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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Silenced Dialogue

"In this country, students will be judged on their product regardless of the process they utilized to achieve It." - Lisa Delpit

This, might possibly, be the best sentence I have read in the last 20 years in reference to education in America.  For far too long, the trend in our society has been to mollycoddle, to nurse, and cater to our students.  The current group of learners has matured in an age where everyone gets a trophy, where your personal choices and actions are valued equally right or wrong, where if you get a grade you don't like, have mommy and daddy go yell at your teacher and change it, and where discipline is mostly served with a timeout chair and a blanky.

While reading this article, I felt consistently reminded of my experiences as a basketball coach.  On the court, I am always giving purposeful, connected feedback (positive and negative) to my players.  Behaviors have consequences in practice, i.e.- if you don’t hustle after a loose ball, we, as a team line up and run, if you make a free throw, you can save your team from the same sprint.  My players respect me because I have earned the right to tell them when they make a mistake.  My expertise is in an area where they are desperate to show growth and their own ability, and we are always judged by the final product.  On the practice floor, we work to gain proficiency, and our games are a public, quantifiable way to measure that.  I have to constantly prove my ability in order to keep the team working forward, and they each have to constantly prove their commitment to justify playing time. 

This is not so different from what Delpit is saying about how teachers need to prove their ability in the classroom to earn the respect of working-class or African-American students.  I would suggest that this approach benefits ALL students.  Knowing what is expected and valued in a society benefits ALL its members, not just the ones seen as having obstacles.

When we create and maintain a "culture of power" that is based on middle-upper class, racially biased ideals, we are doing a disservice to everyone.  Some of the best practices described in this article apply to all students.  I am currently in the process of becoming certified in the SIOP model (Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol), which is intended to address the challenges of English Language Learners.  Its best practices are recommended for all students, not just ELL's, here is a link: SIOP info

We respect our students as experts in their own lives when we allow them multiple opportunities to apply language in informal and formal settings, and teach them the rules and the differences.  I have found some of the best results as a teacher come when we help a student figure out what needs improvement in their academics, either through conferencing or with a class assignment that has connected value.  Stand-alone practice is seen as busywork.  In summary, I think Delpit’s article suggest we expect all our teachers to earn the respect of their students, while at the same time, allowing them to earn the same respect, the process should be constant.  If we expected this kind of behavior from all teachers, it would be beneficial to all students without costing any students.  


  1. Brian, I like your comparison to coaching basketball. Sports can be an important metaphor for certain aspects of teaching, especially the importance of purposeful practice and authentic performance. However, it can be difficult to recreate these conditions in the classroom because, as you said, your players are so invested in showing growth and proving their ability. Unlike being forced into certain academic classes, your athletes CHOOSE to play basketball because they are passionate about it...

    Side note - Thanks for sharing the SIOP link. I am curious excatly what this protocol looks like. Plus, I didn't have to travel far to get to the WordGeneration sample texts. I think I am going to use one as a brief intro to a discussion tomorrow!

  2. let me know how the lesson works. Basketball is easier because my players choose to play, but the techniques of feedback, consequence, and direct meaningful and connected instruction work well. The culture of being on the same team works win class also.

  3. UGH! So I just typed out a pretty long response to this, and before I could "publish," my computer decided it would be a perfect time to Configure. Gross.

    Anyway, Brian, I really like comparing school to sports as well, especially when it comes to practice, effort, teamwork, etc. I am so glad you opened with that Delpit quote, and I don't think it would have stood out to me as much if I didn't have a particular conversation today...

    At BMS, there is a class called Content Enrichment. All teachers teach it, and every student is assigned to one Enrichment course (regardless of the teacher's content area). Many teachers use it as an extra period to grade, and the students are given time to read and work on Reader's Notebooks/logs. I, however, like to do fun activities and lesson plans with my students that are English-y but fall by the wayside with the new English curriculum. I asked a friend how she sets up her gradebook for this course:

    30% Process (behavior, following directions, classroom rules, etc.)

    25% daily unit work
    20% culminating unit project
    15% writer's notebook
    10% mini lessons

    Therefore, 70% of a student's grade is determined by "Product," which would mean that regardless of whether or not the student receives any credit for Process, they can still pass the course. It seems that we (not us specifically, but teachers in general) may be reinforcing Delpit's point even as we try to fight it.

    Side Note - I chose not to set up my course grades like this.

  4. To answer your question about universal language, the faculty makes sure that we are clear with our instruction or redirection. Our behavior system really enforces these good behaviors. The universal language creates a system where students know what is expected. They know how the teacher will respond and the consequences are clear and hanging in every classroom. Every student knows that we will ask them to do something a form a question. I think since we start them off using this approach in the 6th grade, by the 8th grade, they have learned the classroom behavior and anticipate what the staff member will ask. This is very different than what Delpit suggested.
    Even though the cultural divide may be separated (black and white families values or cultural differences using the directive or not), the school climate can change as the child becomes aware of these norms schools provide. It is a respectful environment and students are aware of that. I think that asking in a form of a question is better than telling a student to do something, and then having a student retaliate. This is something that works for teacher and student and clarity really helps foster respectful behavior.

  5. I agree with your comments Brian about the coddling approach we sometimes take with our students. In fact, I have found myself occasionally playing into this role in the classroom. I also appreciate your examples of basketball and coaching and how some of the same strategies apply to the classroom. I feel, however, that unfortunately many times students do not take the initiative to "prove their commitment"; additionally, many teachers do not work hard to "prove their ability". However, even though this is sometimes the case, I feel as though it is our job as educators to push forward and ALWAYS be striving to prove our ability--even under difficult circumstances. We owe it to the students and hopefully if they see this perserverance in us, they will strive to succeed themselves. We are the models of behavior.