Assignments Matter 2.0 The Trouble with Tribbles
I’d like to say that we had trouble with tribbles, but what we really had was trouble with teachers. Or, more accurately, trouble getting TO the teachers. And the teachers, likewise, had trouble getting to us. Assignments Matter, a two-year initiative study done through the National Writing Project, is, at heart, all about the conversations between teachers. Conversations about what makes a good writing assignment; conversations about what kids need to be able to do; conversations about what skills they need to complete great writing; conversations about what’s worth reading; conversations about ways to teach; and especially conversations about whether the assignments that we’re crafting DO the jobs we want them to do. We need those conversations. And without time to have them, when we’re stuck in our routines of lesson-planning, teaching, marking, meetings, paperwork, more meetings and more paperwork, and trying to fit in a few minutes with our own kids or, heaven forbid, taking care of ourselves, there’s only so far we can go and so much we can learn, and that limits how far our students can go and how much they can learn.
The plan was a pretty simple pyramid scheme. The three of us liaisons to between NWP and our local WP sites would each recruit five teacher leaders, and they’d each bring in 10 more teachers to build deep, rich conversations about writing assignments throughout NYC. We’d consider the key questions of what makes a good writing assignment, what makes writing assignments go wrong, and how we can make our assignments better. We’d all have time to plan, to collaborate, to jury (evaluate) draft assignments, and even to review student work at the end to see how it all went and whether the assignment did was it was supposed to do and discuss how to make it even better for the next time. Sounds great, right? Who doesn’t want to work with awesome teachers to become better? And from a school district’s point of view, it should have been a slam dunk: free PD offered by the NYCWP that met teachers’ need for CTLE hours? How could it be better? New York City is the largest school district in the world. It seems like it should be easy to reach multitudes of teachers, and therefore students, in New York, right?
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite play out that way. Enter the tribbles.
The first year was a disaster. Our NWP support team said that it wasn’t that bad, but yes, it was that bad. We started mid-year when everyone’s time was already booked, and the principals didn’t even give us a hearing. We didn’t quite know what we were doing, the teachers didn’t know what they’d signed up for and drifted away, and the conversations just weren’t happening… it was a mess.
But we knew these conversations were essential, and and we met with our team over the summer, heard what the brilliant folks in our sister site in Birmingham were doing at the RMWP, and decided that if we couldn’t get the TLs to the teachers in their schools, we’d try to get the teachers to come to the TLs on days that were already scheduled for PD across the City. A perfect solution!.
Again, we hadn’t counted on the tribbles. New York City has more than a million students in more than a thousand schools in thirty different districts. Because the City is so huge, the power is decentralized. Even the districts within the City are enormous, ranging from 10,000 to more than 60,000 students. Many districts, particularly the poorest, are “failing” and are under huge pressure to bring their scores up or be closed. For whatever reasons they had, we couldn’t work with the districts, and the principals didn’t want to hear from us. They even turned down a free breakfast pitch in which we hoped to offer their teachers FREE PD and leadership training!
Teachers loved the idea of getting together on PD days, though, and knew that they and their kids deserved better, so they promised to work on their principals to be released on PD days. We had our site ED contact some of the principals, and we ended up with a solid core group of about 80 awesome, committed teachers and 9 fabulous teacher leaders. The TLs and we worked our butts off to set up fabulous PD days at Lehman College in the Bronx, and we were good to go in November! Yay!
But as the year went on, even those few principals who had committed to releasing folks to work with us on city-wide PD days ultimately threw so many roadblocks in teachers’ ways that our numbers dwindled and we constantly struggled to make time and space for those conversations we all so desperately wanted and needed. We still worked with 50 or so teachers, and squeezed in at least a bunch of hours of conversation with some more, and we learned how to make our AM work time feel more like the NYCWP that we all knew and loved, so all of that was great. Teachers we worked with were excited and energized by their learning and by the awesome “improved” assignments they were drafting, as well as the clarity in their backward planning that came with more skillfully identifying the cognitive demands they wanted to embed in their prompts. At the end of two years, we call our work a success because of the incredible conversations we had and our realization that there is no one right answer but that by talking and working together with some key principles in mind, we can all make our assignments better. But we’d really love to have reached more teachers and more students.
So in the end, this post is really the story of constantly fighting through piles of tribbles that thrive in New York. It would be great if we could just transport them to the Romulan holds, but how do we convince the folks who push us to use PLCs, but who won’t let us actually meet? To recognize that they can’t lecture us for an hour and then send us back to our isolated classrooms to raise the scores? To grok that we teachers need to work together consistently to better understand what makes a good assignment and, more importantly, to do the work of creating assignments and evaluating and revising them together for our students’ best learning? If they won’t budge until they see a rise in test scores, we’re out of luck. We don’t have enough of a NYC teacher cohort with identified students to track that outcome…assuming that test scores are actually a measure of student learning, which has yet to be proved. How do we make inroads? We have some ideas, but none of them seem great, and two years in, I still feel like I’m standing in the corridor buried in tribbles.