height of the fence to signal disproportionate degrees of oppression different communities face, or removed the fence entirely to signal liberation.

My recent article in The Educational Forum, “Conceptions of Equity in Common Core Policy Messages in a Metropolitan District,” invoked similar tensions about the nature of equity and equality in children’s educational opportunities. This article is based on a research study of the messages about equity and equality in professional development (PD) that a large, metropolitan district planned for its secondary literacy teachers around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Much of the district PD emphasized a general rationale for the CCSS as a means of improving college readiness, but it sometimes referred to the CCSS as necessitating treating students the same way. For example, a goal of PD session on text complexity was for participants to “understand the importance of providing access to all learners, regardless of ability, to complex texts and rich instruction aligned to them.” Later, the presentation specifically referred to English learners as a group that “districts must take steps to ensure…are exposed to and taught complex texts.” Another prominent idea in PD was that text-dependent questions are more equitable to ask students because they do not draw on varying degrees of background knowledge that students may have on a topic.

Both ideas—using text-dependent questions and complex text with “all learners”—are similar to the conception of “equality” in the image described, providing the same amount of a resource to different groups of students, especially students who may not have typically received that resource.

Similar to the critiques of the equality vs. equity graphic, this definition of the CCSS as improving students’ educational experiences has many limitations. First, are complex text and text-dependent questions a resource, as we might normally consider school funding or a skilled teacher? Second, should we expect greater similarity in outcomes if the primary message in these materials is simply equal treatment, rather than providing additional resources to those who have had fewer resources in the past? Further, neither of these more limited forms of equity directly address the racialized structures and systems of oppression creating differing opportunities in access to every major societal institution in the first place.

Thinking about our current context, certain aspects of “equality,” in the sense of providing the same amount of a resource to all students, seem like the bare minimum, such as making sure that every student has a device and internet access to make learning possible. Other aspects of equity (providing more resources to those who need it) seem important: more funding to schools with greater needs or facilities upgrades prioritizing older school buildings.

The new Biden administration’s approach to reopening schools focuses on providing more financial resources, which should be distributed to provide more money to districts with greater needs. Resource distribution reflects values and priorities, but the critiques of the equality vs. equity image apply here as well. White people in particular need to be careful that we are not making assumptions about the needs and resources within particular communities, or making decisions based on deficit-based views. Further, interlocking systems of oppression reinforce each other, shaping how students and teachers interact with each other in schools and how resources are allocated—making the “fence” between the children and the ballgame higher and stronger, rather than breaking it down. Resource allocation does not solve the problem of the fence, but it is the primary policy tool the federal government has to offer to state and local levels. If this is the case, how else might we remove the fence or make it shorter?

“Goldilocks Zone” of Learning Is Neuro-logical

Today’s blogger is Judy Willis, MD, coauthor (with Jay McTighe) of the book Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience (ASCD, 2019) and author of the article “Stepping Up Social–Emotional Learning to Reignite All Brains,” which appears in the January 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of March.

You likely know the Goldilocks “just right” experience from the fairytale. Or perhaps you’ve heard Goldilocks used as an adjective to describe the potentially “just right” for human habitation—planets that are not too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, and are blessed with oxygen levels adequate for humans to survive.

Although I grasped the fairytale and use of the term in reference to planets, the Goldilocks concept opened possibilities for me while watching the captain in a science fiction show search for such a Goldilocks planet for the survival of her crew. As Goldilocks hunted for the right bowl of porridge and the spaceship engineer pursued the well-suited planet, I was looking for the “just right” zone to best support my learners.

Prior to that insightful day, I had changed careers from practicing neurologist to classroom teacher with a specific goal in mind: I hoped to apply my neuroscience background and study of ongoing research to develop teaching strategies promoting more joyful and successful learning. Notably, I found that substantial challenges for my students emerged from stress. For students who already had mastery, the boredom of the unchallenging lessons and homework were stressors. So was the stress of frustration for students who found no personal relevance in the topics or who progressed more slowly, encumbered by inadequate foundational knowledge.

I know that sustained or frequent boredom or frustration impacts communication circuits within the brain. And these stressors reduce effective transfer of new learning into memory. They reduce the effective top-down messaging descending from the reflective executive functions in the upper brain that are needed to manage emotional reactions. Without the input of these emotional self-control neural networks, the lower brain takes control. It relies on more primitive reactions, such as fight/flight/freeze, exemplified as zoning out, acting out, and withdrawing.

Tapping Into the Dopamine Reward System

As I watched that science fiction show, I clicked into the way the concept of the Goldilocks Zone could put my thoughts into words and action. It was just what I was seeking: to provide students with the neuro-logical benefits of learning zones that were “just right.”

I could tap into their brains’ natural dopamine reward systems, lowering the barriers and not the bar, by offering multiple pathways to success. These would provide a variety of ways to progress to mastery so that learners could work in their own Goldilocks Zones. This system mirrors the way the brain is prompted to sustain motivated effort and retain memory in response to an increased release of dopamine, which enhances pleasure and satisfaction. This dopamine reward system is awakened by cognitive awareness of achieving challenges.

Dopamine, when released in higher amounts in the brain, especially in response to achieving challenges, promotes pleasure, increased attention, motivation, effort, and memory. Other strong dopamine release stimulators include humor, choice, music, optimism, kindness, and gratitude. However, awareness of achieving goals and challenges markedly boosts the dopamine response.

Individualizing Achievable Challenges

To provide learners with achievable challenges, I continued to reinforce my positive expectation that all my students could achieve their goals. At the start of units, I clearly defined the learning goals along with the variety of ways students could achieve mastery and demonstrate their understanding. When possible, I incorporated my students’ interests into learning pathways that were especially motivating to them. My concept of individualizing achievable challenges now had a name, “The Goldilocks Zone.”

To provide this variety of pathways, I used strategies such as:

  • Pre-assessments and ongoing formative assessments and feedback;
  • Flexible groups;
  • Scaffolding and enrichment;
  • Workstations with two or more levels of challenge; and
  • Digital texts, Udio, and Newsela (5 reading levels on same topic).

Recognizing Progress

Once my learners found their Goldilocks Zones for achieving challenges en route to mastery, they needed to recognize and embrace their progress toward their goals. These experiences activated their brains’ release of dopamine and its associated benefits. As they received feedback (from me and later from independent progress awareness), their recognition of incremental goal progress and its dopamine activation were evident in their approach to learning. They were not as frustrated by mistakes and were less susceptible to respond to feedback as criticism. They persevered through more demanding learning tasks, displayed greater responsiveness to making needed revisions, sought the help they needed to continue success, and even took on greater challenges.

Not Always a Fairytale

My goal of Goldilocks Zone pathways, for every individual student in each unit, was not achieved with a magic wand or warm porridge. Particularly frustrating was the time it took to provide this individualized instruction even for a few learners in some units. In response, I applied the achievable challenge practices I used with my students to myself. I found that giving myself “achievable” tasks, en route to my goals for learners, was critical. I learned that I needed to take time and plan for how I would recognize and appreciate my own progress (even in small ways). Seeing a happy and proud student was a dopamine boost to me and an impetus to continue my endeavors.

I hope that you will take the extra time to help students on their Goldilocks path to joyful and successful learning through their low stress, high-engagement, achievable challenge pathways. Starting with even one student or one unit at a time, plan for self-recognition check-ins to sustain your motivation, and dopamine, and to persevere with these efforts so needed by our students.

A Mural That Matters

By Sara Barsaloux

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to move classrooms mid-year to accommodate all my students. A temporary wall had to be put up to separate my new classroom and the library. Since the wall is temporary, we could paint it!

Due to the political climate in our country, this year I wanted to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day more meaningful for students. That is why I created our Mural Project. Before beginning the project, we learned about what Martin Luther King Jr. did for our country and talked about the similarities between Dr. King’s movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. We discussed how far we need to go as a country to live out Dr. King’s dream and how we can all be activists. We learned about what it is like to go to a march and even made our own picket signs about issues we are passionate about to share with the class.

Our final project included each student painting their own section of the mural. We started the project by having students brainstorm what each of their dreams were. Then the students sketched out their mural. After this, the students created a presentation about their dreams and their mural. Finally, each student got a chance to paint their mural onto our temporary wall.

The mural provides the students a daily reminder of what they are working towards. The students love showing it off to other students and staff. This project also helped students to develop a stronger understanding of what they want to achieve as well as how they can support their peers in our classroom.

Sara Barsaloux teaches fifth grade in Glendale Heights, Illinois.

The “Othered” Experiences of Minoritized Students in Three Countries

Today’s blogger is Dr. Christopher J. Cormier (Stanford University), who was the lead author on the article “Black Teachers’ Affirmations on the Social–Emotional and Mental-Health Needs of Learners: A Transnational Examination” (co-authored by Drs. Mildred Boveda, Funké Aladejebi, and Alice Gathoni), which appears in the January 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of February.

The “othered” experiences of Black students in schools extend beyond the United States. A common misconception is that the racialized experiences these students face is a phenomenon experienced only by Black Americans, and not only in schools but also in the ethos of the societies in which they reside. However, although challenges Black students face in schools can, and often do, vary depending on the cultural context, the reality is the same. That is, these students face systemic barriers to their academic achievement, which often stifle their ability to be fully functioning members of our classes and schools. Thus, given that students spend most of their waking hours in school, the challenges they face in school can, and will, bleed over into their home lives and interactions with other members of society.

For the article that appears in the January 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record, I was fortunate to work with three colleagues who are also friends and great collaborators on this topic. Each brings experience as a teacher and researcher to the piece. In this transnational narrative (avoiding a U.S.-centric approach), readers will notice that Black teachers often are expected to “fix” the issues of the students who share their racial or ethnic identity; however, we suggest strategies that all teachers can use for all students, regardless of whether they share the same backgrounds.

We believe that one major challenge in schools is that certain teachers are expected to “deal” with certain students because of a shared lineage. What I, even as a co-author, found fascinating is how that manifested differently in different countries—particularly in Kenya. During a late-night Zoom call with my colleague in Kenya, I was fascinated by all the things she related about the challenges Black students face in Kenya. A major takeaway for practitioners is that shared racial or ethnic identity does not necessarily equate to shared experiences, values, or even respect.

Co-author Dr. Alice Gathoni eloquently describes how being Black in Kenya has many layers. A major challenge in Kenya is being considered a minority if you are not a part of the dominant tribe in the region. Furthermore, the same hostile treatment that students wrestle with as “outsiders within” if they are not members of the dominant tribe is mirrored in Canadian and U.S. schools. By exploring Kenyan schools, we hope that practitioners, including school leadership, recognize that just having a Black teacher for Black students does not solve issues of inequity or address the social–emotional and mental-health needs of these students.

We focus on three dominant practices as we describe the nature of the ways in which Black teachers use their shared racial identity to support Black students’ social–emotional needs in each country represented in our article. We believe these are useful to practitioners as well as the scholarly community, especially to support the unique needs of students. The practices include (a) consider insider–outsider knowledges and within-group differences, (b) nurture individualized care and cultural sensitivity, and (c) understand the value of school–community relationships.

These strategies are often used by Black teachers, but do not require a Black teacher to use them to be effective for supporting the needs of not only Black students, but all students in schools. We are hopeful this piece will open dialogue about how all teachers—not just Black teachers—can support all students and, beyond the dialogue, lead to systemic change. We suggest using our article in professional development meetings and ongoing conversations regarding everyone’s responsibility to support students and not to rely on one group because that group mirrors its students’ cultural or gendered makeup.