Monthly Archives: March 2014

What’s the Secret to Happy Students?

By Amanda Jonas March 31, 2014 10:30 AM

Imagine the idyllic classrooms of your favorite television shows as a kid. Depending on when you grew up, you might be picturing the pristine science labs from Lizzie McGuire or plant-filled courtyard where Lizzie, Miranda and Gordo ate lunch.  Images of Mr. Feeny lecturing Cory in his big classroom with large green chalkboards and big windows might come to mind. Or, you might think of the bright orange lockers and cluttered music room of Bayside High. Whether your ideal school was Hillridge Junior High, John Adams High School, or Bayside High, one thing that all these schools share in common is that they feel like happy and welcoming places for their students. Sure, none of these schools were actually real. Granted, from time to time, one or more of our favorite characters got bullied or shoved in a locker. But overall, the schools felt warm, the students looked happy, and the teachers seemed cool.

What happens when your school looks nothing like a Hollywood set? DC Scholars Stanton Elementary, led by the fabulous Principal Rena Johnson, doesn’t have a science lab, a courtyard, or beautiful, big windows… In fact, my classroom windows are barely visible, covered by a million hand-drawn chart paper posters with math equations and formulas. Maybe Stanton doesn’t look like those TV show schools, but it still feels happy. What then, if not aesthetics, makes a school happy? Is there a certain formula that good teachers follow to create happiness? To answer this question, I asked students from four very different classrooms in my school about what makes them happy when they are in class. The answers below might surprise you.

Student: Nijae
Age: 6
Grade: 1st
Teacher: Ms. Tillman
Classroom Vibe: “Wild and Loving.”

“I am happy when we get to turn and talk about what Ms. Tillman teaches us. It makes me happy when Ms. Tillman listens to me and I know she’s listening to me because she tracks me and tells me if she agrees with me. And if she doesn’t, she tells me what she thinks.”

Student: Verkia
Age: 7
Grade: 2nd
Teacher: Ms. Hoes
Classroom Vibe: “Organized Chaos.”

“Being with Ms. Hoes makes me happy because she’s nice. She treats me special and she loves me. I know she loves me because she tells me and she hugs me and she gives me support like when she comes to my cheerleading competitions.”

Student: Dialonte
Age: 9
Grade: 3rd
Teacher: Ms. Reilly
Classroom Vibe: “Structured and Supportive.”

“I feel great in Ms. Emma’s room because she doesn’t get mad. Every time I mess up she doesn’t yell at me, she just tells me how to fix it the next time. I feel happy because I feel smart in her room because if I don’t understand something she’ll teach me so I can get great grades.”

Student: RavenJonas, happy students
Age: 10
Grade: 5th
Teacher: Ms. Jonas
Classroom Vibe: “Creatively Learnable.”

“I love being in Ms. Jonas’ class because I love math and she’s here with us. She takes time outside of her job for us and does what she has to do to always support us. Plus she cares even if we are acting up. She’s the best!”


Each student I talked to comes from a very different class. Ms. Emma’s incredible behavior management creates a peaceful and thoughtful room where all scholars are respectful and important members of her learning community. Ms. Hoes slightly cluttered room is a place where students eagerly learn with just as much as excitement as when their desks are shoved to the sides of the room so they can learn a choreographed Beyoncé dance for the latest assembly. Finally, my classroom fluctuates between scenes of me wildly jumping off desks to explain the metric system, to impromptu push up competitions, to deep intellectual conversations on how our graph shows how education increases earning potential.

So, what is the secret to a happy class? Not one of the students mentioned any material objects, extra recess, or candy. Instead, all of the students I talked to could articulate exactly what made them feel happy in school. I feel the secret to this joy is a classroom that feels safe, a classroom where love abides, a classroom where students know they are listened to, valued and respected… The secret to happiness is in all those little things that no perfect Hollywood set could emulate.


Art Education: The Life Vest Some Students Need

By Amanda Rogers March 26th, 2014 10:00 AM

Good teachers know how to modify their teaching and classroom environment to meet the needs of their students. Great teachers understand that all students learn differently and design their lessons based on student interests and strengths. But, to be realistic, we all know that not every student can be vocal about what they need.

That’s where visual arts comes in.  For those students who lack confidence in academic classes or struggle with certain tasks, arts instruction can act as a life vest. In my seven years of teaching, I have had artistically talented students, but I’ve also had students who see art class as an escape from their regular classes.  These students have asked questions that not only push their thinking, but also my own. These disconnected students are able to feel successful in a new and exciting way in my class and show their academic progress through creating art.

Picture the cave drawings of Lascaux France; what were those early humans trying to record? I like to think that the drawings were a way in which humans realized they could not always put their thoughts into words, but could rely on their hands to share what they wanted to say. Visual arts education also exposes students to the “how’s” and “why’s” of the world. It encourages students to explore paintings and sculptures and, if guided properly, end up with more questions about the piece than when they first looked at it. These questions are important because they push students’ understanding of the world they live in. Learning to unleash these questions on every day tasks creates humans who are inventors, innovative thinkers, and leaders. Think about the evolution of photography and digital media in the past ten years. The industry has exploded due to someone asking “why” and “how” and “what can I do to make this better?”

The constant flow of these questions is essentially the basis of art education. When students are creating or looking at art, they are often internally asking, “how can I make this differently?” or “am I challenging myself to my fullest potential?” Disconnected learners or unchallenged exceptional students often find this mode of thinking refreshing and compelling. Unlike math or language arts, much of the art world does not have a correct answer. Teaching students this mode of thinking empowers them and builds their confidence, ultimately giving them a new way to approach their learning.

Arts education doesn’t need to be confined to the art room, and I encourage general education classroom teachers to incorporate visual arts into their lessons. It can be the outlet and frame of mind that some of our students need. When a child feels that it is okay to ask questions and they can show their learning by creating art, the entire world can be unlocked for them. Offer your students the option to sketch an answer to a question.  Let them observe a painting from the time period you’re currently teaching. Whatever arts integration tools you decide to use in your classroom, I guarantee that you will have more involved students and richer conversations with them about what they are learning.

Follow Amanda on Twitter: @NEcityart

Teacher Recognition Elevates the Profession

By Angelique Kwabenah March 25th, 2014 10:00 AM

While I know that my work as I teacher is challenging, I love my job and the rewards that it brings.  I would do it no matter what, but it always feels good to be recognized in unique and innovative ways.

For me, this recognition came through my participation in America Achieves.  America Achieves is a fellowship that selects highly qualified teachers from around the country and provides them with an opportunity to network and learn more about the educational policymaking process. In addition, fellows participate in the yearly Education Nation Conference where they are given the opportunity to meet local and state education policy makers. When I attended this conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and share with him my concerns about the state of education today. The fellowship also helped me network with other exemplary teachers from around the country and exchange ideas about strategies for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and Teacher Professional Development Models. I really enjoyed this opportunity to network at the local and national level, and this unique experience made me a better advocate for my profession.

As a DCPS teacher, this recognition has not been limited to fellowships and leadership development.  Highly Effective teachers are eligible for several teaching awards, all of which are presented at the annual Standing Ovation Awards Ceremony at the Kennedy Center. I had the distinct pleasure of being selected as a DCPS Teacher of Excellence in 2011, and the district played a video montage of my class during the celebration. I also received a monetary award of $ $10,000 and that left me absolutely speechless! This was followed by a call from Chancellor Henderson during my summer vacation congratulating me for all of my hard work, and I was truly humbled.

Leadership opportunities through LIFT and the Standing Ovation Awards Ceremony are just two of the ways that the District of Columbia Public School System shows how much teachers are valued in the system. Every day, students are being affirmed and encouraged by their teachers for their hard work. As a teacher, I feel that we are being affirmed and encouraged by DCPS for the hard work that we do as well.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle School

By Sean McGrath March 20th, 2014 10:00 AM

I want you to think back for a moment to when you were thirteen years old. I mean really think back. Put yourself in the shoes of adolescent you. What was it like to be physically on the verge of adulthood but mentally still a child? With the hormones flowing through your body at an alarming rate, were you in control of your emotions and feelings, or did you allow them to control you? Were you dressed in all the latest fashions, or were you like the author, pictured below, who was a rock star only in his own mind?

Not Pictured: An Actual Rock Star

Not Pictured: An Actual Rock Star

It’s no secret that the teenage years are among the most tumultuous in a person’s life. Books like Surviving Ophelia and Raising Cain detail the crises that, respectively, adolescent girls and boys navigate during the ages of 11–19. The question is, why?

During these years, the human brain starts to develop from the ground up. The first segments of the brain to develop – the Brainstem and the Midbrain – are responsible for regulating the bodily functions necessary to survival: blood pressure, body temperature, and so forth. This leaves the Limbic and Cortex areas – those that regulate judgment, logic, reason, and rational thinking – as the last ones to mature. This has a huge impact on adolescent behavior, leaving teenagers more likely to behave with reckless abandon and ignore the consequences of their own actions.

It’s why so many people will inevitably respond with a “good luck” or a “you poor dear” when told that I choose to teach this challenging age group. So why do I choose to relive the worst years of my life 181 days out of the year? Precisely because of these aforementioned qualities.

The erratic nature of teenage years means that, without proper guidance and support, erratic behaviors can acquire permanence in a person’s brain. In fact, according to Linda Burgess Chamblain, PhD, in her pamphlet, The Amazing Adolescent Brain: What Every Educator, Youth Serving Professional, and Healthcare Provider Needs to Know:  “Brain connections that are stimulated and used repeatedly grow stronger while unused connections wither away.” In essence, teenagers who are taught to think critically during the times when they are least likely to actually think critically, will be empowered to make positive life choices.

At my school, we begin every day with a Developmental Designs Circle of Power and Respect. This advisory program, created by Dr. Terrence Ross, consists of four parts: greeting, sharing, play, and reflection that meet the specific needs of adolescent children: autonomy, competence, relationships, and fun. Incorporating this understanding of middle-level children into daily lessons and classroom management means that I spend a lot less time yelling than I did during my first year as a teacher. Now, I understand my students better. A girl who is misbehaving in class by calling out is trying to assert her autonomy. A boy who would rather socialize than learn about The War of 1812 is expressing his desire to build interpersonal relationships. It doesn’t make that behavior any less frustrating in the moment, but it does allow me to tailor my reaction so that the behavior is corrected rather than punished. This corrective action, what we call “Take a Break”, builds a relationship with students while allowing them to reflect on their disruptive behavior.

For example, I had a student one day, Jeremiah*, who decided that he didn’t want to use his pencil anymore and flung it halfway across the room. While raising my voice at him, calling home, and giving him a zero would have all been warranted reactions, they wouldn’t have reached the root of the issue. Instead, I calmly asked Jeremiah to “Take a Break” in another classroom. J got up from his seat, grumbling along the way, took a reflection paper, and walked to the directed classroom. He came back 5 minutes later with his reflection sheet filled out. He was quiet for the rest of class. After the bell rang, I called him over to my desk and spoke with him for a minute.

“Hey man, lemme ask you something. What’s going on with you?” I said.


“Okay, you don’t have to tell me if it’s personal, but your behavior in class today was inexcusable. You know we don’t throw pencils here. What’s going on?” I continued to pry.
After a brief pause, Jeremiah answered.

“Sorry, Mr. McGrath. There’s just this girl, and, well I don’t want to talk about it, but I shouldn’t have thrown that pencil.”

“I understand, bud. If you want to talk, you know you can come to me.”

“Thanks, Mr. McGrath, see you later. Oh, wait! What was the homework tonight?”

So, when people ask me why I teach middle school, it’s not just because I enjoy subjecting myself to erratic behaviors and outlandish statements – although, believe me, that’s absolutely part of it. I understand the needs these students have, and if I can, in some way, help them fulfill those needs and encourage them and guide them to become more thoughtful people, adolescence may just be a little more bearable.

The Impact on Teachers

By Earl Jones March 19th, 2014 10:00 AM

Prior to joining DCPS, I noticed two major flaws in my non-K12 work environment: a lack of clear expectations for my teaching and specific feedback on how to improve.

So, when I was looking for a new position, I made sure to do my research.  That’s when I found IMPACT, the performance assessment system in DCPS for all school-based positions. I found it to be exactly what I was looking for. It promised clear expectations, support, and the feedback that I was missing to help me push my students academically.

In my experience, I have found that the most useful component of IMPACT is the Teaching and Learning Framework (TLF). Through the TLF, my administrators and master educators (the district’s content area experts) assess my effectiveness through classroom observations and then provide feedback and support during a debrief session. They observe obvious things, like how well I explain content, engage my students, and develop higher-level thinking in my classroom. Then they go even further, looking for indicators of teacher effectiveness like a supportive learning-focused classroom and maximized instructional time (i.e. a lack of student disruptions, distractions, and “down-time”). These clear expectations about what defines excellent teaching help me plan every part of my lesson, from the hook to the independent practice. In fact, there are times when I literally check my lesson plan against the TLF criteria to make sure I’m doing my best work.

During the debrief session, I meet with either my principal and master educator to go over what they saw in my lesson.  These sessions have been important to my development, helping me gain insight into how to increase my effectiveness in the classroom. For example, my observer recently suggested that I reinforce vocabulary when working with my English language learning students. This gave my students more choice in how they wanted to show mastery of a concept and helped further push my students who perform above grade level.

Most times, I have agreed with the feedback given. While I, of course, put my best effort into planning each lesson, sometimes I don’t see the gaps in my planning until an objective observer sheds light. It drives me even more when I see that many times, there’s always something I can do better for the benefit of my students.

Since I am a 4th grade teacher, I also receive an Individual Value-Added Achievement (IVA) score as a part of my evaluation. This score is calculated by looking at my students’ projected DC CAS scores (based on a number of criteria, including past test scores) and comparing them to how my students’ actually scored on the day of the test. If my students performed better than projected, this says that I have had a positive impact on my students’ learning throughout the year. As a PD tool, revisiting my IVA score allows me reflect back on my best practices from the previous year when planning for the upcoming school year.

Linked with IMPACT is IMPACTplus, the compensation system that recognizes teachers who achieve a Highly Effective at the end of a school year. These teachers are eligible for leadership opportunities without transitioning from classroom teaching, increases in base pay, and bonuses of up to $25,000.  I feel as though IMPACTplus proves how much DCPS values its teachers. A pat on the back and a “great job” are one thing, but providing new opportunities and writing a check are another.

I am truly fortunate to work for a school system that utilizes a system like IMPACT. I feel as though DCPS shows a true investment in their teachers. The use of a concrete assessment and feedback system, in conjunction with recognition and compensation system based on merit and effectiveness, has definitely impacted me and other teachers in the district.


By Tanesha Dixon March 13th, 2014 11:10 AM

In 2013, less that half of the nation’s SAT takers meet the 1550 benchmark set for college and career readiness.  The numbers are markedly lower for Black (15.6%) and Latino students (23.5) (source: SAT Benchmarks: Development of a College Readiness Benchmark and its Relationship to Secondary and Postsecondary School Performance by Jeffrey Wyatt, Jennifer Kobrin, Andrew Wiley, Wayne J. Camara, and Nina Proestler).

So what happens to those students who, despite taking the SAT, do not reach this benchmark? Similarly, what happens to the seniors who did not take the SAT or worse, the students who did not for whatever circumstances make it to their senior year?  As an educator, I think these numbers are appalling and dare I say criminal.  In one of the most industrialized counties on this planet, we fail to provide equal access to an education that would lend itself to high school and college completion.

In DC Public Schools, we’re making an investment in our lowest performing schools and setting ambitious goals around improving academic achievement. In our 40 lowest performing schools, which serve large populations of students that need extra support, we’re committed to improving proficiency rates by 40 percentage points before the end of 2017.

I am a DCPS educator at Wheatley Education Campus, one of our district’s 40 schools lowest performing schools (also referred to as the Targeted 40). I firmly believe that it is my professional duty and moral obligation to provide my students with an education that will not only make them competitively college and career ready, but equip them with the social and emotional skills they will need to navigate the complex world that awaits them.  Some may think these are lofty goals or impossible.  To me, they are the self-fulfilling prophecies that encouraged, supported and propelled me to success. I want to pay it forward and be all that and more for my students.

I teach to ignite the fire, passion, and drive it takes to persevere and overcome insurmountable odds. However some days, I feel challenged beyond measure by those seemingly insurmountable odds.  There’s no teacher preparation course or manual that adequately prepares you to confront the ills and isms that threaten to derail the academic, social and emotional growth of students.  I also feel the pressure to quickly accelerate achievement.  In the Targeted 40, there is no time for incremental growth if we are going to reach our ambitious goal.  There is a sense of critical urgency that drives both teaching and learning. And while I sometimes feel challenged or pressured, I also feel hopeful that the work that I am doing matters because I am supported by my school leadership to design and implement innovative programs with student achievement and engagement metrics.  I feel extremely lucky to teach on a team with Superman [1], vertically plan with a published author, and engage with a host of equally talented and dedicated professionals that stop at nothing short of ensuring their students get their absolute.

Are you deeply committed to cultivating the dreams and talents of youth that will one day bestow beautiful gifts to their communities and the world?  Do you want to close (and permanently seal) the achievement gap? I do, and #IamDCPS.

Tanesha Dixon is a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher and technology integration coach at Wheatley Education Campus. Follow Ms. Dixon on Twitter @i143ss.

[1] Mr. Taylor was highlighted in the critically acclaimed Waiting for Superman documentary.

Do I Really Need a Foreign Language?

By Destinee Hodge March 12th, 2014 5:00 PM

“Señorita, I don’t know any Spanish people, I don’t think I need to learn Spanish.”

“Why can’t we just learn English? Spanish is too hard.”

“I speak English, that’s enough.”

These, among others, are some of the complaints I’ve received from my students (especially at the beginning of the year). Coupled with the fact that English and math scores take center stage across the education sector, it often makes defending foreign language (FL) instruction even more of an uphill battle.

When I first started this job, it was hard for me to understand why some of my students did not inherently want to learn a new language. Having grown up on a Caribbean island replete with Spanish-speakers and people of different cultures, I understood that to have the best experience, I needed to be able to communicate with others. As I got older I realized how unique an experience my upbringing was.  I thought the best way to continue to discover new things about other cultures and share my knowledge was through teaching.

It took me a while to understand that, as a teacher, it is my responsibility to take my students out of their comfort zone in a way that their immediate environment doesn’t. Many of my students truly only interact with people who look, sound and dress exactly like them. Why should they be interested in learning about others?

Some of my students were immediately onboard with learning a foreign language. They already had an experience where they saw how knowing a foreign language could benefit them.  But for those students without a zeal or curiosity to learn about other cultures, traditional methods of encouraging them to be invested didn’t work. Phrases like “It’ll help you do well in high school” or “you can get a better job” weren’t enough to motivate them.

I came up with my top five reasons for learning a new language that I’ve used to invest my students at the beginning of the year. While I could go into so many studies, the fact that in 2018 there will be a FL NAEP test, or any other piece of evidence, I find that the simplest things are what get the students on board to give the FL experience a try. Of course, my examples relate to Spanish, but these benefits are applicable to any FL!

1. It makes you smarter

Learning a new language causes you to make connections and spark new synapse pathways. Not only that, but in learning the grammar and vocabulary in a different language, it strengthens your knowledge of your own first language. Smarter overall and reinforcing knowledge you already have? That sounds like a good deal to me. (source:

2. More communication = More money and more competitive

Try to think of one profession in which you would never encounter someone who speaks a different language. Let me know if you come up with one. In the meantime, let’s talk about the fact that currently, employers are desperate for people who can communicate in more than one language. Less communication equates to less money and being less competitive. If we’re talking about the competition, Americans are vastly behind. A recent article by Forbes detailed –among other things- that 18% of Americans report speaking more than one language compared to around 53% of Europeans. That’s almost three times more! In my personal experience, even though I have a full-time job as a teacher, I’ve sometimes been able to make an extra dime here and there by translating a written work or at an event. Who doesn’t want more money? And who doesn’t want to be able to compete for a better-paying job?

3. You can meet new people (or just be nosey)

I have met so many people in unexpected places as a result of speaking Spanish. I’ve helped people find the right bus route, made friends when I went out to eat, or even just on the metro. For the nosier people out there, I can even surreptitiously listen in on conversations because people do not always assume I speak Spanish. If nothing else, it’s extremely empowering.

4. You can be exposed to a new culture

You may think that carryout and go-go are the end all be all, but I’d gladly introduce you to empanadas, bachata and everything in between. There are so many cultures associated with the Spanish language that you could spend the rest of your life listening to new music or trying new food and still not discover everything.  Perhaps French or Portuguese are more up your alley? Zouk, Samba and Escargot Pizza are all open for you to try. You’d be so surprised how passionate you can become about a new cultural experience.

5. Even some of the biggest celebrities realize that it’s important to branch out and reach a new set of people

Beyoncé. Drake. Nicki Minaj. You probably don’t think “Spanish” when you hear these names but these are just a few examples of stars who realize that communicating with people who speak a different language is important. Imagine- they have all the fans in the world and they’re still trying to reach the Latin market? That says something. Don’t believe me? Check out some of their music here:


Drake- “Odio”

Nicki Minaj- “Animales”-

Usually after I present my five reasons (with a little help from videos and food samples) I have most of my middle school classes ready to give it all a go. For high school I might add the Advanced Placement/ college application tidbit. Sharing my own language learning struggles and successes typically adds the icing to the cake. At the end of the day, the same things that motivate us motivate our students. If our leader can explain why a specific goal is important to our lives, we are extremely invested. I try to apply that philosophy to investing my students.

Destinee Hodge is a Spanish teacher at Kelly Miller Middle School.