One-Man Book Club: This Is Not A Test

I went off-budget on the morning of Teacher Work Day, putting in an online order for a book that’s been on my to-read list for a while. (Don’t underestimate the commitment that was – 13 bucks is kind of a big deal right now).

In my never-ending quest to read books five years after everyone else, I picked up This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative On Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson.

I’ve been reading his blog for a while, recognizing that my thinking needed to be pushed in the classroom. His thoughts were as critical to my classroom survival in regards to my relationships with my students as my #MTBoS friends’ thoughts were to my evolution as a math teacher.

It was a hard read. I saw my struggles as a new (and not-so-new) teacher in his story. I mourned with him the death of a former student. I felt the knots in my stomach that developed this year as I read about him getting dinged on his evaluation for a sloppy bulletin board (the hell?). I’ll be pretty honest: I didn’t really know that part of the story. Kids get the best of all of us sometimes. I’m glad my failures are mostly private affairs. No one but my students see when a lesson bombs.

But that’s all selfishness on my part: “Here’s this awesome, brilliant teacher who stands up for his students and has forgotten more about classroom management than I’ll ever know, and look, he was bad sometimes too.”  It was a hard read because it showed me how far I have to go, still. I teach kids who struggle with math in a very traditional, results-oriented, suburban “college-prep” type school. Classroom-management-wise, I kind of got my ass handed to me this year. I thought I was better at it than that.

I feel like I’m pretty good at recognizing and encouraging my students’ interests and talents outside of math. I probably could get a lot better at finding ways to encourage them to have their maximum level of success in my class too.

I want to low-key let them know I support them. In every sense of that term.


The timing on this read was interesting. Just last week I attended a two-day conference in which I sat in on a keynote & breakout session by Ken Shelton. He talked about how he had only one male teacher of color in his entire K-16 school experience, and how he was often the only student of color in his classes. And how his teachers often did not understand his lived experiences, and made no effort to tailor their instruction with those experiences in mind. That sounds super-familiar in my current assignment. I’m fortunate enough to follow some folks on social media who help me to see why this is important, and I’ve taken their words to heart. Now I know better. But still, I can do better. My first 13 years I taught in city schools, so the importance of culturally responsive teaching is not a new thing for me. And I brought that with me to the Vale. But it’s a daily process of recognizing my shortcomings and committing to improvement.

For all of my marginalized students. We do an awesome job of supporting our elite students.  But I’ve felt for a long time we can do better for the 85% who aren’t 4.0 kids. That kid that doesn’t want to go to college, or does not have an Ivy League or Big Ten school as a goal. How do we support them? It’s one thing to recognize the problem. It’s another thing to call out the problem. And we do. At the district level our stated goal for the math department is to ensure all students are prepared for success in a livable-wage job or for their first college-level math class. But there’s more that is required.

Vilson relates the process of writing his 2012 TED Talk on Teacher Voice.

He felt that “teacher voice” comes down to four questions:

Four Questions

That last piece is huge. “Do you see yourself as part of the change?” What am I willing to do to bring about change for my kids, even if it’s just my kids? No district-wide mandate or program is gonna fix it. If I want my kids to be “college and career ready”, it’s gotta bubble up from the classroom level.

And actually our Secondary Curriculum and Instruction Director is on that. He led an effort with the English department to rebuild the curriculum from the ground up, starting with the question, “why do we teach English?”. It sounds like a similar effort is coming for math. I’m curious. And optimistic. Especially since he’s a Math Guy.


Also: added bonus value if you make the read interactive (mildly NSFW).

Went and put Eric B. & Rakim on the Google thing while I was reading and grilling yesterday. It was just about perfect.


My last takeaway was actually one of the first things that caught my eye: a comment by Vilson’s wife, a school principal, in a conversation about his middle school days. “You’ve been trying to create that Nativity experience ever since you started.”

It made me close the book for a second, lean back in my chair with the sun on my face and ponder what kind of school I’ve been trying to create.

I found myself nodding along to this section from the chapter, “Why Teach?”:

WhyTeach

“If a kid shows a creative side, teachers ought to push them to develop it and relate it to what they are doing in class.”

In preparation for a presentation at two Summer of E-Learning conferences I briefly toyed with joining the cool kids who have stickers made to hand out.

I pitched the idea to one of my artistically gifted students for the image, and one of my clever (smart-aleck?) students for the slogan. I unfortunately started the ball rolling too late and we never did manage to put a mock-up together, but I think they both were kind of honored that I asked them.

I’m down with relationship-building. I just need to be more consistent with it. And I’ll have José Luis Vilson’s closing words in my head as I do:

Go Hard Or Go Home

This year had me questioning my future in this profession. After a summer to recover, I’ll be ready to go in August. But not halfway. “If you plan to do, then do this. Go hard or go home.”