For black students, having even one black teacher can make a huge difference. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which found that that black boys who had a black teacher during their elementary school years were less likely to drop out of high school. It also linked the presence of black teachers to kids’ expectations of attending college.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this. I’m one of a small fraction of black teachers in my district. I know that, as much as many would like to think that good intentions and talent are the only important qualities for educators, students respond differently to teachers whom they can relate to.
The week before the study was released, I showed my ninth graders a film about Kalief Browder, a black teenager who was arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime and died by suicide after his release. I was moved by the impassioned mini-essays about police brutality and stop-and-frisk my students produced and the honest experiences they shared. I realized it’s not just that my students live these topics every day. It’s also that they are teenagers who have seen me interact with law enforcement during our trips off campus. They trusted me because they knew I lived them as well.
The fact that my skin color matches that of my students doesn’t give me any superpowers as an educator. But it does give me the ability to see them in a way that’s untarnished by the stereotypes, biases and cultural disconnects that fuel inequality and injustice — like the outlook that made Trayvon Martin, carrying Skittles, appear dangerously suspicious to the man who took his life. Like the assumptions that studies show make people see black boys as less innocent than their white peers.
I’m connected to them because of our shared racial identity. But it’s more than that: I’m familiar with the world they inhabit. I can see their charms and challenges, without the filters of “minority” or “urban” or “at risk.” And I show them, through the pizza I order for their birthdays. Through the full days without schoolwork that I offer them from time to time because life is hard and we all need a break. Through teenage comedy that I laugh at with them, before reminding them not to make said jokes in certain settings. Through the pictures of my wife I show them — my wife, who looks like us.
To be clear, many of my nonblack colleagues see our kids’ incredible potential just as I do and are powerful advocates for them. The ability to treat students like people and love the mess out of them doesn’t rely directly on race.
Still, we live in a world of zero-tolerance policies, where students are kicked out of class for the “insubordination” of refusing to move to a different desk or for drinking juice, and where everyday misbehavior can elicit a call to the authorities. I find myself wondering, have the adults responsible never wanted to sit near their friends? Did they not drink juice in high school? Can they not see younger versions of themselves in our kids?
Black students need teachers who understand that they’re capable of the full range of anxieties and insecurities, greatness and success, hilarious moments and generous surprises. The amount of melanin in my skin is neither necessary nor sufficient for this: It’s not a magic formula. But I can remember a time when I looked and sounded like my students. That helps me see myself in them, and all they’re capable of. I hope they can see themselves in me.
Crying jags over B’s and test scores are common at Lexington High School. To lift spirits, students decorated rocks that they gave to friends.CreditGretchen Ertl for The New York Times
Small rocks from the beaches of eastern Massachusetts began appearing at Lexington High School last fall. They were painted in pastels and inscribed with pithy advice: Be happy.… Mistakes are O.K.… Don’t worry, it will be over soon. They had appeared almost by magic, boosting spirits and spreading calm at a public high school known for its sleep-deprived student body.
Crying jags over test scores are common here. Students say getting B’s can be deeply dispiriting, dashing college dreams and profoundly disappointing parents.
The rocks, it turns out, were the work of a small group of students worried about rising anxiety and depression among their peers. They had transformed a storage area into a relaxation center with comfy chairs, an orange/peach lava lamp and a coffee table brimming with donated art supplies and lots and lots of rocks — to be painted and given to favorite teachers and friends. They called it the Rock Room.
“At first it was just us,” said Gili Grunfeld, a senior who helped with the effort. “Then everyone was coming in.”
So many rocks were piling up, they had to be stored in a display case near one of the cafeterias. The maxims seemed to call out to students as they headed to their classes in conceptual physics, computer programming, astronomy and Advanced Placement Music Theory.
And they became a visual reminder of a larger, communitywide initiative: to tackle the joy-killing, suicide-inducing performance anxiety so prevalent in turbocharged suburbs like Lexington. In recent years, the problem has spiked to tragic proportions in Colorado Springs, Palo Alto, Calif., and nearby Newton, Mass., where stress has been blamed for the loss of multiple young lives. In January, a senior at Lexington High School, who had just transferred from a local private school, took her own life.
Residents in this tight-knit hamlet, with its high level of civic engagement, are hoping to stem the tide. Mary Czajkowski, the district superintendent, was hired in 2015 with the mandate of “tackling the issue head on.”
Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues. Last October, more than 300 people crammed into the town hall for a screening of “Beyond Measure,” a sequel to Vicki Abeles’s documentary on youth angst, “Race to Nowhere.”
“We want to be a model,” said Jessie Steigerwald, a longtime school board member.
But it has not been easy.
Claire Sheth, a mother of four who had invited Ms. Abeles to town, describes Lexington students as “tired to the core.” Students say depression is so prevalent that it affects friendships, turning teenagers into crisis counselors. “A lot of kids are trying to manage adult anxiety,” said the principal, Laura Lasa.
The problem is not anecdotal. In a 2015 national health survey, 95 percent of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15 percent said they had considered killing themselves in the last year. Thinking about it most often were Asian and Asian-American students — 17 percent of them, as is the case nationally.
The town’s growing Asian community has not been timid acknowledging the problem. Through college forums and chat rooms, a group of parents and leaders of the local Chinese-American and Indian-American associations have been working to lower the competitive bar and realign parental thinking. Others are pushing back. They don’t want the workload reduced — they moved here for the high-rigor schools. At association meetings, where the tension is most pronounced, discussions about academic competition in the district have brought some to tears.
Indeed, reversing the culture is complicated in a town that prides itself on sending dozens of students to the Ivy Leagues: 10 went to Harvard last year and seven to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Young people are lauded at school board meetings and online for having published academic papers or performed at Lincoln Center. Last year, the varsity team placed second in the 2016 History Bowl nationals and fourth in the National Science Bowl. The robotics team has qualified for the FIRST Championship, an international technology and engineering competition, for five of the last six years.
After school recently at the public library, which was packed with students poring over textbooks, calculus work sheets, lab reports and term papers, a sophomore looked up from her world history textbook and said, “You see all these people? They want the same thing — that’s really overwhelming.” What they want: Entry into a top colleges when acceptance rates are at an all-time low.
Lexington looks and feels like a lot of other affluent suburbs: serene, stately, with a whiff of muted money. Minivans and aging Volvos are packed with violins and well-worn soccer gear. There are meticulously restored Colonials and Tudor revivals. Walk along the red brick sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue, which cuts through the center of town, and Lexington’s Brahmin past is evident: a statue on the Battle Green of a musket-toting Captain John Parker, who led the fight against the British in 1775.
In evidence as well are signs of the burgeoning biotech industry, and the changing face of America’s elite.
Since 2000, the Asian population has ballooned from 11 percent to an estimated 22 percent of Lexington’s 32,000 or so residents, surpassing Newton (at about 13 percent) and Cambridge (15 percent). Today, more than a third of Lexington’s students are Asian or Asian-American. The demographic mirrors the migration of Asian families to suburbs across the country.
In the Crafty Yankee or the Asian bakery across the street, you are likely to bump into electrical engineers from Seoul, physicists from Beijing and biochemists from Boston. They teach at Harvard (10 miles away) and run labs at M.I.T. (11 miles). They hold top positions in the pharmaceutical companies that dot the Boston-area tech corridor. More than half of the adults in Lexington have graduate degrees. And many want their children to achieve the same.
In many ways, students in Lexington are the byproduct of the self-segregation that Enrico Moretti writes about in his book “The New Geography of Jobs,” which addresses the way well-educated, tech-minded adults cluster in brain hubs. For their children, that means ending up in schools in which everyone is super bright and hypercompetitive. It’s hard to feel special.
Best-selling authors and child psychologists have long urged parents to divest themselves from their child’s every accomplishment, thereby sending the message that mental health matters more than awards. In Lexington, the attack is more comprehensive, involving schools, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues. It is riffing off research that shows that resilience and happiness, reinforced by the entire community, can be just as contagious as stress and depression.
“You need to bring along everybody,” said Ms. Abeles, whose campaign has taken her to towns with similar communitywide efforts, including Elkins Park, Penn., San Ramon and Burbank, Calif., and New Rochelle, N.Y.
Peter Levine, associate dean for research at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, says that communities that bond to promote pro-social behavior can be powerful inoculators for young people.
“Family problems are often community problems,” he said. “They need community solutions.”
No one is more aware of this than Ms. Lasa, who grew up here, earned degrees from nearby Springfield College and Lesley University, and then returned to the district — watching all the while as the population morphed from relatively laid back to Type A. She often wakes to emotional emails from parents delivered to her inbox after midnight. Most, she says, are about their children’s academic standing, and the tone is often disappointment.
Last fall, as 557 bright-eyed freshmen gathered in cushioned folding chairs in the auditorium for orientation, she gave a speech that over the last few years has come to focus more and more on stress reduction. She begged the students to make mistakes. “Do not believe that you must acquire straight A’s to be a successful student,” she said. “If you and/or your parents are caught up in society’s picture of success, let us help you change the focus.”
Students are now required to meet with counselors when choosing courses to talk about their academic loads. The practice is largely seen as a way of keeping students from overscheduling to beef up their college transcripts.
“We are trying to change a culture that is deeply rooted here,” Ms. Lasa told me in a sunny Boston accent as she barreled through the school. She was showing off the 45-minute free period she instituted this year, allowing — or in some cases, forcing — students to take time to unwind. Some were playing basketball in the gym. Others were talking with teachers. A few hung out in classrooms, chatting with friends. An awful lot, though, were getting a head start on homework.
Ms. Lasa says she is trying to “balance all the messages” they are getting about success and happiness. The one she wants to most impart is: “Slow down.”
The paradox of Lexington High School is that while indicators of anxiety abound, so too does an obsession with happiness. A large banner from the town’s newly formed suicide prevention group, a chapter of the national organization Sources of Strength, greets students as they enter the sprawling red brick building, proclaiming: “Be a Part of Happiness.” There are close to 50 students in the group. Below the banner are remnants of their project to spread positivity. Students were asked to write down their sources of strength, which were then posted beneath the banner and on Facebook. Some named their pets or friends. One wrote: “My mom.” Another: “Trip to Israel!” A girl with green hair: “Chicken curry.”
One morning in February, students in “Positive Psychology: The Pursuit of Happiness,” a popular elective, were following up on a discussion about the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory, which posits that negative emotions like anxiety and fear prompt survival-oriented behaviors, while positive emotions expand awareness, spurring new ideas, creativity and eventually building skills.
“Today, we are going to look at pretty simple ways to make it more likely that you experience positive emotions on a day-to-day basis,” Matthew Gardner told his “Happiness” students as they pulled out notebooks and pencil cases. The class discussed the benefits of exercise and eating foods that release feel-good hormones. The students also learned that smiling and being smiled at releases dopamine, which has an uplifting impact.
Mr. Gardner offered an alternative to smiling: “Our brains are not so perfect that, sometimes, if you hold a pen or pencil like this” — he held a pencil between his teeth — “you activate some of the same face muscles. You might get a little bit of a dopamine effect, too.”
Several students held pencils between their teeth to test the theory.
At one point, the class practiced laughter yoga, raising their arms slowly as they breathed in, then lowering them as they breathed out, and bursting into peels of laughter. Afterward, the students recorded changes in their pulse rate to demonstrate research from the HeartMath Institute that shows heart rates slow down and smooth out after bouts of good feeling.
“It’s not just that your heart rate goes down and you become very calm,” Mr. Gardner explained. “It’s that the shape of your heart rate is smooth and more controlled. Frustration is more jagged.”
Their homework assignment: Do laughter yoga or “smile at five people you wouldn’t normally smile at.”
The effects of smiling are also taught in the A.P. Psychology class that Gili Grunfeld is taking, and it has informed her thoughts on stress. On a winter afternoon, she and several classmates were uncoiling in the Rock Room, making friendship bracelets and sketching in fat coloring books. A Post-it that read “Unplug” was taped to the wall clock. The students were bemoaning how so many of their peers develop “tunnel vision,” in Gili’s words, about schoolwork and extracurricular activities, sacrificing sleep and time with friends.
“They isolate for academics,” she said glumly.
Soon the students had changed topics, and were discussing the ice that had caked the school parking lot that morning and how to balance on it. The subtext, once again, was well-being: How much can friends support each other if both feel overwhelmed?
“Are we more likely to fall or are we more steady if we hold onto each other?” asked Jocelyn Geller, a junior.
“I feel like if you have a friend with you, you feel safer,” said Millie Landis, a sophomore, pulling Jocelyn up and wobbling on the floor with her to demonstrate. “But you could pull each other down.”
The district has increased the number of counselors and social workers, including those working in the district’s elementary schools, and expanded the training they receive in identifying and supporting at-risk students.
Cynthia Tang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, has been a counselor at Lexington High for 12 years. Warm and well-liked, she organizes workshops addressing the pressure on Asian students to succeed, borrowing insights from the childhood discord she experienced with her own parents as well as research on biculturalism. Studies show that the less assimilated parents are to American culture, the more stressed the children.
Adding to the pressure, she says, are cultural differences in how parents, raised abroad, and their offspring, raised in the United States, are expected to process setbacks and strife: American educators routinely encourage students to share their feelings; not so in Asia.
“I really see a lot of this being bicultural conflict,” Ms. Tang said. “When you have one side of the family holding one set of values and the other embracing a new set of values, that inherently creates a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of tension.”
Ms. Tang says that the disconnect is compounded by a lack of knowledge about the various routes to success available in the United States. Last year, she was brought in by the vice president of the local Chinese-American Association, Hua Wang, to help plan the college forum, a three-hour event on Father’s Day. Dr. Wang, an engineering professor at Boston University, wanted to shift the focus away from a guide on applying to top colleges.
Despite resistance from the organizers, he and Ms. Tang prevailed. At the forum, she presented a slide show celebrating the academic trajectories of respected Chinese-Americans: the fashion designer Vera Wang went to Sarah Lawrence College; Andrew Cherng, the founder of the fast-food chain Panda Express, went to Baker University in Kansas; the best-selling author Amy Tan, San José State University. Parents were surprised. But, Ms. Tang said, “I think a lot of parents felt like: ‘What do I do with that information?’”
This year, organizers will delve deeper into the differences between the Chinese and American systems, and are planning to add another new element: a panel discussion on combating stress. Dr. Wang said they want to showcase families who have adopted a more “holistic view” of education. Selected parents of graduating seniors will be asked to talk about how they encouraged their children to get enough sleep, comforted them when they came home with B’s and discouraged them from skipping ahead in math to be eligible for higher level classes earlier.
This would not be the only time that Dr. Wang has engaged in this kind of dialogue. Using the Mandarin words “danding,” which means to keep calm and steady, and “ruizhi,” which means wise and farsighted, he has initiated conversations on WeChat, an online chat room popular among Chinese parents. Recently, he told them: “Calmness and wisdom from the parents are the Asian child’s greatest blessings.”
But the message was not well received by everyone. Among the posted responses: “If your child gets a C, how do you get to a point of calm? You think we should be satisfied because at least he didn’t get a D?” And: “But my heart still whispers: Am I not just letting my child lose at the starting line?”
One parent, Melanie Lin, found herself, too, in a heated conversation on WeChat after early-admissions decisions arrived last school year. She urged the other parents to stop bragging on the site about acceptance letters to top-tier schools: “If it’s only those students who are attending the big-name schools that are being congratulated, then the idea being passed on is that only those students are successful, and attending a big-name school is the only way to become the pride of your parents.”
Dr. Lin, who works at a pharmaceutical company, emigrated in the 1990s from Beijing to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Arizona State University. She says her rebuttal annoyed even close friends, whose online responses accused her of trying to deny parents and their children their moments in the spotlight.
Recounting the conversation with me brought Dr. Lin to tears. “There is just so much pressure,” she said. For her, the struggles are not theoretical. On the home front, she too can be just as obsessed as her peers, she says.
Her daughter, Emily, would agree. During junior year, she dreaded car rides and family dinners — any time, really, that she was alone with her parents — because conversations routinely veered back to college. Now a senior, Emily has eight A.P. and 13 honors classes under her belt. She is also a violinist, choral singer, competitive swimmer and class vice president.
For a chunk of her high school career, Emily was one of those who “isolated for academics,” working into the early morning hours on homework and waking up, sometimes before dawn, after only five or so hours of sleep. She skipped birthday parties and lunch to squeeze in more studying. “I was never doing anything for pure fun,” she said. “I put my head down and I was always running somewhere with some purpose.”
But as a member of a youth board for a teen counseling center in town, she realized that her study habits were unhealthy. To get support for herself and others, she helped launch the town’s Sources of Strength chapter. She has assisted in planning student outreach events and spoke up at a town meeting about “the dog-eat-dog” competition that still persists at the high school.
Homework remains heavy, students say, particularly in high-level classes. Class rankings may be gone but students have a pretty good sense of where they stand. And while there has been talk of a later start time to the day so students can get more sleep, the idea is on hold.
In December, when early decisions came in, Emily found out she was deferred to the regular admissions pool by Yale, her top choice. Parents on WeChat were more sensitive this time around, but accepted seniors still bragged on Facebook.
Since then, Emily has been admitted to nine universities; rejected by three, including Yale; and waitllisted by Harvard and the University of Chicago. She is deciding between Columbia and Duke.
Through it all, she has wondered if it’s worth it.
“I lost out on a lot of high school,” she had told me as she waited for college decisions. What she hopes is that students who come after her find some balance before their time at Lexington is up.
My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.
Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:
Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
Are you near an ocean?
Is it morning or afternoon for you?
Are you in a big continent?
What is your main language?
I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.
This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.
As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.
Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School
A Window to the World
While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.
I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.
Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.
Virtual Field Trips
I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.
My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.
Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School
In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.
First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School
In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.
Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.
My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.
Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships. For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.
My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.
Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!
Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.
My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”
Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.
A few years ago, formative assessment returned as a frequent topic of discussion in faculty meetings and professional development sessions. I started mulling it over — examining how I did it, how I used it, and how I saw students using it.
Like most teachers, I always knew there were things I could do better, but with formative assessment, I couldn’t really figure out what that was. I made a list of all the things I already engaged in on a regular basis:
Meetings with students about ongoing work
Writing extensive comments on student work related to specific learning goals
Peer work (editing, revising, commenting, and so on)
Good old-fashioned quizzes
Goal-setting activities at different points during the year
After some careful reflection, I realized I didn’t need to give more feedback, nor did I need a new formative feedback tool. The problem I faced with formative assessment, I realized, was that the students who needed that feedback the most were the ones not using it. It wasn’t a big group, but in each of my classes I could easily identify a few students who, no matter what I seemed to do, ignored all that formative work.
We needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning.
Those Google Doc comments on the project we were doing? William turned in a final draft that didn’t reflect any of the improvements I’d suggested. The one-on-one conference in which we talked about how to support an argument with evidence? Michelle didn’t do anything we talked about. The learning-check activities we did about common characteristics in urban civilization? Aaron clearly saw that he couldn’t explain them but seemingly did nothing to remedy the problem.
If I thought about it, it made me crazy, but at least now I knew where to focus. Other students were revising work, studying things they weren’t sure about, and practicing skills. These three weren’t, and the first thing I needed to do was find out why.
Helping Students Own the Process
In the next regular meeting I had with each student, I told each one that we needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning. The answers they gave weren’t all that surprising, when you think about it. William wasn’t actually sure where to begin or how to incorporate the suggestions I made. Michelle felt like it really wouldn’t make a difference because she just simply wasn’t a good writer. Aaron was somewhere in the middle; he often felt like it was too late to “fix” the problems because there was often too much to do.
This was a good start. Now it was time to formulate a plan.
I asked each student to commit to making one substantive change based on comments or our meeting discussion before they turned in their final draft of the project we were working on. Since the writing portion was in Google Docs, they decided that they would explain how they were following through on feedback in a comment to me.
We talked about how they could use their peer-conferencing and -editing sessions better by incorporating what they wanted to improve into their meeting with a partner. Though it seemed obvious to me, each student was kind of at a loss about how to do that. We settled on asking specific questions (“How can I __?,” “Where can I __?,” or “Is this a good place to __?”). Each student committed to writing down the questions they asked. I followed up on those conversations with a similar discussion and modeling before our next peer-editing session.
Michelle, who previously had never followed through on the ideas we talked about in conferences, decided to focus on her use of evidence. She partnered with another student and asked specifically where she should include her examples and facts. She had the examples and facts, but she just didn’t know where they really fit. I actually heard her say, “But how do I make it fit?” With me, she started asking if the evidence was convincing.
I had already tried to give William focused feedback, but in his first peer conference he asked whether he should work on transitions between ideas or on his introduction. (Remember, this was the guy whose idea of revision had always been clicking “resolve” on a Google Doc comment.) In his final comment response to me, he explained that once he saw the difference in the introduction, it “felt like it was a check-box done” and he could move on to other steps.
Aaron ended up doing something of a combination of William’s and Michelle’s strategies. He worked with me and another student to prioritize what he should work on and how to do it, but he also asked me, through a written comment, if it would be OK to “just focus on sentence structure this time?” He wanted to get that skill down before he worked on anything else. For the first time, I was seeing him address his “gaps,” so how could I not agree?
I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback.
What We Learned
In the end, the strategies the three of us agreed to seemed like something every student would benefit from. I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback. William, Aaron, and Michelle did not magically transform, but they (and my other students) definitely started to “feel formative” (as we now call it). That idea, that we are still taking shape and not yet fully formed, is what prompts real change.
Depending on where a person teaches, a school district can dictate how often report cards and progess reports will be distributed to students and parents to “communicate learning” and keep families abreast of what is happening in the classroom.
However, the idea of what report cards are and what they actually do is fatally flawed from the beginning.
Communication about learning needs to be ongoing in a meaningful way and paper report cards being mailed home or sent home with students or uploaded onto an online portal as a PDF a few times a year just doesn’t cut it.
Aside from the infrequency of sharing, the content shared is often out of date and/or not a good representation of what students know and can do.
For example, in high school, each subject teacher gets one line to present a letter grade or a number grade (sometimes without any kind of precision or explanation as to what the criteria is) and up to three pre-written comment codes to help explain the grade. Often, these pre-written comments don’t have anything to do with quality of work or skill level, but focus on behavior and compliance.
There are other pieces of information that can be provided such as number of absences and/or midterm or final exam grades.
The act of sharing information isn’t the issue, it’s what we share and how we share it. Many elementary schools use standards based report cards now that focus more heavily on skill mastery and narratives written by the teacher. This is an effective means of communication, but it only happens three times a year in many schools.
There are also parent/teacher conferences, but these conferences often just review the report card rather than go deeper and share more important information that can really help students grow as learners. Ironically, many times the students are not even involved in these conversations which takes the most important factor out of the equation.
Many online systems now make it possible for teachers and schools to share information with parents and students regularly keeping families in the loop about learning, often assignment by assignment with narrative feedback. There are many iterations of how this can happen, but we need to be asking ourselves more importantly what and why we are communicating.
In an ideal world, teachers would be empowering students regularly with feedback that isn’t aligned with grades but rather with mastery standards, offering multiple opportunities for growth.
Here are things we can do differently today:
Stop putting grades on everything students turn in. We can provided actual actionable feedback without labeling the quality of it with a quantity.
Offer more opportunities for students to get feedback from peers and from the teacher.
Invite parents to be a part of the process and involve them in the learning in an on-going way by making out of school learning an integral part of the practice we do every day.
Teach students the language of the standards and be transparent in what and why they are learning different skills and content. Make sure the reason isn’t because it’s on a test.
Have students reflecting regularly so you can get a fuller read on how much they are actually learning. Often their work and performance won’t tell the whole story.
Allow students to be involved in the assessment process, so they can choose how and what they are learning.
Be clear about success criteria and help students understand where they measure up.
Truly listen to students and be flexible that learning happens at different paces for everyone and often in different ways.
When we think about preparing students for the world we live in, accountability is important, but teaching students to be accountable in a way that works for them that also helps us know where we need to adjust practice to better suit their needs.
Report cards were a solution once that probably made some form of communication easier. However, the kind of communication it fosters sends the wrong message about what learning should be. As we shift the mindset about learning, we also have be mindful about the subconscious messages we send systemically about what learning actually is.
How can you better communicate with students and families about student learning that makes the outcome more meaningful? Please share
The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.
Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West’s reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.
The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known — if it was known for anything at all — as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life — Newsweek ranked it number one last year — and Finland’s national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.
Finland’s schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.
Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation’s education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.
So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.
And yet it wasn’t clear that Sahlberg’s message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.
* * *
During the afternoon that Sahlberg spent at the Dwight School, a photographer from the New York Times jockeyed for position with Dan Rather’s TV crew as Sahlberg participated in a roundtable chat with students. The subsequent article in the Times about the event would focus on Finland as an “intriguing school-reform model.”
Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”
This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
The irony of Sahlberg’s making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America’s best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend — not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg’s statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.
Sahlberg knows what Americans like to talk about when it comes to education, because he’s become their go-to guy in Finland. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a Finnish school. He taught mathematics and physics in a junior high school in Helsinki, worked his way through a variety of positions in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and spent years as an education expert at the OECD, the World Bank, and other international organizations.
Now, in addition to his other duties, Sahlberg hosts about a hundred visits a year by foreign educators, including many Americans, who want to know the secret of Finland’s success. Sahlberg’s new book is partly an attempt to help answer the questions he always gets asked.
From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.
For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.
Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.
And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.
“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”
Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
* * *
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.
That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.
* * *
Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.
Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.
Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.
Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.
What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.
With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. — as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down — is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.
Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn’t meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a “pamphlet of hope.”
“When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, many said it couldn’t be done,” Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. “But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”
Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.
The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.
Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic commissioned a survey to assess the global literacy of American college students. Over 1,200 people participated; less than 30 percent earned a passing grade. Below are six questions they included, each of which a majority of respondents answered incorrectly. See how you, or your students or children, do. (Answers below.)
1.In which of these countries is a majority of the population Muslim?
a) South Africa
2. Which language is spoken by the most people in the world as their primary language?
b) Mandarin Chinese
3. Which country is the largest trading partner of the United States, based on the total dollar value of goods and services?
d) Saudi Arabia
4. Approximately what percentage of the United Statesfederal budget is spent on foreign aid?
a) 1 percent
b) 5 percent
c) 12 percent
d) 30 percent
e) 40 percent
5. Which countries is the United States bound by treaty to protect if they are attacked? (select all that apply)
e) North Korea
g) South Korea
6. True or False: Over the past five years, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States and returning to Mexico has been greater than the number of Mexicans entering the United States.
Why is it so important to understand the world and the United States’ role in it today?
To begin with, the American economy is inextricably linked to the global economy. It’s estimated that one-fifth of jobs here are now tied to international trade. Moreover, many of the world’s major challenges — climate change, instability in financial markets, food and water insecurity, infectious diseases, migration, war and terrorism — are complex, interdependent and borderless. And with 40 million foreign-born residents, the United States is itself a global society with deep emotional ties to many nations and cultures. To survive and thrive, Americans have to learn how to manage greater complexity and collaborate across lines of difference.
Nevertheless, many American schools have remained poorly prepared to deliver education in “global competence” (defined by American education leaders as “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.”) The focus on traditional achievement and test scores has narrowed the delivery of instruction at a time when students need to learn to think more broadly. In the wake of “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump (both far more popular among older voters than among the young) — and amid the global rise of nationalist movements — schools need to help students navigate the forces shaping the world they will inherit.
“What are the values, attitudes, skills and behaviors that must be cultivated if we’re going to live in a peaceful world?” asked Dana Mortenson, one of the -founders of World Savvy, an organization that has worked with thousands of teachers to integrate global competence into their lessons.
What’s needed is not just scoring well on standardized tests. “It’s an openness to new opportunities and ideas,” she added. “It’s a desire to engage. It’s self-awareness about culture and respect for different perspectives. It’s comfort with ambiguity. It’s the skill to investigate the world through questions. Empathy and humility are big pieces of all of it.”
Teaching these higher-level skills and attitudes might seem a tall order for schools that struggle with the basics. But World Savvy has seen impressive results among its partner schools, a majority of them in high-poverty areas. By raising the bar, teachers say, it becomes easier to engage students.
That’s been the experience of Carla Kelly, a special-education teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx who completed a Global Competence Certificate, a 15-month graduate-level program developed by World Savvy, the Asia Society and Teachers College at Columbia University.
“I saw that I needed to teach so that my students could contribute anywhere in the world,” Kelly said.
Kelly teaches a variety of subjects — including science, health, Spanish and life skills — in a school that has students and faculty members from 46 countries. She tries to integrate global competence concepts throughout her teaching.
In a unit on nutrition, for instance, students explore foods from around the world, graphing diets against life spans. “We compared diets high in starchy vegetables with places where they eat dark green or sea vegetables,” she said. The connections the students drew were powerful: They learned that people in China live longer than black people in America. They discovered that wherever the American diet was introduced, life spans declined.
In a unit on death, Kelly added an exploration of 11 funeral rites. Students learned that in Ghana, caskets are woven in the shape of objects beloved by the deceased; in South Korea, a person’s remains may be pressed into jewelry; and in Tibet, the mountaintop “sky burial” in the open allows a dead person’s soul to exit the body and be reincarnated. “I asked them to choose five rituals that would be a good fit with their values and cultures,” Kelly said. “I wanted them to make connections, to see how other cultures see life and death.”
“Every class that I’ve revised to include international representation,” she added. “I found that the students made more connections because they had a cultural anchor. And when I assessed what they retained I got content-specific vocabulary because it stuck, especially where they could see aspects of themselves and of people they knew. And the questions I got were better. I stopped getting ‘what’ questions and started getting ‘why’ questions, and ‘what if’ questions.”
At Mill Valley Middle School in California, two teachers, Rod Septka and Maggie Front, working with more affluent students, have seen this approach evoke a similar response. When the recent drought in California was daily news, they looked at how people in the state were conserving water. Then they examined how people cope with water-related problems in Bangladesh, Israel, Sudan, Bolivia, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Peru and Syria. The students did extensive research and data gathering. One student was astonished that so many people around the world couldn’t just go into their kitchen and get water from a tap. Then the water crisis in Flint, Mich., became news, and they looked at water access in terms of wealth and race. That led a student who had been previously disengaged in school to discover her activist voice, said Front. And studying water rights brought her to a related concern: women’s rights.
“A lot of this helps the kids to understand what actions they can take toward solving world issues,” said Front. “It’s not the mission to create activism, but that tends to come out of it.”
In a culminating experience, the students, working in twos, carried five-gallon buckets of water for half a mile. They experimented with ways to do it efficiently, while minimizing spillage, and collected data about time, distance and volume to calculate how long it would take them to provide water for their family. “It was a lot harder than they thought,” said Septka. “It gave them a newfound appreciation for people who have to do things differently than we do.”
Each of these teachers described learning alongside the students, making mistakes, and improving their own global competence in the process.
For now, teacher education that is focused on this area remains at a nascent stage, says William Gaudelli, an associate professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who is a founder of the college’s Global Competence Certificate program and the author of a book titled “Global Citizenship Education: Everyday Transcendence.”
“By and large, our curriculum in the United States is a European great civilization approach — Plato to NATO — with some add-ons for cultural diversity,” he said. “But the condition we live in is fundamentally global. There’s literally nothing that’s not connected far beyond our borders. When people 100 years look back on our generation, they’re going to wonder: How did they know so much about what was going on and do so little to educate about it?”
For Mortenson, a core hurdle is moving beyond the “aversion to complexity in our education system.”
“The system was set up that way because the idea was to standardize knowledge,” she said. “That was appropriate when someone was being trained for a job they might hold for 40 or 50 years. But the world has changed in such profound ways that developing an understanding of complexity is paramount. Whatever the policy, the idea that things are simple, or black and white, and we can put a blanket on them and feel that it’s going to have the desired impact — that idea can become very dangerous.”
*Answers, with percentage of respondents who gave the correct answer.
1. d (29 percent)
2. b (49 percent)
3. a (10 percent)
4. a (12 percent)
5. a (47 percent), c (28 percent), g (34 percent), h (14 percent)