14 Ways to Improve the Lives and Performance of Students

16 12 2013

There are those who like to sit around and complain about the weather. It is far too cold in winter, and it is much, much too hot in summer. A surprising amount of time is spent on variations on this theme. When these people grow tired of the weather, their next targets of scorn are “kids today,” how things are so much worse now,  and how schools are to blame.

Are they right?

Many People say our schools are failing, but I ask you—especially if you have a child in public school right now–do you believe that your school is failing your child?

My guess is that most of you reading this believe that your kids are doing pretty well, and that you like your child’s teacher well enough, and you like your district overall. Sure, improvements could (and should) be made, but overall, your child is doing fine.

That’s the general feeling in most places.

So, why are we pushing a new nationalized curriculum? Why must we have a massive overhaul of the way teachers teach and students learn? Well, one of the reasons is because some districts are not doing well. Not doing well at all.

I’m sure you know a district by you that is much worse off than yours, right? Why is that?

Do you think it is it because they are positively teeming with ineffective teachers?

Is it because they just don’t test those kids in those districts enough?

No, but that is what Common Core fixates on.

Hold your breath here, because I’m about to say something shocking.

Low performing districts usually have a population of students with low socio-economic status.  In fact, I challenge you to find one failing school in any moderate to high socio-economic community.

Gasp! I know. But, am I wrong?

I realize that it is impolite to say this.

But I’ll say it, because it is true.

A list was published in Central NY recently that rated all the districts around here. “Shockingly” the wealthiest areas were on the top and the poorest areas were at the bottom.

How could it be clearer? The problem is not in the schools; the problem is poverty.

And how do we solve poverty?

Can we?

The idealist in me (and, I’m sure, in you) refuses to believe that there is nothing we can do to help raise school performance in areas of high density poverty.

I believe that we absolutely can.

To find out how, we must look to the reasons why the students in moderate to high socioeconomic status do well and try to somehow provide those things to the students in poverty.

The following are my hypotheses.

In other words, this list is not research based, It is the result of reflection on my past 15 years teaching.


  1. You must have small class sizes, and I’m talking tiny. They should be no more than twelve in size, the size of a large family. Why? Because this creates a feeling of belonging. It creates a comfortable, safe, nurturing, and friendly environment. It is something that many of them lack, and if given this safe space, many will thrive.
  2. Time must be invested forging bonds among the students in the class. The more they know each other, the more invested in each other they become in their mutual success. Often students will be a teacher’s best tool in reaching a student who is slipping away. Any personality conflicts must get ironed out right away. Time spent building the family of learners is not wasted time. I would also suggest building class pride by engaging in good-spirited competition with other classes. They should identify with school in general and their own class in particular.
  3. Students must view their teacher as likeable and fair. These teachers do not necessarily have to be a laugh-riot all the time or one of those wildly entertaining types of teachers you see in movies. Students know when a teacher has their best interests at heart. They want to please, and these students do not want to let a teacher they like down. Please keep in mind that they can smell condescension from miles away. Don’t “feel bad” for them. They don’t want or need your pity. They want a chance.
  4. Give them a solid, dependable routine, but there should be room for a dash of spice here and there. Most of us like to know what to expect on any given day. Mondays were vocabulary days in many of my classes. They knew what to expect. They liked that, even if they complained. Now, that doesn’t mean I did the exact same vocabulary presentation every week. That’s the spice I was talking about.
  5. Give plenty of opportunities for students to express themselves. The more they develop and find confidence in their spoken voice, the easier it becomes to translate that into writing, good writing.
  6. Whenever possible, give students a touch of choice in assignments, and ALWAYS provide clear, written instructions defining each possible assignment. Students should have access to scoring rubrics that they can use to help them succeed. Scaffolding, such as outlines, etc., should be available at first, and then gradually eliminated.
  7. Never blame them for what they don’t know. Teach them what they need. Meet them where they are without creating shame.
  8. When you assign homework, which should only be a reasonable amount, always check it or quiz on it. They will stop doing their homework if they do not feel it is “worth” something.
  9. When students fail, give them a way to redeem themselves. Of course they should be able to revise their essays if they ask, etc.
  10. Know your students. Find their individual sparks and use them to your (and their) advantage.
  11. Take them on as many enrichment field trips as possible, but strive for at least one live performance each year, preferably of something you read together in class. Even if the performance is terrible, it will provide a fantastic opportunity to discuss. Plus, this is a cultural experience that they may not have previously had.
  12. They should read real literature. It should be the stuff that they have heard of and thought was way above their heads. (Oh, and they should never read excerpts.) Have them read the whole stinking text. Unless they are very limited in ability, they should not be given kiddie-lit. That’s a form of condescension. Give them real, honest to God literature that focuses on the big issues. They will complain, but they will rise to the occasion more often than not. I’m talking Shakespeare, Camus, and even Faulkner, here. Leave your Mitch Alboms for their personal reading lists or enrichment.
  13. An occasional “informational” or “fact based” text is appropriate as it helps focus another lens through which to study literature, but other than that, informational texts belong in the social studies classroom.
  14. Assessments such as tests and essays should have the purpose of assessing students’ progress and determining how to address any deficiencies. Students understand the value of them. Tests which do not serve these purposes and exist in large extent to grade the teacher should be refused.  Pretests in an English classroom are a complete waste of time.  Why in the world would it be beneficial to give them a test in the beginning of the year on things they do not know?  What a terrible way to start the year.  Instead, take a close look at their first assignment.  Even simple vocabulary sentences will reveal to the teacher areas which need to be worked on in a much kinder way, a way that wont create undue anxiety and resentment toward the teacher, school, and their own ability to succeed.

These 14 steps do not ensure a student in poverty will succeed in a class. There are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot force a child to attend our classes; we cannot experience the individual struggles they live with every day. However, it has been my experience that many more students will succeed than fail if these 14 points are taken into account.

I am completely confident that reducing teachers into script readers and data collectors will do nothing to improve the lives (or test results) of our students in poverty, or the lives of any other student regardless of socio-economic status, but test makers may skew the results to make it look that way.  There is a whole lot of money riding on the implementation of these standards, so much so that I fear that this is “too big to fail.”  But if we really care about helping all students reach “college and career” readiness, this initiative  must fail.  It is time that we take some of that money and invest it in things that teachers know will help students.


The Forgotten Benefits of Failing in “The Thing you Must Remember”

22 08 2012

The Thing You Must Remember

By Maggie Anderson


The thing you must remember is how, as a child,

you worked hours in the art room, the teacher’s

hands over yours, molding the little clay dog.

You must remember how nothing mattered

but the imagined dog’s fur, the shape of his ears

and his paws. The gray clay felt dangerous,

your small hands were pressing what you couldn’t say

with your limited words. When the dog’s back

stiffened, then cracked into white shards

in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful

suffers from too much attention, how clumsy

a single vision can grow, and fragile

with trying too hard. The thing you must

remember is the art teacher’s capable

hands: large, rough and grainy,

over yours, holding on.


One of the few things I can thank standardized testing for is for introducing me to this poem.

Just a few years after I started teaching, it was one of the poems for the “Controlling Idea” essay of the ELA New York State Regents Examination, which is given to most eleventh graders in the state.  It was the third of four essays in a two-day, six-hour, torturous exam. Thankfully for the students, the exam has been reconfigured recently. 

The most remarkable thing is that even after reading and rating approximately one million (mostly competent if not completely inspired) essay responses on the poem, it still wasn’t ruined for me.

 This is easily my favorite poem about teaching.  

For many teachers, the start of the new school year means a welcome-back assembly where all sorts of fascinating information is imparted from those- in- the- know, like the importance of washing your hands for the precise duration it would take one to sing “happy birthday” and oodles and oodles of statistics regarding where your school scored last year in this and that, and where you must end up this year—or risk losing funding for art. 

It’s part informative, part doomsday prophesying, and part pep-rally.

The recitation of sentimental poetry is a favorite at these events to help motivate teachers.  It is usually some heartbreaking tale of a teacher who rescues some sad wretch of a smelly child from his horrific home life. Years later, the weary but dutiful teacher opens a letter from the formerly smelly child, and in it he credits her (and her alone!) with who the student is today, the scientist who cured all cancers. End Scene. Pass the tissues. 

 Did I mention that this poem is written in a forced ABABCDCD, etc. rhyme scheme with a sing-song rhythm?  Well, of course it is. 

But it isn’t the sentimental, poor poetry that’s the problem here. 

The problem is that this is not really what teaching is about.  Don’t get me wrong, it definitely happens that teachers save children from horrific things far too often.  But let’s face it, the day-to-day life of a teacher is much less glamorous, much more routine, and comes with very little recognition for a job well done, and a whole ton of recognition for a job not-so-well-done. 

So, this poem offers a refreshing look at the profession. 

Notice how completely silent but poignant the teacher’s role is here. The speaker, a former art student, remembers exactly what (s)he wanted.  She wanted to sculpt this damn dog that she could envision perfectly, and wouldn’t stop till she was happy with it.

Finally, after perfecting it, (but completely overworking the clay) the student puts the sculpture in the kiln. 

What comes next is no surprise to the teacher.

The sculpture cracks in the kiln. If you want to be technical, the student fails. But doesn’t she learn not only about art, but also about life?  Is this really a failure?

This lesson transcends the classroom and becomes authentically interdisciplinary.  At least in retrospect, the student learns from this incident how in most any situation, being myopic can end up destroying your vision. She could have had a cool dog statue if only she could have seen it didn’t need to be the ONE way.

And really!  How frustrating is it when people can only see things in one way? 

I’m sure you know people who insist that they know the one “right” way to do something when in reality, the goal can be met in multiple ways. 

Here’s one off the top of my head: there are many ways to fold a t-shirt.  You might prefer one way better, but really, seriously, who cares about the details if it is in fact folded, put away, and not wrinkled when you pull it out to wear it. 

Another thing I love about this poem: the teacher does not dive in to rescue the student at the last minute in some deus ex machina Greek Tragedy style.   You don’t hear the teacher frantically repeating, “Umm, you know, Student, the more you overwork this clay, the more likely it is that it will be destroyed in the kiln.” “Umm, you know, Student, the more you overwork this clay, the more likely it is that it will be destroyed in the kiln.”   She knows this is more effective.

For many reasons that I am not going to even try to start to discuss here, we are terrified of letting our students fail, even when they totally deserve and NEED to fail.

What a failure that is on us. 

Yes, this teacher has a failing student in this lesson, but she is not remiss in her duty; she is not a bad teacher at all.  In fact, she is a fabulous teacher.  You better believe that next time, that student will not overwork the clay. 

The lessons learned from failing are powerful.  Please, take a minute and think about how failure has pushed you, motivated you, in your life.  I guarantee that, no matter how successful you are, you have been pushed forward by your failures.  Who would you be if you were never allowed to fail?

Who will our students be?

This teacher is not absent. She is not unfeeling of her student’s failure.  Her hands are RIGHT there with her student’s the whole time.  The teacher’s hands are what Maggie Anderson wants us to focus on.  They are “the thing you must remember” from her title. 

They are large, rough, and grainy, yes, but they are holding yours as you fail, ready to pull you up and have you try again.

In our most challenging times in life, if we are lucky, there are hands that cradle ours through our failures and push us to learn from them and try again.  They don’t save us from failure, they guide us to success.

The art teacher in this poem, of course, can be a metaphor for any type of teacher— the meaning here can be expanded to include the type you have in school or out of school.  It can be a parent or grandparent.  It can be a friend. 

But most likely, it will be an English teacher.