Measuring the “good” schools

It’s like we never had a pandemic. U.S. News & World Report came out with its rankings of “best” high schools in the U.S. and media outlets jumped at the “news.” In Montgomery County, Maryland – surprise – the wealthiest schools are considered the “best.” Walt Whitman has a 2% poverty rate (the lowest in the district), Wootton has a 7% poverty rate, and Poolesville has an 8% poverty rate (it’s also the smallest high school in the district, all-magnet). Why are we still pretending that high test scores equal “good” teaching and learning?

We should be talking about teachers like my colleague Claudia who teaches math to immigrant teens with interrupted formal education. They arrive at our school reading at a kindergarten level, barely able to add and subtract whole numbers. She gets them ready for Algebra I in a year. Why aren’t we measuring that success? Like most teachers of Multilingual students, she advocates fiercely for them, going well above and beyond the job description. I’ve learned so much from her.

If Claudia notices newcomer English learners sitting in Resource class because there’s no room in ESOL 1, she writes to our supervisors. If a student is capable, she insists that they change the placement to a higher-level class, no matter what the transcript or placement test says. I always thought it was just a scheduling problem. She showed me that it is inequity. Can you imagine if that happened to wealthy white newcomer American students?

People misjudge Claudia. At first, I did too. She’s from South America and learned English in school, just like many of our students. She’s outspoken and self-deprecating. If you didn’t know her, you might take her complaints seriously. The students flock to her. They tell her things. She stands up for them, even when it earns her a reprimand. When I stand up for students, I do not get called into the principal’s office. Claudia made me acknowledge my own white privilege.

Now more than ever, schools need to pay attention to the soft skills that teachers bring to a classroom — not test data with a predictable outcome or how many are enrolled in AP classes. Even though the execution was problematic, Josh Starr (our previous superintendent) had the right idea when he awarded “the most hopeful” teacher and school. We should measure emotional intelligence and connectedness. After two years of pandemic learning, we should focus on building relationships and reward schools for student and staff engagement.

As a side note, I used to work for U.S.News & World Report, and we used to call it Snooze, a play on words. When I hear once again that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA has won “best school” in America, I hit the snooze button. I’d like to invite those editors to watch my colleague Claudia at work for a day. I think they might learn something.

Hamlet and the Class of 2022

Appearance vs. Reality. Anxiety. Mistrust.

The themes of Hamlet could be taken from today’s headlines. Or maybe from our students’ social media posts. When we asked Honors English 12 classes to find elements of the play that are valuable and relevant for today’s young people, many chose to make a personal connection to Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind. Who can blame them? The mental health crisis among teens today is well documented and serious.

Like Hamlet, this year’s seniors have experienced plenty of disruptions in their lives: school shootings, toxic political discourse, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and two years of pandemic schooling. Hamlet spends half of the play depressed and brooding. Then in a moment of rage he lashes out at the man behind the curtain, killing Polonius instead of his evil uncle, the king.

Fortunately, student fights in the hallways don’t usually end in murder. Most school districts saw a huge uptick in violence as students returned to school buildings in the fall of 2021. School police officers had been removed in response to the BLM movement and administrative teams were overwhelmed. Something was definitely rotten in the state (of Denmark), and our leaders were very slow to recognize it.

In the classroom, however, we see almost the opposite effect: lethargy. Here we are, two months from graduation, and it’s almost like the entire class of 2022 presents with Ophelia syndrome: they’re going through the motions of writing an essay, but waiting for authority figures to tell them what to think. I don’t truly believe that, but wonder how much their social-emotional development was stunted by 18 months spent going to school from a corner in their bedrooms? Is that why they identify so much with Hamlet?

Teachers continually try to find ways of connecting Hamlet to the real world. Here and here are some of the best ways that is being done this year.

Polonius counsels his son Laertes before he heads back to university. “To thine own self be true,” he tells him.  What does that even mean for the Class of 2022?

The weight is over

The weight of the past two years begins to lift. The Maryland State Board of Education has pulled the mask mandate for public schools. WiDA Access testing is almost over. The green shoots of crocuses poke up from the cold ground. And spring rowing is about to begin. 

Like the naked trees outside my window, my emotions have been stripped to nothing. In the fall, I shed every pretense of being in control of my life. I endured the freezing rains of winter, sobbing alone in my room while imagining friends and colleagues nestled with loved ones in their own cozy retreats.

I spent my childhood outdoors and have always had a visceral connection to the changing seasons. After a dormant period, I feel a glimmer of hope as the sun grows stronger and buds play peek-a-boo. We feel these changes in a school as well.

Teachers waited for the vaccine, we waited for covid testing kits, we postponed weddings and family reunions, we waited to travel, we waited for omicron to pass. Now we’re waiting for our local Board of Education to decide what the Montgomery County Public Schools district masking policy will be.

The weight is almost gone.

Come with me into the woods where spring is 
advancing, as it does, no matter what, 
not being singular or particular, but one 
of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.

~ Mary Oliver

Finding Fellowship in Times of Trouble

I went to church on Sunday, something that used to be so ordinary. I hadn’t been to Saint Camillus in two years. The parking lot was nearly empty. Every other pew was roped off to keep us safely six feet apart. A video camera in the back live-streamed the mass on Facebook. A small choir began a once-familiar song. I made the sign of the cross as the priest began, searching for something that felt like community.

When my parents moved us from Louisiana to upstate New York, and then to West Virginia, the pang of leaving home behind burned into my heart each time we had to say goodbye. “You have to make your own family,” Mom said as we started over in a new place. She said I was the resilient one, the sibling who adapted most quickly to their new environment. This trait has served me well, but two years of pandemic anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty might finally have depleted my reserves.

January started with a snow storm that closed schools for two days. That was a huge relief, since omicron was infecting everyone. The week before Winter Break, none of my classes had more than 50% attendance. We couldn’t get rapid tests, PCR testing wasn’t widely available yet, and results took too long. Commercial airlines were cancelling flights all over the country because flight attendants, pilots, and crews were in quarantine.

When the two-hour snow delay was announced for January 5th, MCPS leadership was not prepared. More than 90 bus routes had no drivers. Thousands of students were waiting outside in the freezing cold for buses that never showed up. Building service teams were short-staffed and struggled to clear the parking lots and get the buildings cleaned. So many teachers were out sick that there were not enough substitutes. Only 25% of 1,500 jobs were filled. Many students who did show up for school had to sit in an auditorium where social distancing was nearly impossible.

Teachers covered for absent colleagues, giving up precious planning periods over and over and over again. With no free time during the school day to prepare lessons, teachers went home every evening exhausted, with work yet to do. The superintendent held a public meeting that was so boilerplate and tone deaf that it infuriated the entire community: parents, educators, elected officials, and students. Both the principals’ union and the teachers’ union passed a No Confidence Resolution. Parent groups blew up social media. Students staged walkouts at all the high schools.

The mandated subject-matter testing continued as if there were no pandemic. Algebra, Government, Science, English Language Arts, a four-domain WiDA test for multilingual learners, and a two-day Progress Check that did not affect student grades or fulfill any graduation requirement. If administrators are so concerned about “learning loss,” why are they okay when kids miss so much class instruction to take meaningless tests?

In all of this (madness), I’ve tried to find some fellowship. My District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker held a virtual Town Hall to listen to members of the community. More than 5,000 people showed up. Most expressed frustration and anger at the Board of Education and MCPS leadership. The teachers’ union has held many meetings and pushed out direct communication that addresses our immediate needs. I’ve gotten more involved in the union. Maybe this is my community.

It felt restorative to step into a real church on Sunday. The piano player improvised a few songs beautifully, and a middle-aged African American woman kept the beat using a complete drum kit. I clapped my hands and swayed — not a behavior typically associated with the Catholic Church — while tears streamed down my face. It almost felt like coming home. My mother would have been proud.

Repetitive Movement

John is in the woods near my house chopping fallen trees. His forceful grunts echo up the ravine as he slams down on logs over and over and over again. 

My nephew paces the floor when he visits, around and around and around. 

My son plays video games from the moment he wakes up, clicking, tapping, and exclaiming. 

Repetitive physical movements have a calming effect that can reduce our fear and anxiety over things we can’t control. Like the uncertainty and chaos of the entire past 20 months. 

Writer Annie Dillard observed that “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

If that’s the case, I need to examine how I spend my days.

During quarantine, I walked outside twice a day and wrote short stories, poetry, and personal essays. After Zoom classes, I played my recorder behind closed doors. In warm weather, I rowed on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. I built a fire in the fire pit and sat outside with friends and neighbors. 

These routines got me through the worst of the pandemic.

I’m holding on to them like a prayer to get me into next year, because who knows what 2022 will bring? 

Beaver attack!

Two days after the full moon of November, I was attacked by a wild beaver in the middle of the Anacostia River. It swam toward me as I fumbled to take out my phone and capture it on video. So cute! I’d just seen a flock of turkeys, so I thought it was a good wildlife day. Until it swam aggressively under my rigger, leaped over the gunwale, and chomped down on my right hip. 

This is not the only thing in my life to go completely wrong this fall, but it’s certainly the most extraordinary. I could never have predicted, for example, that my husband of 31 years would decide to retire and move to Maine on the same day, leaving me with a developmentally disabled son to manage alone. The irrational behavior of my siblings before and after my mother died hurt me more than I can admit. But rowing has always been my place of refuge, recreation, and relaxation. The river is my antidote for all that ails me.

Some people would take an attack like this as a sign to stop rowing all together. The cold weather usually forces us off the river from mid-November until late February. However, a crisp 50-degree, sunny afternoon lured six of us to launch our singles and head out together. I’m a seasoned rower, a coach, and a strong advocate of safety precautions. In fact, I’d just reviewed with Anthony how to avoid hypothermia if he flipped his boat and fell into the water.

Sarah caught up with me just south of the New York Avenue bridge while we waited for the others. She said she’d hit a beaver with her boat! Minutes later, Ben confirmed that he’d seen a beaver, too; maybe it was the same one. Rowers out of Bladensburg Waterfront Park are more accustomed to Great Blue herons, osprey, kingfishers, geese, and the occasional bald eagle. It’s unusual to see a beaver in the river but November is the time of year that they are busiest, preparing their lodges for winter. Why would it swim in front of a rowing shell?

I turned around first to head back to the dock, rowing pretty much ahead of everyone else, when I heard a big splash and looked over. Nothing. A few minutes later, a beaver emerged just off my stern. So exciting! I thought. I hustled to take my cell phone out. The thing started moving toward me at an alarming speed! Maybe it was looking for food? It had a large, open, pink sore on its head. 

In survival scenarios, victims often find a strength that they didn’t know they possessed. I screamed at the top of my lungs, grabbed the beaver’s front paw, and beat it on the head with one hand while desperately holding the oar handles steady to keep from tipping into the river. My waterproof bag was open, and everything would have tumbled into the river. Water splashed up onto my lap, soaking me from knee to waist in frigid water. 

I will never forget those orangey-brown incisors coming at me! 

The beaver would not let go. Martin and the others appeared around the bend, but they were too far away to hear me. Dang! I continued scream-shouting and hitting the beaver on the head. It finally let go. I slapped my blade on the water to warn it away. It looked at me, like it wanted more, so I rowed like it was the last 250 meters of a sprint race all the way back to the dock. 

What I’ve learned about myself from this incident is that I am resilient and determined. When faced with unprecedented challenges, I will fight to stay upright. This lesson applies to my personal life as well. Some days feel like I’m rowing upstream against invisible enemies. Other days, I can stop to enjoy the beauty surrounding me.

I will never stop rowing. 

Weather warning: magical morning

After torrential rains and coastal flood alerts, it was not at all clear that I’d be able to row on Saturday morning. But I got up before dawn any way, and dressed in my tights and performance tee — the one that stays warm when it’s wet. I drove out to the waterfront in the dark drizzle, easily found a parking spot, and watched the sun rise from the Bladensburg boat house.

A few other rowers were already on the dock sweeping off goose droppings and pushing heavy debris away from the launch area. Coaches had pulled their motor boats onto the dock the night before so they wouldn’t float away in the storm. The strong current washed the logs easily downstream. As the sun rose, the rain stopped, and instead of the usual mud banks, the high, flat water of the upper Anacostia River stretched out wide across from me. High tide. Cool air. Perfect rowing conditions.

My stress level started to fall once I shoved off — it had been a crazy week. At school, several fights had broken out, and a medical emergency sent us into a shelter-in-place. Rumors were flying that someone had been stabbed (not true, thank god). Every day, a different student was crying at their desk. Senior essays were overdue, college application deadlines loomed, and Halloween hijinks forced school administrators into high alert. 🚨 My own anxiety about paying utilities and the mortgage on time spiked my cortisol levels.

The upper Anacostia is so different than the lower part of the river – with the stadium, Navy Yard, several yacht clubs, and industrial-building landmarks – that fellow rowers at Capital Rowing Club have named us Narnia (after the children’s fantasy). In fact, on that very morning, CRC was hosting their annual Narnia Chase regatta downriver.

What most people don’t know is that our section of the Anacostia River is a lush greenway, full of wildlife and unexpected natural beauty. Normally I row past Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the National Arboretum, and down past Kingman Island. Osprey flying with fish in their talons, turtles sunning on a log, great white egrets, black cormorants with outstretched wings that look like little Draculas, noisy geese, beavers, and the occasional bald eagle pop into view.

So when Sue suggested we head upstream, it didn’t take much to convince me. Even though I’ve been rowing out of Bladensburg Waterfront Park for 15 years, I’d never rowed upstream. Here’s why: that part of the river, even at high tide, is not usually navigable due to the mud and silt that washes down from the streams further north. The mud is so bad that once every couple of years, the Army Corps of Engineers has to dredge near the docks so that we can continue accessing the river there.

We rowed under the footbridge that normally signals danger, and kept rowing north to the confluence of the Northeast Branch Stream and the Northwest Branch Stream — the headwaters of the Anacostia. Only ducks and geese witnessed our historic adventure. The calm quiet juxtaposed against the fierce current and the surprisingly warm sun created a magical effect. Who needs fiction when such an extraordinary moment can transform us? We turned around at the Route 1 bridge, and I unsealed the plastic case around my phone camera to record the event. I smiled with child-like delight all the way home.

Sometimes when in times of trouble

My husband walked out of my life the week school started, and my mother passed away 10 days ago. My siblings are bickering, my son is depressed, and I am overwhelmed by sadness and grief for all that I’ve lost this year. I still wake up at 3:00 am in a panic about finances. Oh — and I’m teaching full time in a public school in the midst of a pandemic.

But one thing I’ve experienced has been a huge source of comfort: female friends. Neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and acquaintances have reached out to me just to talk, go for a walk, bring a meal, flowers, offer to feed the cat, hug me, say how much they’ve been thinking about me, offer condolences, or lend an ear.

“You will always find people who are helping,” children’s TV host Fred Rogers famously said. I’ve always been the one doing the helping, so it feels a little awkward to be on the receiving end of so much caring support. But I am enormously thankful. I think I’ve even made a couple of new friends.

It’s taken me decades to learn a lesson that many women know from their earliest years of life: Women will support you if you show vulnerability and express a need. Why did I wait until my 60’s to open up? Talking about hurt and pain is a way to ease it. I so appreciate everyone who has reached out to me these last couple of months.

Tribute to my mother, Ruth Christ Sullivan.

Travel in the time of Covid

When the kids were little, we began every summer with a road trip to my mother’s house. Over the mountains and through the woods, we drove 400 miles to southwestern West Virginia. We’d go swimming, play board games, and sit on the front porch of her old Victorian eating moon ice, a mouthwatering frozen dessert made with bananas. Later in the summer we’d drive 400 miles in the opposite direction to visit their other grandparents in Rhode Island, where we learned that jimmies are something that goes on ice cream. A few years in a row we put 25,000 miles on our two vehicles. 

After 15 months of pandemic isolation, I dreamed about traveling again. 

What destination had good Covid protocols and was open to Americans? I thought about Hawaii, but it was really expensive and I’d read about mainlanders being turned away from pre-paid vacations at the airport, due to the coronavirus. I found a guided tour of Alaska, but the dates didn’t work out. I was itching to travel again. International travel didn’t seem possible until the GEEO tour leader asked, “Have you ever considered Iceland?” I booked the last open slot and two weeks later I was on a plane to Reykjavik. 

Traveling with a group of teachers is nothing like traveling with your family. Every morning, 16 of us would ask the same questions: Where are we going? What’s the weather? What time is lunch? How long before we get to the hotel? When is the bathroom break? The poor Icelandic guide was a little out of practice with American tourists – and teachers used to being in charge wanted to know the daily goals and expectations up front. Every day got a little easier as we hiked spectacular waterfalls, went whale watching, and shared stories of the school year we’d just lived through. Each one of us had experienced the worst year of teaching in our professional careers. By the end of the week, we had bonded as a group. 

I highly recommend Iceland as a destination for Americans who’ve never traveled internationally, or for those who want an exotic destination with all the amenities of a modern European country. Everyone speaks English, the food is delicious (but expensive), and the toilets are clean. In late June, we had to take a Covid test upon arrival and quarantine for 5 hours in the hotel until our results came back negative (we were all vaccinated). And we had to take another Covid test within 72 hours of boarding a return flight to the US. They made it so easy. 

The Delta variant of Covid hadn’t quite landed in the US when my son and I embarked on a 1,200 mile road trip to my family reunion on Dauphin Island, Alabama. He’s no longer a little kid and could help with the driving. We’d driven this route many times before and planned to spend two nights on the road. As we drove south, fewer and fewer people were wearing masks at the rest stops and motels – even though the signs clearly stated a mask requirement. In mid-July, Alabama was the least vaccinated state in the US. In spite of some anxiety over this, we drove south at the start of a new hurricane season to visit with family members with vastly different world views. We needed to see family this year. I needed to see family. 

My kids learned early in life how to adjust to unspoken rules and new tastes, depending on where they traveled. Travel teaches us tolerance, humility, and patience. When we take ourselves somewhere we’ve never been, we stretch out of our comfort zones, and meet differences with an open mind. I wish everyone could travel the way I have this summer.

Filed Away

by Eva K. Sullivan

During the last week of school, I stared at the gray, four-drawer, metal filing cabinet in the corner of the classroom. In the last fifteen months, I hadn’t opened a single drawer even once. We’d been back in person since April, but everything I needed was inside the four-pound laptop that I carried everywhere. Thirty years of well-loved teaching materials now seemed like a burden. It was time. Most teachers my age wait until they’re retired to clean out their folders. But the pandemic changed forever how I will look at stacks of paper.

As a high school teacher of Multilingual Learners, I never knew what level I would be teaching from year to year. The carefully labelled folders ranged from Phonics/Vowel Sounds to Argument and Research. Before Covid-19 forced school closures in March 2020, I taught two sections of Developmental Reading for immigrant students with interrupted formal education. Most were reading at a kindergarten level. Even without a global pandemic, it’s hard to find appropriate reading material – no baby books – for teens learning to read English! So my curated collection represented hundreds of hours of valuable prep time.

This year we piloted a new districtwide coteaching model. All juniors and seniors are now enrolled in Honors English classes, and I’ve moved to a supporting role. All my Beginner English files are in the trash and I’m not even wistful. Teachers never throw anything out, so this feels momentous, a tectonic shift. 

I filled a recycling bin with The OdysseyRun-On SentencesExistentialismSurvival Project, and Subject-Verb Agreement. I found overhead projector film carefully preserved with the original copy next to it for reference. Grammar games on laminated index cards. I didn’t bother to ask if any new, younger colleagues want them this year. All those things are gone. Paper worksheets may be a thing of the past. 

A friend who retired in 2020 asked if I carried my materials from room to room on a cart this year, as I have in the past. I laughed. Nope, all I carry now is a laptop. Every student has a Chromebook preloaded with Zoom, Canvas Instructure and Synergy platforms. Even 5-year-olds in kindergarten know how to do school on a computer. 

When we left the building in March 2020, we gathered food from our desks and cleaned out the refrigerators, but left everything else as is. It was the first time for teachers to just walk away. We had no time to take down bulletin boards, put away pencils, or erase the white boards. We thought we’d be out two weeks.  

The way we’ve taught during the pandemic has permanently changed how educators understand school. As I eyed my fat folders containing emergency substitute plans, I asked a colleague if I should throw them out. “Ha, ha! They’ll probably make us teach via Zoom when we’re out sick!” she replied. I felt nostalgic as I looked at my neatly-outlined notes on top of 30-page sets, a large binder clip holding everything together. I had to wait in line for the photocopier to make those worksheets. Do subs know how to use our new technology? I decided to keep the emergency plans. 

Pandemic mode is forever etched in our memory. Like any good survival story, we escaped from danger with what we could carry – plants, photos, whatever we were currently working on. We reinvented teaching every day, learning and teaching new new apps (Kami, Peardeck, Nearpod), new platforms (Zoom, Canvas, Synergy), new instructional models (coteaching), new virtual curriculum (no textbooks), and new ways of interacting with students (mute black screens in a breakout room). We made it work because there was no choice. In my three decades in the classroom, it was by far the most stressful year that I have ever taught. 

I already miss handwriting. I miss hands-on assignments with physical items that students need to manipulate. I hope those aren’t gone forever. The Romeo and Juliet speed dating activity was so much fun! The Socratic Seminar, the Bicycle Chain activity. Partner work. I don’t need paper for that. Maybe next year?

 Text, letter

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Will school ever look like this again?

Teaching to a computer screen from the corner of my bedroom for a year has made me realize that I don’t need paper to create relationships with students. When you take away all the extraneous details of teaching – the great experiment of the 2020-2021 school year – it boils down to building a community in a classroom. 

This past year, I shared more of my personal life than I’d ever intended – like when the cat brought a live chipmunk into my lesson and the whole class heard me scream. I used humor, music, catchy visuals. I lowered the affective filter with silly stories. I called home when students didn’t show up. I invited them to participate in activities any way they felt comfortable – unmuting and calling out, typing in the chat, or participating in an electronic discussion board. 

Many students thrived in the flexible online classroom. I was amazed by some of the profound, philosophical, mature responses that they shared. All these lived lessons from the past year are filed away in our collective memory – not a four-drawer cabinet – and can be pulled out to help plan for next. But first we need a summer vacation to figure out what it all means.  

Will we ever need to photocopy packets of work again? It’s a rhetorical question. That folder got thrown out too.