Educators Against Academic Excellence? Part 2

Posted on February 26, 2020

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This post is Part 2 of a 3-part series detailing my experiences as a high-achieving teacher and writing researcher in a district that was completely disinterested in my academic achievements or how research could be used to improve the high school experience for students. Part 1 is here.

Although the district has had superintendents and the high school has had several principals since I arrived in 1994, the one thing that has remained consistent is silencing and dismissing my work as a researcher and leader in my profession–while offering ZERO evidence for decisions they made about English Language Arts curriculum and instruction.

A couple of the most disturbing experiences:

  1. An administrator perpetuated an absolutely anti-literacy view during a summer English Department professional development session by repeating David Coleman’s (a creator of the Common Core State Standards, not a respected literacy scholar) nonsense that “students don’t need to read entire books; they can just read excerpts.” There is, of course, no research in English Education that would support that claim. He, of course, never argued that athletes don’t need to play an entire game, or actors don’t need to perform an entire play–because, of course, that would be ridiculous! BUT he did tell the English department that reading entire books is unnecessary. And he never changed his stance. Or, if he did change his mind, he never let the English Department know.
  2. When the school implemented Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS), I met with administrators to show him the research that many schools had not only improved student behavior, but were able to shut down their in-school suspension rooms, through practicing mindfulness. I had learned to incorporate mindfulness and self-care practices in my classes, and I had research from my own students that showed that students not only used the practices to manage stresses that could trigger behavior issues, they used the practices to improve their performances in acting, athletics, and in their personal lives.

I explained how the practices allowed students to cultivate self-control, eliminate inappropriate behaviors, and improve their brain function.

I thought that administrators would enthusiastically embrace practices that could eliminate the need for in-school suspensions and keep students in classes. I was wrong. At the beginning of PBIS implementation, one administrator rejected the research by saying, “This seems like it’s addressing the cause of the behaviors…”

Why, yes, exactly…Teen are entirely capable of understanding the cause of their own behaviors and making conscious choices about how to behave in the classroom. Why wouldn’t an administrator want them to be able to cultivate these skills? Why wouldn’t administrators want students to be able to understand their triggers and learn ways to cope with thoughts and feelings in healthy ways?

Another administrator visited to try to convince me to stop teaching students the practices that allow students to calm down and improve brain function because some evangelical Christians oppose it. I could not, in good conscience, deny students information and tools to improve their brain function and well-being for that reason. And why, I wonder, don’t the evangelical Christian students simply use that three or five-minute practice to simply pray? Why must they try to deny all the other students these tools for self-care?

After a few years of students showing over 90% enthusiastic embrace of the practices, they began asking me if they could do mindfulness in other classes. I encouraged them to advocate for themselves and write letters to the PBIS committee making their arguments why they wanted to use the practices throughout the day and EVIDENCE of positive changes they’d made as a result of adopting the practices. The committee neither invited the students to share their ideas with them nor even acknowledged the students’ desire to have a more peaceful, higher achieving school.

During the four years that I did research into the effects of mindfulness on my own students, the faculty heard no fewer than three–and possibly more–mental health experts on trauma-informed practices state that mindfulness is the #1 strategy for helping students cope with trauma and cultivate resilience. After each presentation, I’d follow up with administrators about how we could implement it school-wide. “Never” was the answer. Of course they didn’t SAY “never,” they simply ignored every bit of evidence they saw or heard and moved on to the next thing.

Then the counselors went to mindfulness workshops, and I once again had a glimmer of hope. Again and again, I requested a meeting or even an email conversation about how we could work together to help teachers implement these practices school-wide. Crickets.

It’s been a year since I left the classroom, and the thing I hear/read most from the students is “we miss mindfulness.” Of course, I tell them that they can practice on their own, and some do, but they really crave that three or five minutes of silent, deep breathing together, as a whole group. Teens really do value the sense of fellowship that shared practice brings, and I’m sad that they are denied these experiences that so many clearly treasure.

One last rejection of research is the most painful experience for me, because it happened within the English department. It was an afternoon of goal-setting in the library. We were asked to set short-term, mid-term, and long term goals. I don’t remember the first two goals, but I definitely remember the third, because it’s my area of expertise.

As the only member of the department with a Master’s degree in Teaching Writing, I was excited that the group had identified “argument writing” as a long-term goal. I told the group that I was excited about the subject for 2 reasons: our new MAISA curriculum was written by classroom teachers who, like me, were Teacher-Consultants (TCs) with the National Writing Project, and they had helped develop the College, Career, and Community Writers Projectthat had been piloted nationally and had EVIDENCE to prove its effectiveness in improving argument writing. I shared that although I had only attended an introductory series of workshops at the beginning of the initiative, I had several EMWP colleagues who fully implemented CRWP methods in their classes and were seeing great results. I also shared that these experts were available to come to AHS for English Department PD, as they were doing at nearby Madison High School. Immediately following the meeting, I followed up with department members, the curriculum director, and administrators, emailing them the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (2011) and the summary of the research findings on the CRWP that reported:

The CRWP evaluation is one of the largest and most rigorous studies about teacher professional development to find evidence of impact:

An overwhelming number of teachers (76% across 22 districts) consistently participated in at least 45 hours of professional development. This significantly impacted:

      1. the instruction students received; and,
      2. the proficiency of students on complex writing tasks such as connecting evidence to an argument.

CRWP students outperformed students in control districts on four attributes of argument writing—content, structure, stance, and conventions.

I couldn’t wait to get to work on this important goal with my colleagues. But once again, I was simply ignored. I sent follow-up emails, asking department members and administrators when and how we could get started. Not one of them responded, not once.

I’m still left wondering why district personnel could set an entirely achievable goal but reject the methods proven to reach it. The level of cognitive dissonance in this situation has to have set some sort of record.

A Writing Researcher at Work: A Pictorial History Slide Show

Click the link above to see photos of my published research.

Part 3 of this 3-part series will be posted tomorrow.