“Just because I struggle with some grammar rules doesn’t mean I can’t think deeply,” says one of McKamey’s former students, Ajanee Greene, who’s now 23 and a student at Jackson State University. In 2012, McKamey says, Greene wrote one of the strongest research papers McKamey had read in her classes, even though she had received a D in English at another school. Her 12-page final paper explored how the long history of racial exclusion contributed to violence in black communities—and affected her own family in San Francisco.
“The newspapers talk about the violence, but they don’t talk about a much bigger epidemic—the private pain of families who are left to live with the aftermath” of that violence, Greene, who became the first in her family to graduate from high school, wrote in 2012. “Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone can inflict. The violence stays with families and becomes a part of their lives. Nobody feels the same and family relationships get strained. This causes more pain, and the cycle intensifies … The psychological damage destroys communities more than unemployment and poverty.”
For her paper, Greene had read and analyzed 20 articles and studies, interviewed neighbors, and added her own point of view. Before McKamey’s class, Greene had never written a research paper. “Ms. McKamey believed in me and then pushed me to work really, really hard,” Greene explained. She ultimately got an A- in McKamey’s class.
Drawing on the methods she uses in her English classes, McKamey has been coaching other teachers across all subjects for about a decade now. As part of this process, teachers meet in small groups where they review the work of middle-achieving students who have made a recent shift—went from chronic C’s to an A- in a recent essay, or analyzed passages more deeply, or showed intellectual engagement instead of just trying to get a good grade. Teachers then share practices that contributed to the growth in that student’s skills: verbal or written feedback, more explicit instruction in the components of academic writing, or reading student work in front of the class, among others.
Analyzing the work of middle-achieving students—rather than just failing or thriving ones—can significantly improve teachers’ effectiveness with underachieving students, McKamey argues. When teachers focus on the work of the lowest-achieving students, McKamey has observed that such conversations often turn into a space to blame the students, their parents, or other teachers, or they veer off into emotionally invasive discussions of a student’s private life. Focusing on middle-achieving students who showed recent improvement helps teachers dispel unrecognized stereotypes—and learn how to notice and build on their strengths. (One study found that white teachers graded black and Latino students more harshly for the same performance, accounting for as much as 22 percent of the achievement gap.)