The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

More Student Journalists Have the Right to Write


Today I am re-posting another article from the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) because I think it contains good news for public education. This piece was written by  Alana Rome, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who will soon move on to becoming a journalism teacher in Montvale, New Jersey.

 Although school newspapers in  several states already have 1st Amendment rights, there is still a long way to go. My hope is that other states will follow their example, giving to student journalists the same rights that professional journalists have.

In preparation for the Journalism Education Association’s Certification for Journalism Educators (CJE) exam last week, I brushed up on various aspects of media law and ethics, including what (and who) is protected under the First Amendment. Through this amendment, the government promises to protect and respect citizens’ freedom of religion, speech, assembly, petition, and, most important for journalists, press. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, which may vary from state to state. Invasion of privacy (public disclosure of private and embarrassing facts, intrusion, false light, and misappropriation), libel, copyright, obscenity, and disruption are various forms of unprotected speech.

On April 26, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill that guarantees scholastic and collegiate student journalists protection under the First Amendment, even if the publication is financed by the school or created as part of a journalism class. In the past, such a publication was more likely to be restrained through prior review (administration can view content prior to publication).

Whether this bill makes every scholastic publication in Maryland an open forum is unclear, but it most certainly gives more voice and freedom to the students and more protection for the adviser or journalism teacher. The line between fulfilling the responsibility to inform the public and releasing potentially damaging or controversial information, at least in the eyes of administration, can be a tenuous one. However, this fight for rights shows just how much student words matter. They matter because student journalists typically provide the most in-depth coverage of school events. They matter because a student publication represents the culture of the school. They matter because they are being fought over by politicians and legislatures. They matter because they can make or break a teacher’s career.

Several other states, including Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Alabama, and Minnesota, have similar active bills as part of the national New Voices movement. My home state, New Jersey, has yet to pass such a bill; according to New Voices’ website, the New Jersey legislature was scheduled to discuss the matter on January 12, but no news has been released since. Let’s hope we see more states looking to support the rights of student journalists and their teachers in order to protect and foster journalistic integrity for the next generation of writers.


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Changing the Rules of the Education Game

I hope that readers will forgive me for writing about basketeball again so soon, but it’s been a serious study of mine over time, and the current play-offs in which the Portland Trail Blazers performed well but ultimately lost  to the more experienced Golden State Warriors is still fresh in my mind.  Although I’ll get over my feelings soon, I think that the contrast between the rules of basketball and those that currently determine educational practices will stay with me until eduation gets more realistic and reasonable.

As I watched the basketball play-offs this month it occurred to me that education policy makers have something to learn from the NBA. While both professional sports and educational institutions seek to promote excellence in their participants, each group goes about it differently. Basketball gives teams, players and coaches repeated opportunities to show that they can make the grade; public education prescribes only one time and one way: testing.

One important difference is that basketball recognizes that winning a game is a team effort. A big factor in the Trail Blazers’ improvement this year has been their willingness to spread responsibility and glory around. For another, basketball operates on the principle of multiple chances: six personal fouls before a player gets ejected and the need to win four games out of seven in the play-offs. There is also the understanding that even the best coach can’t control his players’ performances; they have to be willing to follow his instructions, play long and hard, share opportunities for success, and restrain their feelings when they think they’ve gotten a raw deal.

But most important, I think, is the recognition of the emotional dimension in any game. It is no accident that we hear about a team “being ready to play,” “having the home court advantage,” and “falling apart under pressure.” We understand that basketball players are also human beings, and that what’s in their heads and hearts strongly affects what their well-trained bodies can do in a game.

I find it strange that none of the rules of basketball seem to also apply in education. While cooperative work, teacher assistance, and second chances are common practices in classrooms all year long, they are not allowed when the time comes for the “big game” (the test). Each student must go it alone; no coaching, no rebounding, no assists.

Also in education there is the single score upon which everything depends, when “four out of seven” might make more sense.   In most states tenth graders who don’t pass the test this time may try again, but not until next year. And third, fifth, and eighth graders in many places get only one chance to prove they are ready for the next grade. There is no way that a student’s high quality classroom performance can over-ride a low test score.

Ironically, a team that plays poorly in the beginning of the season can redeem itself later on, just as the Blazers have done this year; but schools have just one chance at the end of the year to show their results. Moreover, in most states schools are judged by those yearly test scores, and may be labeled “failing” and subsequently closed if the scores are unsatisfactory over a period of time. In all the arguments for more charter schools, student vouchers or other cure-alls,“poor teachers” and “failing schools”are cited as the root cause for student failure, while basketball coaches are rarely replaced because their team didn’t make it to the play-offs.

Finally, the role of emotion in student testing is totally ignored. On that fateful test day a student’s lack of self-confidence, trouble at home that morning, frustration with one incomprehensible test question, or the awareness that there is not enough time left to finish the test may get in the way of performing well.  Shouldn’t  students, like basketball players, get another chance to prove themselves if their test results look bad?

All the differences between what we expect from basketball teams and from schools are not inevitable. In fact, education is more amenable to change than basketball. The trouble is that many of the changes we have seen in the past 15 years are the wrong ones. We have created a system that cares so much about numbers that it has no understanding of the circumstances or the people that produced them. Instead, we should be seeking broader definitions of academic success; ones that offer more and varied opportunities for students and teachers to set reasonable goals and a variety of ways and time frames to reach them. Consideration of the many factors that influence and mark student success is possible through a greater emphasis on classroom performance and less on test scores; through an understanding that good teaching takes into account students’ individual needs, strengths and vulnerabilities; and through public recognition that a good education is not winning a single game, but slowly and surely moving ordinary kids into long-term winners.




Hope for Alabama’s Teachers

For the second time this week a knowledgeable writer has made my job easier. Today’s post was written by Cindy Adams, a veteran educator who currently serves as the Chief Academic Officer for Literacy and Humanities in Hoover City Schools in Alabama. She is also a Policy Analyst for NCTE (The National Council of Teachers of English) whose job it is to keep track of what the state legislature is doing in regard to education and reporting their actions to NCTE members in the rest of the country.  

To quote from Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity”—thus characterizing the 2016 Alabama state legislative session. In the months leading up to the February–May legislative session, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh warned the state that he would propose the RAISE Act as the first piece of legislature for the session. By early February, the bill had been revised seven times and morphed into the PREP Act. Opponents contended the following: (1) using value-added measures for teacher evaluations is unreliable at worst and misleading at best, and (2) using teacher evaluation for external accountability purposes (granting tenure and dismissing ineffective teachers) as opposed to using evaluation to promote teacher growth would pervert the original purpose of evaluations—to help teachers grow in their craft. The proposed bills would cost additional millions of dollars to implement and included stipulations to pay for outside-the-state “evaluators” to assess teachers—evaluators who did not know the state courses of study, the school communities, or the dynamics in buildings.

Alabama’s Teacher of the Year used her platform to rally teachers around the state while determined superintendents and school board members met with individual legislators. Brown asked legislators to visit their schools and ask students and teachers what they needed to be successful on the state-mandated assessments and NAEP tests. She also asked legislators to first visit the bottom 6 percent of schools (76 schools) that the legislature had labeled as “failures.” All were in high-poverty areas, not surprising in a state with a high-poverty rate to begin with. Her story aired on NPR. Legislators who heeded the call and toured classrooms were highlighted on school district social media pages and thanked for their concern.

Executive Director of School Superintendents of Alabama Eric Mackey urged legislators to consider that fifteen states are in the midst of lawsuits over value-added measures and said, “In no state has it been proven conclusively to work, and in some states it has been proven conclusively not to work, so why go there again?” He also pointed out that the $18 million worth of appropriations needed to implement the PREP Act were not in the proposed education budget for the state. The next question was “What will be cut?” in an already unfunded budget.

In a startling late-night announcement on April 12, 2016, as a legislative work session was closing, Senator Marsh announced he was “shelving” the PREP Act bill. It was dead. Marsh explained that not enough legislators or educators were supporting the bill. He took a moment to explain, however, that Alabama’s economic woes sat on the shoulders of its educators—perhaps a last attempt to find someone else to blame for Alabama’s lack of leadership in attracting more industry to a poverty-laden state.

So, to return to Dickens, the winter of despair has turned into a spring of tentative hope. Perhaps the foolishness has been replaced with a measure of wisdom. Educator voices made a difference, and our students showed their best efforts and full hearts to legislators when it counted.


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The Other Side of the Discipline Coin

Today’s post, written by my granddaughter, needs no explanation.  I just want to say I am pleased that she is learning how to practice the sort of teacher behavior I have long advocated.

I work part-time in the discipline office of an overcrowded elementary school.  Over 90% of our students are of color, many of whom receive free or reduced lunch. If you asked me on a weekend, or at the beginning of most school days, I would explain my idealistic beliefs: all children are bright, funny and kind, but some have a harder time showing those redemptive qualities. They defend their insecurities by acting overly tough, being verbally disrespectful to adults or physically reactive to their peers.

Yet, there are times when my idealistic beliefs yield to my practical, and very real, frustration. As I see the same students day in and day out, I think: why do I need to have this conversation  with Caitlin again about controlling her body? Why is Jay shutting down right now when he needs to listen? Maurice was in the office twenty minutes ago for shouting at a teacher; why is he here again for talking back?

One of those ‘frequent flyers,’ we’ll call him Willie, rarely smiles and is difficult to de-escalate. Since the beginning of school this year Willie has been sent to the discipline office for talking back to teachers, fighting, and actively disrupting his class. Willie is clearly tough and, accordingly, I have always handled him with the same intensity. When Willie fights with another student, I am stern and hold him accountable for his actions.

Last week, however, Willie came into the office in tears. A person in one of his classes had said, “If you continue to act like that, you’re going to end up in prison.” Instead of shouting back or using his fists, Willie walked out of the classroom, came to the discipline office, sat down and cried. It became clear that all adults in the school, myself included, had been handling Willie in the way he had always been treated, but not necessarily in the way he needed at the moment. At the end of the day, I hand delivered this note to him:


I wanted to write you a letter to let you know how much you are appreciated at school. I remember you telling a friend all of your favorite things about school. You said that you liked art class, gym class, computers, your friends, math, reading and writing. This tells me that you are a very smart young man who is gifted and can be successful in whatever you put your mind to.

I also told you last week, how impressed I was that you came up with a reasonable consequence for your behavior after you and another student had a fight. This demonstrates to all the staff that you have the ability to be fair and mature.

Thank you for being a wonderful part of our community! Keep making the good choices you know how to make.

Ms. Bonnie

My job frequently requires me to reflect upon one of my favorite operettas, The Mikado, in which Gilbert and Sullivan highlighted the concept of fairness: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” In my work that means telling Kellie to go fetch ice for the student she punched in the face. It also means assisting Jimmy as he researches Ruby Bridges, and writes about why one shouldn’t use racist language in school.

Sometimes, however, the only crime is that a student has been long deprived of  positive reinforcement and needs someone to see the good side of him.

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True Grit

Topping the national news several months ago was the story of the escape of two dangerous criminals from a high security prison in New York State. They had spent long months in preparation, persuaded some prison employees to help them, dug a route to the outside from their cell, worked late at night to avoid attracting notice and, when their preparations were finally complete, went through rehearsals before actually carrying out their plan. A few days later they were recaptured far from the prison site in a place where they had had no opportunity to plan or practice any further escape.

What interested me most about this story was that those men who had wasted so many years of their lives in criminal activities were able to plan so well, work so hard and show so much patience in carrying our their escape. They developed a lot of “grit” when the stakes were high enough.

Another story of grit is told in one of my favorite movies, “Cool Hand Luke”, which is about a man arrested for a minor crime and  given a long term sentence in a chain-gang type prison.  Because he is smarter, more independent and resourceful than his fellow inmates, he is singled out by guards for repeated punishments and humiliation. Yet, he persists, even to the point of taking his own life when the final choice is between that and going back to the  prison life he had before. At the end of the movie Luke is gone, but his lessons of “grit” inspire other prison inmates to stand up for themselves against prison unfairnes and cruelty. The ultimate message is one of hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grit lately because the idea of teaching students how to develop it has become a controversial topic in the news and a practice in some schools. The focus started a few years when psychology professor, Angela Duckworth reported on her study of the attitudes and behavior of successful students and determined that grit was their key characteristic, more important than native ability. As a result, many educational leaders have begun to advocate for making the teaching of grit part of the regular school curriculum and some schools, especially charters, have bought into the practice.

It should not surprise my readers to hear that I strongly disagree with the belief and the practice. You can’t teach poor kids, middle class kids, or rich kids to work hard and long on things they don’t care about just because the school thinks they are important. Not tyrants, prison guards, nor expert teachers can change that reality.

On the other hand, as a teacher and principal–and later as a researcher in high poverty schools– I saw many ordinary kids develop grit because the conditions in the classroom were right. Their teachers made instruction interesting and offered students opportunities for self-chosen projects, collaboration with classmates, and innovation. And, if those kids had already tasted success and satisfaction in previous classroom activities, they believed they could stretch themselves even further this time. Yes, the work was harder than before, but it was doable, and they knew that completing it would bring them them the power and self-esteem they had enjoyed before.

In today’s classrooms where reaching standards is the mandated goal, teachers can still help students to develop grit. Their style of teaching and their assignments will either encourage or discourage students to reach for new goals. Who cares about analyzing the structure of a short story”? But after reading and discussing a few stories, students might like the idea of  writing their own stories. Completing math worksheets is the epitome of boring school work, but figuring out a monthly budget for you own allowance or designing a scale model for your ideal bedroom is a pleasurable activity. The power to develop grit lies within all of us.  All we need are the conditions that motivate and assist us.




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