Teachers Endeavor To Create Equitable Classes
‘We need to meet students where they are’
Teachers plan an upcoming professional development session on equity. (Photo by Will Foster)
By Will Foster ’20
A number of Payton teachers have led a push this school year to achieve greater equity in their students’ learning experiences. “There are a lot of things that can stand as obstacles to what a child can really, truly achieve,” said Alicia Gonzalez, a French teacher and the World Language Department Chair at Payton. The goal she and her fellow educators are pursuing is, if not to eliminate those obstacles, at least to minimize their effect.
“Education is the pathway to freedom,” said Leslie Russell, who teaches English and co-chairs Payton’s Professional Personnel Leadership Committee (PPLC), which plans lessons for teachers’ scheduled professional development sessions. “School should not be a place that replicates the inequities that are so common in the rest of society.”
The PPLC — whose other co-chair is English teacher Michelle Mowery, the Paw Print’s faculty advisor — has made educational equity its focus this school year. At 3:45 p.m. on a recent Monday afternoon, the committee met in Russell’s classroom to continue planning an upcoming presentation to their colleagues, entitled “The Sociopolitical Context and Systems of Oppression.”
“What we need to try to compel is a shift in mindset,” Russell, who is also the faculty sponsor of Payton’s Black Student Union, told the handful of teachers sitting around the circle. “We need to ask different questions, and be aware of and check our own biases. Chiefly, I think we need to interrogate the things that we’re afraid of.”
“The idea of equity … is ensuring that every child, every student, receives what he or she needs to develop his or her own social and academic potential,” said Assistant Principal Lauren O’Malley, who also teaches an AP Research class. “In that respect,” she noted, echoing the thoughts of other teachers, “equity is different from equality. At the very least, everybody should be getting this, right?” She sketched out a diagram on a piece of paper. “So this is equality, but I think the equity piece comes in when maybe this person, Person A, needs a little bit more help, if we’re all working towards the same outcomes. And maybe Person B … is doing A-okay and doesn’t need that extra support.” Last year, O’Malley and other Payton administrators attended a National Equity Project conference.
Aside from the PPLC, 18 Payton teachers are members of the National SEED Project (the acronym stands for “Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity”). French teacher Abby Imrem, who is also on the PPLC, leads the Payton cohort. “It’s basically a way for us [teachers] to connect with each other around different pieces of our own identities as well as our students’ identities, and to exchange stories and listen to each other,” Imrem said. “The idea is that then we can serve our students, and do our jobs, even better.” Imrem attended a week-long SEED training conference in Boston last summer with about 80 fellow educators from around the country.
Even before this school year, Payton had already taken significant strides toward an equitable educational philosophy. For example, the school implemented a “mood meter” so students could record their feelings on a spectrum posted on the board — emblematic of Payton’s attempt to create an environment of “social-emotional learning” in addition to purely academic learning.
Social Studies teacher Joshua Wiggins, a fellow in the National Equity Project’s Leading for Equity Institute, said he makes note of where students are pinning themselves on the mood meter. “If a student stayed up super late studying for another class then I’m not likely to cold call that student for an answer, [particularly because] they might not have done the reading for homework,” Wiggins said. “That’s not letting them off the hook; we’re going to have a conversation about how we can manage work better … But in that moment, it’s avoiding putting the student on the spot for not having done the work. You’re responding to what they need.”
Beginning last year, Principal Timothy Devine and his fellow Payton administrators began planning the implementation of competency-based learning (CBL), in which more of an emphasis is placed on flexible, individualized learning of topics as opposed to rigid, standardized curricula. While the full transition to CBL will likely take several years, it eventually has the potential to transform education at Payton. Already this school year, AP U.S. Government classes (taught by Devine and Wiggins) have added an “outcomes-based” grading system in which students can retake tests as many times as they need to achieve mastery. (The Math Department has long maintained a similar policy for its intro-level classes.)
“It creates a learning environment where students are not being forced along in a curriculum,” said Wiggins. “You’re ensuring that students have mastered the skills that will be required later on for more difficult tasks.”
When asked whether a lack of equity is currently a significant problem at Payton, the teachers interviewed for this story did not hesitate in saying it is. “Payton is a microcosm of education in this country at large,” Wiggins said. “So students of color, specifically black and brown students, underperform when compared to their white peers. Students with disabilities also perform at a lower achievement level.”
“I mean, I think life is inequitable,” Gonzalez said. “But in a school like this, where you are taking kids from such diverse backgrounds, I think it’s exacerbated. Everyone comes in with different strengths and weaknesses, but we treat everybody the same because intelligence-wise, everyone’s the same.”
Kania Kinsey ‘19, a Payton senior who co-leads the school’s Black Student Union, also feels more work is needed. “I don’t think that Payton’s classrooms are equitable,” Kinsey said, “because of the large population of students of color not excelling in math and science in comparison to their white classmates.”
Kinsey feels she is sometimes singled out by teachers due to her identity. “On more occasions than one, I’ve been the only black woman in my class and teachers have … touched my hair or asked if everything is okay at home because I missed a homework assignment,” she said. “It made me feel like a spectacle of some sort, making me want to go as unnoticed as possible, which was problematic because this is my education we’re talking about.”
On first impression, “We’re a fantastic school that really gives kids a rich and full experience,” said Russell, who is one of Payton’s SEED members. “And I don’t think that stops being true when you interrogate the outcome. But I do think that it’s not true for all students. And when you do the cost-benefit analysis for some kids who come to school here, then you find that it costs them so much in self-esteem through mistreatment … that what they’re getting from us is significantly less than what other kids are. And it shouldn’t be that way.”
The choice of material that is taught can serve to demean students of different identities. “The curriculum is centered on European men,” Russell said. “We have a structure where some ideas and opinions get dismissed because they’re not presented in a ‘white culture’ way — using the conventions of academic English, or providing examples from the classical tradition.”
Meanwhile, testing and homework policies are also under the microscope. “If that piece of paper, that grade, is going to follow that student around and define that student — which is unfortunate, for a lot of reasons — then we need to be really, really thoughtful on making the earning of that grade equitable,” said Gonzalez. “We need to meet students where they are — we use that terminology a lot, but it really makes a lot of sense — in order for them to have an equitable chance at achieving to the best of their ability, without being defined by things they can’t control.” Gonzalez noted that obstacles to a student’s learning can come from both external and internal factors, including family problems, financial troubles, social difficulties, and learning differences.
Teachers recognized the issues of equity inherent in assigning homework. “Some students might have a two-hour commute home, whereas other students might have a 20-minute commute home,” Wiggins said. “So if you’re being equitable, and giving each student what they need, you wouldn’t pile on a bunch of homework … All students don’t have the same amount of time.”
Noted Imrem, “Not everyone has a space to complete homework; not everyone has a bedroom or a desk. They might be trying to complete their homework at the kitchen counter while they’re making dinner, for example.”
For her part, Gonzalez believes homework can in many circumstances be both unfair and ineffective. “I sort of feel like homework was this act to control students, to create behaviors, sort of like Skinner,” she said, referring to B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist famous for his research on behavioral conditioning. “It’s work, reward, work, reward: You do the work, you get 10 points. And even if you bombed the test, you still have those 10 points.”
Indeed, Gonzalez said, homework often does not fairly assess student learning. “They could have copied it from a friend, they could have been half-asleep when they did it (understandably because they’re tired), or they could have gotten help on it from a tutor, friend, or parent,” she said. “So how are you assessing them on something when there’s no context for it?”
Led by Gonzalez, the World Language Department this year has set a goal of assigning minimal homework. Imrem notes that this policy connects closely to competency-based learning. “Completing homework is not really showing your competency in the skills,” Imrem said. Rather, she believes the crucial question for students is “What can you do in front of me, during class?”
For their part, many math classes at Payton already made homework optional. Even so, Kinsey has felt inequity in the expectations that are placed on her. “My math teacher told me that if I did the homework, I’d understand the class work,” Kinsey said. “I work directly after school until 10 p.m.; doing homework that doesn’t count for a grade is the least of my worries.”
Russell said she tries to identify and focus on students who may need more help than their peers to succeed in her classes. “I look at what the Payton outcome data suggest,” she said, “and then I look at my early assessments for students, and who really struggles the most, and I cater my instruction to the kids who do the least well early on.”
Along similar lines, Imrem recognizes that many of her students may be more dependent learners — that is, even if they are struggling with a lesson, they may not “have the wherewithal or the courage to sign up for a [tutoring] enrichment, and then when they get to the enrichment approach the teacher.” So Imrem tries to identify these students, and reach out to them. “I will lock them in to my enrichment,” she said, “and say, ‘Okay, how are we going to work on this together?’”
Ultimately, while Payton has made great strides towards creating a fair and just learning environment, the journey is far from over. O’Malley said some teachers support equity but feel they need to learn more strategies before they can fully achieve it in their classrooms. “That’s where the PPLC comes in,” said O’Malley. “They’re actually trying to give people the tool bag to be able to be more equitable in the classroom.”
“I want to retire one day,” said Russell, “and I want to retire to a world that’s better than the one I’m working in now.”
Said O’Malley, “Until everyone can say ‘We have everything we need to be successful,’ then we have more work to do.”