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Like the Sweater You Shrunk in the Wash

I'm very particular about the process of laundering my clothes. My sisters and husband know this, and now anyone reading knows this too. My care for and attention to laundry comes from experience with a few clothing tragedies--a pen left in the back pocket, a pink sock stuck in the load of whites, or a wool sweater accidentally tossed into the dryer. I know the sinking feeling of pulling out a favorite shirt and recognizing that it will never be the same. I also know the phase that follows: denial. Trying to convince myself that it's not that bad, I continue to wear the shrunken sweater. But all day, I’m tugging--tugging at the sleeves, the hem, the collar. The confidence I had disappears as discomfort and doubt creep in. Then, finally, acceptance--it’s just not a great fit for me anymore.  

Our education system often feels like a dearly-loved sweater that has shrunk in the wash. In my daily life as a classroom teacher, so many aspects of the system feel like they don't fit, and are growing increasingly more uncomfortable. Some of these I've written about, but have not yet felt resolution. Others are becoming more apparent to me as I take on new classes and revise old curricula. Here are the areas that I feel are constricting my daily effort to serve students and elevate authentic learning.

Distribution of Time

The forty-three minute, eight-period traditional schedule chafes me. There are too many transitions in a day. Too many faces churning in and out of each classroom. Not enough time to develop recursive, deep, discussions. Not enough time for complex science labs or intricate beyond-the-classroom math applications. On top of the inefficiency of this schedule and the stress it causes, there is an even larger stressor--outside interruptions that steal instructional time. In the past two weeks, my class periods have been used for the following:

In the last few weeks of our first marking period, I have lost over eight hours of instructional time with my students. Classroom teachers are being asked to cover breadth and depth of an increasingly complex curriculum while also accommodating huge losses in instructional time. Although some interruptions like the anti-suicide assembly address important issues for our students and others provide crucial professional learning time for teachers, the stress on both teachers and students is enormous. We have to find a better way to build these unique learning experiences and valuable conversations into the regular schedule of our school day and year.

Let’s address the way we distribute time more broadly throughout the year. Most districts continue to favor a nine-month school year with very few substantial breaks within the year; instead, favoring huge swaths of time away from academic environments through a long summer break. Although I appreciate the flexibility of summers, teachers, students, and school support staff would be much healthier if school calendars were created with a more balanced, researched-based approach. We should offer more flexible time between trimesters (or marking periods) for teachers to engage in reflection and professional learning. During that time, students could take their learning outside of the school building and apply it in different contexts. Might this flexible time also be a place to put some of those important assemblies and guest speakers? Summer could be reduced to a four week break, while a mid-winter holiday would expand to the same time frame. Students’ summer slide would diminish.

I'm uncomfortable nearly every day by the way we allocate time for learning.

Grading Systems

I am deeply uncomfortable with our current and antiquated grading system. I’ve already explored this discomfort here and here. I promised to write a third post, which currently resides in my drafts folder. Why? Because in that "final" post, I challenged myself to arrive at a solution, which I still don’t have. Although I have gathered compelling research from both experts and students (and in this case, aren’t they one-and-the-same?), a decision for my grading practice remains elusive.

Some great educators are speaking out and rejecting the traditional system of grading. The more I watch them, the more deeply I believe they are headed in the right direction, and their students are benefitting from their courage. But as I realistically look at my own classroom, I'm not sure this is the battle I'm willing or able to take on. I don't think I alone can fight the entrenched system of grading in my school. It would isolate me from my department and even more so within my school community.

But I’m upset by the high stress some students experience because of a grade. The marking period ends this week. Because I structure assignments around a deeply-held belief that the majority of work should be low-risk, ungraded practice, I only have a few grades entered in our gradebook. These are not enough for students who are conditioned to base their whole success as a learner on this one reductive number. They are frantic for "extra credit" and are pressuring me to squeeze in one more big assignment before the week and the marking period end.

Why do we have four marking periods? Why do we have a grading system that requires a basement grade to be given for the first three marking periods to mathematically prop up the potential for a successful fourth? No matter how I set up the grading scale in my classroom, why is my student’s end grade a percentage predicated on a deeply flawed 100 point system?

More importantly, how do you de-program students who have existed for 10-12 years in a system completely dependent on a reductive form of assessment?

I'm deeply conflicted by our adherence to a broken system of measuring student learning.

Segregated and Inequitable Schools

As I leave my home every morning, I am ten minutes from one of the most under-performing and under-funded school districts in the state. Harrisburg city schools have been state-run and in distress for as long as I can remember. But I'm employed by one of the best schools in our state--a well-resourced and high-performing small suburban district. On my 20 minute commute, I pass through two more school districts, each with varying degrees of test performance and funding. In short, Pennsylvania’s educational structure grants extreme local control over education. This system, coupled with a disastrous funding model that has received criticism from the U.S. Department of Education as recently as March, forces me to confront the fact that I work in one of the most inequitable education systems in our country.

This summer, I listened to a shocking podcast The Problem We All Live With, which revealed the deeply damaging legacy of segregated schools and illustrated how many of our problems could be addressed by creating policies that intentionally desegregate our schools. I witness this segregation in my region every day. It's evident in how communities talk about each other, and how my friends discuss needing to leave the city so they can ensure a quality education for their children. Our funding structure is broken, and we lack sufficient cultural competence about the impact of race on children's educational opportunities.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with the ways in which I benefit from the blatantly inequitable education system that surrounds me.
 
 

The Conclusion I Don't Have...Yet

Like a sweater you shrunk in the wash, our current educational system is constricting. I feel limited by its flawed design, yet too attached to its inherent value to discard. I deeply believe in its promise while being unsettled by its fit. I'm uncomfortable.

I’m still here, working 10-12 hour days and pouring my resources, heart, and talents into the students in front of me. But for how long? When do I acknowledge that the sweater no longer fits? Perhaps I’ve grown, perhaps it’s shrunk. Perhaps it's a combination of both.

I find hope in communities like CTQ, NNSTOY, and ASCD who work diligently to seek answers, and to empower teachers to lead innovations. Yet the issues I mention above are system-wide and culture-deep. Grades, schedules, and racial divides have become part of a traditional canon in education. And, as I’ve been discussing with my sophomores, unquestioned traditions can blind us to harmful practices.

So I write to question. To ask the often unasked: Why? And what if…? And more dangerously: When? When will we listen to students and teachers who have better solutions to the problems of our shrunken traditions?

For now I’m still wearing this sweater, but more and more I find myself questioning why.

 
 
 

8 Comments

Sarah commented on October 30, 2015 at 2:02pm:

Sweaters are itchy.

Aren't the italicized quotations within your article supposed to be highlighted quotes to be found in other portions of the article--as a reference and example of thought that is within the content and acts as a glimpse into the content's argument?  Isn't that the convention?  

Also, you should take your sweater to Goodwill and donate it.  Plenty of people out there would take that ill-fitting sweater off your hands and learn to comfortably live with it.  

Or, perhaps you should try on new sweaters. 

Elizabeth Werkau commented on November 2, 2015 at 2:54pm:

Living Comfortably, Isn't Living

As an ill-fitting, sweater wearer myself, I find that taking that sweater to Goodwill would be a sign of giving up on that sweater. Rather I think finding the potential that the sweater has and giving that sweater as many chances to prove its self is a much better idea. The sweater along might not work but adding accessories would give that sweater a chance, add a shirt underneath or a long necklace to take the focus off the sweater. Sure I am turning a blind eye to the many flaws that sweater may have because I remember the wonderful times we had together and how much that sweater was there for me before and maybe we can get back to it. 

Having that shrunken sweater, or in this case a failing education system, is a reminder that it is important to speak up. If others hear you and work together that is when change happens. So thank you Brianna for sharing your thoughts and having the guts to point out the flaws of our education system. I agree there are several barriers that are making our jobs difficult as educators. Hopefully others will speak up too and not just learn to live with it. 

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on November 3, 2015 at 1:45pm:

Thanks!

Elizabeth, 

Thanks for reading and for carrying the analogy in your own way! I agree that we area all charged to speak up, share our perspective, and seek solutions for positive change. Carry on fellow eduwarrior!

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on November 3, 2015 at 1:43pm:

Confused more than anything

Sarah, 

While I appreciate that you took time to not only read but also respond to this post, your response leaves me a little baffled at how to continue the conversation. First, my sweater metaphor wasn't a perfect one, but seemed to best describe the struggle I have with my place and my role in education. I am well aware that many others would love to take over a classroom of eager learners in a well-resourced suburban school. That doesn't, however, eliminate my discomfort with the systemic problems I see affecting even my own priviledged position. Having discomfort doesn't immediately assume ungratefulness or lack of awareness that others may perceive that position differently. 

Secondly, you never elaborated on why the qualities of itchiness apply to yourself or the education system. 

Third, I am seeking what future opportunities may be a better fit for me. Your suggestion, however, didn't further the conversation about what those opportunities might look like. 

Comments, in my view, should seek to empathize, challenge, or add to the conversation. I'm struggling to understand how yours does these, but perhaps with further clarification, you could. 

Sarah commented on November 7, 2015 at 10:03pm:

All Itchy Things In Life

Brianna,

So, to answer your last comment, I'm glad you are looking for the right fit since your current one doesn't fit so well. Best of luck finding the ideal situation for yourself.

Also, you can always disable the comments if you don't like open dialogue. 

And, sweaters are itchy, so I wear an undershirt.  Tile floors get cold, so I wear slippers.  And most jobs suffer from systemic frustrations and flaws, so I develop a rich and fulfilling life with friends and family to blunt the edge of such concerns and avoid the temptation of filling my hours (and the storage capacity of online servers) with complaints, especially those stemming from situations I have little control over and no idea how to solve.

Almost-lastly, if you have to explain to your audience (of which I am one of two that seem actively engaged in your post--which you should just take as a gift) that you aren’t trying to sound ungrateful, chances are you probably came off as ungrateful.  

And lastly, I’m still stuck on the fact that you didn’t use those jumbo quotes correctly. 

Thanks for the post.  And for the response. 

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on November 9, 2015 at 2:02pm:

Shouldn't we ALL be Uncomfortable?

Sarah, 

We are going to have to agree to disagree about the formatting of my post. You also need to realized that the fact that we are still having dialogue means I am open to it. I am aware of the controls I could have on my own post and its comments. I choose to remain open to disagreement and even distain. Having public conversations is important. 

You point to a tone where you think I'm complaining. I'm not complaining. I'm pointing to a system that holds deep inequity for students of color in my area--some students get a great education if their parents can afford the property taxes of the suburb. Others receive an education that has been labeled as "failing" for decades. 

I also think it is important for teachers to question the system when we think it no longer is serving the needs of our students. That's where my heart is, and that's where I am willing to go public with my "complaints" about it. 

You are correct--as teachers we should find deep relationships to keep us connected and encouraged. I'm glad you found that for yourself, and I'm so grateful I have that as well. 

My post and journey is a personal one. Not everyone will feel the same level of discomfort, not everyone will feel discomfort with the schedule and the grading system. However, I believe we ALL should be uncomfortable with the lack of equity in our system for students. We should ALL be unwilling to "put on some slippers" and ignore that systemic injustice. 

Sami Sutton commented on November 9, 2015 at 12:04am:

I love the sweater analogy

I am glad that someone wrote about this subject. As teachers we are expected to be flexible, and constantly perfecting our craft. With that being said, it feels like something is happening in education that constricts our ability to freely teach. Although things like NCLB and Common Core standards have been put in place to help improve the achievement of our students, there are certain aspects of it that really do feel like an uncomfortable shrunken sweater. Not to meantion that all the teachers who wear it start to look silly. I wish we could just dress ourselves. 

Gina Parnaby commented on November 18, 2015 at 11:08am:

"...unquestioned traditions can blind us to harmful practices."

Absolutely. I, too, am struggling with the same issues of wasteful use of the finite resource of time, the slavish devotion to grades and test scores instead of authentic learning, and the still-savage inequalities that persist across our schools.

It's often hard to be an advocate for change in a school that's seemingly free from problems, whose students are from privileged backgrounds and bound for success. "If it's not broken, why fix it?" seems to be the driving mentality. But I can't escape from the idea that our students are succeeding in spite of, rather than because of, the educations they're getting, and that education in the 21st century should look and feel very different than education in the 19th century.

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