Unpacking the Formative Assessment Process

ML Chat Episode 1: Unpacking the Formative Assessment Process with Tim Blackburn

This week on the ML Chat podcast we sat down with Tim Blackburn to talk about how he ended up in teaching, key practices he uses in his classroom, and what took him across the country from New York to Oregon to teach English language learners.




Justin Hewett, Tim Blackburn

Justin Hewett  00:00

All right, welcome to the show, Tim! We’re excited to have you here today. Before we get started, tell us a little bit about yourself, if you don’t mind, who is Tim Blackburn?

Tim Blackburn  00:12

Hi Justin, thanks. Well, you can call me Mr. Tim, or Mr. Blackburn, you know, the way that I identify really kind of go back to my classroom days. And the things that, that brought me into, into teaching, you know, father too, and I currently serve as a multilingual director and Tiger 12 in schools, but, you know, like before, before all of that, you know, I grew up with three siblings, really close to my brothers and my sister, I’m the oldest of four.

Justin Hewett  00:57

And so, Tim, how did you get into education? Like, were your parents educators? What was it that drew you into education?

Tim Blackburn  01:05

No. And in fact, I think for for my family, it’s a little bit disappointing that I became a teacher. You know, I do recall, a lot of, you know, raised eyebrows when I became a teacher, you know, because we don’t have any in my family. I can’t point to a single educator, in my background, and in fact, you know, now, my brother is a college professor, right. My my sister in law is and is an art teacher. Now. There’s, there’s more of us in the ranks. But before me, no, of any teacher. Not at all a family profession. But I mean, I wouldn’t. It’s really clear to me that there was a kind of a fork in the road. You know, before I joined the Peace Corps, I was working for a hedge fund on Park Avenue. And, you know, I think it’s fair to say I didn’t enjoy emerging markets, distressed debt. Yeah, lifestyle. And while it might be like, you know, like, kind of interesting from afar, I knew that’s not really what I wanted to do. And so I joined the Peace Corps, which, you know, for me, you know, being the eldest, you know, it was sort of a radical decision, and that, you know, it was a decision that no one in my family wanted, and, you know, they, they certainly let me know that.

Justin Hewett  02:43

They weren’t shy! How do you go from, you know, being an analyst in the in a hedge fund to joining the Peace Corps? That is pretty radical. I think I’m with your mom or dad on that. But how did you get there?

Tim Blackburn  03:02

Well, I mean, radical in a sense that, like, a lot of people that join the Peace Corps, yes. Right. It’s not like, it’s not JFK, this is not JFK, it’s Peace Corps. You know, this is kind of a well worn path at this point. But it was radical in the sense for my family, because I think that largely, I did what was expected of me, you know, entirely, and what was expected of me was to, you know, it was to work, where I was working at that time, that was sort of expected, like, I grew up in a place where, you know, you live on Long Island, and then you travel into the city and you do a job, and you really put a lot into that job to become successful at it. And success is measured, in very sort of traditional tangible ways. So the stuff when accumulates and the Capital One accumulates, etc. You know, that’s sort of the cultural milieu in which I grew up, you know, you get on the Long Island Railroad early in the morning, and you travel to the city, and you slave at work, and then you come home. So what was it that happened? There had to have been something that happened. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t filling me. It was exhausting. And I was like, I’m 22 years old, and I’m not happy. It really wore on me. I graduated from college kind of begrudgingly, like, I didn’t feel really inspired by what I was doing and just felt less than like, I knew like I wasn’t doing what I know what I wanted. And then at that point, I didn’t really know what I want what it was that I wanted, but I did know that I needed to get out I needed to go do something. And I met a Peace Corps recruiter in the student union at school. And I was like, that seems interesting. You know, why don’t I try that? And, I had it kind of in my back pocket, you know, as the process was going and it took a while, you know, it’s a bureaucratic process. And in the meantime, I needed something to do after graduation. So, I moved in with a buddy at like a little condo and like Long Beach, Long Island and commuting into the city. And, boy, it wasn’t fulfilling in the least, then I could see like, you know, some people really like it, and I totally get it, but it just wasn’t for me. So when I finally got the invitation to serve in Guatemala, it’s like, how do I turn this down? That’s pretty exciting. Think about it, being 22 years old. That’s a lot more exciting than, you know, being distressed and whatever it is that you wish you had mentioned, from the hedge fund perspective. That’s interesting. Yeah.

Justin Hewett  06:19

So you got the call, they invited you down. And you hopped on a plane and went down with three bags of luggage or like with a backpack?

Tim Blackburn  06:29

It was basically a backpack? Yeah.

Justin Hewett  06:33

And what work did you do? How long were you down there?

Tim Blackburn  06:40

I stayed as long as I could, Justin. I mean, that was the long and short of that is that I did everything in my power just to stay down there. I came back kicking and screaming. So I was down there for 27 months. That’s the typical service period. So it’s three months of training, plus two years of service. Start to finish. And I was lucky enough to extend my tour, so to speak, in order to train incoming volunteers as they were going through their cycle. And, you know, I did everything I could to do another year. And what ended up happening is I extended for a bit, and I got to do the training. And then I had applied to a fellowship called the Peace Corps Fellows. And it’s a brilliant program at Teachers College in New York City, Columbia, and what the Peace Corps Fellows are all about is taking Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and turning them into classroom teachers to serve New York City schools. And they put you through what could only be described as like a three month crash course in urban education. And then you have an emergency license starting in September. So you arrive in May, then you basically take the summer term, that’s technically two terms of coursework, graduate coursework, plus commitments to your cohort, which are amazing. Actually, I love that, it was my favorite part of my Peace Corps Fellows experience was just being with my peers. That’s actually how I met Lisa, Lisa and I were in the same cohort. It’s how I met my wife. And so, that was really the long and short of it, Justin. As you know, I came home because of this opportunity with the Peace Corps Fellows. And so I got to study at Columbia, you know, basically, part time and then serve as a New York City School teacher full time.

Justin Hewett  08:59

It makes me think of the wonderful poem about taking the road less traveled, and it made all the difference. Yeah. That’s really neat. That’s what a neat story and it’s, I love how deep you went, you’re like, I’m gonna get everything out of this experience that I can, I’m loving this. You got into your moment. So then you came back. You enter into a New York City classroom. And where did you start? Like, what class were you teaching?

Tim Blackburn  09:30

Gosh, it was hard. It was really hard. Yeah. One of my favorite things to do, as part of my current work is to support young teachers, right? Because you’re just so fragile and vulnerable, right? Because it’s so hard. There’s so much to learn. There’s so much thrown at you. And I remember this moment once, where I was called in to our assistant principal’s office, Mrs. Teal, and Mrs. Teal said to me,  “Mr. Blackburn, Mr. Blackburn.” And she was asking me my attendance records because she needed them for her conversation she was going to have with a student’s family. And I remember saying to her, “what?”. “Your attendance records”. And it was just like, it had never occurred to me. In my first few weeks as a classroom teacher, like really one of the tangible things that you just have to do is you have to have attendance records, and which is like, in hindsight, “no duh”, you need to do that. Back then it was just like one of the myriad things that I didn’t take into consideration as I was developing into a teacher. And I mentioned that because starting as a novice teacher at the Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology and the Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus on East Fordham Road in the Bronx, it did not factor into my into my emergent practice. But yeah, I worked on East Fordham Road, right across the street from Fordham University. Beautiful old school building called Theodore Roosevelt. And this was right as Mayor Bloomberg took big, comprehensive high schools and kind of chopped them up into many schools. And so I worked, you know, so what used to be a student body of nearly 5000, talking like literally 300 teachers in the building, it’s a one square city block in size, and five floors. It’s a humongous building, big, big giant. The ceilings, I remember, the ceilings are so high, just to open the windows, you need like a 12 foot rod. And, you know, I think about that experience really warmly, in the sense that, I learned so much every day, you know, from the tangible things. The importance of keeping a gradebook and attendance records. And, you know, how beautiful it is to work with multilingual kids, I mean, that was my job, I served as our, our building’s ESL teacher. And I shouldn’t say, teacher, there were three of us. And, you know, as our team, we ran like a pretty traditional sort of ESL support, where we offer an ESL class period that targeted proficiency levels. And, you know, what I actually came to learn that is, my kids just really needed help in class, you know, outside of my classroom. We could learn all the English they needed for success throughout their school day, and outside of school, but it was really clear to me that, whatever we were doing in my space had to be portable into the rest of their school day. And so how can we help make their experience more accessible and more meaningful? And for my kids with the most emergent English, that was a real challenge, you know? They spend the rest of their day like, really hustling.

Justin Hewett  14:12

And what was it? I imagine there was an experience that you had that first year with those students that made you realize that. Or is it something that just kind of gradually happened?

Tim Blackburn  14:28

There was nothing gradual about it. I mean, it was like, sort of in the air all the time. I mean, you’re new to the country, you have this really awesome opportunity. And in the same breath, you miss your mom, you miss your community, you miss everything super intensely. And I can’t imagine really what that’s like. I mean, when I was away in Peace Corps, I always knew I was coming back. So I didn’t experience it in that way, it’s not at all a comparison. And so being that support was a real gift, you know, in a sense that I did see it as my responsibility to create a safe space for all my students. And I also took the responsibility of trying to help my students adjust to a system that really wasn’t making much of an effort to adjust itself for them, or to accommodate them in any way. And that, right there, that sort of that sort of mindset is, is really what kind of programmed me from the get go to the challenge systems, right? To do what I can, you know, within my sphere of influence, within my power to help create inclusive spaces. Because, you know, a high school graduation, at that time, required passing all five of the New York State Regents examinations. There are seminars, summative exams, that if you don’t pass them, you don’t accumulate the requisite credits for graduation. And so, that right there is a definition of of gatekeeping. And, you know, despite what my students knew, and were able to do, you know, writing in their native, you know, Bangla, or Spanish, or French, they had to do all those things,  in English. And granted, there were some, some exams in which they could take, they could take them in their home language and express themselves in their home language. But notwithstanding this, it was a real gauntlet, right, a real challenge. And I took it really seriously to, yes, create inclusive spaces, but also to equip my my students with the skills they needed for success after high school. That mattered so much to me.

Justin Hewett  17:36

It’s easy to see that this was a huge turning point for you, right? I mean, you had a couple turning points, but like to be in that classroom with those students to feel that strongly about how do I provide a safe place for my students? How do I do my best to help them adjust to a system that isn’t going to work to adjust to them? I love this perspective. You know, that first year with Miss Steele, as your assistant principal was a pretty powerful.

Tim Blackburn  18:10

She’s a great lady.

Justin Hewett  18:12

Did you become the mayor in that classroom? Did that Mayor personality, that you weren’t able to necessarily be with the hedge fund group, did that come back out? Do you feel like when you’re in your classroom with your students?

Tim Blackburn  18:26

I was happy. I was really happy doing it. Like, genuinely happy like wow, every year, each day, especially in your first year as a teacher, brought some sort sort of trauma. And you know, if you were to interview any of my students from those days, I’m sure they would tell you about all sorts of emotional meltdowns. Because it’s hard to really care about something and then not be good at it.

Justin Hewett  19:07

That’s a lot of frustration, right?

Tim Blackburn  19:08

I knew that. And like, I knew I wasn’t good at it. I knew I was trying really hard. And that mattered, right? And I think my students knew that. But, I mean, you can basically think about it, like how many children were sacrificed at the altar of my development as a teacher.

Justin Hewett  19:31

At least they were in a happy classroom with somebody who cared a lot about them. How long did it take you, do you feel like, until you got to the point where you were like, maybe you didn’t say to yourself, because I know how humble you are, that you’re really good at it, but like when did you feel like you got to a point where you are now really effective in the classroom.

Tim Blackburn  19:56

I remember it was in the mornings in particular, when there’s really anxious times, you know, like, I remember planning lessons and, you know, lesson planner on the D train, and then you know, kind of rocking side to side, and I’m three coffees into my morning and I am agitated, nervous, unprepared, I gotta make copies, “is the train gonna get there on time?” “Well, maybe if I run from the D train 12 blocks to school, maybe I’ll make it in time.” And that sort of like very, very palpable sort of anxiety, I still hold on to that, I can still feel it. It’s very, very visceral to me. And I mentioned that because, you know, I remember moments, and like, the spring of my third year of teaching, where I can I walk to school and grab a bacon egg and cheese on the way and kind of have a leisurely morning. I wasn’t like super agitated, or anxious. You know, I think at that point, Lisa and I were engaged, right. And so we had kind of like, nice mornings together walking to the train, and then we go about our different directions, you go to the east Bronx, and I go to the north Bronx. And so I remember that really fondly. And it was very much a turning point. You know, like, once I unlocked a couple of key practices that helped me feel more comfortable in the classroom and actually gave my class direction. And I wonder, if that had a lot to do with that sort of direction. You know, it had a lot to do with, just like the very tangible improvements and things like classroom management, you know, kind of the, the emotional experience my students had in my classroom.

Justin Hewett  22:05

So it’s interesting to think, I mean, this is a little bit out of the box thinking here, but it reminds me a little bit of Keanu Reeves in the matrix, when he had his matrix moment, and he realized, like, he could bend backwards and slow time down and do whatever it was. All the way back. Yeah, exactly. And, like, everything slowed down, right? And and you weren’t needing three coffees to get drove up the energy to get to where you needed to go. But it makes me wonder just a little bit, you know we read about that study that was done that is quoted in, in Outliers by…

Tim Blackburn  22:46

Malcolm Gladwell?

Justin Hewett  22:48

Yes, thank you, Malcolm Gladwell. He calls that study about the 10,000 hours. And it’s just interesting to think of like how many hours you probably would have had in either preparing to teach, or teaching, or thinking about your teaching at that point, you know, three years into it, you might have been fairly close to that.

Tim Blackburn  23:08

My buddy, Rosie Santana, she’s a brilliant teacher, coach in Idaho. The way she describes it is that it either feels like super clunky and mechanical. And so that is a sort of burning the candle at both ends, where, like, again, I wasn’t my best self as I’m cutting my teeth in the profession. And so, like, none of my practices were really informed by evidence or what we know works at that time. It was just a lot of a lot of trial by fire, you know, and over time, and thanks to a really a thanks to the mentorship of, of one coach in particular, that helped me get to a place where I can think more critically about my planning then to actually simplify my planning. His name’s John Baldy. He is an adjunct professor at Teachers College and he was our primary shepherd and the ESOL and ESL cohort among me and my peers. And, you know, to a person in my cohort, we revere John, not just for what he taught us in class, but for those of us that were lucky enough to have him as a classroom coach and mentor. I mean, he was warm, generous, because he saw the effort, and supportive you know, and he helped really simplify a very complex process.

Justin Hewett  24:52

That’s so cool. It’s amazing how powerful those mentors can be at the right moment, the right time, and they engage the way he sounds like he did. That is powerful.

Tim Blackburn  25:03

And with an open heart, yeah. He was open hearted, and I knew enough to know that I needed help. You know, I wanted to be good at it, and I recognize that I wasn’t, and I accepted help. Because I mean, there were moments, especially in year one where I didn’t know that I was gonna make it. Yeah, I didn’t know. But John had a lot to do with with turning things around.

Justin Hewett  25:35

When you went into a role where you now were coaching teachers, did you find yourself channeling your inner John?

Tim Blackburn  25:43

Oh, yeah, every day, I say stuff literally every day that John taught me. “Abundancy in redundancy.” That is a John Baldy a quote that I use, I’m sure I’ve used, you know, thinking about the ways our students engage and reengage texts with purpose. And, you know, John taught me that and it’s like one little knowledge gem that I go to on the daily.

Justin Hewett  26:19

I love that. “Abundancy in redundancy.” Before we go too much further down this path that I want to kind of circle back for a second. You know, you went from Peace Corps Fellows, and you got the emergency license to teach and how did you fall into a classroom? Or how did you land in a classroom to work with multilingual students, with students who are learning English? Like how did that come to be?

Tim Blackburn  26:49

I mean, it was a little bit by accident in the sense that like, when I joined the Peace Corps Fellows, they had two cohorts that I was interested in pursuing. One of them was like a bilingual education cohort. And coming back from from Guatemala, I was like, “oh, yeah, that sounds super interesting to me.” And the other one was the ESL cohort. And you know, teaching English as a second language. And I didn’t know at that time that I had the disposition to be an elementary teacher. And that’s what the bilingual program offered was, elementary preparation in a bilingual classroom. And that was a little bit of a fork in the road in the sense that, like, I really liked the idea of being a bilingual teacher. And little did I know that eventually I would evolve into a bilingual teacher, but I instead chose the ESL cohort, because I just felt like I would be more effective working in secondary, despite having a K-12 license, I didn’t feel as relevant or prepared, you know, to serve in an elementary space. I think about that a lot differently now. You know, I spend a fair chunk of my time serving in elementary schools. And I quite like it. I wonder if that would have been a good choice, but it’s all in the past. That’s how that happened.

Justin Hewett  28:35

Sounds like, maybe this time it wasn’t the path that led you to a different place as much as maybe both paths would have led you to the same place-

Tim Blackburn  28:44

It’s totally possible. Totally possible.

Justin Hewett  28:48

Well, I’m loving this, Tim, it is so fun to dive in and understand. I mean, you have become a tremendous advocate for multilingual students, for our diverse learners. And you’ve done a lot of amazing things over the years, you know, of putting great systems in place and trying to make the system a little more inclusive and adaptive to the students it’s created to serve, right?, and do some of these things, but it’s fun to hear where it all started. Where did you go from teaching in New York City? Obviously, you were on that end of the coast and now today you’re in Oregon, outside of Portland and TTSD and I’m excited to unpack some of that, and kind of how you made that transition. But where did you go next? Like what was the next transition in your career?

Tim Blackburn  29:47

Yeah, so like I shared, Lisa and I, we met in the same cohort. She taught English literature in a high school called Fannie Lou Hamer, and Hunts Point in the Bronx. And I had actually moved on to this really neat school called International Community High School. And it’s a school of about 380 multilingual students from all over the world. It exists exclusively to serve newcomer multilingual students. And it’s part of a network of schools that exists exclusively to create an inclusive welcoming space for recently arrived, multilingual kids. It’s called the Internationals Network for public schools, and I happen to work at the one and Mott Haven, it’s a part of the South Bronx, two stops into the Bronx on the sixth train. And you know, Lisa and I hit that point. You know, we’ve married and we had a baby girl, Claire on 2009. And then when Maeve came along in 2012, it was clear to us that we needed some help. We’re kind of on our own in the city. And you know, childcare is really expensive, and rent is really hard to afford in Manhattan. We could move to Queens, we can move there, Bronx. Lisa’s from Oregon, Lisa grew up just outside of Portland. And I think at that point, we were ready to be around her family who are just really wanting to be around their granddaughters and their nieces. And so we made the big decision to move. That was hard. That was a really hard decision and a rough transition too, because I basically left, I think in a lot of ways, a career there was giving me a ton of joy. In New York, I felt really on top of my game in a lot of ways. And then we moved to Oregon and kind of in a lot of ways had to start over to take a position. At that point, it was really hard to find work as a teacher, this is kind of in the in the wreckage of the economic downturn, from 2007-2008. So at this point, it’s 2013, and really hard to find a job and this is well after the fact. And I was able to find work with the Oregon migrant education service center, and I served as a teacher on special assignment. And you know, what that role was all about was supporting migrant programs throughout the state. And so while there is no better way to learn your new state, and by traveling all over and meeting people all over the state, and was kind of making friends wherever I went, it was a really neat job because it was totally like a multilingual multicultural job. I mean, like, Spanish, English, Spanish, English all day. I really, really liked it. There was a neat little office in Salem I worked in, I have just really interesting people, had a neat boss, Antonio Ramos. A really good guy. He took a leap on me.

Justin Hewett  33:49

So you drive around Oregon, you get all this amazing forestry and like mountains and rivers and then meeting people and you’re getting to use your Spanish and your English and connect with people and become the mayor of Oregon.

Tim Blackburn  34:03

Yeah. And at this point, it was really like, in a lot of ways supporting the, you know, kind of, just a little bit after the fact that like, I did like a lot of like family presentations on the Common Core, what that means for their students. What does it mean to advocate for your students and English language development? You know, like, what does English language development mean? You know, what are your rights as a family like? It was neat, doing all those like family facing conversations and professional learning events for teachers and migrant staff. I learned a lot. It was a really neat role. And from there I joined the Oregon Department of Education shortly after that, and I worked in a similar role, as they call it like an education specialist, but I served multilingual students as basically like a Title Three officer for the for the Oregon Department of Education. And that was similar in the sense that I did a lot of traveling and a lot of like system supports for for school districts and title three monitoring visits. That was less exciting. That part. My caviar Craddock part of it, I know, that’s not part of my skill set. Yeah, technical stuff.

Justin Hewett  35:26

It was the work that needed to be done that, you know, you had to do. I’m curious about that transition. You know, I mean, it sounds like it was hard in general anyways, but then to go from being able to, you were in flow, right, like you were in your moment, you are loving your job really enjoying it, you’re in the classroom with the students, you just, you know, care so much about and you enjoy helping them along their journey. And then, you know, that transition to then becoming the Tosa and serving migrant students and their families. And that probably was a pretty interesting transition for you, because you went from having a classroom, but like, still advocating and working to serve students, I mean, you’re doing very similar things, but in a very different way, I guess, you know, maybe talk a little bit about that transition, if you don’t mind, and kind of how that led you to move into the title three role. As far as the work in general that you were doing, if you don’t mind?

Tim Blackburn  36:29

Yeah, I mean, there was a lot of opportunity to bring like equity events, to programs and policy. And I was really hopeful for that going into the role and in fact, our leadership at the Oregon Department of Education at that time was like really into that. We had to technically call them a deputy superintendent, but effectively they’re the Chief Executive Officer of Oregon schools. Technically, that’s the governor’s responsibility, but in this case, the deputy superintendent was a man named Rob Saxton. And Rob was formerly the superintendent of the Tiger Tualatin School District, where I currently work. And, you know, in his capacity and in Tiger 12 had really started kind of like the equity conversation. And I mean, really, in a bedroom community of Portland, right, and what was previously a very white suburban space, right? He kind of brought that equity lens to the Oregon Department of Education and encouraged us in so many ways to use that as a critical lens for examining the ways in which we’re recreating inclusive systems. You know? And that was cool. That was actually just like a wonderful space to step into. Because, you know, Title Three is a great example of well intentioned policy, right? But in its application, you know, there’s far too many students that are getting pulled out of their classrooms to, again, receive well intentioned services, but in an exclusive way. And, you know, some might make the argument that “well, that’s temporary, you know”, “it’s short term”, and that, once they have enough English, then they can be fully mainstreamed. And no, that doesn’t work for me, we can do better, to offer service in the least restrictive environment, we can do better to think critically about bending our systems to reach students in a more human way. And so, one of my mentors in Tiger 12 calls it humanizing our systems. You know, are we really thinking about the ways in which our students experience our services? Because, I don’t know about you, but I imagine it doesn’t feel really good to, to go to, again, well intentioned services like reading interventions and ELD knowing full well that my peers are doing kind of like cool, enrichment/extension things back in their classes, and that there is the opportunity, right? Like what could have been like a role that is like bureaucratic and fully policy oriented. I did feel empowered to bring an equity lens to my colleagues throughout the state. And my two primary responsibilities at the Oregon Department of Education, one was supporting the adoption and the implementation of the Oregon English language proficiency standards, it’s part of the Alpha 21 Consortium, which are basically language rich standards with correspondences to the Common Core. And then secondly, was the development and the adoption of the Oregon state seal of biliteracy. So for me, really neat applications of a skill set that I got to develop in New York City and kind of apply, you know, through a policy and systems in Oregon.

Justin Hewett  41:00

How crazy to be able to make that transition, right? To go from teaching in the classroom in New York City, and then you come in, you move into that Tosa position, and then you move into the Title Three role for the state, when you’re a part of some of those big policy shifts, that are focused to become more inclusive, and provide a more equitable experience to the students. It’s just amazing, I almost feel like you can draw it up necessarily in advance, oh, I’m going to do this, and then I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do that.

Tim Blackburn  41:36

It felt natural in a lot of ways, right? Despite sort of longing for, the simplicity of my former role, like, I did experience quite a bit of that, for a lot more straightforward. But also there are like technical parts of shifting systems, right. And then honestly, in order to meet kind of the spirit and the letter of the Common Core, a lot of things had to change. And then we think about, for instance, a student’s experience in a mainstream ELA class at a high school. Boy, I mean, if we’re really going to think about supporting multilingual learners like this, there’s a lot to consider in terms of how students are thinking, how we’re supporting them, access to text, how we set up supports as they process text, how we set up tasks that encourage student interaction in a meaningful way, how we support their writing. I like to think about it, and John Bobby would say the same thing as me, because he taught me this, it’s really exploring classroom content as like, language rich opportunities for like development. You know, thinking about where are the English language development opportunities in my content standards? And I got to think about that a lot in my role at that ODE. And frankly, I didn’t start thinking about it there. It was really about the the theme of inclusion and access that was primary to me as a classroom teacher serving multilingual students. So getting to sort of expand the scope of that, through it through policy and implementation support, was a real opportunity for me.

Justin Hewett  43:47

Yeah, that’s really quite amazing when it comes down to it, right? To have had that experience in the classroom, to have formed you so much in this work, and to be able to help drive and build that passion for yourself. I’m wondering, I can see how we got to this point, and I really appreciate you indulging us and sharing your story and kind of going through some of that. I guess, when it comes to access and inclusion, why is that work? Like, why is it become so paramount for you? Why is it so important to you?

Tim Blackburn  44:25

Because we’re not there yet! You know, and I have seen firsthand what it looks like for students to be left on the outside, right? And frankly, I still see it. You know, our mental models are really powerful, Justin. You know, when you think about the power of the imprint that you have, from the ways in which you grew up as a student and you close your eyes and you think about where is a teacher? [In the classroom, of course] Who’s doing all the talking? And that imprint is real, right? And so we think about this from the perspective of unlearning. You’re right, there’s a lot that we need to challenge and address, in terms of our various assumptions of what teaching and learning looks like, sounds like, feels like. And you think about who, you know, in our classrooms or you know, are largely in teaching roles are predominantly, you know, white middle class people that probably didn’t grow up in a very multilingual space. And again, this is like the power of imprint. Yes, yes, it is a question of like, pedagogy and instructional practice, like, there are very technical things that we can do to make our classrooms more accessible. But if the answer were that, I think it’d be a lot simpler, right? If it were just that, it is a mind shift as well, you know? It is a a shift to thinking about, what assumptions am I making in terms of who is able to access these themes from like, a sociocultural lens, right? If you think about cultural relevance. And yes, of course, from a language lens, too. Thirdly, is it interesting or relevant to our kids? I do think that there are deeper imprints there are deeper themes at play, just beyond scaffolds and sentence frames.

Justin Hewett  47:05

It’s really interesting to think about how important mindset is, and that perspective. I’m rereading a book right now, I finished it and then went right back into it, again, called the, The Gap and The Gain. And it talks about, measuring backwards, instead of forwards all the time. It’s easy for all of us to get caught in this thought, where we keep moving the benchmark, and we keep looking at where we’re trying to get to, and we kind of never get there. And you know, the more asset based approach is to actually instead look at the growth you’ve made, look at the gain, rather than looking at the gap. And I think about my relationship with my eldest son, and there were some things that I was kind of in the gap with him on. And when I started kind of making that shift super intentionally, it’s not easy at all. But starting to try and make that shift myself, all of a sudden, our relationship improved so much. And all of a sudden, it seemed like what I said, mattered to him. And when I wanted to teach him something, he wanted to learn it. And it was just so interesting, the difference of when I was in the gap with him, and when I was in, you know, the gain.

Tim Blackburn  48:23

Can you can you illustrate a gap, for instance? Can you give me an example of what a gap might look like?

Justin Hewett  48:30

Yeah. For example, a gap might be: I want Hawk, who’s my eldest son, I just wanted him to get his basketball cards off the ground. That was all I wanted him to do. He had basketball cards all over the place. He’s always trying to make these. Like, he puts the cards and he makes the trades, and he’s looking at the salary cap like he is so into basketball. It’s pretty awesome. But he didn’t have a way to necessarily put away the cards, but he had a box, like “pick them up, put them away”, anyways, it was just one one small little thing. Maybe it’s not even the best example. But I was so in the gap with him because he was not making any progress with this. And it was like, you cannot play in your next game or we’re not going to do anything with friends until we can get this done. And finally, I realized that I was in the gap because I was looking at what he wasn’t doing and what he hadn’t necessarily done, but I haven’t really given him a tool to do something differently and to make progress with. And so we got on Amazon, we figured out a folder that he could buy where he could he could put his money towards and buy a folder and put his cards in. And it still took a long time to get all those cards off the floor and get him in. But now I could start to recognize some of the gain. And it happens even more so with his siblings. You know, the sibling rivalry thing is real, right? Like, that is a real thing. And, and when I focused on what he was doing wrong, we just couldn’t get on the same page, I would be met with a blank stare. But when I focused on how talented I think he is, or how kind I think he is, and how surprised I was at this, all of a sudden, there was a shift there, because I was able to recognize what he was good at. And we need that in our home with with our kids too, not just with you and your buddies. I mean, anyways, I don’t know if that’s a good example.

Tim Blackburn  50:42

No, it is, it’s actually a really great example. And something that I’m taking away from that, is that you invited him into the process. You offered him basically like a scaffold. “Here is a way that you can take care of the things that you care about.” Right? And in so doing, this is kind of what I need from you as well. Here’s the expectation. However, what I appreciate about that, is kind of stepping back and thinking about, “where’s the invitation?” And let’s collectively find a solution.

Justin Hewett  51:27

Why do we focus so much in education, you know? It seems like everyone’s really working hard to make that shift to be more asset-based or assets-focused. Why is it so natural for us to go kind of the opposite, and focus from a deficit based perspective?

Tim Blackburn  51:47

Because it’s a lot easier to focus on the content than it is to focus on the 30 individuals with all these different needs, right? It’s daunting, you know? Think about the job that a high school ELA teacher has. She serves anywhere from 120 to 150 kids. That is not a recipe. That is tough sledding, you know, that’s not easy. And I think that teachers have a tremendous task. It’s really hard work when you negotiate the complexities of all of those needs, of all of those individuals, and, your sincere desire for them to master the standards. And so, when you say “why do we go to the deficit?” I don’t cast any blame there. I’m more inclined to look at the system and think about all the ways in which we situate students and teacher. Like what more could we do to situate them for success?

Justin Hewett  53:19

Yeah, it’s a lot easier, I feel like, to focus on that gap, right? It’s easier to focus on where we want to be, and you know, you’re not there yet, right? And where the gain is, it takes more work. You have to be more intentional, we have to make sure that we have processes in place that allow us to measure backwards or to be able to demonstrate where a student is today and recognize and celebrate that, right? But it’s hard. You know, it seems like that can be hard. I know Tim, that we’re probably getting to the end of the time that you have that we can we can be going through this. Maybe let’s wrap up on on this note, focusing on assets and being inclusive, and kind of thinking through that. If you were a first year teacher, or a second year teacher, or if you were meeting with them and you were channeling your inner John Baldy, what would you say to that teacher, to help them focus on the students’ assets when they are drinking from a firehose already, right? How do you do that? How do you make that kind of a transition?

Tim Blackburn  54:40

You know, I would first recognize that my colleagues that get in to the profession do so because they love working with students. They love serving their community and they know that they bring value because of the ways in which they connect with kids. And so first and foremost, I appreciate that, I elevate that, I encourage my colleagues to amplify it, right? That sort of love and connection to students, that really is primary. But beyond that, I really encourage probably like two more things for my colleagues to be better emergent in their practice, is that we’re better together, we’re better when we’re thinking collectively. Find a partner with whom you work really well, look for opportunities to expand your own zone of proximal development when you think about the ways in which you grow your own practice. So you think about it in terms of a professional learning community, or a great team, recognize the value that you bring to the team, and also, think about all the stuff that you can learn from your colleagues. Not all of it’s going to be good. But there’s a lot to learn from our colleagues that have been at this for a while. And so looking for those collaborations, especially collaborations that are really centered on on students and student growth, that is a really crucial ingredient and sort of success criteria. The third thing, I think that is worth mentioning, is carrying a backwards design pedagogy as being very principle than what we do, and thinking about our clear intended learning. What is it that I want my students to know and be able to do by the end of the year? And when I think about that, I can kind of carry it through and think about the mileposts throughout the school year, and how are my students building their own capacity, and so far as those those expectations in terms of content? Yes. But it’s more than that. And this is where it gets a little complicated, but yes, in terms of class content, but also in the analytical practices, the thinking practices, when you think about your Bloom’s Taxonomy, those bloomsy verbs at the start of our standards. How do I support my students into critical thinking and into greater depths of knowledge, making connections across ideas? And implicit in that is the language that students need to express their understanding of those practices, to do that analysis, to synthesize their thinking, to evaluate claims and make connections between ideas, that depth requires explicit language forms, right? And so it’s really being very clear about that intended learning within those three lenses, you know? The content, the disciplinary practices, and the language and in a backwards design way, mapping those outcomes throughout the year, so that we’re spiraling all year, and building those skills in a cohesive way. So those are three things, amplify what you already do, which is love your students, secondly, find colleagues with whom you can collaborate really in a student centered way, and thirdly, carry that Leontief backwards design lens.

Justin Hewett  58:56

Oh man, that’s powerful stuff right there. This is what we’re gonna do. We’ll continue this and let’s break those down. and go deeper on those, especially, you know, the backwards design clear intended learning. So we can jump into that. We’ll do that next time. What a pleasure to hear your story. Diving into this and understanding what makes you you become such. You are incredible in your field, and you’re doing a lot of really good things. And it’s just neat to hear what has been foundational for you and how you got to this point. We never made it to TTSD as far as how you moved into that role necessarily, but we’ll get there eventually, I’m sure. But, Tim, thank you so much for being on the show. And, we’ll look forward to being with you again soon.

Tim Blackburn  59:53

Thanks Jeff. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for making time for me.


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