Monthly Archives: July 2015

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Are We Still Teaching Like Miss Caroline?

In anticipation of reading the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, I have been re-reading her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

If you are an educator, I highly recommend picking up To Kill a Mockingbird to read Chapter 2. Lee provides a phenomenal satire of the disconnection between school practices and students’ real lives.  The events in the chapter clearly illustrates the importance of learning about students’ home lives and incorporating their background knowledge into the classroom.

The chapter describes the experiences of the main character, Scout, on her first day of the first grade.

The scene opens with Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline, reading a long fictional story about cats to the disengaged children of predominately working class parents. She seems oblivious or uncaring about their lack of engagement.  Here is an excerpt.

“By the time  Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and said, “Oh,¯ my, wasn’t that nice?”

Now, of course, this is the first day of school, so maybe Miss Caroline doesn’t know enough about her students yet to choose engaging reading. However, it seems that she is not assessing their interests to choose better materials in the future.

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Later in the chapter, Miss Caroline chastises Scout when she realizes that Scout can already read.  Miss Caroline tells Scout to tell her father to no longer teach Scout reading and that she will try to undo the damage he has caused.  Scout later becomes bored with Miss Caroline’s flashcard lecture, so she writes a letter to her friend Dill.  Miss Caroline becomes enraged that Scout can write in cursive and tells her that she is only allowed to write in print until she “learns” cursive in third grade.

Miss Caroline’s disapproval of Atticus teaching Scout how to read is rooted in a desire to maintain power.  She could have reacted in a number or ways. She could have validated Scout’s status as a reader and writer. She could have enlisted Scout as helper to other students. She could have allowed Scout to self-select reading materials. She could have found more rigorous tasks for Scout. What she did though was resort to the “one-size-fits-all” instruction she believed was best.

Finally, Scout gets in trouble when Miss Caroline becomes upset with a very poor student named Walter Cunningham.  Walter has not brought his lunch, and Miss Caroline tries to force him to take money to buy a lunch, asking that he pay her back the next day.  Walter refuses to take the money.  Scout speaks up that Walter cannot pay her back because of his poverty, a fact that all the other students in the class already know.  Miss Caroline believes that Scout is being disrespectful to her and whips Scout’s hands with a ruler.

I don’t mean to be so hard on Miss Caroline. She is a young teacher, and we know much more about effective instruction today than we did then.

But are we doing it?

Are we still asking all students to do the same exact assignments the same exact way?

Are we unknowingly punishing or embarrassing students living in poverty?

Are we valuing students’ background knowledge and home experiences to make connections to learning?

Are we planning for engagement?

These are uncomfortable questions.

Are our classrooms all that different from Miss Caroline’s?

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Three Growth Mindset Lessons from My Journey as an Instructional Coach

The following post was my share about growth mindset as an ASCD Leader at ASCD L2L in Arlington, VA on July 23rd, 2015.

I am Kenny McKee, and I am a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. I want to share 3 lessons I’ve learned on my  growth mindset journey from when I shifted from being a classroom teacher to a high school literacy coach in my district. I hope that regardless of your position, that these leadership lessons will resonate with you.

Lesson 1:  You can’t do it alone.

Before the instructional coaching program in my district expanded, little progress in literacy had occurred at the high school level. Although I had success in my classroom, influencing instructional change at such a vast  level intimidated me.  My first “a-ha” was I couldn’t do it alone, which as someone who occasionally suffers from “perfectionism” was very hard. I reached out to others in my position, scoured professional literature, and found an amazing online community of coaches on Twitter.   I learned that I must  truly partner with teachers because the top-down approach our district had used in the past had made little impact. And in that process, I learned from the teachers I worked with as well.  If you are open to learning from everyone you work with, I believe that you’ll find that there are many people who will go on the growth journey with you. And you need them.

Lesson 2. The rhetoric of “best practices” can stifle growth.

The approach to literacy our district had used before emphasized a fixed “right way”  that was actually holding back progress. The content-area teachers had vast, and often untapped, knowledge of how experts read, write, and think in their disciplines. Rather than the prescriptive “one-size-fits-all” approach previously dictated to teachers, we focused on what mattered most, students’ learning, and that led to subtle shifts in culture and instruction. School-based, cross-content literacy teams began to influence both what forms of instruction would impact all disciplines and how literacy looked different in math, English, history, and the other domains.You see, I think that sometimes the phrase “Best Practice” can become the epitome of a fixed mindset, as it implies that things cannot get better. It also implies that what is best is the same for all students, subjects, and classroom contexts is the same which is simply not true. Focus on “better” to continually improve — not “best”.

11800158_10207057608060066_8002370731518309674_n (Photo Credit: Thanks to 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader, Michael Matera (@mrmatera), for the great photo.)

Lesson 3. Change can’t occur without conflict.

Those literacy teams’  ideas  and new district leadership collaborated to create an instructional framework that asked that students read, write, move, speak, and think in each class every day. The framework would empower teachers with the autonomy in how those activities would happen.  This work was not easy. Some teachers did not want to take up the challenge of diversifying their instruction — even if they had control over how they would do it. I had been rather naive, believing that my politeness, professionalism, and a supportive stance would avert all conflict. Because of that anger, I had to personally grow by finding ways to  become more resilient and navigating conflicts that emerged.  I have learned that any time your position yourself as a leader, whether formally or informally, you are inviting conflict, and sometimes that can result in greater solitude. So, it’s important to effectively communicate with all stakeholders, especially the naysayers.  If you do, you’ll find that there are many people willing to take the journey with you.