Tagged: equity

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The Highlighter Podcast #4:

Humanities Teacher Marni Spitz

favicon Last week’s episode of The Highlighter podcast was very popular — there were more than 120 listeners. What a great way to start!

I just published the fourth episode, and I’m pretty excited about my conversation with Humanities teacher Marni Spitz. If you’re a fan of Iserotope, you’ll know that Marni is a contributor to TEACHER VOICES. Now she’s a podcast star, too.

In this episode, Marni and I chatted about “Youth From Every Corner,” an excellent article from last week’s digest. As a teacher, Marni knows firsthand how marginalized students of color face the unfair challenge of being labeled as failures even when offered opportunities to gain power in our society.

Please take a listen and enjoy! favicon

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Race and the predictability of student achievement

 A couple posts ago, I wrote about the predictability of student achievement and the need for teachers to interrupt the gap in academic performance.

What’s becoming clear in my AP English class is how starkly race plays into that predictability.

Most Mondays, my students write a timed essay in class. Then they type their essay before 11 p.m. on Google Docs. This deadline is so that their writing mentor, peer mentor, and I can review it on Tuesday. Getting the essay on Google Docs begins an intense revision process and solid opportunities for writing growth.

On Monday night, in a class of 23 students, four didn’t make the deadline. All are African American. There are six African American students in the class.

To quickly analyze the data:

  • All students who didn’t meet the deadline are African American,
  • Two-thirds of African Americans in the class did not meet the deadline.

It would be one thing if these students were “outliers,” but they’re not. They work hard and want to do well. After all, they chose to be in AP English.

Moreover, they’ve done well in past English classes, and teachers have praised their reading and writing skills.

Usually, my analysis, when seeing such stark academic data, is to say that I need to build better relationships across difference. This time, however, I believe it’s something else. Although I could be wrong, I’m pretty sure the students would report a strong connection with me.

Another interpretation is that it’s the digital divide. Yet all four students now have computers at home and have demonstrated their ability to handle the other tech challenges the class presents.

It’s definitely something else, and it’s my job to figure it out. If I don’t, then I’ll come to expect less from my African American students. I’ll come to predict a gap in their performance. And if that ever happens, if I no longer believe, and if my students know that I no longer believe, the students have no chance. 

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Fighting the predictability of student achievement


 One of the biggest reasons that I’m a teacher is that I’d like to help make the world a slightly less inequitable place.

One way is to interrupt the predictability of student achievement.

This inequity is strong: Students who do well tend to do well. Students who struggle tend to struggle. Over time, the achievement gap becomes wide and menacing.

This predictability gets me to question why I’m a teacher. If my contribution leads to no change — if my students perform the same as they would with anyone else —  then I’m just promoting the inequitable status quo. It’d be better if someone else were in my classroom.

After all, my success this year is not just how many students pass the AP test. It’s also how many pass who wouldn’t have passed without me as a teacher.

So far this year, I’ve seen some signs that give me hope. Students with average reading and writing skills are working extremely hard, not giving up, and seeing their skills improve markedly and quickly.

Still, there is disturbing data. Here’s the story of one student. She…

  • didn’t complete the summer assignment,
  • didn’t turn in the first essay,
  • didn’t have access to a computer until last week,
  • is very hard to reach via phone or text,
  • was the only student not to complete the unit project.
If I am unable to intervene successfully with this student, she will not only fail my class but also not graduate. This would be horrible. The good news is, It’s only October. That gives me time to build our relationship, work on our communication, set up support, and push.It’s crucial that I find a way for her to succeed. Yes, the work will be hard, and not all of my efforts will succeed. But when my student passes the class first semester, we’ll know that we’ve done something important together. 

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Encouraging students to use email

faviconIn my experience, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest indicators of the digital divide is how often and how (un)comfortably students use email.

Show me a urban ninth grader of color who has an email account and checks email more than once a week, and I’ll show you a college-bound student.

(One condition: The student’s inbox must include messages other than hundreds of MySpace notifications.)

At my school, the opposite is true. The majority of my students, particularly those who struggle academically, look at me weird when I tell them to check their email.

I worry about the email gap because it correlates with academic achievement, job opportunities, and college acceptance rates.

Part of the problem, of course, is access. Students without computers at home have less chance of having an email account.

But at my school, despite racial and socioeconomic demographics, most students have Internet at home. So what’s the real problem?

Email is passe
In my opinion, for my students, email is passe. When you have a cell phone, Facebook, texting and instant messaging, the medium has become too slow for my never-at-home students.

Although shocking to 30-somethings like me, it’s entirely possible that my students have never heard of email because it’s too old.

In addition, email is just too formal for my students. There’s a big blank page where you can write real sentences and paragraphs. It’s like a block paragraph formal business letter. Might as well write an essay.

That’s the point, though. Email has become the standard communication method of dominant culture, business culture, college-educated culture, and that’s precisely why I need to teach email to my students.

In previous years, I made sure all my students had an email account on Yahoo. Then last year, when we moved to Google Apps, all students got a professional, slick-sounding account at our domain. I could rest assured that students would represent themselves well on a resume.

But despite those advances, students still are not using their email accounts very much except to notify their friends that they’ve shared a Google Doc.

Therefore, I must do a better job this year at incorporating email into my curriculum. And it can’t be how I’ve done it before. I have to figure out ways to engage my students and encourage them to use email. I need to figure out why email would be useful to my students, why they would care. I’ll keep you posted about my attempts, and please let me know if you have ideas. favicon

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My Google Apps Journey: The Beginning

I promised you stories, so here’s one. It all started about a year ago when a student tried to print an essay on a school computer using his flash drive. The problem was, the drive had the virus Disk Knight on it.

And then things went crazy.

Pretty soon Disk Knight had infected the majority of computers on campus. While we dealt with the problem, I started thinking that it might be time for a better way.

For too long, our school’s technology had too many moving parts. For example, we used Microsoft Office at school, but students used Works or WordPerfect at home. (This tech divide is typical in urban schools.) Some students ended up spending more time learning about file formats than doing their work. And it left everybody frustrated.

All of this mayhem led me to think about trying out Google Apps Education Edition, which includes free email accounts and collaborative online word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications.

The free email got my attention at first. Up until Google Apps, not all of our students had email accounts. If they did, they ran the gamut. How would you like to email a student at pimpdaddy11, babyangel89, or my favorite, xxx_califoneeyas_finest_xxx? The idea of a common, professional email account structure for all students sounded perfect.

But what ultimately got me to sign up for Google Apps was its simple, easy-to-use office applications. I’ll say more in an upcoming post, but it became clear very quickly that Google Apps would solve nearly all of the problems our students were experiencing. No more flash drives. No more viruses. No more anxiety about file formats. No more emailing documents to yourself. And, most important, no more lost work.

With that vision in mind, I began taking steps to make Google Apps a reality at our school.