by Bethany Rivard, 2016 Regional Teacher of the Year
Today is “Take Your Child to Work Day.” I teach AP Literature and Theater at Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies. My children are truly wonderful, not that I’m biased or anything. But really, Sage (age 9) and Elsa (age 8) have learned to go with the flow.
2:30 After a long school day, I gather the bit of energy I have left and begin rehearsal for our spring play. I feel exhausted and want to crawl backstage and take a nap, but instead use my acting skills to pretend I have energy and lead a rousing game of Musical Theater Chairs. The person who doesn’t find a chair when I pause “Guns and Ships” from Hamilton has to die a dramatic death onstage or make a dramatic exit. My daughters join in the game. My students try to let them win, but I don’t let them.
2:50 This year, my teaching partner and I chose five student playwrights who each wrote a short play and two monologues based on student narratives that were submitted in their English classes. The show (opening in mere days) is called “Fort Stories: If You Really Knew Me.” Today is monologue day. As students review their lines and prepare to get on stage, I duck out to check on another club I co-advise: MEChA, a Chicanx student leadership group.
3:00 As I’m dashing down the hallways, my daughters trailing behind me, I suddenly remember that I agreed to act in a video MEChA is filming and realize that the videographer could only make it today. The video reveals the fear of deportation (of selves, parents, siblings, relatives) many students carry around with them daily. Fort is a diverse community, with students and refugees from around the world. The heightened sense of anxiety post election is palpable at my school.
3:05 I set the MEChA videographers up in a classroom across from the theater to film their scene. I tell them to grab me from rehearsal when I’m needed.
3:10 I get back to the theater (Sage and Elsa in my wake) just in time to catch the first monologue. It’s powerful story about a student whose father left, and she is struggling with the aftermath.
3:20 A MEChA student comes to get me for the scene. I jettison back across the hall; leave my daughters with my co-director. The videographer laments that they don’t have enough students in the classroom scene. I look across the hall to the theater.
3:30 The last monologue ends. I ask my theater students, “Who wants to be in a film?” I gather a dozen of them and head back across the hall, daughters in tow. My theater students are now the actors in the M.E.Ch.A film and the two plates I’ve been simultaneously spinning come together like the middle of a Venn diagram. It happens that I can be in two places at once!
As exhausted as I am, I can’t help but smile at the way the end of the day came together. Every day as a teacher is a production, a series of improvisations. The variables are constantly changing. But the juggling, dashing between projects, and serendipity of it all is what makes it special, and I’m glad my girls get to see that.
Bethany Rivard is a 2016 Regional Teacher of the Year, a National Board Certified Teacher, and a member of the Professional Educator Standards Board. She teaches literature and theater at Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies in Vancouver, Washington.
by James Yoos, 2010 Washington State Teacher of the Year
First period is finishing up, and students have a short break between morning classes at Bellingham High. Several student athletes come into my room for a quick injury evaluation and consult regarding their plan for injury recovery.
One student athlete, Katy, rolled her ankle during the previous afternoon’s soccer practice. I’ve worked with Katy before with ankle issues, so I rib her a bit about not wearing her ankle brace during practice. The ankle evaluation appears to reveal a minor sprain/strain, so we decide to wrap and ice it to help with the pain.
As I wrap Katy’s ankle, we chat about how the team is doing this season, and I get the chance to hear about the challenges and celebrations of her year. She shares with me her experiences in her classes, and I find out she’s nervous about an upcoming exam. She feels she’s spent a fair amount of time preparing, but is flustered and describes feeling “all over the place” with the content. I ask her what about the exam has her nervous and what’s she doing to prepare. We take a moment to link her current anxiety to an experience on the soccer field like taking a penalty kick. We’ve talked about visualization techniques for high anxiety times in soccer, so I suggest that she try the same technique for her exam- using deep breathing to help herself relax and clear her head before, and then visualizing what she expects on the exam and seeing herself be successful. I share with her the experiences I’ve had when unsurmountable tests become exciting challenges through a shift in mindset. I leave her to continue to ice and think about what we’ve talked about while I work with another student athlete.
Six years ago, I was asked to take over the anatomy and physiology class at Bellingham High. Around the same time, I started to fill in at home sporting events as first aid support. Coaches needed help with pregame taping, and I offered my assistance. Prior to becoming a teacher 18 years ago, I explored the idea of going into the field of medicine and got certified and worked as an EMT and later as a massage therapist. As word got around that I was capable, demand grew. Soon I became the point person for injury assessment, treatment, and recovery for our high school athletes.
Interest in my anatomy and physiology class was strong, but I knew it could be better it if students were able to receive some hands on training in athletic injuries. Student athletes had expressed interest in finding out more about injury assessment and treatment, so I presented to my principal and athletic director the possibility of blending the anatomy and physiology class into a CTE introduction to sports medicine. Students would still learn about the human body systems covered in anatomy and physiology, but they’d learn through the lens of injury prevention, assessment, and treatment. Students would get practical experience helping me out during home athletic events. Interest in the course grew dramatically, as a broader array of students interests were met. Class sections grew. As word travelled to other high schools in the district, sports medicine classes started at the other high schools. Next year, nine sections of sports medicine will be offered across the district.
At the end of the day, Katy checks back in with me and lets me know that her exam went well. She tells me she used some of the visualizing techniques before the exam. It turns out that she really just wanted to hear some support heading into it and thanks me for taking the time to talk.
Student athletes come to me for injury assessment and treatment, but I get a sense that it’s also about coming to a safe space and being cared for. It’s not uncommon for students to come in to share their latest bump or bruise, grab a bag of ice, and gradually reveal what’s really on their mind. They share the challenges of their day, conflicts that arise, and celebrations that they need someone to know about.
Students are seeking connections with adults. Simply taking the time to slow down, listen, and look at their “injury” may be enough to let students know that the adults in the building care and are interested in what’s going on in their lives beyond their classroom. We can’t all tape an ankle, but we can all provide that moment in between our official duties to connect, listen, and see our students.
James Yoos is the 2010 Washington State Teacher of the Year, a 2015-16 Washington State Science Fellow, and National Board Certified Teacher of biology, chemistry, and sports medicine at Bellingham High School in Bellingham, Washington.
by Maegan Skoubo, 2016 Regional Teacher of the Year
It’s 7:45 am. I sip the last of my morning coffee and scroll through Facebook before I head out the door for work. I see a feed that makes my heart skip a beat “Eighteen year old resident dies instantly in fatal car crash on Highway 101.” There is a good chance it is someone I know. My short commute is spent worrying and wondering. I rack my brain thinking of who would have been on that highway at that time of day.
I walk through the school doors to an announcement asking all teachers to report to the library. I know what is coming. The halls are quiet as we quickly walked to the library - sad glances exchanged. We prepared ourselves for THE hardest part of the job.
The principal tells us the student who died was a senior at our school. I had her in summer school. She has a sister in 6th grade, and I worked with her mother. The room is silent; staff processing the news. She is gone. We console each other as we get the details of the events leading up to the accident. We talk about her bright future, the college acceptance letters she had received, and the devastation of life cut far too short.
I head over to the junior high classroom where I am supposed to team teach this morning. I walk into the room and ask Ms. T - a first year teacher - how she is handling the news. She shows me a paper. “I was told to read this to my first period class, but I just don't think I can do it.” I offer to share the news. As students file in before the tardy bell, I see that some of them already know. Some don’t.
The bell rings. Students are quieting down, and waiting for class to start. “I have something I need to tell you.” I am trying my best to maintain my composure. My voice cracks and tears form as I read the statement: “Lydia, a senior here at RHS was killed in a car accident last night . . .” I finish reading the statement from the school. Students sit quietly as the news sinks in. Lydia had tutored some of them after school. I share my memories of her. Slowly and deliberately we build a space where memories allow us to process what has happened. Then we finish yesterday’s assignment in groups because today we need each other.
Maegan Skoubo is a 2016 Regional Teacher of the Year, Washington State Math Fellow, and National Board Certified Teacher. She is currently serving as the district math coach at Raymond School District in Raymond, Washington.
by Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year
As a highschool teacher I wear many unofficial hats. At work, we jokingly refer to these as other duties as assigned: club advisor, fundraiser, snack provider, letter of rec writer, cheerleader at basketball games, unofficial Dear Abby and life coach, college prep advisor, relationship counselor, fashion consultant for job interviews and formal occasions (fellas, always match your belt and shoes, always)... I could go on. These other duties vary school to school. As I have progressed in my career, my list has grown. Of all of them, my favorite extra duty is the four or five fall Friday nights where I get to be the in-stadium announcer for Lincoln High School’s football team.
I’m a creature of habit.
6:00 I arrive at Lincoln Bowl, sixty minutes prior to kick-off and check in with the timekeeper. She’s a sarcastic, hilarious office professional from a local middle school, named Lynn. We swap stories of our crazy weeks.
6:15 I start reading through the roster and practicing the visiting team’s unfamiliar names. I usually end up butchering them anyway during the game, but I give it my best.
6:20 I head down to the field and check in with the coaching staff about walk-in music and if there’s any special recognitions that need to happen pre-game or at half-time. Warm-ups are happening at this time and I spend a few minutes cracking jokes with players, chastising others, and dodging errant throws from the back-up quarterbacks.
6:30 The stadium starts to fill up. As I head back to the announcing booth, I stop to talk shop with my colleagues who always sit above the 40 yard line. I believe teaching is relational, so I take time to chat with some students and the cadre of very vocal parents that sit right below the pressbox.
6:47 My co-announcer Steven starts reading the in stadium announcements. “No smoking, no re-entry, Fanta, Laffy Taffy and popcorn at concessions...” Right afterward, I scream into the mic “Ladies and gentleman make some noise for your league champion, Lincoln Abes Football team!” and hit the entrance music as the team charges onto the field.
6:50 The players line-up for the anthem and the pep band takes the field. We always pray in the press box they’ll nail the right note at “land of the free” (they usually do).
7:00 The horn goes off, we announce captains and the result of the coin toss, and it’s time to play football.
I get to watch these boys mature into young men, one snap at a time. When I was in grad school this wasn’t part of the curriculum, but it’s part of my job and my life and I wouldn’t trade the world for it.
Nathan Gibbs-Bowling is the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, National Teacher of the Year Finalist, and 2014 Milken Educator. He teaches AP Government and Human Geography at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. Follow him on Twitter @nathan_bowling and online at A Teacher's Evolving Mind.
Barney Peterson, 2015 Regional Teacher of the Year
8:00 am I get a frantic text message from one of the special education paraeducators: “On the way in on bus #136. Baby duck on bus. Can you help?”
In our school I am the crazy, woodsy, science-y wildlife lady. I’m sort of the resident Ms. Frizzle, so this message comes as no great surprise. I put an old towel in a three-gallon bucket, text back that I will meet the bus, and fly into action.
It turns out the duckling was rescued by the driver when he noticed it wandering down the side of the freeway. He tucked the extra passenger into the box next to his seat. The first school couldn't take the duckling because there was no science department. Then a paraeducator whose kids had been in my class offered to call me.
I meet the bus, and the duckling is recovered to smiles. The wheelchair-bound students on the bus all get a quick look at the duckling in the bucket before I route it to a foster home with a staff member who raises ducks.
The duckling’s story ends up being part of my lesson for the day. I get the pleasure of turning the rescue into a teachable moment, as today is the start of National Be Kind to Animals Week. The bus driver who stopped along the freeway to rescue the orphaned baby is the hero of the week.
Every day is different, and we get to do it with people who take great care of even the littlest things. Maybe that’s why teaching truly is the best job in the world.
Barney Peterson is a 2015 Regional Teacher of the Year, a 2006 Presidential Award Winner for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, a NOAA Teacher at Sea alumna, and a National Board Certified Teacher of fourth grade at James Monroe Elementary in Everett.
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week WATAC members are sharing stories about the hidden hours of teaching. These are the rehearsals, rescues, grieving, and cheering that are understood, but often unseen parts of being a teacher. We hope you enjoy spending a few of these “hours” with us.
Heather Byington, 2009 Regional Teacher of the Year
As classroom teachers, sometimes we need a colleague’s perspective to figure out what is best for struggling students. Because we are managing a roomful of learners, we often aren’t able to stop and address students’ individual needs. But what if our job allowed us to change hats, one as teacher and the other as resource provider? What if those hats could change reliably during the instructional day or week? Such is the nature of my dual role as “hybrid” teacher and coach.
Starting in the 2015-16 school year, I became a half-time literacy coach while remaining a half-time fourth grade teacher. In our building, we have two half-time literacy coaches and a half-time math coach. All of the coaches also work as classroom or intervention teachers. There are no other schools in our district that have this same dual configuration, but being both helps us be effective as coaches for colleagues and interventionists for students needing support in multiple grade levels. As classroom teachers, we continue to cultivate close relationships with students. Our hybrid roles have helped us meet individual students’ needs for some of our students at highest risk, resulting in success and growth.
As a reading coach visiting “Jethro’s” third grade class last year, I noticed that he would not often engage in class activities. He almost never raised his hand to participate. Jethro was not loud and distracting to other students, but he liked to quietly derail class activities whenever possible. If a teacher became insistent with him, he would become even more stubbornly withdrawn. His teacher reported it was difficult to determine what, if anything, could motivate Jethro behaviorally or academically. After getting to know him better, I recommended that his teacher work with him and a few other ELL students in a small group on Spanish reading. She began conducting this group twice a week, while the other literacy coach covered her class. By year’s end, Jethro remained at the bottom of that group of struggling readers, reading about 20 words per minute at the third grade level, in English. He became easily confused with phonics rules, especially vowel sounds and vowel combinations.
With flexibility in my schedule, I was able to design individualized, intensive instruction for 15 minutes daily to address Jethro’s needs. I worked with him to practice foundational reading skills in Spanish- letter sounds, phonemic segmentation, and sound blending. Once he mastered these, I began to focus on reading fluency practice. Jethro’s reading skills improved in both languages, and he began to see himself as a reader. With success, Jethro’s attitude about school also improved. With this solid learning relationship established, I requested that Jethro be placed in my fourth grade classroom to continue to work with him daily. By fall of his fourth grade year, he could read about 40 words per minute in English.
With Jethro in my class, I’ve provided one-on-one and small group reading instruction during core reading instruction time. I’ve cooperated with the ELL specialist to give him reading tests with less text that still indicate whether or not he is able to use the reading skill of focus. I’ve watched him go from never raising his hand and refusing to speak in class, to actively participating, assisting with group presentations, and even laughing and enjoying himself while preparing skits based on reading texts. Jethro has become able to search for online facts himself and place them appropriately in an informational report. At the end of each writing assignment, he proudly signs his name in 28 point font to post the writing in the hall. His reading rate has improved to about 60 words per minute in English mid-year, which is still well-below grade level, but he has come a long way.
My role as a teacher/coach hybrid fit Jethro’s instructional needs. He has begun to see himself as a successful reader, writer, and student.
“Cassi” was a kindergarten student with intense separation anxiety. Every morning, she clung to her mom, screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, even hitting people who attempted to separate her from Mom. Cassi’s mom would also often pick Cassi up early from school. It seemed that separation anxiety was affecting both Cassi and her mom.
Each morning, during my coaching time, I worked with a small group of kindergarten ELL students on learning their letter sounds in Spanish, and on practicing phoneme segmentation in Spanish words. One morning, I convinced Cassi to come with me to this group. Little by little, getting Cassi to leave Mom and come to school in the morning became easier, but she continued to miss many days of school.
Cassi’s teacher attempted to set up a conference with her mom to discuss the importance of Cassi attending school, but she was unable to make contact. I suggested that the next time Cassi’s mom came to drop her off, we should get a learning support teacher to cover her teacher’s class and call an immediate meeting right then and there with her mom, the counselor, her teacher, and me.
We conducted the meeting. In Spanish, I explained to Cassi’s mom the importance being at school all day. It turns out that Mom was worried that Cassi was spending the whole day upset, the way Mom saw her each morning. So, we invited her to watch Cassi through a window, and she saw Cassi happily engaged in class.
The day of the meeting was a turning point for Cassi and her family. Having established a relationship of trust with Cassi’s mom, I was able to discuss our concerns about an older brother’s academic progress and the importance of school attendance. The flexibility in my schedule due to my coaching role allowed me to provide these important interventions.
In addition to the above examples, I also met with nearly all our 14 Spanish-speaking families at the WA Kids meetings conducted by the kindergarten. I interpreted for the meetings as needed, and communicated the importance of speaking and reading to their children in Spanish, when Spanish is the primary home language. I also provided Spanish literacy materials and training for parents to work with their children at home. Again, the flexibility in my schedule allowed me to forge this initial bond with our Spanish speaking families. Many of them were new to our school.
I’m glad I have the opportunity to continue as a classroom teacher, to build close relationships with students in my class, but it is also vital for teacher leaders to help support students and families from other grade levels. My hybrid role allows this to happen.
What does the role of instructional coach look like in your school or district? What do you think of this teacher/coach hybrid idea? Would this “two-hats” model work in your school? What innovative solutions has your school found to provide students with interventions to meet their individual needs?
Heather Byington is a 2009 Regional Teacher of the Year. A bilingual National Board Certified Teacher and Literacy Coach, she teaches 4th grade at Lydia Hawk Elementary in Lacey, Washington. She also sits on the Bilingual Education Advisory Committee for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Mark Ray, 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year
Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Webb calls it ‘ubiquitous leadership.’ It’s what happens when educators are given the permission and challenge to lead beyond their traditional roles. At VPS, librarians are extending their expertise to lead strategic work to support student learning. Teacher librarians in VPS have been recognized by Digital Promise and articles in both Education Week and School Administrator for the ways they are innovating.
First, teacher librarians have been on the leading edge of digital citizenship learning for students. Several years ago, they reviewed digital citizenship instruction and resources to inform a district needs assessment. From that work, they curated lessons from Common Sense Media to provide a scope and sequence for library digital citizenship instruction. As Washington State now implements SB 6273, promoting K-12 digital citizenship learning, teacher librarians will necessarily be part of district and building conversations about expanding digital citizenship for students and teachers. VPS teacher librarian Shana Ferguson was part of the OSPI workgroup that helped identify digital citizenship recommendations recently submitted to the Washington Legislature.
Second, teacher librarians are integral to the district’s levy-funded weLearn 1:1 initiative. Beyond providing critical logistical and management support, they have learned and worked alongside teachers to implement the use of iPads and laptops throughout our schools. As part of a team-based approach to professional development and support, teacher librarians work with other district leaders to help students and teachers be successful in their use of technology in the classroom.
Third, teacher librarians are now on the cutting edge of innovation in the district. With a district-wide exploration of coding, making and project-based learning underway, libraries have been identified as testbeds of creativity. Teacher librarians are learning to integrate authentic and engaging learning experiences for our students. They are remaking all or part of their libraries as makerspaces to help inform what hands-on learning might look like in our elementary, middle and high schools. Intrepid teacher librarians are learning coding and robotics as some of the first pioneers who will train, inform and inspire other educators to incorporate these tools into student learning. These explorations will inform district decisions regarding strategic planning, facilities improvements, and instructional design.
While Vancouver’s re-imagination of libraries and teacher librarians has been going on for some time, the U.S Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education recently launched Future Ready Librarians and have identified a Future Ready Librarians Framework which aligns innovative librarian practices with the research-based components of Future Ready schools. This initiative will be featured in 2017 at national conferences including SXSWEdu and and ISTE.
National education leaders, superintendents, state departments of education and district leaders agree: ubiquitous leadership by teacher librarians supports future ready schools. Whether guiding state or district policy, teaching and supporting strategic initiatives, or exploring innovative practices, librarians can and do lead beyond the library.
Mark Ray is the 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year. He is currently Director of Innovation and Library Services for Vancouver Public Schools and Future Ready Librarians Lead with the Alliance for Excellent Education. See his 2016 TEDx talk, ‘Changing the Conversation About Librarians.’ Follow him on Twitter @_teacherx and on his blog Amalgamated Futures.
Amy Abrams, 2014 Regional Teacher of the Year
“It is my honor and privilege to administer to you the oath of office.” As Vice President Pence spoke those words to Betsy DeVos, I started speculating on what her appointment would mean for the 70.9 million K-20 students in our nation’s public school system. I was concerned. I think many educators in America were concerned. After all, DeVos’ lack of educational experience is worrisome.
Turning away from the confirmation, I started to think about some influential voices in education. I thought about Maya Angelou, Diane Ravitch, Conrad Wolfram, and Malala Yousafzai. Especially Malala, the young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for demanding that girls receive an education. Her words and life invaded my thoughts. “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” At that moment, I realized that Presidents and Secretaries of Education come and go. What continues, and what needs protecting, is education. This brave young woman's words are a call to action that is now more important to heed than ever, both worldwide and within our own country's education system.
In Washington State, there are over 64,000 teachers educating close to 1.1 million students. 64,000 teachers devoted to students who live in 732 different zip codes, speak 167 different languages, and consider classrooms their safe place. 64,000 teachers who believe in, nurture, challenge, fight for, and respect our students. We appreciate each scholar’s uniqueness and defend his or her rights, no matter what race, religion, or socio-economic group he or she belongs to. We speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. It’s our calling-- it’s what we do. It’s what we will continue to do.
Kent Superintendent, Dr. Calvin J. Watts, recently confirmed this commitment in a message to all District employees: “I want to make sure each of the more than 4,100 KSD employees know this organization is committed to supporting every student and providing a quality educational experience regardless of immigration status, nation of origin, religion, or any other social or legal descriptor.”
Educational leaders throughout our State are mirroring Dr. Watt’s commitment. Providing all students with a quality education in a safe and accepting environment remains our goal. This work will not be easy, and there may be times when we educators feel frustrated and deeply discouraged. In fact, I imagine that we are facing a time when many teachers may feel a bit like the Patriots felt for the majority of Super Bowl 51.
Keep this in mind, however. Tom Brady and his team were down 19 points during the third quarter. Fans got up and left. The game was essentially over. After all, the largest deficit a Super Bowl team had ever overcome was 10 points, and the Patriots had close to double that.
Then the 4th quarter came. Despite insurmountable odds, Tom Brady and his team managed a 25-point comeback to win their 5th Super Bowl title. They were one team with one purpose. They analyzed the situation, made the necessary adjustments, and dedicated themselves to the grueling work needed to get the win.
They were prepared for the challenge. They refused to accept defeat.
For educators in the United States, this is the start of our 4th quarter. Things may get tough, but we’re used to that. We have persevered through budget cuts, oversized classes, leadership transitions, changes to state and national standards, and different versions of standardized tests. We have grit. We can weather this storm, too.
We must commit ourselves to doing the hard work needed to positively impact our students’ lives. We will continue to advocate for equity. We will continue to say that no matter who you are or where you live, you are welcome in our classrooms. Malala said, “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” We are 64,000 strong, and when our combined voices unite with purpose, we will be impossible to ignore. We refuse to be silent because our students are counting on us—counting on us to help them change the world.
Amy Abrams is a 2014 Regional Teacher of the Year. She currently serves as the Curriculum Coordinator for English, Highly Capable, and Social Studies for grades 7-12 in the Kent School District in Kent, Washington.
Jeffrey Dunn, 2014 Regional Teacher of the Year
I've been thinking a good bit about closing the achievement gap in our home state of Washington. My habit of mind is not to start with test scores, demographic data, and curriculum cross-walks, although I often think in these ways. Instead, I am most comfortable with beginning with an individual student's face.
Toward this end, I recall a young woman who caught everyone's attention. Her long, dark hair was striking in the way that a horse's mane is striking. Her walk down the hall of Deer Park High School was purposeful, not in a look-it's-me sort of way, but in a I-know-what-I'm-about sort of way. Her parents had given her the sort of cheekbones that grace fashion models. On first impression for someone like me, she was a stereotype: a native-American, tribal Indian, first nations' exemplar.
And herein lies the problem: although educational policy is about implementing generalities, educational progress happens one student at a time. Rose (a pseudonym chosen to personalize the narrative but to protect the identity) had never been on a reservation. She lived with her mother, who had Canadian tribal affiliations, and her stepfather, who was of European descent. Her bio-dad was also of European descent, worked in the medical profession, and lived close enough for day visits.
Rose and I first became acquainted because she was a junior struggling to pass English, social studies, and math classes. My job (as coordinator for our Secondary Learning Assistance Program Coordinator and our 21st Century Community Learning Center) was to help Rose graduate. As we talked about her future, it became abundantly clear that a lecture about study skills, grit, and priorities would be counterproductive. There was no doubt that Rose had heard these lectures before, and she was savvy enough to nod, smile, and walk away.
Instead we talked about her goals. What she shared with me was a desperate desire to explore her Indian (Rose's word) identity. Yes, she wanted to graduate, and summer school and regular school day credit retrieval were part of the plan, but somehow these learning activities needed to be more than exercises in academic accounting and tolerance. For Rose, school needed to become meaningful.
Luckily for Rose and me, Deer Park High School's credit retrieval programs were project-based. We were able to arrange visits to Spokane Tribal College for social events and to Wellpinit High School for learning to weave tule mats. She earned English and social studies credits by reading about Wounded Knee, Leonard Peltier, and Russell Means. She kept a journal reflecting on all of her experiences and created her own mythology of a hero horse. She completed her geometry credit by doing a geometric study of family property near Loon Lake. When the time came, I was honored to celebrate with Rose at her graduation.
If this were the end, someone like me could be satisfied with a story that begins with pluralism but ultimately ends with assimilation. After all, whose standards did Rose meet, anyway? But this isn't where Rose's story ends, which I think is why we continue to struggle with closing the achievement gap.
After graduation, Rose had to answer an essential question: what next? She and I talked at length about this. We talked about what it would mean to stay in the Deer Park community. We talked about the adults in her life. We projected where she was right now with where she could expect to be in twenty years. She didn't like her conclusions.
Rose decided instead to return to her maternal grandparents in Canada. Yes, she knew she needed to find a job, and she knew that she might someday need further education. More importantly she knew that she needed to find a healthy community. She recognized that the adults around her were too broken. The pain was too often dulled by alcohol. Rose knew that she somehow had to repair this disconnectedness, not replicate it. Her intuition was that going to her maternal grandparents would lead to finding herself in others.
Clearly using Rose's story to think about closing the achievement gap has diverged from the story of test scores, demographic data, and curriculum cross-walks. In fact, they really have little to do with one another, which is exactly what Rose in her own way explained to me during our first meetings. "I don't do well in school because I don't see the point."
The goal Rose and I worked on from that moment forward was to ignore what was axiomatic about schools. We ignored the school's physical boundaries, the class schedule boundaries, the seat time expectations, the established curriculum, and the accounting structure (the accumulation of points averaged into grades). We went so far as to read about Russell Means and the American Indian Movement's occupation of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark. Our goal was for Rose to connect with meaningful experiences. Ultimately that led to her leaving one community and moving to another.
I would liken the way Rose and I went about attacking the problem of education to the way the late Urie Bronfenbrenner (Professor Emeritus of Human Development and Psychology at Cornell University and co-founder of Head Start) attacked the problem of education. To this end he created the "ecology of human development" as a way to see the necessary connectedness of the child, parent/community, and teacher/school. He observed that too often "teachers undermine parental values, parents undercut teachers, and peer values sabotage those elders" (Brentro 164). Bronfenbrenner focuses very little on test scores, standards, and curriculum. Instead he focuses on repairing the sort of broken community in which Rose felt adrift. Bronfenbrenner and his ecology of human development lead someone like me to work to develop student-parent-school relationships as the most effective way to close the achievement gap.
But as helpful as Bronfenbrenner's ecology of human development can be, one can end up again confusing the forest for the trees. What Rose and so many other students teach someone like me is that by focusing on them as individuals instead of on test scores, demographic data, and curriculum (or even right-headed psychology), we can begin to close the achievement gap. From the student's perspective the question is always, whose achievement gap is it anyway? Am I learning to make professional educators' numbers look better, or am I learning to create a meaningful life for myself? For someone like me, I stand with one tree at a time.
Brendtro, Larry K. "The Vision of Urie Bronfenbrenner: Adults Who are Crazy about Kids." Reclaiming Children and Youth, vol. 15, no. 3, 2006., pp. 162-166.
Jeffrey Dunn is a 2014 Regional Teacher of the Year. He is a building-based instructional specialist working with 6 - 12 grade students at Deer Park Middle and High School in Deer Park, Washington.
Amy Abrams, Kent