Monday, October 26, 2015

Trust Yourself - Week Eleven

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." Ernest Hemingway

Successful outcomes are never built on foundations of doubt. Any enduring work is established through trust. Trust in the workers who carry out the project, trust in the vision for the work and trust in the very process itself. The same is true inside the four walls (or through the fiber optic cables) of your classroom. Educating children well has to start with trusting in our teachers. Unfortunately, it seems that teachers are not trusted enough.

You are given scripted curriculum, assigned irrelevant professional development sessions and given district/state level assessments that are disconnected from what you can realistically cover in a week's worth of instruction. And if that is not enough, technology is brought in to perform better what the mis-aligned assessments have reported back that you didn't do well. This practice does not honor teachers, teaching and the students themselves. It must end.

You have the power to end this practice simply by trusting yourself. You, who have gone through specialized training and have passed rigorous  exams, are the professional expert in the classroom. You are the S.M.E.(subject matter expert) on your students. It is time to trust yourself again. Trust your ability to align standards, scope and sequence together in a way that does not lock-out the cultures, interests and needs of your students. Trust yourself.

Trust that the basics of pedagogy (planning, teaching and assessment) still work today. Trust in your ability to adapt to the changing needs of the 21st century student. And trust in your students enough to know that if you conduct yourself with intention, care, professionalism and respect - they will feel it and respond accordingly. You can do this.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Everyday Equity - Week Nine

"We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs." -Lisa Delpit


What if we stopped talking about the achievement gap?

Not stopped working on closing it, but just stopped talking about it in the classical ways we have. 

In the late 60's, at the height of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X had a profound epiphany following his pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned to the U.S., he took the classic notion of 'civil rights,' and expanded it. Up to that point, civil rights had been on the lips of every progressive thinker in the U.S. It had been talked about and documented. There were plans, marches, boycotts and demonstrations all on the basis of what came to be known as the moral imperative of our time. (In fact, the term is so ingrained in our conscience that even today we use it to define other important issues involving people, e.g. 'the civil rights issue of our time'). Malcolm thought the term was too little and so he expanded it to human rights. His thesis was that human rights contains the ideas upon which civil rights stand. I think this is instructive for the classroom and the schoolhouse.

When we continue to focus solely on the achievement gap, we only see the deficit and difference in achievement of black and brown children versus their white peers. This deficit model of focus pushes us to seek and search for what is wrong with these children, rather than what is missing from the classrooms, schools and educational systems that should be serving them. Under-service usually precedes under-performance and under-performance almost always points to inequity. I would encourage you today to think beyond the achievement gap and to focus on equity. 

Equity could be defined as the practice of providing appropriate scaffolds and supports that meet the cognitive, cultural and emotional needs of students. Equity is a practice. It also is a perspective. A belief system. "We see and hear.....through our beliefs." When equity is your lens, it may be evident in the following actions:

1. Students are expected to work beyond their comfort level and just below their frustration point. 

2. Systems of assessment and instruction are put in place that make room for the cultural practices, experiences and values of students.

3. There is transparency to the work, such that students and parents know what each student's achievement level is and how close to or far from the grade level standard that achievement level is. 

4. Plans are put in place to ensure that no matter what the achievement level of the student is, he/she grows to at least grade level expectations by the end of the year. (And if they are already at grade level expectations at the beginning of the school year, they should still be well beyond it by the same time frame). 

5. The teacher organizes his/her life in such a way that deep and meaningful planning takes place, a consistent feedback loop between assignment, assessment and feedback is established and ongoing personal professional development fuels practice. 

If we focus just on the gap itself, and miss the overarching concept of providing equity for all, we will fall into that gap of thinking, planning and talking. We can do better by our students. We can do better by our parents. We can do better for the profession. When you focus on equity, you have the power to change the trajectory of every traditionally under-served student that walks through your door. Use that power today!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Teaching Moments - Week Eight

"Let everything you do reflect the seriousness and integrity of your teaching. Teach the truth so that your teaching can't be criticized." Titus 2:7-8 (NLT)


It has been a privilege to have a career in education. From connecting with children to leading with adults, the profession of teaching is replete with moments of learning. These are commonly referred to as teachable moments. I like to call them teaching moment because it reflects the reciprocal nature of the situation - it is our duty to reflect the best learning episodes back to willing ears and hearts. I would like to share a few teaching moments that have dotted my career so far:

1. "After you save this file, you should leave," was a note that I gave a high school senior. She was a student who had anxiety about being around other students and one peer in particular with whom she had a bullying history with. After speaking with some other concerned teachers about her being in the same class with the student, we determined that the placement would be suitable because of the relationship I had built with her. I spoke with the student and we developed a strategy for dealing with the student in question. One of our tactics was to allow her to leave a minute or two earlier than other students, so that she could safely go to her next class. Free from potential harassment. Free to be in a safe and orderly environment. I learned that it is our ethical duty* to protect the emotional as well as physical health of our students.

2. "Why are you so hyped, all the time?" This quote from another high schooler was said to me, with a smile, after I spent all 90 minutes of an energetic class session on my feet. As I was engaged in going from student to student in this composition day, the energy from their stories kept me whirling around the room. The teaching moment for me was that the fuel for my focus was and will forever be the stories of my students.

3. "In some states, prisons are built based off of the reading levels of students," was the beginning sentence of a message I gave to middle school students. I then proceeded to let them know about the power and potential of reading and writing in ways that were personal and transformative for me. For the rest of that year and the majority of my classroom days, I found teaching moments in literature and poems. I allowed rich texts to communicate deep truths and mixed in real world lessons for students to enjoy. This one practice of creating an environment of literate exchange for children taught me that students are always ready to respond to and be changed by passion and truth.

In each teaching moment, the learner is a flexible role and the lesson is dependent on human variables. As a teacher, you are never too bright to learn or too good to make a mistake. It is what we do with the learning; how we let it impact our practice and our leadership that makes the profession richer and more rewarding. As you start school this week, be prepared for the teaching opportunities that await you and your students.


*To learn more about ethics in education, visit the NASDTEC website which contains the first ever national Model Code of Educator Ethics. Additionally, an innovative tests for educator ethics has been developed by ETS - more information can be found here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Realistic Expectations - Week Five

"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." -Steve Prefontaine

As a teacher, every day and every week, you are expected to perform miracles. Parents expect you to teach their children well. Administrators expect you to maintain your classroom and everything else that pertains to the climate of the school. Students expect you to be engaging, consistent and funny. Society expects you to uphold all of these expectations as well as take students from all walks of life down the same path of excellence (on a salary that is not commensurate with the sheer volume of tasks and knowledge required to do the job well). But, that is okay. 

As a teacher or leader of teachers, you are uniquely able to manage these expectations if you keep one thing in mind: all you can give is your best. No matter what the pressures are that seek to take away your peace and security, if you resolve to give your best each day, the weight of these demands will not take you under.

Giving your best in the schoolhouse each day requires that you put yourself in a position to win. Good sleep is a must, but that is not the only habit that helps. It is critical to monitor your diet, your days and your distractions.

Watching your diet entails keeping an eye on what you eat, but also the kinds of information and talk about students and education that you consume. The nature of your attitude and energy towards the profession is often a reflection of the content of the conversations you engage in on a daily basis. It is and always will be a privilege to be in the field of education. That has got to be the thought that guides you daily.

In teaching and learning, every day has a certain level of violence to it; the day just comes at you. Monitoring your days is making sure you have that inner dialogue that helps you pace yourself throughout the day. There are times when it is important to whisper a quick prayer while a drill is going forth or to repeat positive statements to yourself while you’re teaching. As the day unfolds, you must find rest and refuel periods so that you still have enough to give to your family and friends when the school day ends.

Finally, when periodic rest becomes a habitual state of mind, comfort can become a distraction. Anything you love can become a prison of time if you do not keep balance between what you have to do and what you want to do. Teaching is hard work. It takes a lot out of you. It takes more out of you, however, if you do not have a handle on things, people and activities that distract you from getting the job done on a consistent basis.

In the future, teaching will be even more needed than it already is now. To that end, quality teachers will continue to be at a premium and expectations will continue to be high. You can keep them realistic by simply giving your best every day. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Honeymoon Period - Week Four

Your relationship with truth impacts the quality of your decisions.


The first few weeks of a school year are magical. Students are refreshed from the summer break. Kindergarteners, sixth-graders and high school freshmen are sweetly tentative. Their end-of-school counterparts are motivated for their promotion to the next level in only nine months. The beginning of school 'honeymoon period'  alone is possibly responsible for many teachers coming back to the profession year after year.

Then three weeks passes.

Students settle in to the habits they have accrued over their school experience. The attention once given to instruction, only days ago, wanes a bit. This is when deep teaching starts. If we are honest with ourselves, however, the honeymoon period could end from the students' perspectives as well. The real 'you' shows up. The teacher that tires easily, plans superficially, calls parents for negative actions and doesn't respond to clear skill gaps and student interests. 

As a teacher, it is imperative that I own my power as an instructional expert. It is also important for me to own the bad habits that I have developed and try my best to correct them. Student performance, self-efficacy and even connection with school depends upon my ability to model great practices for them. You are the most significant influence on your students' achievement, but only when you are practice powerful and skillful instruction. This brand of instruction can only come from a deep relationship with the truth of who you (and your students) really are. This truth will afford you the opportunity to correct stubborn habits and build on enduring strengths. Three actions can help you cozy up to those truths:

1.Establish standards for practice: What constitutes a great day of instruction for your students? For you? What equates to a powerful and effective learning experience? These standards for practice in your classroom can be co-created with students, shared with parents and community stakeholders and referred to daily before instruction begins. 

2. Reflect on your daily performance: After establishing standards for practice, time has to be taken to reflect on how close to or far from these standards you were for the day or week. How was today's lesson? How did your habits and practice contribute to the day's success or failure? What are the next steps you need to take to help positively influence your behavior so that you can be in a position to provide the daily level of instruction students deserve? 

3. Respond to the data you see: Grading can be a bear (especially for an English teacher), but it is essential for you to know where your students are performing. This quantitative (as well as qualitative data) must be responded to with responsive teaching. Responding to the skill, attitude and attention gaps in your instruction is the single most important step towards relating to the truth of who your students are and taking them to higher levels of achievement.


My wife and I went to Jamaica for our honeymoon. It was the most beautiful time of our lives together. To this day we still talk about the scrumptious bacon (the bacon!) we ate and the epic ocean-side naps we took. This experience will never leave our minds. But, this is not daily reality. 

A honeymoon is never meant to be anyone's personal residence. At best, it is a great launching out into the truth of a marriage or any other enduring relationship. When this period is over, some of the deepest and best relationships are tested and strengthened.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Establishing Patterns - Week Three

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle


Teaching is a grind. Every day has a cadence to it that includes an eclectic mix of action: greet students, take attendance, go over drill, begin the lesson, close the lesson, dismiss students. Then, lather, rinse and repeat either two times or six for the remainder of the day. After students leave, the second shift begins. After grading more papers and running off more copies, we prepare for Tuesday through Friday. Only those who love the process and children will ever commit to teaching and leading teachers for a lifetime. Teaching is what love looks like in practice.

One of the hallmarks of anything that we love, is that we evaluate what we do. A colleague of mine once said that she asks herself "did I do anything to benefit children today?" That's a good starting question. A good place to start with that question may be the daily lesson plan.

Each and every instructional period, we ask students to go through a battery of skills and practices. What may be instructive is to look at what students are physically doing on a daily basis and asking whether, if those tasks were practiced for the next 180 days, it would result in mastery for each student. If my lesson consists of students listening (mostly to the teacher), copying (mostly what the teacher models) and watching (the teacher or the 'called upon' extroverted students), then at the end of a typical school year, I can expect them to ace a test on listening, copying and watching. Just not an SAT, PSAT, PARCC exam or anything else that requires real skill application.

Therefore, it seems most beneficial for us to ask students to engage in critical thinking exercises that promote the acquisition of skills that will be needed to pass tests, as well as enhance their quality of life. As an English teacher, my focus should certainly be on standards-based instruction that assesses skills. I also should include, however, opportunities for students to continue to become skilled and strategic readers. There should be moments in each class where there is sustained composition. Whatever the content area, students seem to benefit most when teachers ask them to establish patterns of excellence that are embedded in each lesson and practiced every day.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Of Dreams - Week Two

"Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life." 
Proverbs 13:12 (NLT)

Most people who work in schools are a bundle nerves the night before students return. 

"Do I have my room together?"
"Is my computer hooked up properly?"
"Will the buses arrive on time?"

These are just a few of the questions bouncing around the heads of eager principals, faculty and staff. All of these frantic thoughts point to logistical concerns, but there are deeper questions that can steal sleep.

In the classic play 'Les Miserables,' one of the most piercing songs is 'I Dreamed a Dream.' The character Fantine, is reflecting on a situation that finds her in deep despair. She remembers better days and almost cries when she sings the concluding lyric - "life has killed the dream I dreamed." 

I believe dreams are the most potent attack against urban violence, societal mayhem and generational poverty. Langston Hughes based much of his poetry on dreams. Dr. King used the theme of dreams to usher in the zenith of the greatest social movement of the 20th century. One of the greatest hip-hop songs begins - "It was all a dream." Dreams are life.

They are especially important to the children who will line our halls and fill our seats this school year. Students grow up dreamers. Then, schooling happens. High-stakes tests, benchmarks, report-cards and the pressure of being the right kind of data coalesce to sometimes choke hope out of the voices of our most school dependent children. Too many students aren't dreaming any more. 


Teachers are not immune to this phenomena. Years of stagnant scores, emotional teacher-student exchanges and public teacher shaming can really turn the heart of a teacher. Then come questions of a different kind.

"Will it work this time?"

"Am I able to turn these scores around?"

"What if I commit myself to the work and the scores don't move?"

Although these questions can weigh heavily on the collective consciousness of teachers and administrators, I believe this year can be different. Teachers and administrators have the unique opportunity to model the words and work that will make a difference in teaching and learning so that students can dream again. It all starts with the belief in work. Great results are wrapped in hard work. The work matures when we collaborate. All of us is better than one of us. Finally, dreams happen when there is a shared vision between teachers, administrators, students and families. When we know where we are going and what it's going to look like, we can hope again. 

So, what is your work strategy for this year? How are you going to collaborate within your own educational community? What is the shared vision for which you and your students are aiming?

What dreams do you have for your students?