Have you ever been punched in the gut by a realization? Have facts ever felt like a jab to your jaw? After a near-knock-out from some upsetting statistics, I was down on the mat. I am lucky to have a ring-side coach vastly wiser than I could ever be. As I was relaying an upsetting trend in my Freshman English Honors course, I felt more and more doomed. In this conversation, I felt helpless, defeated, and like I had really let some kids down.
A few months ago, on this blog, I posted about having an epiphany. I had listened to a podcast and read some materials by Zaretta Hammond. In that blog post, I discussed Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). In my conversations that followed, and subsequent dissecting of Hammond’s book, I started to better evaluate my approach with students. I made lesson planning decisions with bits of this knowledge, and made sure to do my best to elevate my students in my regular classes. Still a novice at this approach, I felt good about my changes I made.
Here in the 7th week of the second semester, my students are taking district assessments. This gives me time to catch up on grading, look at my gradebook, and study my students. I was looking at my students as they quietly tested. Then, I began digging into data on our gradebook system. I noticed a trend that makes my stomach turn. Most of the students who presently are on track to get a C or D in my honors courses–and thus may not take honors next year–all come from the same middle school. What is not new information for me, but would add to your understanding is that the middle school I am referencing has a large Hispanic population.
I am watching a systemic injustice unfold in my class room. The neighborhood where you grow up is the most critical factor in whether you can take an AP class later in high school? The middle school you attended determines your class ranking in high school? What other implications am I co-signing by not intervening?
Why hadn’t I applied the lessons from Hammond to my honors students? Why did I build a different set of expectations for these students. I think my logic was “they don’t have to be in this class; they chose to be here.” My attitude was that students will either meet the expectations or not; it was their choice. Of course, my door was open for these students who advocated for themselves or sought help; however, I was not hunting down honors students who were lagging behind to ask them about barriers they had to success.
Even after reading and passing along the good word of Hammond, I had still expected the honors students to rise to the challenge. Again, in my mind, they didn’t have to be on this path, and they can move “down” to regular next year if they can’t hack it.
Oof. It’s a tough pill to swallow to realize your practice does not match your preach.
With “enough” (What is “enough” by the way?) of my students meeting the expectations, and what looked like a normal trend of attrition for the Freshmen Honors program, it never occurred to me that these students need intervention too. I thought my laissez-faire approach was equitable for this honors environment.
It astounds and saddens me that I had this blind-spot and had developed two sets or rules in my head for my two levels of high school English. While I had been preaching and learning about the concept of CRT, I ignored opportunities right in front of me. I have an opportunity to foster development and create independent learners from a lower socioeconomic neighborhood. I could help students, from what happens to be a largely Hispanic community, into the upper tiers of a highly regarded public school. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders and wondered why they aren’t getting there on their own.
Luckily, that ring-side coach calmed me down when birds and stars were flying around my head. He told me that even having one conversation with these students, offering help, and getting their story could be a pivotal moment in their high school journey. Not everyone is so lucky for a teacher to simply have a conversation and find out more about them.
This echoes what our CRT expert Hammond also suggests. She notes that “trust begins with listening” and discusses the concept of ‘listening with grace’ in her book’s fifth chapter. In a whirlwind of self-reflection, I have to admit that a seemingly basic question that Hammond recommends (“What are you excited about these days outside of school?”) is something I cannot recall asking any of my low-performing honors students.
I normally have an aversion to hackneyed and contrived scripts, but I know I can do better. So why not use these suggestions and tools? There’s even a “Trust Generator” idea grid and worksheet for me to record and track how often I try to and succeed in having conversations with “focal” students. It is time to stop talking about this book and how great it is, and start punching back.
There’s another lesson to learn during my in-the-corner breather I’m taking now. Gaining new knowledge and insights is never “too late.” Yes, I feel like I could have learned this all earlier to be more effective with these students, but the alternative is to never grow at all. And I will take the latter.
If you’ve done any work with CRT specifically, or read Hammond’s book I’d love to hear from you in the comments about your experience implementing some of her suggestions.
Maybe I’m dazed from my own epiphany, but I know the fight is not over. I can make a difference this year, so let’s ring the bell and get back to the mat!
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