Greg is a University of Maryland and Teach For America alumnus, who originally hails from the Virginia suburbs of D.C. He currently teaches seventh-grade math at Jefferson Academy in Southwest D.C.
What inspired you to create the video? How were the students involved in production?
The first video I made was two years ago at my previous school … for our DC CAS pep rally. … Another teacher and I thought it would be cool to re-write the lyrics to Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” but use “Math and Reading” instead. From there, we got some students involved, and the first video was made. And it’s become sort of a tradition ever since. I generally write the lyrics, but the production is all the kids. It takes a lot of work (from them) and a lot of patience (from me) to get the song recorded and the video shot. ... A lot of the funniest scenes and ideas from the videos came from the students. We (were) basically running around every day after school for a week thinking of fun ideas for the video.
How have you used the video since it was created? (Was it for a pep rally/school event/etc., or just for your own class?)
We debuted the video at our all-school DC CAS pep rally, which was intended to pump up students for the two weeks of testing. Needless to say, the video was a pretty big hit. We’ve watched it in class every day since, per student request. Most of the stars in the video are my 7th-graders, but we tried to include all members of our school community in the production. Everyone has taken a lot of pride in it too. I know of teachers, parents, and even students posting it on Facebook and Twitter, showing how proud they are to be from Jefferson. That part is pretty cool.
What other ways have you motivated and prepared students for state testing in the past?
The bulk of the motivation and preparation happens in the classroom in the months leading up to the CAS. Test prep can be monotonous and boring, so I try to spice things up with competitions, group work, and other engaging activities. Our theme leading up to the CAS this year was “Beast Mode.” I gave my students “Beast Mode” passports that included all of our objectives leading up to the test. Once they mastered an objective, they received a stamp, which counted toward an incentive at the end of the two-week period. It’s these types of systems that get students motivated and invested in doing well on the test. By the time test day rolled around, they were feeling confident, focused, and motivated to do their best. These types of things may draw criticism from those in the anti-testing camp, but neither my students nor myself can change the status quo in education by ourselves. We simply try to make the best of the situation and show the world how brilliant they are. If a music video or pep rally or class competition provides them extra motivation to do their best, I think it’s a wonderful thing.
How useful is standardized testing?
We need a common assessment tool to ensure all students in D.C. and nationwide are receiving a quality education and keeping pace with students around the world. Unfortunately, the quality of standardized tests today is pretty poor. The tests themselves are not particularly rigorous, the cut-offs for proficiency are embarrassingly low, and the alignment to state or district curriculum is often weak. The move to Common Core has helped push rigor, but until we have a strong Common Core-aligned assessment that teachers embrace, there will be a serious lack of consistency in classrooms around the country. I’d love to see the day where students across the country are assessed using a range of assessments, from traditional exams to performance tasks. While it’s harder to standardize these types of assessments, it gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding in various ways.
Are you for or against (or somewhere in between!) for tying student test scores to teacher evaluations, salary decisions, and promotions? Why?
I think accountability is important. Professionals in every industry are evaluated by some metric of accountability, and in the end, teachers are responsible for student growth and development. If your students aren’t growing, you aren’t doing your job – plain and simple. The problem arises when the assessments are poor and the evaluation systems are shortsighted. … You can’t tell the story with data alone. A strong evaluation system must include observation data and other measures of a teacher’s effectiveness. An overemphasis on data only serves to disillusion teachers and water down the curriculum.
As an educator, how do you balance being silly with your students and also being strict/serious when necessary?
This is a constant struggle for me. I’m still fairly young, and my personality just isn’t suited to being serious all the time. … I spend the first few months of the school year establishing a strong culture and strict routines in my classroom. While I’m always supportive, I try to limit the silliness early in the year. I typically lighten up a bit when the spring months hit. That’s when we usually make the videos and do other fun activities that channel that side of my personality. But I always make a pretty clear distinction – through body language, tone, and word choice – whether it’s time to be silly or time to be serious.
Amanda Klein works for an education nonprofit. Her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Send your suggestions for future interviews to amandalklein(at)gmail(dot)com.