Music Drives My Classroom and Yours

And I’m back!  I have taken a hiatus this summer to focus my energies on supporting the blogs of others in my district and beyond.  It has been rewarding to work with these brilliant minds, but now I am ready to return to my own thoughts.  As I thought about what I wanted to write, I began to think about what drives me in the education world.  For whatever reason, my mind shifted to what motivates me on a daily basis.  The answer is simple: music.

I’ve played music almost my whole life.  I was a drummer in several bands.  I played in my school’s marching, pep, and concert bands.  Music always has driven me.  When coupled with my natural introversion and empathetic nature, music’s lyrics have always played a special part in my life.  Life mimics art and vice versa.  I “see” lyrics all around me and connect to them on many, often strange, levels.  Last year at about this time, I wrote a blog piece called, The Untravelled road: The Teacher Leaders of Tomorrow.  In it, I focus on one song’s lyrics and how they matched who and what I was last year.  Now that I am back again to the summer with a new year about to start, I decided to make this a tradition and write another piece where lyrics take the stage.


“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” -The Who

Teachers have a unique challenge.  Every year, they must reflect and change to make sure they are better than they were in the year that has gone by.  Some embrace this more than others, yet I would argue all teachers go through some change every year.  If insanity is the repeating of the same actions while hoping for new results, then a teacher is forced to change in order to avoid that insanity.  There are enough moments in a teacher’s life that cause insanity, why would we want to cause our own?  In this spirit, I have spent a lot of time this summer thinking about how I could be a better instructional coach.  I have read Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, The Heart of Coaching, Hacking Leadership, and The Innovator’s Mindset.  I have read countless articles and had honest, critical conversations about my past performance.  During one of those honest conversations, I was talking to a mentor, I was making excuse after excuse when she said to me, “Make some changes, dammit.”

Harsh?  Yes.  True?  Double yes.  

If I am asking my teachers to open their minds and change behaviors to better their instruction, why should I be different as a coach?  I embraced this challenge and am hopeful for a better year, and I am asking anyone who reads this to identify one change that they would like to make this year.  The school year is not here yet, so you have time.  Think of one thing you want to improve and then make some changes, dammit.


“All because of you I believe in angels, not the kind with wings, no not the kind with halos.The kind that bring you home when home becomes a strange place.” -Rise Against

Ok, I have to admit, this song by Rise Against is kind of a love song.  However, after spending a year examining school and how to improve instruction through giving a home to students, this piece was particularly striking.  For almost every year of my teaching career, I was able to reach the kids who were “unreachable.”  They felt safe with me.  They had a home in my classroom.  After transferring to a new school, I lost that ability.  Like, a bubble in front of my three-year-old daughter gone.  I spent a long time figuring out why, and through many conversations with students, they lamented that the school felt foreign to them.  They didn’t feel home.  There was no connectedness.  I wasn’t making that space for them.

While I was far less than successful than I would have liked with students last year, I am optimistic this year.  I want my students to feel home.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I will have an angel’s wings.  But I do believe I can make a strange place feel more like home.  I just need to be more intentional.  Whether it is eating lunch with my students or implementing more inquiry based learning, it is doable.

Again, my challenge is yours.  Find at least one student with whom you can connect.  Make your space his or her safe space.  Bring a home where there might not be one anywhere else.


“A pall on truth and reason, it feels like hunting season, so avoid those lines of sight and we’ll set this right.” -Bad Religion

Inevitably, as the school year kicks in, there will be talk of data, testing, best practice, etc, etc.  However, should we care about these things?  I get it; those over us do care about these things, but by focusing on those things, we focus on everything except the kids. Yes, data, tests, and best practices are important to some level, but are they student centered?  I’d argue no.  Think about this:

  • If we focus on data, do we focus on the kids as kids or as numbers?
  • If we focus on tests, do we focus on true education?
  • If we focus on best practices, do we focus on breaking the mold and innovating for the sake of the kids instead of doing the “established norm?”

Bad Religion states that there is, at times, a hunting season for truth and reason.  And while one person’s truth may not be another, I think most teachers are in the same camp.  Our teacher hearts know that there is a place for tests and data and best practices.  However, our teacher hearts also know that we need to break boundaries.  Therefore, let’s be like Bad Religion; let’s avoid the wrong lines of sight and set things right.  I challenge you to challenge the status quo.  Do what is best for your kids every day.  The rest will sort itself out.

I realize that this piece is, as usual, reflective and personal.  However, I have tried to make my challenges yours.  Let’s support each other, and if we’re lucky, our silos will crumble, our voices will rise, and the rising tide will bring all of our students and teachers afloat.  Afterall, as was said by Corey Taylor of Stone Sour and Slipknot, “You don’t break ground by doing the same thing over and over.  That’s like standing in place.  You have to risk to gain it all.”

A Reflection on Deeper Learning

Words cannot express the awe I am in.  After attending the Jefferson County Public Schools Deeper Learning Symposium, I am left energized to go to work, as well as hopeful for the future of education.  The conversations, themes, and topics around deeper learning were not necessarily new, yet the major change I saw was how teachers received the conversations.  There was very little naysaying or disbelief, rather a desire to change the status quo because the status quo is becoming antiquated.

Before the Symposium, I researched what “deeper learning” actually meant.  According to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, deeper learning revolves around “deeper learning competencies, stronger assessment, high quality instructional materials, and an engagement in the research base around instructional practices.” goes a bit further, stating that deeper learning prepares students to, “know and master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback.”

Dr. Marty Polio

So, knowing all of this, why was the Deeper Learning Symposium so powerful? To me, the power in the three days rested in that people from all over the country spoke on deeper learning for not only students, but also, Dr. Marty Polio stated, teachers and those who support teachers.

Those Who Teach

Deeper learning is clearly a student-centered practice.  From using Google tools in the classroom, to incorporating project-based learning, the sessions offered provided insights into how to change instructional practices to personalize and deepen student learning. Session after session sparked ideas, shifts in mindsets, and growth in skills to allow teachers to provide students the opportunity to learn not only in a way that is personal to them, but also to learn in a way that prepares them for a future that today’s educational model does support.

It is imperative to note that teachers still have much work to do.  Whether it is further changing their own methodologies, the practices of fellow teachers, or the mindsets of the administrative staff around them, teachers will have to take the energy and motivation from the Symposium and work tirelessly through struggle, failure, and naysayers to do what is best for students.

Those Who Support Teachers

Clearly, classroom practitioners are the front line of engagement, but there are many allies who support the front line.  To me, this is where the Deeper Learning Symposium was truly innovative and empowering.  Teacher leaders, from both inside and outside the classroom, were encouraged to raise their voices in support of improving the pedagogy of the United States.

Outside of the sessions, teachers and organizations were cultivating interconnectedness between teachers and those that can support them.  As time went on through the Symposium, it was clear that those supports came in more than one form; there were those whose title was to support teacher-leaders, but there were also teacher-leaders stepping up to support their fellow teachers.  This community spirit will improve the professional practice of all involved.  Everyone, from coaches to teachers to administrators, is bettered through collaboration, critical feedback, productive struggle, and mutual mission and vision.  To me, the true power of deeper learning came in these moments.  Teachers internalized the need to change and found those who could support them in that endeavor.

So What Now?

Honestly, I am having trouble identifying the words to express the power of the Symposium.  The movement has begun.  That much is evident.  And while I am struggling to express the past, I have no issues with expressing the vision of the future.

All teachers, whether they attended the Deeper Learning Symposium or not, need to rethink their practices.

Whether it was changing, as Dr. Christopher Emdin suggests, mindsets, or changing what it means to be connected, we all need to improve every aspect of our practice to improve the outcomes and futures of the students we serve.  This is a whole child issue.  It is not a grades or tests issue.   So what can you do?  Research.  Read.

IMG_7893.JPGReach out.

JCPSForward is a good place to start.  They are an organization, of which I am a member, of teachers and support staff dedicated to connecting and empowering teachers in their search for better practices.  You can also join the JCPSForward Twitter chats by following the hashtag #JCPSChat.  The next one is Monday, June 19th at 8 PM.  If you don’t know how to engage in a Twitter chat, please reach out to me and I would be happy to support you in that practice.

Keep up the energy and the belief.  Keep up the spirit of the Deeper Learning Symposium (check out the hashtag #jcpsdl).  And, as always, move forward for our students because #ourstudentsdeserveit.

The Teacher Effect: A Reminder that Every Moment Matters

He was an easy kid to like.  He had a million dollar smile and the looks to match.  He was part Italian, part black, and had an intriguing androgyny.  He was destined to be a model. He was not the best student, but he never gave up.  Paul (name changed) embodied a worldliness and empathy that many adults seem to lack.

These characteristics didn’t exist in isolation.  I had seen many seniors blossom into little adults and fundamentally change who they had been up until that point.  Not Paul.  My wife had Paul in middle school and said he was the same way even back then. I worried about Paul last year, but he always seemed to find his way amongst the chaos.  His family life was less-than-desirable and he was poor.  He had some friends, but not many because he thought on a different plane than them.  He had a girlfriend to whom he was devoted, though she frequently did not return that devotion.  And yet, even on my worst days, Paul would step up and ask after me, my wife, and my daughter.

Struggle as he did, Paul still managed to triumphally walk across the stage at graduation; he plastered his award winning smile on his face as he threw his fist in the air.  Through the following year, he still kept in touch to let me know he was alive.  He wasn’t accomplishing his dreams, but as he said, he wasn’t doing so, yet. And the year marched on.

As my own, tumultuous year came to an end, I was excited to get back to center.  I had plenty of pleasure and professional reading to do.  I had conferences lined up.  I had daily workout and diet plans.  In short, I was going to engage in the self-care that all teachers need to do in the summers.  Then I got a message: “Hey.”

Paul was reaching out.  It had been a long time, so I was anxious to see what was going on.  I asked if he’d been well.  His response floored me.

“Not really.  I have been going through a lot and idk how you are going to take this, but I have a drug problem…almost any pill that will get me high, mostly Xanax.  I hate who I’ve become.”

For the next hour, I bounced between phone calls with him and The Healing Place.  He was not aware that I called The Healing Place, he simply thought I was dealing with my young daughter.  When I finally told him what I had done, he went silent.  The silence went on for much longer than I was comfortable.  Finally, he said, “I never expected this.  Thanks for not quitting on me even though I am not your student anymore.”  I reminded him that he will always be my student and I worked with him to make some next steps and contingency plans.  As of now, we are waiting to hear back on a bed for him. Audibly holding back tears, Paul simply said thank you and hung up the phone.

Though this happened a week ago, I have been restless.  I can’t shake my despair. But I am also reminded of a simple fact.

Every moment matters.

I knew that Paul liked me and continued to do so past graduation.  What I didn’t grasp last week was that he truly respected me.  It was I he reached out to for help. Not his girlfriend or parents.  And while I didn’t ask why that was the case, I suspect it is because I always pushed him and never gave up on him, even on his worst days.  He saw, and continues to see, me as someone who wouldn’t quit on him.

So this summer, amongst my pool visits and gym workouts, and amongst the quality time with my daughter and wife, I will be changing my professional focus.  I want to learn more about the warning signs of future “failure” in school-aged youth.  I know many of the academic indicators, but I would like to know more beyond that.  I plan on rereading A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne.  I also plan on reaching out to valued members of my professional learning network.

I am unsure what I will learn.  However, when we are in the classroom and are tired and exasperated, it is up to us to make sure the students know we care.  We may know it, but they need to see it. They need to see it because, let’s be honest, they’re watching.

I recognize this post is mostly reflective, and the lesson I relearned because of Paul is not a novel one.  All teachers know that our actions and relationships matter.  Sometimes, we just need someone to remind us.  I, unfortunately, had to be reminded by Paul.  And while the reminder was a painful one, I remain optimistic because Paul is a man with a brilliant future.  He simply hasn’t arrived, yet.

If you have any good resources, please leave them below in the comments or with the contact form.  I am counting on you, and I will pay it forward in kind with those around me.  There are too many Paul’s in the world.


A Collection of Shower Thoughts on Assessment

pablo (1)I stand before you, my fellow congregants of the Church of Pedagogy, to utter unto you a statement that verges on blasphemy.  And please, hold your slings and arrows for a moment and allow me to explain.

I do not hate standardized tests.

Stepping off the imaginary pew in my brain, I recognize that saying I do not hate standardized tests strikes an odd chord.  No teacher actually enjoys standardized testing, but as Ashley Rickards states, “…there is an in-between and I don’t think we’re there, yet.” There is a place for standardized tests because, when well crafted (insert laughs and scoffs), they provide insight and knowledge for students, teachers, schools, and districts. However, as a practitioner, I also recognize that a multiple choice test with culturally irrelevant information does not accurately reflect the whole child.

Shower Thoughts on The History:  How Did We Get Here?

There is no shortage of memes, speeches, and articles outlining the evils of our current testing system.  Starting with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and then continued with Race to the Top, the current testing system creates a culture of competition, not learning.  This fundamentally changes how we do school in this country.  There is a fundamental difference between schooling and education, and unfortunately, I believe we have lost sight of what true education is.  So, in an effort to recapture true education while maintaining the need for standardized testing, how do we rework our current system to better capture the true education, knowledge, and being of a child?

Shower Thoughts on The Shift

I do want to draw attention to the fact that I said “rework” and not “change.”  To rework suggests that the system’s resources are strategically reallocated.  Why create a whole system overhaul if only tweaks are needed?  As we tweak, can we consider the not-so-absurd idea that there can be more than one assessment format? Could students have a voice in the specific type of test (i.e. multiple-selection, product-based assessment, oral exam, etc.) they want to take to maximize their chances of successes?

Bringing it Home: Changing the Dogma of Assessment in the Church of Pedagogy

Sarah (name changed), a former student, and I were speaking during lunch during the first day of state testing.  She began lamenting that while she is smart (side note…REALLY SMART), she struggles with multiple choice tests because they are so limiting.  For a divergent thinker like Sarah, multiple choice tests are stifling.  Her brilliance struck me, so I decided to interview her.

Sarah’s words struck me in two ways.  First, Sarah stated that writing would allow her to express herself more effectively.  Furthermore, if writing is something she loves to do, why shouldn’t she have the opportunity to test in a way that is more engaging for her?  Wouldn’t her increased engagement equate to better scores?  Sarah also addressed the idea of drawing answers to demonstrate her thinking process.  With the rise of visual notetaking, could we not adapt the practice to assessment?  Sherrill Knezel notes that she experienced a juvenile detention center where the students used visual notetaking.  According to Knezel, “Personal expression, demonstration of comprehension, and confident engagement were visible through a dry-erase marker. Students who would have not been able to engage with the text in other ways could still do so through the drawings used to represent concepts.”  Imagine these successes if they were transferred over to a standardized testing system.

“The one size fits all approach of standardized testing is convenient but lazy.”  -James Dyson

Multiple choice tests, even those with limited writing opportunities, are easy.  But as James Dyson said, they are lazy.

I understand the logistical implications of providing different testing formats.  This type of overhaul would take years.  However, in the future, our students will not demonstrate their knowledge and know-how through a one-size-fits-all method.  Why can we not collectively figure out a way to reallocate our resources to meet the needs of the students?  Teachers are nothing if not resourceful and innovative.  Why can we not figure out a way to assess our students’ education instead of their schooling?  To me, it is a no-brainer.  It is possible, we just have to preach the new gospel often enough to make it happen.  We are on the right path when it comes to assessment.  We just aren’t there, yet.  We just need some more converts.

Five Simple Steps to Prepare for Next School Year

The school year is almost over.  With state testing approaching, we are more focused than ever.  And while the next school year seems blissfully far away, now is the time to begin thinking about who and what you want to be.  So in that spirit, I wanted to share some wisdom I have been gifted over the years.  Without further ado, I present to you my five-step list of ways to prepare for the next school year.

Step 1: Process Your Emotions

Many of us will feel joy with the year ending.  And while we don’t want to admit it, not having to see certain students ever again does make us feel a little giddy.  Others of us will feel excited about the future. The teaching profession allows us to reinvent ourselves from year to year, and that can be invigorating.  Yet, others of us will mourn.  Whether it’s because we had an amazing year of professional growth or that we had a class that moved us, often we are struck with a sense of loss after each school year. Whatever emotion you have, ask yourself why you are feeling it.  Is it an emotion you want to feel again?  Is it something you want to change?  Whatever the answer, allow it to guide you as you begin planning for next year.

These emotions are telling you something about yourself as a person and a professional. While the emotions are fresh and raw, analyze them.  If harnessed, these emotions can make us better at our jobs.

Step 2: Create a Summer Growth Goal

Once you have processed your emotions, use them as a guide to your summer learning. If we are required to make a growth goal for our students for the school year, why shouldn’t we make a growth goal for ourselves in the summer? Whether it is to read professional literature, to attend high-quality professional development, or to spend time designing amazing units, make some goals.  The one thing I cannot stress enough is to be intentional.  Teachers often try to “knock out” their summer professional development for the school year.  While liberating, it is not what is best for the students.  It limits us, so think about how to create “Teacher 2.0.”  Give yourself deadlines and product ideas.  Think about who or what can support you in your endeavors.  Think through every detail so as to make sure that you have a proper plan to follow for the coming weeks.

Once you have a vision for “Teacher 2.0,” give yourself deadlines and product ideas.  Think about who or what can support you in your endeavors.  Think through every detail so as to make sure that you have a proper plan to follow for the coming weeks.

Step 3: Put Everything Away

Next, find time for you.  While society at large sees teachers as having a two-month vacation where nothing happens, they don’t understand that great teachers give all of themselves every day.  It is exhausting.  Where you can, put everything into a literal or metaphorical box for another day.  Your job will be there waiting, and the kids aren’t going anywhere.  If you do not, however, recharge your body, mind, and spirit, you won’t be effective come the fall.

It is imperative to spend some time growing as a human.  Spend time doing the things you love to do.  We often sacrifice our personal loves and hobbies as we pursue avenues to best help our students.  Make sure to also spend time reconnecting with those around you that you value.  For example, I am fortunate that I come from a family of educators, as well as being married to an educator.  Because of this, if I am cranky or fall off the map, they understand.  However, most teachers do not have this luxury.  If your loved ones and friends have stood by you from the fall to the spring, use your time off to bond with them again.  I know my own child has often been the victim of my distraction, so the summer is a great time to give her 100% of me.

Whatever you do, ensure you take time away from the job.  Trust me, it’s waiting for you whether you pay attention to it or not.

Step 4: Implement Your Summer Growth Plan

Now that you are feeling refreshed, find that corner you threw your plan in and drag it out.  Check off anything you may have already accomplished and reevaluate.  Does the plan still fit who and what you are and want to be?  If so, move forward.  If not, redraft. Whatever you do, avoid the trap of “easy attainment.”  There is a significant difference between quality professional development and sit-and-get professional development. There is an enormous gap between the “newest and best movement in education” book and the researched, powerful book.

This trap is avoidable.  Be proactive and seek out the highest quality materials and people.  Expand your professional learning network.  Meet new people.  Go out of town if you can.  Reach out to whoever can help you to grow.  And, most importantly, don’t be afraid to struggle and face cognitive dissonance.  When you fall into the trap of easy attainment, it is more difficult to grow because you seek professional development that fits your existing schema.  While the pressures of school are off you, use this time to be as challenged as you can.

Step 5: Gear Up and Prepare

Summer is wonderful as we are the masters of our own fate.  The routines we set from day to day are the ones that we value and that bring us the most happiness.  As the summer vacation closes, practice two mental routines that will help you through the trying times.  If you have spent time getting your knowledge base ready for work, spend some time getting your head straight, too.  Read and live by two ideas: living in the four rooms and living by The Four Agreements.

Living in the four rooms, if practiced intentionally, ensures that we are holistically prepared to deal with mental and physical taxation that the school year can bring. Practice, while you can, being emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally fit.  Come up with systems that will allow you to monitor yourself and then practice them. Come the school year, this routine will push you through the hard stretches and ensure that you are good to yourself and others.

The other thing you can do is to live by The Four Agreements.  The book, written by Don Miguel Ruiz, expounds on the practice of maintaining some sanity in the hardest of moments.  The link provided is not the book, but it is a great synopsis and commentary on the mindset. Too often are we faced with people or moments that make us question our worth or actions during the school year.  And while careful reflection is healthy, it can lead to self-loathing.  The Four Agreements, when practiced and intentionally lived, gives a perspective that can mean the difference between sanity and frustration.

Bonus Step: Celebrate

This year is closing, and even on your worst day, you still made a positive contribution.  Testing is upon us, but take the time to acknowledge at least one celebratory moment every day.  The students are anxious, and frankly so are we. Be the rock they need and deserve.  Above all, honor yourself.  Celebrate the positives that exist in your classroom, your school, or your world.

Keep breathing, folks.  It is almost over.  And while the work is never done, this final push can be the most rewarding stretch, yet.  Celebrate every day.

Giving More than Lip Service: Reaching the Whole Child Part 2

An empty house, a post-surgical knee, and a welcomed spring break have me reflecting quite a bit.  As I began searching for the answer to what it means to reach the whole child, I expected difficulties, but the resistance I have found is quite unexpected.

To explain, let me first lay out some successes.

  • As was explain out in part one of this series, these are the reasons I started creating a small school within a school at my struggling middle school, and here are the components of the project thus far.
  • There have been many successes thus far.  We secured funding for the teachers for the program as well as a case manager for the academy.  We have the support of the school’s administration.  We have money to spend and technology to use.  In other words, the common roadblocks to any startup such as this are seemingly avoided.
  • We have decided on the profile of the students we want to identify.  Research shows that students whose parents are incarcerated, who are in the foster system, or who live with a non-parental guardian face unique educational challenges that we seek to overcome.
  • The funding for my job at my school is secured for another four years which gives me time to continue to work on the project.

When written like this, it is hard to imagine that this program won’t get off the ground. Furthermore, in a district like mine where students’ demographics are collected constantly due to high transience within the district, it is hard to imagine that we can’t find the students.  Yet this assumption is precisely where the project has stalled.

After speaking to staff at my school and officials in the district, I was told that the district does not collect a record of students with incarcerated parents or students in the foster system.

I am floored.  How can this be true?  If, as school districts, we are to do all we can for all we serve, how can this imperiled population go unaccounted for?  I am, as of writing this, waiting for a call from an old colleague of mine to explain why this is the case.  I am sure there is a good reason for it, yet I am still frustrated.  Beyond the creation of my program, this seems like a serious breach in the ethical contract we have with students.  Every year, I am told to meet every child where they are.  I want this to not be, as is said in the title, lip service.  Yet when I am not armed with critical information, I cannot help but feel that lip service is all I can give.  Students with jailed parents or who live with someone besides a parent present a unique set of challenges and educational needs.  How can I meet those needs and circumvent those challenges if I cannot even identify them?  I have a request.  Please help me.

This may seem like a rant, and in truth, it partially is.  This feels unjust, unfair, or just existentially absurd.  Yes, this is a rant, but it is also a plea.  If anyone out there reads this and has ideas, workarounds, experience, or just guidance, please reply to this blog.  I ask of you, share this far and wide.  Talk to people around you.  Together we are stronger, and though I may not know you, I claim your students as my own as I hope you do mine. Together we are stronger, and in many ways, the future of our society is dependent on changing systems that don’t work.  We have the power to change the narrative of what it means to reach every child every day.

I entered this profession to perform my duty of tikkun olam; I entered this profession to repair the world and to leave it better than I how I found it.  Please help me fulfill this need.

Backwards Design: Moving from Theory to Metacognition

While observing classes today, I saw an interaction that made me reflect.  While the teacher was giving a mini-lesson, a student raised her hand and asked the one question that all teachers hate if they are not prepared.  The student asked, “Why are we learning this?”


“I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context.” -Gordon B. Hinckley

It is often hard for us to convey our passions to the students in a way that encourages them to buy in. I was often the student who wondered why are we learning what we were. It is a difficult question to answer, yet it is our responsibility to set the context for the lesson for the students. In my classroom, it was often hard to explain to a child why learning how to find a theme would be important to their lives.  As a person who loves literature, I find the answer easy.  The themes of what we read are reflected in our world.  But what if a child doesn’t love to read?  What if they don’t care about the critical thinking skills that come with learning theme?  What if a child just does not care about school?

If teaching is an art and a science, these difficult questions are often addressed through the science of teaching.  Teachers, when taught the science of teaching, are instructed in a process called backwards design.  Teachers are taught to plan with the end in mind and then plan backwards to ensure that students learn all the prerequisite skills along the way.  The science of teaching is both procedural and psychological.  We are taught researched methodologies and processes.  These skills, when present, are a key indicator of an effective teacher.  That being said, is a student more likely to understand the why of learning because the teacher went through the backwards design process?  The jury is out on that one.

From an art lens, truly remarkable educators excel in their ability to make connections with each and every student.  If a student asks why she is learning something, artful teachers can often convince the student to press on, even if the teacher cannot actually answer why the student needs to learn the material.  I have seen it done time and time again; the teacher inflicts some kind of jedi mind trick where the student doesn’t get an answer as to why she is learning something, but she still feels compelled to continue to work.  Is this good enough?  If I don’t answer the student’s question but they continue to work, that can be a win.  But is it what is best for kids?  Again, the jury is out.

If the jury continues to be out, maybe teachers need to ask a question: What if we asked the students a question to help bridge the gap between our knowledge and their desires to understand our knowledge?  We will never be able to get every student to buy in, but what if we got them to see the roadmap?  What if we asked them the question, “Would you like me to show you where we are going?”  I recognize that this is not a new idea, but could it lift the instructional veil just enough so that students could see what their life holds in the future?

From Theory to Practice

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”  -Benjamin Franklin

As teachers, it is our responsibility to involve our students in their learning.  For them to have that chance at involvement, they need the veil to be lifted.  Teachers need to show them the map.  If teachers go through the arduous process of backwards design, why would they not show the kids the process so that they may be more involved?  If the kids knew the map, they could help plot their own course.  They could begin the process of metacognition.

Screenshot 2017-03-09 at 9.35.43 AM

When I plan, I start with the end in mind, but that is not new.  What I do, however, is separate my instructional points from my assessment points.  Then, I show the kids a map like one to the left.  Their version is often riddled with checkboxes for self-assessment and lines where students can answer metacognitive prompts that I have developed (and begged, borrowed, and stole).  I will often reference the document through my class so that kids know where they should be, where they are, and what they must do to be successful. And if I am asked and I cannot provide a real world reason, this map helps explain the educational path to the student.  I have had many students satisfied once they understood the map and was asked to apply the map in a variety of ways.  In other words, a student is not just being given our lessons from a thoughtful planning session, but rather they are given ownership of their progress to their destination.

How Will You Open the Veil?

“The good life is a process, not a state of being…” -Carl Rogers

All of this is to say, teaching is hard.  But if we are working harder than the students, we are doing it wrong.  To help lighten our load, consider putting as much as you can back on the students.  My small way of doing it is not my backwards design process, but rather how I use it with my students.  How will you make the roadmap clear for your kids?  What pitstops will you build in?  What tourist sites will you visit to enrich their understanding of their trip?  How will you ensure that your students remember your hard work for years to come?  Please add your ideas in the comments and feel free to reach out to me with how you do things!

Giving More than Lip Service: Reaching the Whole Child Part 1

Growing up, I was bullied.  At times it was relentless.  I was overweight and I was more interested in reading a book at recess than playing foursquare.  My most targeted “problem” was my sensitivity.  As my mom used to say to me, “You feel hard.”  I would see other people being bullied and I would cry for them.  I would see other obese people and feel their shame.  I would see a homeless person on the street and weep.  I constantly worried for others.

At the time, I did not know why I felt so deeply for others, but what I did not know was that I always wanted to know how to make my pain stop.  I could never separate my own insecurities from the insecurities in others.  I vividly remember passing a homeless man on the streets  of Boston.  I couldn’t have been older than six or seven.  As we passed him, he didn’t look up.  His clothes were ragged; the tattered strips of cloth on his body were blowing in the brisk Boston breeze.  I begged my mom for money, any amount of it, to give to the man.  This was not a new behavior for me, and my mom obliged.  And even though I did my small part then, I could not help but to wonder how the man had gotten to this point.  I didn’t understand why he was there and why there wasn’t a way to help him get off the street.

As I grew older, I became better at shutting the world out, but this misunderstanding never went away.  I am still frequently haunted by the image of this man.  I know he could have been there because of his own decisions, but what if he was set up to fail at the very beginning?  What if he didn’t have a family?  What if he didn’t have anyone to course-correct his path when he was young?  I had several people set me on better paths when I was young.  Would I be this man had I not had them?

The image of that man has never went away.  I instinctively knew as I entered college that I wanted to do all that I could to ensure I would never be haunted by another man like him.

Those of us who teach do so for many different reasons.  At the heart of all of our reasons is the inherent desire to ensure that those who come after us find a better world than the one we found.  Over the years, I have played my small part a few times.  I had a student who did not commit suicide because she, “didn’t want to disappoint me.”  She is now a proud military wife who, even when her husband is away, smiles because she relishes her life and its opportunities.  Another student of mine suffered from anxiety silently until she realized that it was literally killing her.  Through many hours of talking, crying (sometimes both of us), and reflection, she is succeeding in college away from her family, high school friends, and former teachers.  Yet another student reached out to me for help regarding his drug abuse.

With our successes from day to day, we also experience the heartbreak that comes with imagining our students who, for whatever reason, will end up being some version of my homeless man on the street; they are the anonymous stranger whose life isn’t fulfilled.  I am no longer just haunted by the image of the man in Boston, but also by the student who, a week after graduation, was gunned down because he was running in the wrong circles.  Should I have spent more time persuading him to change his life?  I am tormented by the student who didn’t go pursue his passions because his family dissuaded him.  Why didn’t I sit with his family to explain to them that spending money would mean that my student wouldn’t be undermatched and therefore less likely to be successful?

Every teacher has stories like these.  I am not unique for having experienced them. And if my two successful students are the only ones I ever course-correct, then I can die a happy man.  Over the last six months, however, I find myself increasingly unsatisfied.  I want to maximize, as we all do, the impact of my life.  After much thought, many conversations, and copious sessions of solutions seeking, I came to a realization. Through research and practice, we know what good education looks like.  However, our education system, one based off of a factory model, is horrendous at helping the holistic child.

For example, since the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, many states have seen tremendous growth.  Kentucky, for example, used to measure itself by asking one question: Are we better than Mississippi?  That has changed tremendously as now Kentucky is in the middle of the pack by many measures.  This is a positive change.

And yet, what often doesn’t happen is addressing the non-cognitive factors of a child, the mitigating factors in the student’s outside life that prohibit the student from being successful.  These are the factors represent a much harder fight against because they seem largely out of our sphere of influence.

To demonstrate this struggle, imagine putting a Bandaid on a bullet wound.  You may cover the visual wound, but what about stitching the bleeding artery?  What about antibiotics to ensure that more systemic, ongoing infections don’t begin?  What about ongoing therapy to properly bring a person back to full health?

In the educational context, this is seen by actions such as Blessings in a Backpack for students who are poor.  This action is not detrimental, much like putting a bandage on a wound isn’t bad, but it also is not intentional or targeted.  Students may need access to affordable, accessible medical care for their “bleeding arteries.”  They may need psycho-emotional supports for their cognitive “infections.”  They may need consistent community advocates to ensure that the student’s actions bring them to “full health.”  In our current educational model, this cannot happen.  In my school, for example, we have one person who oversees these issues.  We also have 667 students.  That is a ratio of 667:1.  These are not sustainable numbers, and this narrative is one we all face in our schools.

For my small, sustainable successes I have, I know that I also have another homeless man from Boston.  I am weary of the cascading images of students who could have gone a different direction.  Because of this ongoing dissonance, I have begun to create a program at my school to address not only the shifting educational landscape of America, but also addresses and redefines what it means to reach the holistic child.  I am fortunate that I have many supports already in place for this program.  I am energized by the possibility of maximizing my impact.  But I am also asking anyone who will listen to consider what it means to help the holistic child in a systemic way- a way that goes beyond putting a Bandaid on the problem.

Who will her champion be in the future?

I want to be the champion that I had and that I hope my daughter has should I ever lose sight of her struggles, passions, and potential.

As I create and implement this program, I want to open a dialogue so that we learn together and reimagine what school and it’s duty to helping the holistic child looks like. What if we could have fewer nameless people in the future simply by reimagining what it means to help students today?  Could we prevent another sensitive child from crying because they wondered what if?  I have no idea if it is possible, but I am committed to finding out.  Teachers aren’t the solution.  Nor is the solution money, community, parents, and society.  All of these factors play a part.  If you are interested in knowing where I am thus far, please refer to this document that shows what is driving my thinking and this document which shows the current components of the program.

I cannot effect large-scale changes alone, but I can create the gentle breezes of change in my small way.  A gentle breeze can become a gust in a mere moment.   As such, I can no longer sit back and let excuses get in the way.  It is within my sphere of influence try to find the answer to the question of what it means to help the holistic child.


Let’s Build the Joyous Culture Because #OurStudentsDeserveIt

Finally I get the chance to sit back in front of my computer.  The warm weather has broken for now.  The sun is out, and everyone in the house is asleep but me.  The breeze comes in through the windows and the air smells sweet.  And while I could be doing anything, all I can think about is school.  It has been an up and down ride for me as the school year began, but this week, it all started to come together.  Why?  Because this week, I actually got to teach kids.

Part of my job description this year is to work as an interventionist.  I take small groups of students through the day to catch them up while not falling behind on new content.  It is a differentiation opportunity/nightmare that delights/terrifies me.  And though there was a  myriad of emotions I felt as these students stepped through my door for the first time, one shone through.  Happiness.  Excitement.  Passion.  Okay, three emotions.  I loved being among (literally among them; I tend to sit on the floor) the kids as theme and characterization and conflict began to click together.  Light bulb moments.  I delighted in acknowledging their frustrations as things didn’t make sense and sitting down with them to help them sift through their confusion.  I was even gitty when my one period which is comprised of more than half of students with ADHD came through the door.  I love my resource role at my school, but I had forgotten how much I love being in the classroom.  Look at my student in the picture.  Before Friday, she had never annotated before (so she says).  Look at how much she had done, and it was all right!

Student annotations.  She had never done this before.  Look at how much she did!

The purpose of this piece, though, is not to just share my joy this week.  What keeps me in front of my computer as opposed to outside on this beautiful day is that there are those around me at work who do not feel this joy every day.

Here’s the thing.  My school is a hard school, and the kids will often push even veterans to the edge.  As part of my responsibilities at the school, I am to support teachers and mentor them through their struggles.  I can walk into any classroom and identify ten celebrations and ten areas for improvement.  I can find systems problems in the blink of an eye, and I can think of way on way to differentiate a lesson.  I can give management advice and tip on how to give feedback.

What I cannot figure out is how to help these teachers I support find joy in the job as opposed to obligation to the job.  Mind you, it is not all of them, or even most of them.  But they exist.  They may not publicly say it, but you can see it.  If there isn’t joy in the struggles and successes, the students suffer because lessons become about compliance to the standards and not innovation or creativity.  Students suffer because the teachers cannot feign excitement for the most boring of lessons that we sometimes have to do.  I mean, I hate poetry, but I can be the most excited person in the room for some Robert Frost if I have to.

So what do we do?  We all know teachers like this.  They may come in smiling every day and say good morning as if nothing is wrong, but we know, even if they do not, that their identity is not teacher.  It is a professional with a clientele.  And the difference between the two may be subtle, but earth shattering.  How do we build an identity of passion, excitement, and innovative spirit in teachers who do not feel it, yet?

This is one of those gray areas.  It has nothing to do with policy, and a teacher can be successful on paper if there isn’t an inherent joy.  Yet, even without being about policy or success on paper, our kids deserve the best us every day.  And I want every one I work with to feel the passion and excitement I feel when I am with students.  So, world, hit me.  Our students deserve it, and I want to build the joyous culture.  How do we do it?

This Untraveled Road: The Teacher Leaders of Tomorrow

It is that time again.  Teachers nationwide are going back to school.  Cue the obligatory Facebook comments.

Let’s be honest, the beginning of the year is equally exciting and terrifying.  The staggering potential that exists is countered by an equally stunning potential for failure.  And yes, while the future is always uncertain at the beginning of the year, I find this year to be a source of incredible inspiration.  We have so many new teachers and young teachers.  This could be overwhelming, but I look at it differently.  I see it as a chance to create the next wave of teacher leaders.  I see a future where someone I mentor no longer needs me.  In turn, they help the next person who needs them.  To demonstrate how inspired I am, I would like to pull lyrics from my summer anthem “Untraveled Road” by Thousand Foot Krutch.

We Can Create Our Reality

Hold on for a second, if words can be weapons
Then what I say can effect it, they’re not just words on a record
And I can choose to respect it.

In my specific circumstance, I am joining the staff of a brand new school.  Mostly new staff.  New administration.  New routines, new systems, new ideologies.  New egos, new interpersonal dynamics, new stressors.  And to add on to all of these potential stumbling blocks, the eyes of the district, media, and news are on us.  To this I say simply this:

What an opportunity.  

I know this for a fact.  If words can be weapons, then what we say can effect great change. As educators, our greatest opportunity is to effect some positive change every day.  Our words are weapons, and if we respect that power, what amazing things can happen.  Every single teacher has the chance to move students.  Talk about teacher leadership!  Every class every day and for every student.  If every single person has the chance to create the world they want to see, if we give our actions and words respect and power, great things are bound to happen.

The challenge is creating that unified vision.  Yet, to emphasize the point again, teachers who step up and live the message and the dream can create positive leadership by being an example to those who are struggling.  This is evident in two axioms I live my life by:

  1. Perception is reality
  2. The reality you put into the universe comes back as truth

The next wave of leaders can create positive school experiences through simply believing and walking the walk.  As any year begins, morale can be a struggle.  It doesn’t have to be. Among everything else that needs to be done at the beginning of the year, this is a “simple” step to achieve great things early on.

Vision Is Not Enough

‘Cause one voice is enough to make sleeping giants wake up,
To make armies put their hands up and watch whole nations stand up
It’s one belief, one spark, one faith…

It is not enough to simply say out loud what you want to happen, you got to make it happen!  For people outside of the teaching profession, this seems like an obvious sentiment.  Outside education, when protocols are set, it is a reasonable expectation that the protocols will be easily followed. In our world, however, this is often easier said than done.  When my students show up tomorrow, some will be carrying such baggage that school will be the place they either fear or love, despise or need.  I can put my vision out there, and that reality will start to form with my word, but the classroom can be a war.  As was said to me, teachers can lose a battle from this day to that, but they cannot lose the war. Failure is not an option.

If I, as a general on the front lines of the future, use my voice and actions to inspire my fellow educators, our united front may buckle, but we will never break.  As a teacher leader, I need my trusted comrades to stand strong with me.  If I, and other positive forces, can make the silent educational giants stand up, our nation (our school), will stand up.  We have to be of one faith.  My role is not just teacher, but also support.  I need to be a leader who makes others leaders.  Eventually, my job can become easier.  My leadership, and the leadership around me, is a force multiplier; it is an exponential growth of expertise, pedagogy, and leadership.  I believe wholeheartedly that the future of education rests in the grassroots movement.  My local front line is lineally connected to the front lines in the policy world.  If leaders are grown, they create an unstoppable army. More importantly, if leaders are grown, the kids will be bettered.

The Future Is Bright

Then with what we have we can own it, we’ll just plant the seed and keep growin’ it…We only got one shot, so let’s make it count…Before we depart, let’s leave a mark ‘cause light shines brighter in the dark…We walk, where no one wants to go, on this untraveled road.

I will leave with this.  My optimism knows no bounds this year.  Not just for my school, but for the future of my district.  I am surrounded by so many people who can go out in the future and create greatness.  I, along with those who support me, have a huge task; we need to plant the seeds of the educational future.  And yes, in some ways we only have one shot.  But if this chance is cultivated, if we make it count, the future is a place of incredible brightness.  Like the phoenix, my school, like so many others, starts its emergence from the ashes this year.  I am so excited to be part of this.  I am so excited to learn from others, to help others grow, and watch our kids make incredible leaps forward.

Yes, the educational world is dark in so many ways. There is a lot of discord out there.  But when a light shines in the dark, it is all the brighter.  Beyond all else, I know this:

We, all of us in education, walk where no one wants to go.

The future is an uncertain, untraveled road.  But I walk it boldly and confidently knowing that those who surround me have a chance to engage in amazing work for themselves, our school, and as always, our students.  I cannot wait to share the incredible stories that come from the truly amazing people who surround me.