Poverty, Student Learning, and Coronavirus

It seems eons ago when I presented a session in early March on Poverty and the Brain to 200 P-12 educators at a small city school district in Upstate New York. The district had a relatively high economically-disadvantaged student population of 46%, and a students with disability population of 21%. My presentation focused on two questions: 1) How does poverty impact student learning?, and 2) What are the instructional implications for students from poverty? Reflecting back with a full blown pandemic now underway, it is heartbreaking to imagine how our most needy students and families will emerge when “normalcy” returns. Fractured is one way to envision the impacts. Fractured in spirit. Fractured in body. Fractured in mind. Poverty takes a terrible toll on student learning, particularly during periods of self-isolation.fractured-ice

Early in the session I asked the group to individually, and then with a partner, consider how poverty impacts student learning. We followed that with a whole group conversation. The same was done for instructional implications. Notes were recorded (see below)

The educators understood first hand poverty’s impacts. But what about now in the Covid-19 pandemic world? What impacts have been exacerbated through stay at home measures, including online learning, to reduce the spread and “flatten the curve”?  I  circled items as ones we all should find especially concerning at this time. How can children learn when their basic needs for shelter, food,….are not being met, or where the home environment lacks structure, putting students in a self-preservation mode and lacking any motivation for learning? 

The teachers’ thoughts on instructional implications for children with poverty were rightfully focused on classroom environment and relationships, now made more pressing with children at home, away from classmates and teachers. Some of our most needy students are in home environments stressed by financial worries, joblessness, and lack of food. Building community and loving those students is a challenge when interactions are virtual, assuming our most needy even have the necessary technology and broadband for face to face virtual communications. And of course, the consistency and structure implications are completely out the window. The pandemic we find ourselves is real, and smart teachers will use the current times to bring relevance into their lessons. And yes, there will be some advocation for our students, but not what could exist back in school.

These are trying times for society, particularly for those on the front lines (health workers, public safety personnel, grocers, farmers….). For those in education, we must be particularly mindful for the most at-risk students and families who will surely exit self containment at a greater disadvantage than when entered. 

The (New) Teacher Recommendation Letter

One of my greatest joys is teaching graduate students in our Masters of Science in Teaching (MST) Program. Preparing future educators for the classroom is an honor and responsibility not to be taken lightly. Master Course Outlines and associated course syllabi define a program’s merits, and the very best offer a well-rounded student experience grounded in curriculum, instruction, and assessment (In my unbiased opinion, SUNY Plattsburgh’s Education Programs are exceptional). The tricky part I have found is writing letters of recommendation for students finishing their student teaching and preparing to find a job. What should one look for when writing these critical letters, and how best to convey one’s enthusiasm for particular students who have the makings of greatness? It is not an easy task writing recommendation letters for individuals without the track record of practicing educators, but there are some student dispositions, skills and understandings I believe tie to future performance.

Grades matter, certainly, but there are other, sometimes more important, measures to consider. The lens I start with is what I want for my daughter’s teachers. Compassionate, patient, dedicated, fun-loving, witty, smart, persistent, confident, unique and innovative, communicative, open-minded, and well-respected, are measures found in the very best educators–and these are measures I can evaluate in the graduate MST classroom. In other words, what I’m looking for in a future educator are habits of mind that lead to success. How do my students interact with one another? Are they collaborators, or prefer to do their work separate from others? Do they have fun in class, and enjoy each other’s company? Are they innovative, tech-savvy, confident and humble? Are failures or challenges seen as opportunities, and do they persist? What type of mindset do they hold, growth or fixed? And why did they choose education? So many things to consider.

It takes but a few years classroom experience for the “newbies” to separate themselves from others, becoming the teachers children adore, parents want for their kids, and principals protect and mold. Such educators develop into the informal or formal teacher leaders within the school, and embrace their work for what it is: shaping and molding young minds to become productive, mindful, knowledgeable, and able members of a democratic society. And that is why the letter of recommendation for graduate MST students is so important to get right.

Cultivating Gratitude in the Classroom

Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”-Anonymous.

I’ve made a few lifestyle changes over the past year, including daily meditation using an app I found on the Internet. Frequently, a meditation will encourage the listener to focus on his or her blessings, rather than misfortunes. I must admit feeling better and more optimistic following such meditations, which made me wonder: Does teaching gratitude have a place in today’s schools? Could daily gratitude exercises change students’ brains, making them more resilient and positive? Might grateful students be less anxious than others?  I did the research, and the answers are “Yes!, Yes!, and Yes!!”.IMG_1125.jpeg

Teaching gratitude has a place in the classroom. In fact, daily gratitude exercises should be part and parcel of the P-12 curriculum. Research shows gratitude changes the brain in positive ways, and makes people happier. In a 2017 Berkeley study by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, individuals directed to write weekly gratitude letters, whether sent or not, had improved mental well-being versus those not directed to write letters. Gratitude activates the medial prefrontal cortex, increases dopamine levels, and yes, decreases stress and anxiety levels.

The human experience is such that we will forever deal with negativity bias, with discomforting experiences being more sticky than positive ones. However, educators can change students’ mindsets. We can help students feel more happy, more satisfied with themselves and others, and more willing to see challenges as opportunities rather than unfair burdens. So, yes, practice gratitude in the classroom. Write letters of thanks to others. Do daily gratitude dumps, solo, or in pairs, to start or end the day.  And see the glow that develops as gratitude takes root in your classroom.

ps. If there are ways you practice gratitude in the classroom, please share.

 

 

Are Students Excited About School?

Dear Reader, I have a confession to make: I disliked high school. A lot. A real lot. In fact, I disliked it so much I stopped going my senior year. Eventually my truancy caught up with me, and to graduate, I had to run laps in PE class, one for each day I “cut” school. It took three weeks of running before I erased the days skipped. I was marathon-ready after that experience. Perhaps you, too, disliked school? For me, it was my inattentiveness, what we’d term today as ADHD, and common family stressors. Regardless, high school was a boring, tedious experience for me and many of my friends. Are things different today?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Data from a Pew Research report on social trends  (2018) suggests things may not be too different. For 920 teens, ages 13-17, who responded to an AmeriSpeak survey which informed the report, students’ excitement for what they studied at school was less than 50%. Girls (33%) more regularly got excited about something they learned at school than boys (21%), partly explaining why 33% of boys say they never get in daily trouble at school versus 48% for girls. Reasons for the numbers are varied, and speak to the many challenges of our complex, digital world confounded by a divided nation. What’s an educator to do given these data?

My suggestion is to practice the Three Rs: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Balancing rigor with students’ abilities is a fine dance, akin to the Goldilocks phenomena. Content can’t be too easy lest one lose student’s interest, nor too hard, sparking student anxiety and disengagement. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development captures this idea in a more scientific manner. Relevance, the second “R”, is what excites me as a former curriculum director. Taking learning standards and developing lessons and units that both match standards and motivate students is a true creativity thrill. We all know students get excited when they are doing work that interests them. Relationships, the third “R”, is honoring what drives our species. We are social beings, and thrive working in concert with others. Problem solving, debating, strategizing, celebrating, etc…are things humans like doing with one another. Let’s honor our brain’s hard-wiring for challenging, relevant work that involves others by practicing the Three R’s: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Let’s get kids excited about school. We can do this.

Brain Candy in the Classroom

Motivating and keeping students on task is one of teaching’s biggest challenges, particularly in today’s stimulus-rich tech environment. It’s not easy competing with smartphones, tablets, or computers as social media sites such as instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, etc… light up screens, tapping directly into the brain’s reward pathway.   “Likes”, right swipes, and new emojis give us a sense of satisfaction as these rewarding stimuli trigger the release of dopamine. The pleasurable sensations associated with dopamine make it true candy for the brain.

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Photo by Foodie Factor on Pexels.com

Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards humans for behavior necessary for survival.  Food, sex, listening to a favorite song, or accomplishing one’s goals all trigger dopamine release and teach the brain that such behaviors are good for the individual and worth repeating. Dopamine is often cited with addictions, and so it goes with such a powerful neurotransmitter.  Good or bad, the brain and body respond to dopamine.

Savvy teachers learn early designing lessons which allow frequent student success are more motivational than those with few success opportunities, and the neuroscience behind dopamine explains why such designs work. Each small success towards well-defined goals triggers a dopamine release, rewarding and motivating the student to continue their efforts. Long term projects such as papers, presentations, or other authentic projects are best designed to include measurable and achievable goals and benchmarks that motivate students through project completion. Remember that each small success rewards the student with a little dopamine rush; and that is better than any candy bowl.

 

Professional Teaching Standards To Live By

Don’t smile till after Thanksgiving.”, “Turn the lights off if the kids get out of control.”, and “The text book publisher’s teacher’s guide has everything you need.” were but a few of the many suggestions the Unorthodox Teacher received from peers and veterans during his first few months (and years) of teaching. Though he had a state syllabus to guide him on the required content of his classes, he lacked the pedagogical frameworks that would shed light on best practices. In 1987, things fortunately changed with the founding of The National Board for Professional Standards (NBPTS).  And even though Madeline Hunter was doing significant work around Effective Teaching Models, and despite Charlotte Danielson’s release of her Frameworks for Effective Teaching a decade later, the Unorthodox Teacher would identify the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as having the greatest impact on his pedagogy and practice.

For those unfamiliar with NBPTS, there are two must-read cornerstone NBPTS products: The Five Core Propositions and The Architecture of Accomplished Teaching. I discovered both in the late 1990s when asked to help a cohort of North Country Teachers pursue National Board Certification, and though I myself moved into administration before I could pursue Board Certification, I did enjoy helping others achieve Certification. The five core propositions are as follows:

  1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
  2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
  4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
  5. Teachers are members of learning communities.

And the Architecture of teaching shows the helical blueprint (think DNA) structure underlying quality teaching:

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Each state may have its own set of teaching standards and certification protocols, but like the Medical profession, National Boards are the linchpin for the teaching profession. For novice teachers or veterans, the Five Core Propositions and Architecture for Accomplished Teaching encapsulate the essence of our profession. For the Unorthodox Teacher, NBPTS clarified standards for best practice to the benefit of his students.

 

Finding My Calling To Teach

How did you discover your career? Was it one you dreamed of in grade school, or one that happened serendipitously later in life? Here’s my story on how I found teaching.

In August of 1987, my boss at the United States Naval Oceanographic Office came to my work space one afternoon and said, “Bay St. Louis Middle School called to request a public speaker at their fall assembly.  They want one of us to talk about what it’s like being an oceanographer. Steve, would you like to go and speak there?” My candid response: “Not really. I don’t like being in schools and don’t have time to talk with kids.” My boss gently reminded me, “Steve, since no one else wants to speak at the middle school, and since you are the last to be hired, it’s not really a choice.” I replied with a  smile, “George, I’d be happy to speak at the assembly.” And from that short conversation would come a life altering and fortuitous change of career from well paid oceanographer to under paid secondary school science teacher.screen-shot-2016-08-09-at-2-06-58-pm

I will confess I prepared for my fall assembly “What’s it like being an oceanographer?” speech with great confidence and cockiness. After all, I thought to myself, I was an oceanographer, and this was a speech at a public middle school. Plus, I knew from my 13 years experience as a student in K-12 education that teachers finished work at 2:30 in the afternoon, had generous vacation time, and the entire summer off–Wrong!! Though I wasn’t looking forward to taking time from work to do a presentation, I did know in my heart the talk would be a piece of cake. Boy was I mistaken!

The assembly was scheduled for 1:30 PM, and I arrived early to get my bearings. There are two schools that serve middle school students in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi: a private school where those with the means send their children, and the public school for those who can’t afford the private school tuition. My speech would be at the public school in a hot, humid auditorium. No problem. I came prepared with suit jacket, short sleeve shirt, and my speech neatly typed. I was ready.

At 1:2o, the intercom blared out for all teachers to bring their classes to the auditorium for the assembly. Within minutes the quiet, subdued auditorium with its fading and chipping painted walls and ceilings sprung to life as 250 high energy white, black, and hispanic students spilled in and began filling rows of seats beginning but 10 feet from the stage. I eyed them with curiosity and a little resentment as they scampered loudly to their seats, their teachers clearly exasperated with the noisy interruption of the normal day’s routine. Within ten minutes the students and teachers had settled into their seats, I’d been introduced by the school principal, and so began my speech.

Humility is a funny thing. It sometimes comes unexpectedly and from unforeseen sources, and so was the case with my talk. After a mere five minutes into my presentation, two boys but 15 feet away from the stage starting laughing and heckling me. Their teacher cast them a stern look and gave them a loud “SHHHHHH”, which worked for about 30 seconds before a few others in the audience started to heckle. I knew I was in trouble. My confidence and sense of authority dissipated quickly into one of fear. Was the auditorium getting hotter, I wondered, as the heckles continued and drips of sweat rolled off my chin and onto my typed speech. I was free-falling down a path I had not been on since adolescence. I was petrified and unsure what to do. The speech clearly wasn’t working, and so I took a leap of faith, dropped the air of superiority, and spoke earnestly from the heart.

It was as if a light had been switched on. As I opened up and shared my excitement about oceanography, the funny and scary stories of work out on open waters or along coastlines of foreign countries, I relaxed and connected with the students. And they did the same. The more I let my guard down and opened the floor to their questions, the more I felt a surge of satisfaction and self-actualization. The assembly ended with laughter, more stories, and thankful applause. I didn’t want it to end, but the principal reminded students school would be out shortly with busses waiting to take them home. I left Bay St. Louis Middle School on a high. One year later I was teaching physics and chemistry in a small Catholic school in upstate New York. How lucky was I!

A lot has happened over the ensuing 30 years, but to this day, I always urge students, colleagues, friends, or anyone else willing to listen to follow their hearts. Chase the work, not the money. Money comes later as you thrive in a career that is satisfying. A career where Monday morning is a good thing because you’re back doing what you love.  Peace.