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?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Moving Forward - Week One

"The righteous keep moving forward, and those with clean hands become stronger and stronger." 
Job 17:9 (NLT)

Happy new (school) year! 

You are going to do amazing work in your classroom, school and community for the next 180+ days. Get excited. In fact, a year from today, you will marvel at the all of the success you accomplished with your school community. This success will grow from the learning and planning done over this all-to-quick summer, but also because of what is in your heart and in your history. 

You will deeply believe in the potential of every student and staff member you encounter. You will take the time to hear every story and have the courage to empathize with each child and teacher. Your heart will fuel  the diligence, consistency and attention to detail it takes to make incredible growth happen.

As you start your new steps, you will remember the path you have already started. Whether it is a new position, placement or environment, what you have learned in the past has set the foundation for what you will now build. You are going to make a difference because of your experience. Your school-house life and career up to this point - the pitfalls, promotions and everything in between - has prepared you for this moment. 

Every new face will remind you of a past one. Every new aha! moment will feel familiar. Most importantly, every child and adult you interact with will be yet another life you have made matter by the value you communicated to them about their culture, contribution and creativity. Even the problems you see in this new space will be solved by virtue of the knowledge gained from similar past tests you may have failed. You will pass every test this time. 

You are ready for this year.

Success in any endeavor is as much about progression as anything else. In that sense, winning is walking. Warring. Working. You will win this year. And everyone you come in contact with will have no other choice but to walk with you. Forward. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Fire This Time: Our Way to 'Be More' in our Schools, Homes and Society

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” –James Baldwin

“For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.” –James Baldwin

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time” –Negro Spiritual


Freddie Gray of Baltimore died on April 12, 2015. 154 years earlier, on that same day, there was an attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. The two events, separated by over a century, share the same issue: Blacks in America. It seems we just cannot settle on what this means.

As a people, our history in the Americas has been a combination of realities. In one column you have our freedom (through the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements) and dominance (mainly through entertainment and sport). In the other, much longer and deeper category, you have subjugation (through slavery, Jim Crow and institutionalized racism), criminalization and wanton murder (public lynchings, Black on Black crime and police brutality). And if you are a young, Black adolescent male in America, you are more likely to die from homicide than any other race or ethnicity.

All of this is true and it is 2015. It seems the color line is still the problem. But what of those who stand on the opposite end of the color line?

For White Americans, there seems to be a mixture of emotions when events like Freddie Gray happen. Some are frustrated and angry; others are confused. Many want to understand, but how can they? Unless they have walked in our skin, it is nearly impossible for them to conceive of navigating a world in an almost constant state of rage, fear and anxiety. And while they may not understand, what is critical to express is that the pain reverberating throughout our history is the seed from which some of our own destructive tendencies grow. Vandalism is vandalism. Thuggery is thuggery. There is no excuse for the actions of a few in my city this evening. But pain is pain. Despair is despair. “Hope deferred, maketh the heart sick.” The words of Frederick Douglass are essential for even beginning to understand the emotional and psychological underpinnings of tonight:

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” –Frederick Douglass

Despite the chaos that has ensued this evening, I think this moment, almost three years to the night of the killing of Trayvon Martin, is full of potential. Here, in Charm City, with the nation watching, is our time change the story.

The change starts at home, moves to the classroom and spreads through society. Like a fire.


As I write this, it is near midnight on April 27, 2015. From my window, I can see a Baltimore street barren of cars and a traffic light that seems to linger on red. In the distance, I hear police sirens and fire truck engines. In the rooms that surround my study, my wife and two children sleep peacefully. It is not lost on me that my education, upbringing, faith and hard work have allowed me to live a blessed life. This is not the case for most men who look like me. But it’s not impossible for them to have the same opportunities. For this to happen, we have to start where we live.

The first wave of change must start at home. When I speak of home, I do not just mean geographic location. I mean the combination of six spaces: our physical location/property, our mentality, our intimate relationships, our spirit, our soul and our spheres of influence. The places where most of us can be found and known. It is in this nexus where we must do our hardest work: 

1. Our physical location must be kept up. We cannot expect to wear red-bottoms or Jordans while our neighborhood looks decrepit. When we value what we see every day, our own self-esteem is impacted positively.

2. We must improve our mindset by what we consistently expose it to. Show me what you watch and listen to and I will show what you think about it. (Side note – we must be more vigilant about what we allow children to watch and hear. They are not yet ready to hear some of these explicit messages in song – and maybe not ever. When they are exposed too early to these messages, their innocence is lost too soon. Lost innocence is the first step towards an adolescence of violence).

3. The relationships that are the closest to us should be places of healing and comfort, not of hurt and petty jealousies. We should always be each other’s biggest fans and be unashamed about it. When I value what you bring to the table and vice-versa, I do not have to resort to gang warfare or place you on Blacklists or in Shade rooms.  I understand that your success is my success because we are in this together. We are not in competition, we are in collaboration. 

4. Our Spirits must be fed the word and ways of God. I wonder if all of the rage and teen angst that was splashed across our televisions tonight was not a clear examples of lives left without the peace of God! How can any significant change happen inside of us without a greater power guiding us? That power is God and He stands ready to activate it on all who call on Him. (In fact where would we be without our clergy, who were standing on the front lines tonight ready to meet physical force with that invisible force of the spirit). 

5. We need to acknowledge that the trauma of slavery, discrimination, child abuse, sexual abuse, fatherlessness and motherlessness can all be present in our souls. We need to do whatever it takes to get professional help for the healing of our souls. Lest we turn to other things to medicate our pain like constant television buffoonery, drugs, meaningless flings or worse.

6. Every Black person that comes in contact with us, must feel our love. Everywhere our influence touches must have the finger-prints of love and encouragement. You are never too busy to be interested in someone else; never too important to take to care for and give to someone who cannot do anything for you. “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

When we take care of home, we can turn our attention to the schools that educate our children. Teachers have such a critical role to play in the education of minority children, but we must have the will to make the professional sacrifice, showing teacher leadership in how we relate to, educate and ultimately change the life trajectory of every student. Especially those with black and brown faces.

It is possible for every student to learn at a high level. It is possible to develop a culture of high academic excellence in high-minority or high-poverty schools. It must first start with brutal honesty and earnest self-reflection. You have to see education, as Glenn Singleton might put it, as a daily anti-racist act in every facet. It means that the education of minorities must be couched in a counter-narrative that esteems the best in them. It starts with books with brown and black faces, but it continues with honest discussions about matters that lie at the heart and soul of students, ultimately ending in a culturally responsive environment that gives access and opportunity to rich and rewarding learning experiences. If we don’t have the tools to get there, we must take initiative as teacher leaders to make it happen. That might mean Barnes and Nobles purchases or late nights at the library. At the end of the day, if even one Black or brown child does not learn well, his life may be in jeopardy. Having that mental disposition is what allows us to really show that Black lives matter.

When our homes and schools are transformed to heal and empower, then our students enter society ready to help and not harm. They enter society with the necessary spiritual and emotional health paired with the critical mind to solve age old problems. I believe the solution to a lot of the world’s problems can be found in Black people, who after receiving a culturally affirming education and healthy home-life, can bring unique perspective to that of other people already engaged in the work. This produces amazing results. Society benefits from a well-educated and psychologically whole minority population. Society also pays when nether of those conditions is present, as is evidenced in clear HD-quality this evening.


88 years ago today, Coretta Scott King was born. 112 years ago today, W.E.B. DuBois finished “The Souls of Black Folk,” which was a book that explored the Black experience in America in profoundly deep ways. With the sacrifice of Ms. King and her husband still in our minds thanks to the movie ‘Selma,’ and the messages of DuBois’s work still resonating in the body politic, let us be the fire this time. Let us spark a revolution, not through senseless acts of random violence, but through the steady flames that produce healthy homes, responsive education and societies that flourish. It is time to change our story. Let us turn the page today. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

(Black) Life Matters - a poem

If the sun was out of work,
Would it need a resume?

Probably not

Summer, spring and all things
that grow, 
would show its worth

What if nearly everyone had shades on?
Some with lenses only slightly tinted
Some with them so dark, day and night look the same
While others wear pairs with personalized frames

If everyone wore sunglasses mornings and nights,
On Saturday errands; on red-eye flights,
In summer school classes; on late night dates,
What idea of sunlight would their minds create?

They’d focus on the heat, not the flowers it makes,
Feeling only its beat, and the comfort it takes
Escaping its rays in various ways -
Blocking the UV with self-tanning sprays

In that context,
References would be needed
In that culture,
Interviewing advice would be heeded

How else could you get covered eyes to like light?
(What a fight!)

If you’re the sun
Or even a ray of it,
Maybe you just make a day of it
And shine

Through sunglasses, barred windows and half-opened blinds,
On ball-bounced concrete; through frozen color lines
On everyone; through every tear,
Giving warmth and life without apology or fear

Because the sun needs no ‘please,’
Only eyes
Uncovered and seeing
Summer, spring and all things


Under stubborn sunlight

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lessons in Leadership from a Follower's Perspective

If we are in education for the right reasons, we are in it for student achievement. Student success has many twists and turns, but only one path: through a supportive culture, composed of a dedicated team of teachers that is supported by a great leader. It always comes back to leadership. Without a great leader, the life work of a team is in grave danger.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18

In fact, there is an intimate connection between the life and work quality of followers and the competence and capacity of the leader. You can find great definitions of leadership from books like ‘Good to Great,’ by Jim Collins. There are innovative motivational techniques in Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive,’ and practical take-aways from master works like ‘Leverage Leadership’ by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0,’ by my good friend Doug Lemov. What this blog entry has will not be better than those works, but it hopes to give leaders a glimpse into the hearts and minds of us, the followers. Here are three conditions that help us move (y)our work forward:

1. Our school/office is a place where we are always valued and appreciated.
2. Your agenda never outpaces our understanding.
3. Our work’s goals are clear and progressively attainable.

Dear School/Office Leader,

We thrive in a place where leaders know more than just our names, birthdays and number of dependents. When a leader can tell us the specific gifts and talents we have to offer and how we can get better at our craft, we know that leader is invested. The office is a place that honors our humanity when it is hard to tell who the favorites are, but easy to see where everyone fits on the team. We feel appreciated and valued when we are brought to the table for decisions that directly impact us; when we are allowed space to substantively disagree without expecting a return serve of condescension and when our ideas can also be the solutions to problems that affect us all. When you just care to know how your leadership makes us feel, we truly get a view into a servant’s heart.

Our worth is best answered with these two questions: do your expectations empower or crush us? Do you truly care either way?

There is one clear way we know your commitment to teamwork – you never forget the power of teaching. The vision for our work, ambitious though it may be, is never out of our conceptual reach because you constantly take the time to make it plain for us. Make it sing for us. Make it lead for us. Make it bleed for us. You make the goals for our work so living, tangible and important by the sheer consistent way you help us see them. And when we cannot see them clearly, you do not make them more complex. You simply give us new lenses and patiently wait for us to see it as you see it. As a seasoned leader, however, you do understand that there are things related to student achievement that cannot wait and so those priorities are addressed. However, you care enough for us and for the meaning we get from being a part of something greater, to go as fast you can or as slow as you need to so that we arrive at the finish line together. We never confuse your agenda with our own, because you lead in such a way that it is clear that you believe your vision cannot be accomplished without ours.

We work best when leaders are absolutely clear and deathly serious about student and teacher transformation. We will run through walls for leaders who model the mental sacrifice necessary to create the infrastructure for teacher growth and student progress; and who take the time to collaborate with us on ways we can maximize the life chances of every student. And as we pass each sign on the highway of progress, you keep raising the bar and providing the ladder to reach it. You realize that teaching is not easy and that there are a multitude of variables and personalities that affect each and every learning experience. We need so much from you. And in return we offer you so much of us. 
Thank you for leading. Thank you for listening.

Your teachers/followers

P.S. I need a leader too. I need a leader who looks like me. If I can’t get that, I’ll settle for a leader that fights for me. A leader that won’t let me perish because my parents don’t make it to school.  A leader who’ll consider the consequences of my suspension for violations that endanger no one. A leader who will read me the riot act, and in the next breath read me my future. A leader that knows that I have only one chance to get it right – or my life won’t graduate. I need a leader who loves me, without condition.

Your ‘At-Risk’ Black boy

Earlier, I stated that it always comes back to leadership and it does. The coda to that statement, however, is that every great leader knows that it always comes back to the people. The followers make the work happen. If you are so fortunate to be able to hire the right people, for the right spots on the bus, right away – then you have little need of any more advice. But, if you are like any other leader who makes the right hire only most of the time, then you understand that the culture you create by valuing the perspectives, lives and potential of your subordinates is the best way to move the agenda of student achievement forward.  

Josh Parker,
2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year

3/2/15 – 11:16 p.m.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

All You Need is Love: Solution Five for Engaging Black Boys in Reading

Solution Five: As a teacher, show love, compassion, interest and empathy for their lives outside of school

Love is one word with seemingly infinite meanings. Depending on whom you say it to you and who says it back, this grand four-letter word could mean practically anything.  At its essence, however, love is the most powerful action in the world. It is fitting then, that this ‘strategy’ concludes the five part series on engaging Black boys in reading.

Unlike earlier posts in this series, where I gave concrete steps to each strategy, I will outline five actions that are present when love pushes your pedagogy to reach every single Black boy in your classroom. Before I list the actions, I’ll start with a real life story that encapsulates the risk and reward of loving Black males.

My friend is the CEO of a music foundation geared toward helping children living on the margins of the inner city. His company uses the power of music to transfer empowering messages to students who desperately need it. A good number of the participants are Black boys and nearly all of them are working through some level of emotional or psychological pain. This pain became verbal and dangerous when one of his students reacted strongly to a direction in class. He was so angry that he stormed out of the classroom, into the street and almost two blocks down the road. That’s when my friend had to get involved.


Here are the five actions that are consistently seen in classrooms and schools where love is present:

You take time. Teachers, principals and the entire community of stakeholders supporting Black boys always make the chief investment of time. They take time to get to know every single Black boy’s story. They take time to research different educational practices that will help Black boys read, speak and write better. They even take the time to attend an extracurricular activity or two, just to show that special Black boy that they are there for the long haul. They see time as a means to an end for demonstrating how deeply they care about each boy’s success and life.

You show interest. Teachers who create a culture for Black boys to thrive always show interest. Whether the interest be in clothing choices or college decisions, teachers demonstrate their love for Black boys when they are interested in what they value, what they endure and what they can become. Dr. Cornel West once said that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ To that end, interest is what love looks like under a microscope. I can believe that you want to teach me. I can believe that you want to see me do well in general. But I can only believe you love me if you take an active interest in who I am. 

Black boys come into class each day with three questions: Do you like me? Do you like that I am here? Do you affirm my existence to be anything I am gifted to be? To the extent that a teacher answers yes to all of those questions on most days, is the extent to which Black boys will feel your love.

You choose texts and assignments thoughtfully. Teachers that love young and eager African-American males take the time to understand their experience. They understand the history of under-service (and consequently, under-performance) of boys and men of color in the public school system. They take time to research and truly understand the terrible legacy of slavery that was visited on the psyche of Black men for centuries and how that still manifests itself in the structures that seek to control and subjugate them today. They critically analyze how media portrays Black men as hyper-sexual, hyper-aggressive and mostly dangerous. These educators take in all of that information and love Black boys fearlessly by putting texts and contexts around works that affirm their right to be human. To be boys. They choose texts that confront Black males with community and global issues that some of them were born to solve. There is no such thing to an educator of a Black boy as a throw-away text. Every text has a purpose. In fact, these educators never even allow substitute teachers give their Black boys texts stripped of power and meaning. The cost is simply too high.

You create spaces for Black boys to be free. If I had to make a book title that represents most of my experience in education as a reasonably bright African-American male, it would be: Keep Calm and Be Quiet. This title would be apt, because even with the great successes I have had, I have always had to make sure that I was acting in a way that did not overtly challenge or offend the people around me, both Black and White. This is not an uncommon experience for Black males in education, both as a student and as a professional, or in the corporate setting. We are always aware that our presence adds information to a setting. In a classroom run by a teacher who loves Black boys, their freedom is paramount. This love may manifest itself as daily free-writes that allow unfiltered expression, or as poetry/rap sessions in response to classroom assignments. It may even show up in the allowance of some boys, like me, to stand and walk rather than remain seated for 90 or more minutes. The teacher who loves Black boys is passionate about seeing them in their most authentic psychological spaces. This teacher thoughtfully combines established school rules and procedures with reasonably appropriate student autonomy to create an environment that is not only under control, but ready to launch.

You openly show affection. The fist-bump, the dap, the nod or the hand-shake hug. Whatever way there is to show affection physically or verbally, the teacher that loves Black boys displays it openly and often. Boys and men flourish in fields of praise and affection. Why do you think we participate in so many sports or dream of performing in concerts or winning the teacher of the year award (maybe not the last one, but you get my drift)? It is because the affection of praise waits on us in every situation. The teacher that loves Black males respects their boundaries (as outlined in Domain II. A. of this draft code of educator ethics) while showering them with verbal and physical affection. These teachers smile wide and bright at just the sight of an African-American male walking into their class.

And when one runs out of their classroom, they pursue him.

Seeing that the counselors could not stop the boy from leaving the building, my friend, the teacher, asked if he could help. Several yards later, he caught up to to the student. The student was trembling as he tried to re-tell all of the reasons he became so upset. After his words began to come together more smoothly and his shaking stopped, the teacher asked to pray with him. The boy consented. As my friend finished the prayer, he opened his eyes to see that the student had run out of his shoes. “May I carry you back,” he asked the Black boy. “Yes,” he nodded. As this teacher picked the student up in his arms, the boy began to sob almost uncontrollably. It was as if that act of affection released a deep reservoir of relief within him. At that moment, the teacher realized that instruments, lessons and assignments were just tools, but that love was the binding force that every child needed.


Editors Note: Each of the blog posts containing strategies about creating a culture for Black boys to thrive in reading is aimed at helping Black boys do well in the area of literacy. Although each blog post specifically and intentionally written for Black boys, the philosophy that supports each approach should help in any situation where teachers, principals and stakeholders seek to enhance the educational access for traditionally under-served populations.

The amazing foundation featured in the blog post is called ‘Beyond the Natural’ foundation and can be supported by clicking onto this link.

Josh Parker
2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year

2/26/15 - 1:25 a.m.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Teaching Children Well: A Sacrificial Commitment

Do you remember your first favorite teacher? I do. She made me feel like I could do anything and that I was destined to make a contribution to this world. She made me believe that the peculiar details about my life were enough by themselves to demand her full attention. I mattered in her class. It would be almost 20 years later that I would truly understand what made her great.

The first two and half months of my teaching career were days without nights. Each morning, I left my studio apartment in Baltimore city just after 5 o’clock, and returned 19 hours later. A bus would take me into downtown and then out again to the furthest part of my district. With freshly graded papers in hand, I managed to make it into class just before my students. Later, I would bundle a stack of newly gathered papers under my arm and wait in the summer heat for the bus. Once home, I would fully waken from the bus rides and begin grading papers in preparation for the next day.

I loved it.

To see light-bulbs go off in a student’s eyes after the sequence of a meticulously planned lesson works; is rapture! The ways students smiled when they entered my class (on good days), or vowed to be better (on challenging days), was what I lived for. But it was in the bus-rides and back-aches that I really understood my high school teacher. Every smile she gave was expensive. There is honor in that. Survey after survey ranks teaching as one of America’s most prestigious professions. But how many really know the sacrifice it takes to teach just one child well?

It takes a life.

If there’s any beauty to a story that contains two near-nervous breakdowns, a car accident on the way to work, two slashed tires and numerous shirt-grazing pencils, it’s that my story is not unique. Teachers who love children commit to it for life. Our commitment always goes beyond a day, a year and often-times a career (most teachers retire – to teach again). When we are at our best, we combine proven praxis with a desire for heart level connections with children, sincere interests in their lives and unyielding passion for their safety and success. This commitment, however, has always been on shaky ground.

Do you remember the most recent teacher scandal? Or your first worst teacher (it’s possible both are one and the same)? I do. It reflects poorly on all of us, every time. The prevailing notion is that the teacher you are thinking about now and the teacher from the beginning of this article are actually different teachers. However, without a set of guiding principles shared by all educators, the first teacher could very easily become the second.

We need a code of ethics.

Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont once said that "love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god." A code of ethics then, takes our passion, desire and commitment from lofty and ethereal realms to a plain and practical place where our diverse backgrounds and beliefs don’t pre-dominate the professional principles that should be common to us all. This code is an agreement that honors our sacrificial commitment by creating a common language and understanding of the promise we give to every single child and their family, the moment we assume the role of teacher. Within this framework, the under-service of black and brown children becomes more than immoral - it becomes unethical. By defining our norms, this code can guide a diverse teaching force through dilemmas and situations where boundaries can be blurred through the lens of upbringing and good intentions. The code is what could help our first favorite teacher, stay that way. In fact, if we are to consider ourselves a true profession on par with doctors and lawyers, we need a code of ethics.

Ten years later, my mind floats back to those early days. Do I still operate with that same commitment? I have listened to countless educators express that the increase in testing, over-reliance on student data and injection of politics has squeezed their commitment dry. We now listen to people who have never felt the joys and pains wrapped in the sacrificial commitment it takes to teach children well tell us how broken our life’s work is.

We are tired.

Despite these outside forces advancing upon this great calling, I believe there’s hope. We start taking back the conversation over our work by seeing ourselves as true fiduciaries in the field of learning and establishing a code of ethics that allows us the freedom to self-govern if necessary, but also collaborate on what is the least acceptable standard of excellence that will honor our life-long commitment.

Josh Parker
2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year

2/24/15 – 11:40 p.m.

Editors Note: The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) have written the first ever nation-wide Model Code of Educator Ethics. It is now available for public comment at this location:

Monday, February 23, 2015

The 'Glory' of Connection: Solution Four for Engaging Black Boys in Reading

“They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X was two days ago. In the midst of all the Twitter tributes and Facebook fanfare, I reflected on my own ‘Malcolm X’ phase which started during my undergraduate years at Towson University and still continues, in some form, to this day. Seeing a Black man whose speech was so articulate, so honest, so unflinching and so visceral was a powerful experience for me. In education, as in life, the qualitative comes before the quantitative - I have to see it before I can repeat it. This visual example of Black self-esteem pouring out through potent truth-telling was an object lesson for me.  But it was not the first time I had been connected to a powerful Black male orator.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to me in middle school through the screen of the Cosby Show. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Paul Laurence Dunbar had a coffee talk with me in high school. Richard Wright and Alex Haley left their words with me in college. Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison allowed me to give their words to others in college and post-graduate school life. Those historical writers provided a context for me that was then complemented by ‘contemporary’ Black male voices in hip-hop and late 20th century Black literature. These writers helped me (and still help me) develop my literate identity, which sprang out of my Black awareness:

Awareness of being Black is the most powerful and the most fertile single inspiration for Black writers in America. It is ironic that Blackness, for so long regarded as a handicap socially and culturally, should also be an artistic strength . . . . All writers arrive at a reconciliation of a sense of tradition and a sense of difference. For nearly all Black writers in America that sense of difference was the recognition of Blackness. For nearly all, but not all. Being Black was less important for Charles Chesnutt than it was for James Baldwin. But for most, Blackness was the spur, the barb, or the shirt of pain that moved the artist to achieve distinction. -Charles T. Davis and Daniel Walden

Below are four ways that you can connect  African-American male students with their historical (and contemporary) counterparts; thereby allowing them to have a template to express the thoughts of their mind, that could ‘die away for want of utterance.’

Start early. My son is only four years old at time of this writing, but my wife and I have been reading him books about Black males or with Black male characters since day one. It is never too early to show Black boys that they count by making books featuring them a regular part of instruction. Here is a list to get you started. 

Use poetry and story. In Daniel Pink’s book, ‘A Whole New Mind,’ he posits that being able to create a story will be the way jobs are created in the economy of the future. I can think of no better way to help Black males feel at home in a literate space then to invite story into the classroom from Pre-K through 12. Have your Black male students write their own stories as shown here. Also, use poetry to reflect the Black male experience and all of its iterations from dreams to love of Black women to a desire for home.  It’s about providing models of Black men expressing their thoughts and emotions for young Black boys yearning to do the same.

Supplant or supplemented the mandated curriculum as necessary. Anais Nin’s famous quote ‘We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are,’ is critical when it comes to the types of texts we put in front of our Black boys. These potential-rich boys may not relate to Shakespeare or Chaucer due to an intimate connection with their own milieu. To that end, maybe Richard Wright and August Wilson are better playwrights for Black boys. This does not mean to abandon works that are a part of American culture. Where would I be without this work? But, it’s about helping reify the themes and life experiences of Black Boys (‘If you can teach me how to cling to that which is real to me…’) while also informing their minds about the conventions of the language of wider communication, (‘while teaching me a way into the larger society…’), thereby allowing every Black boy to establish a text-to-self connection and a self-to-teacher connection (‘then will I drop my defenses and hostility, and I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.Ralph Ellison).  

Show Black men shining. I love watching Black men powerfully tell the truth. I love seeing us speak with authority, like what happened last night. If we regularly feed images like these to our Black boys, it can serve as a counter-narrative to the many destructive images the media pumps out an alarming rate. Black boys should see Black males debating and winning, speaking from places of power and emoting with vulnerability and passion. Black male brilliance must be seen. Remember, it first must be qualitative before it can be quantitative.

Ending note:  Curriculum is so much more than course guides, syllabi, standards and worksheets. Curriculum is the classroom environment that is created by accepted words, actions and ideas both in texts and from students and teachers. This environment is created second-by-second, and has the power to affirm or ignore the existence of traditionally under-served students and their cultures. When the curriculum is malleable enough to put Black male students and their experiences at the center, we create a space for them to thrive!

Only one more strategy to go.

Give a Black boy an amazing literary experience the next class period,
Josh Parker

2/23/15 @ 9:10 p.m.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Scoring Points and Culturally Responsive Instruction: A Metaphor for Understanding

Imagine you are standing on a basketball court and a physically fit young man comes dribbling up to you. He stands in front of you, a few feet away. His arms are slender yet well defined, his height is suitable to play multiple positions; he’s not too tall - neither too short. Later, when you watch him play against opponents within his level of competition, he fares reasonably well. Although he can score, he is limited in the way he scores the basketball. He tends to dribble to the right and stop right at the edge of the free throw line, rising over a typically smaller defender to sink the jump shot. Wherever he is on the court, this is the move he will perform – a hard couple of dribbles to the right followed by a quick pull-up. This method has worked for him for years. 

From the baseline: look left, hard two dribbles to the right and pull-up. From the top of the three-point line: look left, hard two dribbles to the right and pull-up. From inside the paint, just under the basket: look left, hard two dribbles to the right and pull-up. Every time and from every place on the court: look left, hard two dribbles to the right and pull-up. This method has a problem, however. 

If the defender can account for his move and stand ready to block him from going to his right; if the defender is taller and can jump higher than the young man, then he will be continually frustrated when trying to score. This is the same issue that crops up into a classroom as it relates to literacy instruction or any other kind of instruction.


The young basketball player is your average traditionally under-served or marginalized student. He has developed one ‘go-to’ skill for navigating school and classroom life. This limited skill set only allows him to access texts, ideas and themes in a narrow context. He does know, however, in depth the rules of basketball, but has not developed a skill-set for scoring the ball around defenders who are taller and more athletic. The defenders represent more difficult texts, increased writing demands, the school system and the larger power structure of society. 

Culturally responsive instruction is what provides him that missing skill-set. Culturally responsive instruction takes his in depth knowledge of the rules of basketball and asks him to apply that conceptual understanding to developing ways around and over the obstacle of a taller and more athletic defender. 

Culturally responsive instruction gives him a left-hand dribble. A cross-over and step-back move. A low-post game. An off-the dribble three-point shot. A floater. A leaner. A hard-drive and pull-up. A high-post, reverse-inside pivot face-up, pump fake and drive. It gives him multiple moves around the taller, more athletic defenders in his life. It invites him to see that his critical mind in his out of school life can also be applied to his life inside school, giving him the power to control the sport that he plays instead of being a one-move ‘spectator.’ A one-trick pony.