Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hipster Ice Cream

"Yo Mista... why this place really called the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop? Do they really mean gay?"

This place does well with immature teenagers
I recently took two of some of my closest students out for ice cream to tell them I wasn't coming back to teach this school year. I've known David and Ken for three years now. I've written about Ken before; I think of him as my second younger brother. These young men are slated to graduate this upcoming winter, but more importantly, I have witnessed them grow up right before my eyes. Both of them are turning 19 soon, so we're at a weird place where we can't figure out if I'm their teacher, an older sibling, a friend, or some kind of hybrid. These are often the best relationships I forge teaching high school because they're built upon real connections and blurred lines. I know we'll stay in touch long after they graduate.

I had mixed feelings as I walked out of the subway to meet them. I was really excited to see them again, but I knew telling them I wasn't coming back would be tough. Both David and Ken have their math credits, so they wouldn't have had me this year anyway. That's me trying to rationalize the situation. The reality is, when you teach at-risk students and develop a mentorship, you just know you need to be around physically whether or not they're even on your roster. David and Ken are best friends, but unfortunately, they don't have many adults in their lives to guide them positively. These guys ask me all kinds of things via text, from questions about a job posting to fashion advice. No joke, last week Ken texted me a picture of a bearded hipster wearing flannel and an oversized knit cap asking, "Hey Mista, know where I could get one of these hats?"

Hey kids, want to learn math and look good while you do it?
I met the David and Ken at a Starbucks near a subway entranced and we proceeded to walk a few more blocks east to the ice cream shop. David looked tired and for good reason: him and his girlfriend had recently welcomed a baby boy in their lives. He looked like he hadn't been sleeping well. Ken looked about as fidgety as ever, using every hand gesture known to man to explain how many hours he spent playing and conquering some new video game that just came out. Man, I sound old as hell saying that, don't I? Anyway, these guys were doing well and hadn't changed a bit, which made me very happy.

After the kids got over the shock effect of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop's name, we ordered our desserts and walked to a nearby park. After more small talk, I finally mustered up the courage to tell them I wasn't coming back to teach. David seemed to take it well and asked probing questions. "So, like what will you do? How did you even find it?" He can be very practical when he's not trying to be the class clown.

Ken, who has already gone through so much, fell silent. "I knew you wasn't coming back. I knew it. Nobody wanna buy me stuff unless it's doing good in school, or if it's bad they wanna say." Ken is not only very observant, he's also incredibly experienced with loss. He has experienced more trauma than most people I know will ever experience in the course of their lives. He turned to David, "I told you it was going to be bad. I told you!" This kid limited this own excitement for free ice cream based on prior experiences being taken out to eat. Damn.

We spent a good hour afterwards just talking and catching up. There were periods of insane, teenage laughter followed by short, awkward moments of silence. One thing was clear: no matter how many poop jokes were made, Ken's feelings were hurt. Three years ago, Ken was a very angry young boy who couldn't keep his trauma from seeping out of his skin during the school day. Now he was calm and somewhat himself. It made me feel so happy to see how much more resilience he'd developed in three years.

I promised David and Ken I would stay in touch and be responsive via text, Facebook messenger, or whatever else the kids end up using this year. Since meeting them weeks ago, I've gotten messages from them already. David asked me to help him sign up as a tasker on TaskRabbit, and Ken sent me more pictures of clothes followed up with questions on where to purchase them. "Ken, you're going to look like one of those hipsters that try to look like they haven't showered."

"Would you rather I look like a thug? ;-)"

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Every Day Should be Data Day

There’s not a single day in the school year that’s capable of both boosting teachers’ morale or crushing them entirely more than data day.

Use the data. All the data.
Before I continue, I must first disclose I’m not against the “idea” of data day. Nor am I against measuring class data to inform and guide instruction. Quite the contrary actually — when I was in the classroom, I triangulated data from a variety of sources (including my own “teacher hunches”) and then made informed instructional decisions.

Of course, I came from the investment banking world, so making overly complex spreadsheets (on top of the mandated school gradebook) wasn’t a big issue. However, this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a norm for teachers. Although this practice proved somewhat useful, it was incredibly time-consuming and difficult to maintain. As I gained more teaching experience, I learned when to overkill with data and when to go with my gut. Using data can be a hardship, but it can also be a game changer when used appropriately, efficiently, and in a timely manner.

My distrust for data day comes from how its typically implemented in practice. Teachers are in essence promised a full day to churn useful, yet otherwise hard-to-compile information into their daily work. But by the time data day actually happens, one or all of the following occur:
(a) Teachers get bogged down with so much lesson planning and grading the new "data" becomes overkill.
(b) Teachers grow frustrated with the plethora of unorganized data "handed off" to them from a printer.
(c) Some teachers use data to develop a plan of attack, while others grow weary and lost. School leadership fails to pair these groups up.  
In my experience, data day became a dumping ground to do things we should be doing more often. Kind of like receiving a giant gift basket on Teacher Appreciation Day, when all you really had to do was say “thank you” periodically.

It's nice to be thanked today, but come on, you could make a slightly better effort and notice me a bit more, yeah?

I think schools need to completely redefine what “data day” means. In general, it’s offered twice a school year, once in the middle and once at the end. There are schools that offer it more frequently, but it still remains up to school leaders to determine how effective this day is. Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous to expect every teacher to effectively use one day for something that should be happening weekly. Some schools are reducing the number of professional development days as a solution and that’s not helpful. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice professional development in the name of personalized instruction — they go hand-in-hand.

Data day should be every day (and maybe school-wide, it should be weekly) for teachers. While that’s unrealistic now given there isn’t enough time in the school day or week, it must be done. There’s a big demand for personalized learning and that doesn’t happen without teachers effectively using data to adjust their practices in real-time, all the time. We’ve got to figure out a way to balance professional development and data analysis with instructional delivery. Master teachers are able to engineer learning experiences that put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. You don’t get that kind of magic without content expertise and student data analysis.

Unfortunately, master teachers are rare gems who often sacrifice a lot of their “me” time for the job. If we want sustainability, schools should think about developing staff-wide practices that build off what master teachers do, rather than simply glorifying how hard they work to “go the extra mile.”