The School Conference Blues


FEBRUARY 28, 2016


Middle school parent-teacher conferences are tomorrow and I can’t bring myself to think about going.

It’s not the two hours I’ll wait sitting on hard chairs in the hallway, anticipating my allotted five minutes of playing musical chairs with each teacher.

It’s that I haven’t heard a teacher say one nice thing about my child in about a year.

When I was in middle school, my father was one of my teachers. One day in his seventh-grade social studies class, a friend sitting behind me somehow let the pencil in his hand fly across the room. To my friend’s utter horror, it hit my father, square in the middle of his overly large forehead.

The class fell silent.

The kid picked up his jaw from the ground, and then began rapid-firing: “Oh, Mr. Waite, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry!”

My dad’s stormy brow of intensity — what I referred to as his “serious lines” — smoothed, the corners of his mouth turned up, and he broke out laughing.

A big reason he became a teacher was that he liked kids, and he could delight in the absurdity of a roomful of seventh graders. I know he also had days of complete exasperation, usually with parents. I often overheard the phone calls: parents who thought their child could do nothing wrong, parents who didn’t support him, parents who were constantly attacking him and the way he taught or his expectations.

But even when he was frustrated with a student, he was upbeat, positive and full of support as he talked to the parent.

I’m beginning to wonder if my father is some strange middle school teacher anomaly — an empath with evolved communication skills — because this is not the way my child’s teachers interact with me.

My son struggles with organization and self-motivation. Because of this, even though he is in advanced classes, he’s not a top performer. But he’s certainly not failing or in trouble. He’s right in the middle, which is, I’m learning, where a lot of kids get lost.

Classes my child should be skating through, he has just barely passed. Not because he doesn’t know or understand the material, but because he is losing work or forgetting about work.

Scouring the Internet for organizational strategies that might help him, I found an article with a really familiar script. The writer’s experience with her child was so relatable, it felt as if it had been written after sitting and listening to the back-and-forth in our home over the course of a week.

And it was the first time I didn’t feel alone in watching my child flounder with managing his workload.

The article said that the demands of middle school basically outstrip many students’ cognitive abilities. Middle schoolers “freeze up” at all of the possibilities, and at all of the differing expectations of their myriad teachers.

What a relief to find that my child is on the spectrum of normal.

In all of the interactions I’ve had with my child’s teachers this school year, the commentary has been anything but reassuring about the normalcy of struggling with self-management and organization. The responses to my requests for feedback, basically on loop, go something like this:

“J had 14 opportunities to meet this goal. I reminded him on this day, that day and another day. I even made my classroom available during lunch period for three months — which he never took advantage of. He approached me four times for one assignment and he never kept track of it. I just ended up giving him half credit in the end. Hope this helps.”

Well, I suppose if you mean, “hope you feel like a complete and total failure,” then yeah, it helps a ton.

For parents, these brief interactions with teachers are about things that keep us up at night. They are about the people we love more than pretty much anything in the world.

I think back to three years ago and how terrified I was of middle school for my son. Would this huge school with 800 kids swallow him whole? Would he be picked on? Would he survive?

In his middle school career, my child has grown taller than me, gained more friends than I can name and learned to love running and drumming and student leadership. In that time, he has had perhaps 20 teachers.

Exactly two of them have ever said something notably positive about this amazing kid to me.

I wish that teachers would consider that as much as parents want to know about areas that our children are struggling in, we’re also wondering what teachers like about them.

Do they notice that my son gets along with almost everyone, that he loves to be included and joins all the clubs, that his friends mean a lot to him, that he loves to read and has a huge vocabulary, that he laughs boisterously, that even when things are hard he trudges through mostly with a smile, that he’s determined, he’s smart, he’s energetic, he’s optimistic?

I wish teachers would use the conferences, emails and phone calls with parents as opportunities to mention each child’s strengths as well as the areas that need improvement.

Not merely to make the parents feel better, but because the students deserve to be seen for who they are and not only for their ability to perform.

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer and blogger who writes primarily about gender, parenting and justice-related issues. Her work can be found at The Establishment, xoJane, Mutha Magazine and on her blog, Birth Anarchy.


Black History Month In Schools – Retire or Reboot?

The Atlantic
Now in its 40th year, questions remain about the value of commemorating it in classrooms.

The seed of what is now known as Black History Month was planted in the doctoral thesis of Carter G. Woodson, a noted scholar, author, and co-founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The son of former slaves, Woodson received a Ph.D. in 1912 from Harvard University, where he studied under renowned historians who minimized the importance and vitality of black history. But Woodson would not be deterred. He believed the heritage and contributions of black Americans was excluded from history, and he saw this knowledge as essential to social change.

Woodson’s dedication to the research and promotion of black history has been memorialized by his actions—in 1926 he declared the second week of February Negro History Week—and his words:

If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.
Today Woodson’s brainchild is the entire month of February. First celebrated in 1976, Black History Month was the result of a growing racial pride and consciousness of black Americans and Woodson’s association pushing to expand the weekly celebration. Now a well-entrenched, nationally recognized observance, Black History Month is a commemoration that might be short in days but is increasingly long on controversy. In the last month—in examples that cross racial boundaries—the black actress and conservative commentator Stacey Dash called to eliminate Black History Month, labeling it a vestige of segregation, while Republicans in the Kansas legislature questioned if an entire month dedicated to honoring black history was “too long.”
In one corner, advocates of Black History Month argue that a special month is needed to celebrate and recognize the achievements of black Americans in a country where European history dominates historical discourse. In the other corner, critics cast doubt that Black History Month is still relevant with the gains made in race relations—a black U.S. president the most visible sign—and detractors charge it is detrimental in the long term to pigeonhole black history into a month-long observance. Somewhere caught in the middle are educators and schools.

A driving force behind Woodson setting aside time to study and reflect on black culture was his frustration that children—black and nonblack students—were deprived of learning in America’s schools about black achievements. Yet according to the NAACP, even the creator hoped the time would come when a black history week was unnecessary. Woodson was optimistic that America “would willingly recognize the contributions of black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.” But research shows this goal is far from complete.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2014 graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia on how well their public schools taught the civil-rights era to students. Twenty states received a failing grade, and in five states—Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon, and Wyoming—civil-rights education was totally absent from state standards. Overall, the study found less teaching of the civil-rights movement in states outside the South and those with fewer black residents. The report paints an unfavorable picture of schools where a crucial event in black history is largely ignored.

“Having a month for black history compartmentalizes the issue, as if once the month is over we can turn our attention away from it again until the next year.”
As a former student in Rockville, Maryland, Zia Hassan recalls February as the time when students were encouraged, or sometimes even mandated, to read the work of black authors, which he found meaningful. His view of Black History Month is more nuanced as an adult. “I believe that having a month for black history compartmentalizes the issue, as if once the month is over we can turn our attention away from it again until the next year,” said Hassan, a fourth-grade English language-arts teacher at Truesdell Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
Explaining his teaching philosophy, Hassan said a worthwhile history curriculum is one that would have “slavery and racism ingrained within it, just as it is in American society. It would not be discussed as a side issue.” He values a month when black authors and historical figures can be studied exclusively, but Hassan believes Black History Month as observed in many schools sends a troubling message to students that “we’re allowed to grapple with [black issues] less in, say, March or April … It is important to discuss issues of race in the context of current events throughout the year, no matter the unit topic.”

The classroom Hassan describes, however, is hardly the norm. Teacher materials produced for February’s celebration of black history are often limited to the most-celebrated black Americans—Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks—with a smattering of black athletes and entertainers tossed in. Raquel Willis, a writer and racial-justice activist in Atlanta, remembers annual Black History Month school displays in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, as neither memorable nor notable. “There was always a focus on the civil-rights movement and it was as if black history stopped once Dr. King died,” Willis said. “We rarely learned about anyone new from year to year, and we also didn’t get a context of different time periods. I would’ve loved to have delved into African history, the Harlem Renaissance, black life in the 1970s, and beyond.”

The problem lies not with specialized months to commemorate marginalized groups and communities, said Willis, but with schools that fail to incorporate the full range of diversity as part of their mission. “If there is a concerted effort to approach Black History Month in new ways each year, then we can combat some of the issues of only highlighting certain movements, figures, and events,” she said. Also, learning more about black women and LGBTQ individuals in her formative years would have put her more at ease identifying as a transgender woman.


“It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for me to learn about Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson,” said Willis. “As well, I think it’s of the utmost importance to highlight the figures of today. We tend to only highlight contemporary celebrities and politicians, ignoring that we have activists and community organizers that are still making an impact on a daily basis.”

One person who fits that description is Blake Simons, the deputy communications director for the Afrikan Black Coalition, a statewide collective of black students in California. Before Simons was a student organizer he was a high-schooler in the California Bay Area, and his memories of Black History Month are still sharp. “I was the elephant in the room, or rather the token Negro, who was supposed to represent the entire race when students had questions about black history,” said Simons, who was often on the receiving end of questions and awkward stares as the only black child in predominately white classrooms.

He said growing up it was always confusing why black history was only limited to one month. Since schools he attended never taught Simons about Woodson, “it made me feel as if my ancestors’ worth was only valuable in the shortest month of the year.” Recalling his schooling, Simons now rejects the one-dimensional portrayals of black historical figures. “Teachers often times painted Rosa Parks as only an activist who protested segregation on buses. When this is done, it erases the fact that Rosa Parks organized against sexual assault,” he said.

Moving forward, Simons would like to see black history taught every day, in his view the only legitimate way to build racial and cultural understanding—and reflecting the spirit of Woodson’s words and intentions. “Black history should be celebrated every day, because all history begins with black history. When black history is not taught throughout the year, it is reinforcing anti-blackness.”

Putting Standards-Based Grading Into Action


Oh, how I long for the days when I felt actualized as an English and language arts teacher who based my grades on homework, classwork, tests, and projects. The numbers were simple, and a cumulative average was easy to calculate. Since reading the works of Ken O’Connor and Rick Wormeli, I have been plagued by the daunting and yet fulfilling challenge of making standards-based grading work and thrive in my classroom. The benefits and challenges of this process make it complicated, so I constantly reflect and revise my practice. I am encouraged as I hear other teachers begin to lean towards a standards-based method of grading, so I know this plight is worth the challenge.

To begin, let me share my interpretation of aligning my grading to standards, instead of assignments. Standards-based grading aims to communicate how a student is performing against a set of essential standards. A student is “judged” on what she knows, not how many assignments she has completed. Her grade is a reflection of her knowledge, and thus, is ever-changing. A student may score “proficient” on a standard one day, and “near-proficient” a week later—and her grade will reflect that change. Standards-based grading challenges many grading practices teachers feel very strongly about: assigning zeroes (which I no longer do), accepting “late” work (which I now always do), and allowing re-dos and re-takes (which I allow without limits). So why have I dedicated a large amount of my time and energy this school year to this alternative method of grading that calls into question so many of the grading practice norms we have relied on for decades?

Simply put, standards-based grading makes sense. It is the most accurate and honest grading method I have encountered thus far in my teaching career. Its benefits far outweigh its challenges.

So, what are some of the concrete benefits of standards-based grading?

  • SBG allows me to provide feedback to students on individual skills. Students are able to see a grade report that has all of the skills we have been working on, broken down, and not dependent on each other. This way, they are able to tackle the individual areas they need to improve upon, instead of re-doing all of a test or assignment they may have demonstrated mastery on in some areas.
  • SBG reports levels of mastery more current than those in traditional grading practices. Grades are entirely flexible—not a single number is set in stone, and the numbers constantly adjust up and down as students conquer and wrestle with new skills and content. When students, parents, or other stakeholders see a grade report from my classroom, they can count on seeing an evaluation of students’ most current knowledge.

One of the largest benefits of SBG is that I am beginning to see is that my conversations with students and parents shift from “Well, what can she do to bring up her grade?” to “What are the skills and areas she should be practicing more to help her learn better?” Since implementing SBG, I have had so many more conversations focused on student learning, and fewer conversations focused on attributing a set of numbers to what a student knows.

Needless to say, changing my grading methods and practices to becoming more standards-based has not been without some great challenges. SBG is difficult when teaching processes and skills. I teach reading and writing, which are ever-developing and multi-faceted processes for students, and this makes assessment especially difficult. Even when relying more on standards than assignment completion when reporting student progress, assessments still tend to feel inauthentic and inaccurate, and are only a snapshot of a student’s performance at one point in time.

In addition, even with the implementation of SBG in my school, I still have to report student progress through numbers. Assigning a number to a student’s skill level or content knowledge still feels too subjective and forced. And what’s worse is I still have to report a final grade for students as a cumulative average. I can break down this number into skills and individual content as much as I want, but at the end of the marking period, I still have to come up with one percentage to represent all of a student’s knowledge of the content covered in my class.

Implementing SBG has been a bit of a culture shock for both students and parents, simply because it is entirely different from everything they have ever known about grades. Focusing on more quantitative and individualized feedback requires some flexibility, open-mindedness, and a lot of trust in teachers. Though this shift in mindset is certainly an initial challenge for parents and students, it is a necessary one. The benefits and progressive thinking behind SBG far outweigh the challenges of implementing the practice. We have gone long enough assigning subjective and arbitrary numbers to student performance, and it is time that our communication of student progress reflects student learning, and student learning only.