Stop “Assuming Positive Intent”

Image ID: A red traffic light against a cloudless blue sky.

Since the start of the school year is here, the tweets from districts and leaders about their values for the year are here, too. A common thread in many of these tweets is some form of the phrase “assume positive intent,” which is generally designed to be a banal, inoffensive way to talk about belonging or inclusion.  At best, “assume positive intent” is kind of boilerplate corporate eduspeak, but, at worst, the phrase stands in the way of the generative conflict and accountability schools and districts need to foster equity, justice, and belonging.    

“Assume positive intent” is an example of what Paul Gorksi calls an “equity detour,” an action taken to divert attention, resources, and sustained commitment to justice.  It allows us to stay “clean,” by avoiding questions about our own beliefs and actions and the beliefs and actions of the systems in which we operate.  “Assume positive intent” is an example of Gorski’s first detour: “pacing for privilege.”  In this detour, the feelings and needs of those least committed to equity and justice over those who are directly harmed by inequity and injustice.  “Assume positive intent” allows us, individually and systemically, to gloss over harmful actions, practices, and policies without naming them as harmful; it privileges the intent of the actor, not how the action, practice, or policy impacts people.  Put differently, meaning well isn’t enough; we must commit to doing well, and “assume positive intent” discourages that because there’s never any real accountability.  “Assume positive intent” creates a context where equity and justice are individually and collectively optional rather than required.  The list of harmful policies and practices implemented and supported because of “good intentions”—“responsibility rooms,” culturally unresponsive curriculum, traditional grading—is bottomless.

Accountability is an important component of systems that prioritize equity and justice, and “assume positive intent” allows people and systems to avoid taking it.  When we “assume positive intent,” there’s always plausible deniability for harm.  “I didn’t know” or “I meant something else” impede our ability to own the harm caused, make a genuine apology, and take actions to make that harm less possible in the future.  I’m grateful for Maha Bali and Mia Zamora’s words here, too, about making schools and classrooms intentionally equitably hospitable: “I didn’t know” is an insufficient response to systemic injustice or partial care.  Doing better is required.  In other words, accountability isn’t about—or shouldn’t be about—punishment, but it is about transforming ourselves and the systems that we’re in. 

Mariame Kaba, invoking Shannon Perez-Darby, says that accountability is “a process that we do with ourselves for ourselves.  When we’re being accountable to ourselves, we’re acting in a way that honors our values.  We’re acting with integrity by taking responsibility for who we are in the world and living in alignment with our values.”  If someone is harmed and then we ask the harmed person to “assume positive intent,” who is being seen, heard, and valued?  Who is accountable, and to what?  In a school setting, when teachers act in ways that harm students, students should not be asked to be the burden of “assuming positive intent” to make the problem go away for the powers that be.  Instead, we need to ask the person committing the harm to be accountable; someone was harmed, whether that was the intent or not.

This raises the issue of generative conflict, which is required for us to grow toward equity and justice personally and systemically.  “Assume positive intent” is a silencing mechanism that avoids conflict—and its possible fallout—at all costs. Again, the goal of the leaders using this term is to stay “clean.”  One of the major ways that “assume positive intent” avoids conflict is by seeing each instance of harm as a separate individual issue rather than as part of larger systems and structures that make harm possible.  Put differently, “assume positive intent” allows the “one bad apple” theory to thrive; it seems harm as an individual problem rather than seeing the systems that prop up, support, enable, and even elevate the harmer and others like them.  While individuals taking accountability for harm is important, it is as—if not more—important for systems, structures, and organizations to take accountability for their harm and work to permanently eradicate that harm.  Systemic solutions are generally preferable to individual solutions.   This is not a statement that people can’t grow and change, they absolutely can, but “assuming positive intent” isn’t a path forward to that growth.  If we’re truly committed to equity and justice, we can’t blame the victim and change the subject when harm occurs.  It’s time to get messy.

I want to make a quick distinction here between “assuming positive intent” and the concept of “unconditional positive regard,” which Alex Shevrin Venet writes about.  These are not the same: unconditional positive regard asks us to care for all those in our orbit relationally and building relationships with them not out of a transactional need, but a desire to genuinely connect with them.  The desire to stay in relationship and care for those in our organizations is powerful; accountability is not about exile, but about being in—and remaining in—community.  This is challenging work, especially since this isn’t our default mode of operation.  “Assuming positive intent” is different because it ignores the power plays at work and asks victims of harm to sweep their feelings away to avoid conflict and difficult conversations about equity and justice.

If you’re a leader, there’s still time to rethink your messaging and your values before this year starts.  Instead of “assuming positive intent,” let’s lean back into generative conflict and the equity and justice work that’s in line with equity and justice values.  Help your people and systems be accountable to grow, change, and evolve to be safer for everyone. 

No detours, no distractions, no diversions.

Ungrading and Saviorism

first-aid-gce2f88335_1920In my previous role as an instructional coach and a department chair, I felt strongly about advocating for grading reform, especially given the multiple ongoing crises impacting students.  My students spoke openly about the negative effects of grading on their mental health, and a few even worked on a grading reform project that surveyed their peers and made recommendations to experts based on research they’ve done about alternative methods.  Unsurprisingly, the resistance was fierce, and some of the fiercest resistance was around whether ungraded classrooms could prepare students for the rigorous expectations of college professors and corporate bosses.  One colleague even said that ungrading encourages students to “want something for nothing,” as he vigorously defended traditional grading as way to instill notions of capitalist accountability, which he saw as vital to the work of schooling.  Ungrading was just a fancy name for low expectations.

I started taking steps toward ungrading about a decade ago because grades negatively impacted my relationships with students and students’ relationships with their work in the course.  While I’d encourage students to take risks in their work in ideas, genre, and form, my reliance on traditional grading sent a different message.  After all, we are what we do.  Because of the mixed messages, students often took the surest path to an “A,” even when they were encouraged to do more.  Who can blame them?  Over time, I grew resentful that students played it safe, and they were resentful that my words seem disingenuous based on my actions.  This mutual frustration wasn’t sustainable, especially if I was going to stay in teaching.

This story isn’t unique—I’ve told it before, and it probably mirrors the origin story of many other ungraders—but lifting again feels critical to make the point that, for me, ungrading wasn’t about what students couldn’t do, but what they could do when they weren’t, as Alfie Kohn says, punished by rewards.  Put differently, I turned to ungrading because I had higher expectations—not lower expectations—for both my teaching and my students’ learning.  One of my biggest realizations about traditional grading was how just how much pushing students toward a single standard that I created based on preferences, experiences, and ways of knowing was rooted in pervasive deficit orientations.

Problematically, deficit orientations combined with good intentions—“preparing students for college” “upholding standards”—is saviorism (Alex Shevrin Venet’s work is vital on this topic, especially for white teachers).  Part of my moving away from saviorism and restoring my relationship with students on healthier terms required me to also move away from traditional grading.  Imagine thinking so highly of yourself and so little of your students that you believed their only motivation is points.  This is, at least in some circles, and prevailing view, and to borrow from Jesse Stommel, if we believe that students need a reason as banal as points to do our work, then they’ll likely believe it, too.  For me, breaking up with traditional grading meant breaking up with my ego, and it made me a better teacher by compelling me to, with students, consider reasons for our work together that pushed beyond banal point accumulation; we leaned into purpose, into mission, into values, and into imagination and world building.  I had to listen, to be wrong, to be apologize, to repair harm I had caused, and to change my actions.

There are some things to acknowledge here: ungrading, like anything, can also be a weapon that causes harm (we might think of Autumm Caines’ work on the weaponization of care as an example); sometimes ungrading can also cross into savorism, especially if the shift isn’t rooted in high expectations or accompanied by changes to the pernicious pedagogies underlying traditional grading.  In other words, simply “going pointless” tomorrow isn’t going to change much at all, maybe except the window dressing.  We can ungrade and still find ourselves complicit with grading when our philosophies and core values are still doggedly rooted in compliance, command, and control, our practices still compel students to perform to a single standard, and our personal interactions with students lack relational care and are abundant in what Cornelius Minor calls “deservedness.”   Jesse Stommel, as usual, tells us what we might need to hear: “We can’t simply take away grades without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches, and this work looks different for each teacher, in each context, and with each group of students.”  Jesse warns us to beware of the Zeitgeist.

There’s nothing particularly heroic or sexy about ungrading; it’s comprised of small-yet-intentional changes—what we might call “micro-moves”—over an entire career to make learning environments more humanizing and relationally caring.  There’s no seismic shift, shining spotlight, grand pronouncement, or enduring fame, and that’s okay.  I just wanted better relationships with students and students wanted to have more freedom, so I had to figure out, in my classroom, how to make that happen, and I’m ever grateful for a networ Continue reading “Ungrading and Saviorism”

Bricks and Mortar: Building the “Radically Soft” LMS

clouds-top-view-white-viewIn the harried weeks after school closed, schools worked to find ways to move instruction online quickly using the best information and resources they had available.  These shifts weren’t easy, and they aren’t without significant costs.  Hastily built online environments tend to be hard and utilitarian rather than soft and kind, and despite our words and best intentions about putting Maslow before Bloom and centering relationships, there are large parts of current online learning spaces that are dehumanizing.  We might very well blame the LMS we use, which are problematic in so many different ways, but we also need to look at our own pedagogies and practices as exacerbating rather than mitigating the problems inherent in our LMS.  Our actions within the LMS have quite a bit to say about whether the student experience is rooted in utilitarian hardness or radical softness, and it’s worth exploring the ways in which we can move our imperfect LMS experience toward radical softness.

When I talk with students about what they miss about school, their classes aren’t the first thing they mention.  They tend to think about all of the smaller, more fleeting parts of their school experiences that we don’t frequently attend to online. They’re talking about the mortar—the stuff in the middle—that holds the bricks together.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes about how our singular focus on the bricks allows us to pay less attention to the mortar:

Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all.

As teachers, we tend to think of classrooms as a center of the universe rather than considering fully how we’re part of much larger constellation of centers across a student’s school day, centers which include the hallway, the library, the lunchroom, the sports practice, and so many others.  As we get better at building online environments, my hope is that we might pay closer attention to thinking about how we can build virtual spaces that move beyond the shell of LMS course, even if that means rethinking the LMS entirely.  Stommel, for his part, thinks about text messages, email, and social media.  One of the things I miss most is the vibrancy of our Writing Center, where students could come together, talk, write, and create together.  This is one of the reasons we’ve continued to meet weekly, and I’d also like to think it’s one of the reasons we’ve continued to have a pretty solid turnout.  Not working to create these in between, liminal spaces would have our students missing large chunks of the school experience.

In anything that we do, however, we need to consider how and why we’re asking students to interact and what potential costs there might be for them to do so.  In other words, the liminal spaces we do create should be sites of resistance; they should come from and be for the margins.  One of the current limitations of the big-name LMS is that it’s built with a certain idealized student in mind: quiet, compliant, algorithmic, but our students are anything but.  How might we sacrifice a little of the order of the LMS to encourage greater choice, authenticity, and even safe dissent?  As teachers, we know we can’t liberate our students—they need to liberate themselves—but part of creating liberatory conditions is helping to build what we Be Oakley calls “sanctuary spaces:”

“These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.  Sanctuary spaces populate outside of public space where ‘the political’ and ‘acts of resistance’ tend to cater to those who have the least to lose.”

Now, in a time where many districts have eliminated grades and standardized tests, we have additional freedom to build “radically soft” online spaces—spaces that imagine a different future together with our students—that will, hopefully, substantially transform the physical spaces we return into more democratic and liberatory.  Our soft online spaces can be sites where students have their identities affirmed, seek justice, and drive equity with their thinking, their words, and their collaboration.  This requires us to attend to the mortar as much as we’ve attended to the bricks, a shift that requires compassion, kindness, and trust.

Toward Fairness and Equity: Labor-Based Grading During and After COVID-19

eoq_jwiwaaar5uxIn “Our Pandemic Summer,” a recent article in The Atlantic, Ed Yong argues that framing the future in terms of “going back to normal” is a wasted opportunity to think about what a fairer and more equitable world might look like going forward.  There have been so many changes in a relatively short amount of time in education that imagining simply returning to the status quo—which was deeply inequitable and unfair—seems as untenable as ever.  One of the most substantive changes in many districts is changing the way grades are given—some districts have even removed grades entirely in favor of a credit-no-credit model—and it feels disingenuous at best and immensely damaging at worst to return to systems of ranking and sorting that have created incredible tension, anxiety, and disparity.  Grading is a space where we, collectively, need to reimagine a different future, and returning to “normal” undermines the commitments to equity that should be at the center of our work.

My district has essentially moved to a labor-based grading model for students, where learning and judgments about quality, which are always-already biased because of their roots in single standards, have been separated.  This separation, which radical for some, is a welcome relief to others, including many students.   Students earn credit when they complete 10 of 18 assignments, permitting students to make some choices and allowing for grace in the midst of a pandemic where tens of thousands of people in Michigan are sick.  If a labor-based grading system is what’s best in terms of equity and fairness for students now, it’s also best for students when they return to brick-and-mortar classrooms in the future.

In our English department this year, we reflected frequently this year about the inclusivity of our spaces, and one of the most crucial realizations that emerged was that most of the writing that was presented to students as “good” was rooted in dominant culture notions of what that means.  This couldn’t help but have an effect on who sees themselves as a writer and what counts as “good” writing during grading and evaluation.  I’ve previously talked about the ways grading is rooted in whiteness here.  One of my colleagues, who I discussed in a previous post, used this year to experiment with a new grading system as a result of some of our reflections and our one-on-one coaching sessions, and a few others are starting to make some important shifts, too.  That said, my own shift away from traditional grading took years of fits and starts, so patience with ourselves is in order.  Working against “common sense” and engrained notions of things like “rigor” take time; there’s tons to unlearn.  Even with all of those caveats, fragility remains, but attacks on grading aren’t necessarily personal, but questions about grading do force us to consider systems in which we’re complicit in upholding somehow.  Asao Inoue reminds us, “in all schools, grades are the means of discrimination, the methods of exclusion, not inclusion, no matter what we think they might do for our students.”  One of the biggest pieces of pushback that I get when I talk about grading is how it doesn’t “prepare students for the next level,” and it’s important to remember that just because other environments are oppressive doesn’t mean we have to replicate them.  Remember: we’re imagining a different future together, not attempting to reinscript what existed already and served only a privileged few.

Rightly, much of the current emphasis has been on building relationships—Maslow before Bloom—and student wellness and safety, both mentally and physically.  While our mouths may say these things, sometimes our actions indicate that these might not be the foundations of our classroom, even if we might like them to be or think that they are.  There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter that school is a student’s “job” and that grades are their “compensation,” and that, to me, seems like that end result overemphasizing outcomes and underemphasizing. relationships: we start to see students based on the products they produce rather than as human beings with a complex set of circumstances.  In these environments, students start to only judge themselves by the products they produce, and often devalue their really thoughtful, important work when it doesn’t reach certain graded outcomes, which, again, are rooted in center with no accounting for the margins.  Put differently, a system that rewards labor only when it meets a pre-defined outcome is going to be exclusive rather than inclusive.  It’s really important to teach students to identify, talk about, and, most of all, value their labor outside of any external validation.   The idealist in me hopes that this awakens students to start valuing their work more and that teachers help them do so.  Inoue takes an important point from Friere, which we sometimes forget: we can’t liberate our students—we’re not saviors—but we can set up structural conditions where they can liberate themselves by moving away from compliance and toward agency.

In addition to rethinking some of the ways students work and evaluate work, labor-based grading has also had other important byproducts, especially forcing teachers to think more carefully about what they assign and how they design assessments, especially when grades can’t be used as currency or, worse yet, a weapon to compel compliance.  This moment of reconsideration is important: what now?  Indeed, assignments and assessments need to be meaningful, authentic, and compassionate if we want students to complete them in the midst of a pandemic.  This means that students need to be able to make choices about what they learn, how they learn it, and the modalities in which they demonstrate their learning, and, without the daunting pressure of grades, they have expressed a certain freedom to take intellectual risks, share their own thinking rather a reheated version of a teacher’s lecture, and marry their funds of knowledge to their academic work in ways that didn’t seem possible—or weren’t deemed valuable—before.  In other words, teachers are getting a crash course in the amazing things that come from trusting their students.  Grading often interferes with the relationships we want to have with our students, and removing the barrier can help us start to rehumanize our classrooms.

We know that returning to “normal” is going to be impossible, but we might also think about what “normal” has cost us. We frequently hear talk about a “new normal” as negative, but we have the potential to reimagine parts of it as positive.

Coaching Notes: Building Anti-Racist Book Clubs

ECXjN5IWwAAS_RCThis summer, I worked with my administration to make a substantial investment in non-canonical texts for students in one of our AP courses.  Students were being assigned to read mostly white male authors like Fitzgerald and Hawthorne, even as the class was becoming increasingly less white and male due to building and districtwide initiatives to ensure that AP and honors classes were accessible and inclusive to all members of our community.  Students of color, in particular, saw mirrors for their white peers, but mainly windows for themselves (to paraphrase Dr. Sims Bishop), and there needed to be a different balance if we hope to create a sense of belonging for students.  To foster a sense of belonging, we needed to interrogate how whiteness influenced and was being enacted in curriculum.  Students now have access to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America among others.

Access to texts is important, but so are the practices we use to teach them.  Too often, we read authors from LGBTQ+ backgrounds, authors of color, and authors from non-European countries to be compliant, to check a box, or to perform equity and inclusion rather than taking seriously the anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-Eurocentric our work—and these works–demand.  In other words, there is a way to read any of the texts we purchased without actually reading them; we could attend to the words on the page without ever feeling discomforted or challenged.  Students can get bogged down in rhetorical analysis and lose sight of the larger historical precedents and systems we, teachers and students alike, must urgently confront.  Many of the text choices we made and much of the thinking we’re doing around how to best teach them are the result of the amazing ideas shared by the #DisruptTexts team.

While I was able to advocate for new books as a department chair, implementing responsive teaching around these texts is a significant part of my role as an instructional coach because, ultimately, we’re not teaching books, we’re teaching students.  Shifting practice, a second-order change, is especially difficult because our pedagogies—the way we’ve always done things—are so interwoven, often uncritically, with our professional identities.  To use DiAngelo’s work, pedagogical pushes toward equity are subject to white fragility, which can even stall changes that educators support at the conceptual level.

Our comfort as educators can’t come at the expense of our students and their lives, and when we work to drill a book like Just Mercyas AP test preparation through ahistorical teaching or without giving students space to freely talk about important issues, we’ve moved toward compliance.  Equity, inclusion, and anti-racism are not box-checking exercises.  This part of the introduction from Teaching Black Lives resonates:

“Provide a social justice, anti-racist curriculum that gives students the historical grounding, literacy skills, and space to explore the emotional intensity of feelings around the murder of Black youth by police.  At the same time, deep discussion of these heavy issues needs to be built on strong classroom community.  Students can’t launch into discussions of racism without a basis of trust and sharing among students and between students and teacher.  This is the slow, steady work of meaningful classroom conversation, purposeful group work, and reading and writing about critical social justice and personal issues.”

This provides the framework, and we have to think about the practices within that framework that will help us meet our equity goals as a school and a community.  Anti-racist outcomes are made possible through anti-racist practices, which require all of us—especially white educators—to consider whether we’re moving toward anti-racism or existing in symbolic compliance when the door closes in our classroom.  Important, urgent texts in the hands of people checking boxes can ultimately do more harm than good.  As Benjamin Doxtdator writes:

“Expanding the canon isn’t only about creating a culture in schools where students of color see people who look like them represented in what they read, but also de-centering whiteness so that all students have expanded perceptions of the intellectual legacies of people of color.”

I’m currently working with a teacher to ensure that we’re teaching our students and these texts responsively and responsibly by creating anti-racist book clubs that empower all of our students to have important conversations and take vital action on equity and social justice issues in a supportive, trusting environment.  Students will get to select their books during the book club.  While we know the benefits of this work for our students of color, our white students, who make up the majority of our school’s population, need to also engage in substantive interrogation of their identities and what and how they mean if we hope to create a more just future. Here’s how we’re approaching these anti-racist book groups, which are a work in progress.

Community Building + Goal Setting

Without a meaningful, substantive classroom community, meaningful discussions about social justice and equity are virtually impossible.  In order to build the student-to-student connections required to have substantive dialogue around important topics of social justice, students will work together to look through the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance and decide two major goals they want to focus on during the course of unit.  Students will work individually and collectively to meet these goals during the course of the unit (and beyond), and they will complete several small reflections and one larger summative reflection to chart their progress.  These standards don’t replace the academic goals that we have, but we feel they make them more possible by making the classroom increasingly safe and equitable. Centering this work for students—and trusting and supporting them to own it—is an important step in reducing prejudice and engendering collective action, which the standards are meant to support.

Building Historical Context

In a different class that I was in this week, the teacher continually asked their students after reading a section of the textbook, “Who haven’t we talked about?”  These discussions are important, as our curriculums and the companies that control them, elevate and amplify the powerful while minimizing what artist Glenn Ligon calls the  “small-h histories” of the women, children, indigenous and black people of color who have been vital in the “big-H” History of our country and our world.  Each book group will spend time closely reading through curated primary and secondary documents designed to challenge, extend, or confirm their thinking.  Students will apply their thinking to their book, which we hope will provide them with important context for understanding from perspectives outside the privileged who have been consistently represented.  In a recent interview, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, said:

 “I think this mythology—that of course we’re all beyond race, of course our police officers aren’t racist, of course our politicians don’t mean any harm to people of color—this idea that we’re beyond all that (so it must be something else) makes it difficult for young people as well as the grown-ups to be able to see clearly and honestly the truth of what’s going on.”

An ahistorical teaching of these texts can allow mythologies to linger and the biases inherent in these mythologies to continue unchallenged, just as the myth of colorblindness has been allowed to continue. We need to correct the old histories we’ve heard repeated time and time again, and we need to find new histories, too.  In correcting old histories and learning new ones, it’s also important we resist the urge for a single story.  No group of people is monolithic, so thinking about the vast array of experiences is incredibly important.

Understanding Systems

In addition to book groups that will provide necessary historical context, I suggested using twice-weekly “panel discussions,” which allows students from each reading group to talk amongst each other about an important-yet-probing questions while others listen and generate additional important questions that they want to talk about or that they want to pose to the group.  Understanding the connections between the books and the systems represented within them is significant, as it permits challenges to and action against the supposedly normal, “common sense” structures that are in place to maintain the status quo.  Our students, as Ibram X. Kendi suggests in How to be an Anti-Racist, need to take an active role in thinking beyond now and engaging in thinking and action to build an anti-racist future.

 

These are the urgent-yet-imperfect first steps we’re taking to #DisruptTexts in a course that needs it.  As Tricia Ebarvia writes, we know that there will be “discomfort and defensiveness” from teachers and students as we engage in this process, as we have to confront racism directly and whose knowledge gets valued and whose stories get heard shifts away from those in dominant positions, but we need to remain committed to this work and critical of our own practice to avoid slipping back into what’s comfortable at the expense of what our schools, students, and communities need: an anti-racist education for an anti-racist future.  An unwillingness to do the urgent work required of us means that kids will be (re)traumatized and (re)harmed, and we have a moral obligation to work actively against trauma and harm.