On How We Should Close the Achievement Gap.

This is a tall order: closing the achievement gap.

You hear about it all the time, and it’s actually something I’m really interested in discussing with others. One of my education professors from UNC posted a Washington Post article about the topic (which I encourage you to read) and it got me thinking (and a little riled up).

Yes, it is vital to know how to read and do math to be successful in society, but what happens when there are other, more pertinent things, keeping a child from mastering content? Hunger? Exhaustion? Abusive family members? Students cannot be expected to learn and be deemed “proficient” on standardized assessments when we haven’t addressed these very serious, very real issues that students face every single day.

I teach eight-year-olds. Some of the eight-year-olds I’ve taught in the last two and a half years were homeless, came from single-parent homes (where that parent worked multiple jobs), took care of their younger siblings (yes, eight-year-olds caring for toddlers), watched their fathers get deported, lived in fear of immigration services taking them, lost parents to prison and death, and I even had a child this year get kidnapped by his own father and taken to Mexico.

That child didn’t even get to start the school year with us; his mom is still in court trying to find him and get him and his brother back to the States.

Do you think those kids have the capacity to learn how to multiply right now?

These kids don’t need more homework or another negative presence in their lives. These kids just need to be loved. We must meet students where they are and show compassion; teaching is a profession that must be rooted in love and trust. We must be champions for our students, advocating for them and showing them how to stand up for themselves. Their lives are important, and they’re the ones who will shape the future.

I promise that I understand the need to perform well on tests; I see that side of the argument. Students need to know how to decode words and add numbers, but don’t they need to know so much more?

To close the achievement gap, I think we need to take a step back and refocus our curriculum. Common Core has a lot of pros in my opinion, coming from an elementary perspective at least — the spiraling standards lend itself to strong vertical alignment, and I appreciate the depth of the standards. It’s a nice concept that there are College and Career Readiness standards, but I still think we need something more.

We need to teach kids how to be good, kind people, and there’s a lot of value in that! There needs to be a stronger character education piece in our curriculum, especially in elementary grades to lay a firm foundation of socialization and emotional understanding. We need to teach kids how to interact with others and how to be more than just book smart. I would much rather have a student be a caring member of our classroom community than be a master all of the Common Core reading standards by the end of third grade.

So I suppose the question remains: how do we close the achievement gap? Well, we should probably start focusing on the whole child and not just a smudged bubble sheet.

The Power of Poetry.

I’ve always loved poetry. I took two creative writing classes in college devoted to poetry, and I started writing songs in fourth grade (…the lyrics were ridiculous, but they were songs nonetheless). My first favorite books were those of Dr. Seuss, who is a poetic master through and through. There’s just something about the rhythm of the words in every line that draw me to the genre.

Last week I introduced poetry to my classes. The boys groaned, the girls squealed, and a few students seemed completely uninterested. I assured them that poetry was fun and interesting, and I even brought in some poetry books I have that I enjoy reading (Billy Collins, FTW). When they saw that I read poetry for fun, they seemed to start buying into my lesson about what poetry is, but I could tell I didn’t have them hooked yet.

After exploring the genre by perusing an array of poetry books by various authors, I got to teach them the TPR for our unit. We discussed poetry, rhyme, line, and stanza. The kids got really excited doing this, like they always do. After we reviewed our vocabulary, we jumped right in and looked at a poem. I chose to first show them the poem “The Nerve You’ve Got, Minerva Mott!” by Jack Prelutsky. We looked at the stanzas and figured out the rhyme pattern, and then I told the kids I would read it for them. We were all really excited, and then I started reading…

…and I read it horribly. I read it slow, I made mistakes, and I repeated lines more than once. Some of the kids laughed a little, some of them tried to correct me. I finished and asked them what they thought, and WOW did they have suggestions for me:

  • You need to read it FLUENTLY.
  • You have to FLOW with the poem.
  • You have to read it with FEELING.
  • You are supposed to read a poem with RHYTHM.
  • You should PRACTICE reading it.

How brilliant are these kids?! I took their advice, practiced the poem in my head and with my voice, and then tried it again — needless to say, my kids were quite pleased with my second reading of the poem.

Little do they know that they’re hitting the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards right on the head!

I gave them a poem to practice and try with their partners. They had fifteen minutes to work with their partners to read and reread the poems, and then at the end of class during our share time, students had the opportunity to share. This is where I witnessed magic.

Many of you know that I teach in a Spanish bilingual program, and I have a handful of students who came into the school year labeled LEP, meaning these students have Limited English Proficiency and are newcomers to the United States. For the most part, these students spoke little to no English entering my classroom.

Last week when my students were practicing poems with their partners, I saw every child participating. When it was time for our share time, I had LEP students volunteering to read the poem to the class. One student in particular volunteered and read the poem, and my eyes welled with the happiest of tears listening to him, in his very best English, recite another Jack Prelutsky poem.

I’m so excited to continue our poetry unit this week and into next. Tomorrow we’re writing a poem about the states of matter together, and then students will have the chance to write their own matter poems as the week progresses. Following this Biliteracy Unit Framework has been really incredible, and I’m seeing so much meaningful participation as a result of it.

Cheers to the power of poetry! You can bet that we’ll be celebrating William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday on Wednesday — will you?