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How to View Teaching Situations Where the Odds are Against You: A Personal Case Study

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image- One-and-Done PDI currently teach our high school’s first sections of AP World History. These are the first “advanced” courses I’ve taught in my nine years of teaching. Also, for various reasons, this course is open to ninth graders only.

This is a challenging situation.

Two ways to shake it

Every single year in the classroom — heck, every single day — presents challenging situations that demand our interpretation. The class with the higher-than-usual number of IEPs; the teaching schedule with four different preps; the chronic behavioral outbursts from fourth period; the divisive district leadership: we can’t not interpret situations like this. Our interpretations tend to fall into one of two threads: problem-as-conclusive and problem-as-opportunity.

The Problem-as-Conclusive Approach

This happens when we view the problem as the final word on a situation. There are just too many kids in that class. Too many of the kids are “too low” to read that text. I have too many preps to do any of them well.

With my freshman-only APWH situation, here are the reasons it’s tempting to take the problem-as-definitive stance.

  • CollegeBoard strongly urges against AP courses for ninth graders. When you go to submit your syllabus on the AP website, you have to read through this document, which includes lines like “exam results show that, for the most part, ninth grade students are not sufficiently prepared to participate in a college-level course.” [1]
  • The human brain continues development into the mid-20s, [2] which means that my ninth graders have one or more years less brain development time than their upperclassmen peers.
  • In order to help my ninth graders succeed on the exam in May, I would need to dedicate more time than I have. This one is selfish, but I’m just being honest. Before this whole APWH thing, I’ve had a great gig going. Teaching a balanced mix of English 9 and World History several years in a row has allowed me to create efficiencies in my planning time, and this has given me more time to nerd out on writing, researching, and stuff like that.
  • If my kids don’t do well on the tests in May, I’ll look bad. This makes the last one look innocent, but now I’m being really honest about the dark, ugly nooks of my heart. There’s nowhere to run when you have every student taking an end-of-course, specialized assessment like the AP test, and every one of my students will take the test because 1) I’ll encourage them to, and 2) the district pays for the test.

A side note on testing

If you’re bothered by the emphasis I seem to be placing on this test, please set aside the “all testing is bad testing” dogma for a moment. AP tests, I would submit, are an entirely different species (not genus — hey-o, science teachers) of creature from state-mandated, high-stakes, teacher-accountability tests. There are many reasons for this, but here are just a few: my students can gain financial benefit from passed AP tests; my students can gain well-founded confidence from an AP test that they can’t from any situation I can present them with; the APWH test is both content- and skills-rich; I could go on. In sum: assessments aren’t inherently wretched, even though many of the highest-stakes ones in the USA today certainly are a hot, destructive mess.

The Problem-as-Opportunity Approach

Here’s the rarer approach to challenging situations, and I’ll argue that it’s vastly superior because 1) our quality of life improves when we think this way and 2) our performance does, too. [3]

Basically, Problem-as-Opportunity requires that we re-examine our chief obstacle from a creative standpoint. Rather than accepting the instinctual Problem-as-Conclusive thoughts that anyone can produce, we ask “How might this actually be an opportunity?” We keep doing that until we arrive someplace helpful.

When this school year started, all I could produce from this approach amounted to this:

  • Why not? Even if none of my ninth graders passed the AP exam in May, wouldn’t it still be beneficial to their long-term flourishing? Would it not likely help them do better in subsequent AP courses, especially the others offered by the social studies department?

This original answer began to decay, however, upon further thought. First of all, having all of my students take the test in May only to fail it would be an expensive “Why not?” for my district. It’s unacceptable from a fiscal responsibility perspective. Furthermore, having “AP” on your transcript next to a failing AP score doesn’t do much from a college admissions perspective — my kids needed to know that. Finally, how was I going to teach the course content and skills and say that they matter, and how was I going to teach my students to do hard things, and how was I going to tell my kids that I believed in their ability to dominate life while holding onto this “Why not?” reason in the back of my head?

It was a first draft attempt at Problem-as-Opportunity thinking, and it was light-years better than the Problem-as-Conclusive stuff, but it needed revision.

Several months into this school year, after thinking on this for days, I started having breakthroughs:

  • First, I realized that ninth graders have more time than upperclassmen. Most don’t have varsity sports, jobs, intense club responsibilities, or competing college-level classes. This is one of those few moments in my life where I really understood the weight of what I’d realized. I believe there have been strategic advantages in every teaching situation I’ve ever been in, from my first in a remedial sixth grade reading class in Baltimore to every group I’ve taught in Cedar Springs. However, this particular ninth-grade APWH strategic advantage is huge. Learning history and historical thinking skills isn’t impossible, but it is difficult and it does take time. You can learn the material and keep up with the homework in 30 minutes per day or so, but that’s really only if you master retrieval practice (a la Make It Stick) and Conley’s Key Learning Skills and Techniques (treated in Part V of this ebook and much more thoroughly in Conley’s recent book). Nearly all of my incoming APWH students understandably lack these college-level skills. Time is a huge advantage.
  • Then, I realized that it’s motivating being the underdog. I started showing my students statistics about how poorly ninth graders do on the APWH test. I shared with them the occasional, derisively-toned comments I would hear about that freshmen AP class. And I continued to compare that information with the increasing evidence of their growth.

The opportunities kept stacking up:

  • The class and the challenge is so hard that almost every student has failed at something. Here’s Justinian’s take: “The few years of school have been essentially a cakewalk and that made me blow up and become overconfident until I [entered APWH]. To make mistakes and learn more than ever before has truly… affected me the most.”
  • Once we were a few months in, many students admitted to this being their first “Oh my goodness, I’m drowning” academic experience. How huge is that? What a privilege to be able to give that first experience to my kids. That may sound messed up, but I’m serious — for some of my students, being able to go through this as a ninth grader may be the difference between persisting or giving up on something much more important later on in life. It may be. That’s a huge opportunity.
  • On an anecdotal level, I began hearing from students and parents/guardians about how beneficial the course — and particularly its challenge — was for the kids. Students began reporting that the class was teaching them not just about history, but about life.

In short, months ago the opportunities started outweighing the problem. I still have moments when I worry for my reputation or the district’s money if the kids don’t do well in May — but then I put my head down into the work, or, if I’m at home, I drag my mind back to the book I’m reading with Haddie, or the wrestling I’m doing with Marlena, or the conversation I’m having with my wife.

An end note on when the problem is undoubtedly bad

I realize that APWH for ninth graders is mild compared to many situations faced by my readers.

We should advocate and organize against fixable situations that are bad for kids. 40+ students per Spanish class is a problem; it may please the eye of the person looking at the school budget spreadsheet, but it’s ultimately bad for kids. Divisive leadership is a problem; it diminishes performance which diminishes long-term student outcomes. We should push to remedy these things, using the means we have available.

And yet, all the while, we should still think through them using the Problem-as-Opportunity approach. This allows us to grow and perform in ways we otherwise wouldn’t; it also allows us to find true joy in the midst of the struggle.

This is the inner work of teaching. This matters, a lot.

Thank you to Anne Kostus, Director of Academic Services at Cedar Springs High School. Her belief in the vision for APWH has enriched the lives of all of my students. Also, thank you to Larry Ferlazzo whose conversation with me months ago obviously left a mark! 

Footnotes:

  1.  See CollegeBoard’s “Policy: Appropriate Grade Levels for AP Courses” here.
  2. “as long as mentation expands.” See Pujol et al’s “When does human brain development end? Evidence of corpus callosum growth up to adulthood” for Annals of NeurologyAbstract.
  3. Shawn Achor does a good job outlining the performance-enhancing nature of positive thinking in this TED Talk.

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6 Responses to How to View Teaching Situations Where the Odds are Against You: A Personal Case Study

  1. andrea dye March 22, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

    Wow! Just saw this in my inbox and couldn;t resist the read. I continue to be blown away by your honesty and insight. I love the “meta” nature of your blogs since it models the same kind of instruction our students need to succeed. Thank you for sharing your diligent work on educational reform. Good luck with AP History 9!

    • davestuartjr April 4, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

      Thank you, Andrea, for taking the time to encourage a brother! I’m meta to a fault 🙂

  2. Gerard Dawson March 22, 2016 at 9:01 pm #

    You channel the great Stoic thinkers here, Mr. Stuart. Marcus Aurellius, especially, in my opinion.

    I recommend The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, if you haven’t already read it. The book is filled with historical examples of leaders who have turned obstacles into opportunities.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • davestuartjr April 4, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

      Gerard! You know, you speaking about Stoics makes me think you would love (or perhaps already do love) Mr. Money Mustache. Have you checked this guy out? I want to read Holiday’s book, very much. It sounds awesome.

  3. Brenna Griffin March 23, 2016 at 11:01 am #

    Wow, I just had to tell you how much I loved this post. I have had a rough school year in terms of my mental state (not in terms of being overwhelmed–at least not more than usual, but of just my attitude about all of the challenges in education today). I wrote my masters thesis on teacher burnout, and one of the key components of teachers maintaining “passionate sustainability” was their ability to accept ambiguity. I think this really connects to your point about a mindset of problems as opportunities. Yes, there are problems that are inherently bad. But most of us still have much autonomy in the classroom, and seeing our problems as opportunities entirely shifts our mindsets to what is possible for our students. I’m a frequent lurker and am so thankful for how you share your pedagogy, but wow, this post really resonated with me.

    • davestuartjr April 4, 2016 at 1:53 pm #

      Brenna, thank you! Would you be willing to share you thesis with me? It sounds fascinating; email me at dave _ at _ davestuartjr.com if you’re comfortable sharing! At very least, thank you for lurking 🙂

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