What I Read To Close the Achievement Gap

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 9.51.44 AMI think it’s hard to be a teacher anywhere, but I think it’s especially hard in North Carolina.  Just talking on the phone to my Mom the other day, I told her how I inside I feel like this is one of the most honorable professions, but views from the outside make me feel like just another person in a rat race. According to stats from March, North Carolina is the 47th state for teacher pay in National Rankings.  A year ago, a study using statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other groups, North Carolina was ranked the worst state for teachers in the US.   It showed North Carolina ranked 48th in public school funding per student, 47th in median annual salary, 51st in ten-year change in teacher salary, 43rd in teachers’ wage disparity, and 40th in safest schools.  According to this article, our test scores are static and we haven’t even begun to ponder what a new PBL (project based learning) Smarter Balance exam might look like before our governor is already discussing ridding himself and this state of the Common Core Standards that are backed by some of the top companies in the world like SAS.  Let’s go ahead and add to this that we don’t have a union (being a Southern state), but we do have rallies like Moral Monday and groups like Red4Ed that are working to promote positive growth for students, teachers, and parents in this state.

Some of this is for a whole other blog.

Today, I’m peeved.  In early November, a rally was held to close the achievement gap in Chapel Hill-Carborro Schools.  As an educator, it would be silly of me to say that I’m not on the side of this rally.  An article on WUNC quotes the following, “In a recent report, the group, The Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools, urges school leaders to increase access to gifted education programs, provide a race-conscious curriculum and to require training on implicit bias.” I believe this is a beautiful thing to want. The article goes on to say, “Perry and others point to the fact that 85 percent of black male students in the 8th grade were unable to pass the end-of-grade reading test in 2013.” The last thing I will quote from the article is this, “The district is also aiming to hold teachers more accountable, explained Forcella, through a “culture changing” program that will reward teachers not by years of experience, but by how much they grow.”

While I love the idea of closing the achievement gap, and I agree that most public schools are not reaching or serving every child, there are a lot more factors than race (although I do believe the public school system has built-in racial inequities) that go into educating students.  Why aren’t we also looking looking at the problem of poverty, how often students were read to at home before ever walking into the doors of a school, what pre-k program they attended (if any), how many times they were held back in elementary or middle school, who is teaching them social cues, who is teaching them whether respect is earned or given, who is teaching them how to deal with and face their problems and in what way, what their responsibilities are at home and whether they have time to complete much needed homework practice and who is at home completing that practice with them, and whether their safe in their home environment because no child is going to learn if their basic needs aren’t being met.

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Image from Roger Peet’s Whiteness Goggles Art Show

Just FYI, students are only supposed to be held back twice, so if they’re held back for reading scores in third grade and then again in seventh grade because their seventh grade teacher can’t possibly make 27 different lesson plans for every single child and she/he has to do her best to meet every child where they’re at, then it’s absolutely a struggle to bring that child to the score they need in order to pass an EOC.  This is not a singular conversation.  The achievement gap is growing because everyone wants to point fingers at the other group.  Teachers > parents. Parents > Teachers. Communities > Government. Students > Teachers.  It’s a game of chess just to figure out who’s winning, when in reality, it’s not even a competition.  It takes a village.

Where I’m really disappointed in the system is when I see good teachers like Mike Harris writing the truth into an editorial and getting torn down because people who do not care enough to ask what students are learning in his classroom point fingers at him and assume he isn’t teaching about racial inequities, social injustices, the history of this nation and the current growth or destruction that’s happening within.  (Unfortunately, I think the N&O has since removed comments from this article).

So in an effort to be very clear and very open with my own classroom and my own lesson planning, here are a few of the times in the last year that I hit on racial injustice, or prejudice, across all census denominators (race, gender, religion, background, ethnicity), and here are some of the texts I used to have my students question their current world and plan for a better one.

If any teachers out there want to know what I did with these texts, I have everything in Google Docs and will share all of it.

What Does it Take to Be Black Enough? Close Read on Russell Wilson.

A protest unit / social justice unit:
Letter from Birmingham JailLetter from Birmingham Jail. Analysis of

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Rhetoric and to be read in tandem with:
“In the Blind Alley”
“Malala’s Speech at the Youth UN Assembly”
“Harrison Bergeron,” a story where everyone in the US is given handicaps so that they can be equal and no one will be better than anyone else
Ted Talk: Nonviolence
Analysis of Twitter Revolutions (#blacklivesmatter, #dropoutnation, #lovewins, #handsupdontshoot, #IstandwithAhmed, #appropriation, #masculinity so fragile)

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Darius Simpson

Analysis of Protest movements and how American 24-hour news portrays them differently (multiple youtube videos of protests that student’s analyzed the commentator, the people protesting, the signage, the way they were portrayed, what character role the people were filling, etc
Poems including, “The Slave Auction,” and “Right On: White America” The story of “David and Goliath” for analysis of how someone wins a fight using wit
The poem, “Freedom” by Rabindranath Tagore.
A Slam Poem called “Lost Voices” by Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson

In the end, students wrote protests poem, including this one:

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A Modern Day Raisin in the Sun Unit (using a timeline to trace the context)
“Abolition Speech” Analysis William Wilberforce
Primary photos (and analysis) from Jim Crow Era
“Ain’t I a Woman” Close Read.
Harlem poets like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and singers like Billie Holiday
Art: The Black Odyssey by Romare Bearden
Raisin in the Sun
Excerpts from Othello, Shakespeare
Malcolm X “Learning to Read” Analysis
Black Panther female informational text
Analysis of Biggie and Tupac lyrics and poems, plus a lot of modern day rap music.
Baltimore and Ferguson Protest language and video analysis
Analysis of “What it Feels like to be Colored Me” Zora Neale Hurston

All the literature I’ve read for other backgrounds to be heard:

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Sherman Alexie

Analysis of primary photos (and how they changed by painter) of pocahontas along with looking at how Disney portrayed her.
Superman and Me by Sherman Alexie
“I Hated Tonto” by Sherman Alexie
Poem: “How To Write the Great American Indian Novel” by Sherman Alexie
Excerpts from The Orenda
Art called “Whiteness Goggles”
Buzz Feed articles on appropriation and what is beautiful across countries
Slideshow of Miss USA from the 1950s to now
Excerpts from Woman Warrior
Excerpts from Amy Tan
Graphic Novel: Persepolis
Graphic Novel: American Born Chinese
Novel: Night by Elie Wiesel
Informational Texts on the Hijab
Analysis of these two photos and our own misconceptions while reading “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace
Excerpts from Learning to Walk in the Dark

And I end every year with “The Quilt of a County” close read. 

Honestly, that’s not even all of it.  That’s just what I remember from sitting here, and from living in a classroom full of interesting, unique, individuals who just want to be noticed and feel like their own history is discussed.  I realize that not all teachers touch racial issues.  I realize that not all teachers want to close the achievement gap.  I realize that EVERYONE isn’t on board.  However, in my classroom, success is when everyone feels wanted, everyone can touch success, and everyone knows how interesting they are just by being themselves.

This year, my focus is on providing more Latino lit for my students.  Now that I teach at a school with a diverse Latino population, I will be reading a lot more Latino texts.  If you have any recommendations (of any types of texts that you think will fit in with my curriculum), feel free to email me, or leave a comment below.

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*This blog is in no way the views of my county or school system.  I am writing this as a singular person with views from my experience in the classroom.


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