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What Do You Teach?

By: Stacie Valdez, AVID District Director, Wichita Public Schools 

Whenever I meet new people and they discover that I am a teacher, the next question is inevitably, “What do you teach?” For more than half of my 33-year teaching career, my answer was always, “High school English.” It was usually a toss-up as to what horrified them more – the fact that I taught English or the fact that I taught that troublesome species of teenagers.

An epiphany for me happened at a national conference that I attended 15 years ago. I heard another teacher respond to the same question but her response was, “I teach kids.” The power of the one different word, “kids,” was amazing and forced me to step back and consider my own philosophy. Did I deliver content or did I guide my students in their own discovery and interpretation of the literature?  My teaching approach shifted over the next several years from a teacher-centered focus to a student-centered pedagogy.

What exactly does this mean for an Advanced Placement® English teacher? Gradually, my teaching evolved to follow the Constructivist Learning Theory.  Simply put, I focused on my students and not on the literature. Literature became a tool to foster thinking and learning. Initially, the shift was a struggle for me because I wasn’t certain how to create lesson plans and assessments for this approach to teaching and learning in the classroom.  There were resources available to guide me, project-based learning units, inquiry circle strategies, differentiated learning lessons, but there seemed to be a lack of continuity. I felt as if I was missing the target most of the time.  I lacked a coordinated and aligned approach to ensure success for all of my students.

Two important events occurred during this transition time that completely changed my role in the classroom.  Wichita North High (Journey To Schoolwide AVID)  is an urban high school with a poverty level nearing 80 percent. For years, the staff battled to improve low graduation, attendance and performance rates, yet the culture in our school remained simply one of survival. In 2001, our high school implemented AVID because, despite our best efforts, our students were not making the progress we wanted them to make, and we had heard about the powerfully positive changes for students that were occurring in other schools implementing AVID.  

Change #1:  I was selected to be the AVID academic elective teacher.  Part of the AVID system includes extensive and intensive training, and I attended various sessions of professional development to support my new role as an AVID teacher; and at the same time, I received guidance on differentiating instruction for my English students. AVID does not invent strategies but rather adopts those best practices that have proven to be effective for student learning.  AVID helped me refine my craft as a teacher who set high expectations for all students and AVID's training provided an explicit method of supporting my students.

Change #2:  College Board’s Equity Policy Statement  also had a powerful and positive impact on my teaching and the culture of North High School. AVID had provided the necessary foundation of support for our staff to institute an open access policy for AP® classes. Advanced Placement classes were no longer a right reserved for the “elite” who could successfully navigate all the “gates” to entrance into the rigorous, college-prep classes.  The demographics of the AP classes at my high school changed dramatically, and somewhat painfully, as we learned how to teach the non-traditional AP students. Neither the implementation of AVID nor the open access to AP classes provided a “quick fix” for our school. The process of changing to a college-going culture took several years and rocked the foundation of WNHS staff, students, and their families.

The marriage of AVID and AP meant that we adopted an accelerated, college-readiness curriculum for all students (AP) but also provided a necessary foundation of support (AVID) to ensure success in the rigorous classes. The change in philosophy required motivating non-traditional AP students to enroll in the classes. As a staff, we learned that the students who found the most difficulty with the challenging curriculum were those who were second language learners, who were identified with special education disabilities or whose families lived in poverty.  AVID provided North High with a system to raise expectations and educate all students. The AVID College Readiness System changed our thinking about identifying the students who were capable of meeting the challenge of Advanced Placement classes.  The AP program at North grew from 65 students in 2002-03 to 442 in 2008-09. An even more rewarding data point for the WNHS staff is the minority enrollment in AP classes improved from 8 percent in 2002-03 to 53 percent in 2008-09, a more accurate mirror of the overall demographics of the school.

As an AP teacher, I also had to shift my focus from the test scores that landed on my desk in July; qualifying scores were no longer the main goal. Instead, scores were used to revise and plan instruction for the following year.  The scores I am most proud of are the “2s” earned by several of my second language learners. These students had been challenged in reading and writing and completed the exam.  Even more importantly, they enrolled in college and earned A’s and B’s in English 101 and 102 courses. That is our focus for AP classes now – college readiness and completion.

The craft of my teaching went through a dramatic change in the past decade. Not all of the change was easy or smooth. I was jolted out of my comfort zone many times but resisted the urge to fall back on the previous teacher-centered instruction. Being an AVID teacher gave me the courage to change from teaching English to teaching kids. And never have I enjoyed the dynamic environment of my classroom more than I do today.

Years ago, Apple had a commercial, “Think Different,” and Richard Dreyfus read a poem titled, "Here’s to the Crazy Ones.” This poem captures my view of my dual role as an AVID and AP teacher.  AVID students are often “the round pegs in the square holes” of an AP class. As teachers, we need to “think different” about our methods of teaching AP and other rigorous classes. “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world – are the ones who do.” I teach kids.

Stacie has worked in the Wichita Public School District for 33 years. Her experience with AVID over the past ten years includes being an AVID elective teacher, site coordinator, and district director in Wichita. She is also an AVID national staff developer and curriculum writer for English Language Arts and postsecondary programs. 

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Reader Comments (2)

This is a very good piece, Stacie. I enjoyed reading about your experiences and growth as a teacher. Perhaps most useful for us as AVID staff developers is your discussion of literature (or whatever content) as a tool for learning and critical thinking.
This may be our most difficult task: to convince ourselves and other teachers that we need to provide students with continuous, distributed practice (Willingham, 2009) of transferable strategies for assessing and critiquing texts, processes, and contexts---whatever the content.
Keep up the good work!

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Johns

Thanks, Ann, for weighing in on this topic. Your own work nationally has informed much of our discourse on this subject. We are honored to have you as part of the discussion.

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob Gira

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