If we were honest about parent-teacher conferences…

Like most aspects of school systems, parent-teacher conferences have become petrified artifacts of the status quo. We assume all of it has to look the way it does because that is the way it has always been. So we dress a little bit nicer than we usually do and show up for the long line of 5-10 minute largely superficial conversations about the incredibly complex and deeply personal task of teaching and learning. When it’s over teachers feel good because they endured another night without conflict and parents feel good because they showed up and wrote down what the teachers said about their child. I always felt anxiety about these nights. Honestly, early on parents scared me a little–especially when I had finally realized all that I did not know about the craft of teaching and was afraid their questions might expose my ignorance.

As I became more confident in my teaching, I was better able to use the power of “eduspeak” to explain my choices in the classroom and project the appearance of certainty to avoid any challenges that might come my way. My insecurities masked as expertise served to silence most parents and I could make it through the night without unearthing my flawed system.

It was no wonder that nothing really changed. Not only did my voice dominate the conference, but I focused all or most of the time on past behavior rather than specific learning successes and struggles and resources to help advance those successes and address those struggles going forward. Most of comments were something like: “Your child has a low score in the homework category. He/she needs to do more homework” or “Your child’s low quiz scores are the reason the grade is low.” Not only were these comments not particularly useful, they were also focused on categories of a grade book rather than specific knowledge or skills. Parents could easily look at the grade book from home and know the same information I was telling them face-to-face. Because I talked most of the time, I also lost out on the opportunity to learn from the expert on the child–the parent. All of this wasted valuable time and did not help build a deeper understanding between the critical team members working to help the child.

Most importantly, the person most critical to the conversation, the student, was often not there and/or had no voice in the conversation. Given how I viewed and dominated the conversation, they would have had no reason to be there. They knew better than anyone how they were doing in the categories of the grade book. Even when the student came along, I still did most of the talking unless a parent stepped in to yell at their child for not doing homework or not studying for the quiz. I did this for years because that was what everyone around me was doing.

It was embarrassingly late in my teaching that I finally faced my fears and insecurities as a teacher and started to focus all my efforts on holding myself accountable to building efficacious students. Guided by the research on student efficacy, I worked to be more transparent in my expectations and more explicit in my efforts to support students in their learning. For me, that journey led to my own version of standards-based grading and collaborating with students and parents to help build a child’s belief in their own ability to learn and grow. One of the biggest places where that work saw the most reward was at the student/parent/teacher conferences.

Because I was clear in the learning outcomes (along with the why and how of them) and I was doggedly focused on helping my students’ understand them and achieve them, conferences offered opportunities for students to lead the conversation and explain their growth in their learning and identify what they needed to do to further improve. I now spent most of the conferences either nodding in agreement and celebrating the hard work that went into the learning being described or reminding the students to include the stories of their successes because they were so focused on where they still needed to improve. Even when students could not make the conference, they completed a reflection that parents read and then we reviewed together to ensure that the child’s voice and experience were leading the conversation. Because the conversation was focused on the specific skills or content, I also was able to highlight resources and specific supports that parents could use or do to help their child improve. This allowed every conversation to end positively with a focus on actions the child could take in the future rather than talking in the “could haves” and “should haves” of past performance.

As we near student/parent/teacher conference time, examine your grade book and ask yourself:

  1. If I were a parent, would I be able to tell from this report what specifically my child knows and can do (instructional outcomes) and what specifically my child needs to improve?
  2. Would a student in my class be able to use the grade book report to explain what knowledge and skills they have gained proficiency in and what knowledge and skills are still being developed?
  3. Would I be able to share specific resources to help a parent support their child’s efforts to improve in their learning of a concept or skill?

If your answers to these questions are yes, I would love to hear what you are doing so that I can learn more ways to help team up with parents to build student efficacy in learning. If your answers to these questions are no, what can you do to help make your grade book and grades more transparent and focused for students and parents? If I can be of any use on that journey, let me know.

Additional Resources on parent-teacher conferences:

Conference Fail (Teaching Tolerance)

Rethinking Parent-Teacher Conferences (Teaching Tolerance)

Five Resources for Parent-Teacher Conferences (Edutopia)

Student-led Conferences (Edutopia)

Three Shifts to Focus Parent-Teacher Conferences on Creating a Partnership (Mindshift)

Facing Down the Monster


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This year I am embarking on a new challenge. I am teaching two classes of AP Human Geography and am helping to facilitate our whole-school transition to Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is similar to, but not the same as, Standards-Based Grading.

How did we get here? It was like that moment when you get a trickle from the water hose and wonder if something is wrong so, for some reason, you put your face up close and look into the hose. Then, right as you do that, the person bending the hose lets it go and water explodes onto your face and into your nose, mouth, and eyes. That’s how we got here. At first a few of us were trying it in our own classes–a Fine Arts teacher, a couple of Math teachers, and me. Slowly more teachers, seeing the results in the classroom and facing the persistent struggle of traditional grading, began to adopt it and tweak for their own classrooms. Then, like the hose metaphor, our principal let go of the bend in the hose, and said the whole school is going to PBL. Those of us prepared for the water did okay, but others nearly drowned amidst the deluge and felt like they were building a boat in the middle of an ocean. At the same time, that principal left our school after 10 years to work at the district central office. Last year was a rough year.

What did I learn? A lot. I learned the value of stepping up to lead even if you are afraid. I learned about the amazing resilience of our staff and students. I learned that my own love of leaping into a project and learning about it along the way is not a model for whole school leadership. I learned to talk less and listen more. I learned in practice what I already knew in theory which is the smartest answer is the whole room (or school) full of people–not one person individually.

How will I use what I learned in my new role this year? I am going to make sign to put up in my office that says:

-You have answers, but not all of them. Know what you know and be willing to ask questions.

-Believe in the strength of this community and its ability to weather storms. That said, don’t create unnecessary storms.

-Ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that could happen as a result of our best idea?” If that thing is deal breaker, find a new “best idea.”

-How can we achieve consensus?

-To what extent is our system sustainable?

-What questions do I need to be asking right now? Who can answer them?

-Who is left out? How can we include them?

What is my monster? I think my biggest monster is my self-doubt and my false belief that other people’s certainty is wisdom. I hope I learn to trust in what I know right now, always keep listening and learning, and never confuse my own certainty for wisdom.

Applied Table Service (performed at The Hideout–Chicago)

It’s appropriate that this gathering is in a bar. In my experience, teachers are the best and worst bar patrons – since we can start at 4pm, and often close the place down. No one needs a drink more than a teacher…so cheers! I’m honored to be here at Detention Hall and I am grateful for Dave for inviting me – and to the Hideout staff for making us feel at home. I have many fond memories in this place, and the people who work here are a big part of that.

I, too, have tended bar and waited tables – I worked at a restaurant here in the city to pay for my teaching certification program. Admittedly, I was not much of a server… but I am so grateful for the opportunity that job afforded me and I have come to believe that all aspiring teachers should wait tables before entering the profession. There is a lot to learn from reading the philosophies of Friere, Woodson, Montessori–trudging your way through adolescent development textbooks, and diving into the content and controversies of your discipline, but there were things I learned waiting tables that no education class or text could have prepared me for.

First, the best learning is doing. Servers in training don’t spend a lot of time reading about waiting tables, they do it. Often you will see them walking sheepishly behind a calm, confident server diligently taking notes. Then they take one table with their mentor watching. Slowly more tables are added and the mentor backs away unless advice or help is needed. This should not only be the model for teachers in training, but it should be the foundation for any classroom.

In David Perkins’ book, Make Learning Whole, he argues using a baseball analogy that students should play the game they are learning and not just hear about the game through lecture or read about the game in a textbook. It doesn’t have to be the full version of the game, but students need to have a sense of the meaning of what they are learning in the context of the larger world. Inspired by this, I have students create projects based on asset and need research for their neighborhoods and students serving as representatives at the African Union to try to come to consensus on the most important UN Sustainable Development goal for their region. Students can play the game and they will rise to whatever you ask of them.

The second thing waiting tables helped me learn is to focus on their experience and the tip will take care of itself. I don’t know how successful a restaurant would be if every customer only had one choice that changed on the whim of the chef. It’s the same with students. Give them choices in their learning that respect their varied tastes. Make recommendations, but don’t order for them…or, most importantly, don’t eat for them. At the same time, don’t borrow from the Cheesecake Factory model – offering so many choices that it can be overwhelming. My Women’s Studies class spends the day prior to each new unit thinking about the theme and creating and choosing the three essential questions that we will work to answer. My Human Geography students choose between readings and often identify the homework assignment that would best serve their learning needs. Choice respects the student.

Another important part of focusing on the experience is that everyone arrives in various states of brokenness. This is true everywhere. It took me an embarrassingly long time to learn that when a student has her head down, first ask if she’s okay instead of assuming she’s willfully sleeping through your class. You might be the only person who is asking. Smile often, but also be be willing to show how to talk about frustrations or struggles. I try to show my students ways to open the conversation further, instead of close it.

The bigger the restaurant, the more the tables to serve.  Manage your tables, and stick to your section. One of the hardest things for new teachers is to effectively manage the chaos of class. But here too, waiting tables is useful. Give each table something to do and return to check on them. Don’t forget the small things. Show them who you are, but don’t make it about you. Work together with your colleagues and hold your own, but don’t take on tables that aren’t yours. The quickest way to burn out in this job is to be the first year teacher who agrees to coach basketball and soccer and start a history fair club along with everything else. That was me. I have learned that saying no is about prioritizing your interests and protecting your efficacy.

Perhaps most importantly, own your mistakes. I learned this too often in my server days and likely gave away thousands of dollars in free desserts. And while I don’t have desserts to offer I know that when I mess up, I must say so and show students your example of how to fail gracefully. In all of these things I have named, I have failed. I have lectured too much and created projects that were more like completing a recipe than creating something new and personal. I have focused too much on outcomes and not held myself accountable to the experience. I have met brokenness with brokenness. I have taken on sections that weren’t mine, leaving me paralyzed with stress. I have learned to apologize honestly and to work to do better next time. Students, more than anyone, understand mistakes and are ready to forgive.

And finally, pass it on. Newbies are a pain in the ass, but you were one once too. Be the greatness you once shadowed, and show new people the ropes. This job is ridiculous in its mixture of complexity and consequence. We need to be patient with those new to the profession so that they can keep growing, avoid burnout, and be able to reflect honestly on their progress. We also need to hold them to a high standard that honors our craft, but when they’ve arrived in small or large ways into the community of reflective teachers, tell them. We too often forget to tell people that they are ready for the next big thing.

And while I hope that you have tipped your bartender generously tonight, we can’t judge our performance on our daily tips. Some days are bleak and the task of teaching feels thankless. We must remember that we are playing the long game and it is sometimes, years later, when a student reaches out to tell us that our presence in his life made a difference.

Thank you

First Quarter with PBL


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We just finished our first quarter with school-wide proficiency-based learning (PBL). Our most recent survey indicated that the majority of the staff believe in the principles of PBL, but nearly half the staff are struggling (and/or are frustrated) with our implementation.

Here are a few of the biggest struggles/frustrations I have heard or overheard and my attempt to answer them:

My grades are inflated

This was a common phrase after teachers entered their grades for parent-teacher conferences. I would follow this up with a question:

Did the assessments that students took or performed measure what I wanted them to know about be able to do? 

If the answer is ‘yes,’ then give your students (and yourself) credit for their hard work and learning. Is it possible your grades were deflated in previous years?

If the answer is ‘no,’then it is time to rethink your assessment design and make sure whatever test, project, etc is measuring what you want students to know and be able to do. Spend the time doing backwards design.

Shift in thinking: One of the main shifts in thinking in moving to PBL is accepting that (and working toward) all students can achieve mastery. It is unlikely that all students will achieve mastery in all standards, but the belief that they can and that their ability to do so is the central part of your job is an essential belief of proficiency-based learning. 

Students are gaming the system

It seems this is the same subset of teachers that believe their grades are inflated. Apparently students are refusing to take new assessments when they have a high score or a student has not come to class/school in awhile and their “M’s” (missing assignments in Jumprope) do not count against their score. I think a couple questions might be useful here:

Where is the assessment taking place–home or class? 

If most or all of what you assess is homework this works against students with challenging home lives or added responsibilities. You also may not be able to tell who is copying work from another student so that their level of understanding shown in their score would not be accurate. Generally, it is better to have students perform the assessment in class to avoid these issues.

Is it possible to have the student take the assessment they missed during class time? 

I know this is a tough call. Having the student miss new information in order to take the past assessment is not ideal, but is it better than having no information at all about where the student is? I think it is better. I have lots of review videos on-line for students who miss the interactive lecture so that is a good time for students to take assessments in class.

Can you articulate the importance of the assessment to the student so that they have a buy in to take it based on information they will get about their own level of understanding? Another option is to schedule the assessment during colloquium in order for them not to miss new material.

Shift in thinking: Another shift in thinking in the transition to PBL is that grades (or scores) are meant to be a conversation between the teacher and the learner. The teacher is no longer the supreme evaluator on high who seeks to reward or punish students with scores. Rather, the teacher is an advocate for the student’s learning and works to help the student understand why this learning is meaningful to them and what kind of feedback they will get when they perform the task assigned. 

This is too much work

I will not argue that this system is easy. It isn’t. Yet, the difference I found between traditional grading and PBL (aka SBG) is that the work is meaningful to both students and teachers. There is specific data to talk about the student’s level of understanding and specific actions to take to improve understanding and show new learning. To me, the work is worth it.

Shift in thinking: One of the main shifts for me to lighten my load a bit was that I did not have to assess everything. I structure my class with a lot of practice built in that is designed specifically to prepare them for the assessment they will take at the end. Students are growing in their advocacy of their own learning and asking questions they have about the material to be sure they are prepared for the unit assessment. There is a lot of front end work to give the learning back to students, but it is well worth it in the long run.

How is always faulty if you don’t have a why


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As our school makes the shift to proficiency-based learning or PBL (aka standards-based grading), I am reminded about the struggles of big, systematic change. Changing a system is easy on the surface when you have a hierarchical structure. A top down edict is made and those below follow because their job depends on it. This kind of change often appears deeper than it actually is. Most people will comply with rules they don’t understand or do not agree with, but such change is fragile.

Right now we have teachers who deeply believe in PBL as a system that helps learners know where they are in their learning, where they need to go, and how to get there. Other teachers are open to trying this system and are starting to see the benefits, but are feeling the burden of the front-end work that the system requires (it is a ton of work). Still others are trying to fit their old system into the new one to have the appearance that they are complying with a administrative decision.

I’ve been in all of these stages more than once in my 13 years of teaching. In this instance, I am a teacher who has jumped in to the PBL water and has learned to swim. To me, I believe in PBL as both a reflection of the latest cognitive science around learning and as a system of agency and accountability for the learners we serve.

I am where I am not because of an administrative decision, but through the genuine struggles of my own action research, reading the research of others, and lots of trial and error (shout out to the poor students in my first iteration of PBL…thank you for your patience and honest feedback). I came to this because I saw problems in my practice that I wanted to solve.

Problem #1: My students didn’t see or understand the structure of the class and how to use the structure to help them be successful. 

So many of our students physically move themselves from class to class. They sit down and do the thing that is asked of them and then move again when the bell rings. They go through the motions and likely struggle to see the point of it all. Teachers in the mean time, work to incorporate the science of learning, the science of engagement and motivation, and the art of incorporating the lives and thoughts of the young people in our class in creating a curriculum or lesson plan that is meaningful. Yet, many of us rarely share how all of these things went into our lessons with students.

This year, more than any other in the past, I am trying to make the structure and shape of the class more clear and share with students the art and science of it all so that their brains can use the structure to help them learn. With freshman in my AP Human Geography, the structure is more overt and teacher created, but in my Honors Women’s Studies class students help create the structures as we go and learn to independently assess themselves on their learning. It is the long-term way to practice gradual release of responsibility.

My freshman learned through this first unit how everything I create works to help prepare them for the assessment at the end. I give students a “student guide” (thanks Myron Duerck for this idea) at the beginning of each unit. This is essentially the road map for the unit and the study guide for the assessment. Each learning document we use in class helps students create pages in their own “textbook” to help them prepare for the assessments.

The brain is a lot more useful when it knows where it is going. Give your students road map.

Problem #2: My students didn’t understand how the brain learns at a deeper level and how to help themselves move through the levels of understanding.

Another aspect of my teaching that has changed with PBL is that I work daily with students to help them understand how knowledge moves from learning to knowing (from working memory to long-term memory). We often start class with a warm-up that is meant to connect to their prior knowledge or prior experience. We move from there to the recall/remembering part of the class–for APHG this is the terms we will focus on for the day. Then we learn to work with the terms using visual or examples and we end with applying the terms in a new way to see how well students understood them. I also formatively assess students at these levels to help them see assessment as a check-in or learning tool and not an evaluation.

I also ask students to create questions at different levels so they can start to use this kind of thinking when they review for assessments. So many of our students enter Lindblom (in 7th or 9th grades) with a belief that learning is memorized and then tested. Your intelligence came from memorizing and answering questions that could be promptly forgotten minutes after the assessment was completed.

In APHG all of our summative assessments are cumulative. It sends the message to students that the concepts are important enough not to learn just for one month and then forget, but that they can become a part of them. Students can literally own their learning and use it to learn more.

For my Women’s Studies class, I go even further and talk about the act of creating new information/interpretations to contribute to the world. Our biggest questions are what does this mean for me? What should I do/make/say with what I know?(With freshmen, we get there by the end of the year, with a lot of scaffolding and structure)

These kinds of questions and this kind of classroom model was influenced by my experience at the Educon conferences I’ve attended and through the wisdom and humility of the people with whom I work at Lindblom and follow on twitter. A special shout out to Chris Lehmann the principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I am certain he does not know the influence he has had on my teaching. You can find more out about his amazingness here, here, and here.

Problem #3: I was working A LOT harder than my students (and, as a result, I was likely the one learning the most in my classes)

I know I will get a lot of “amens” with this problem. It seemed I was spending all my weekends and after school hours planning and giving feedback and planning and giving feedback. I was exhausted and did not get the full joy of seeing students own their own learning. It sucked.

My first shift away from this was in reading Robyn Jackson’s book Never Work Harder Than Your Students. It taught me to explicitly teach students how to practice metacognition and reflect on their own learning in order to improve. My students never had to do this because I did it for them. So when I passed them on to their next teacher or professor, they were still passive learners.

Now I make time for regular reflection and as the year progresses, students are able to identify where they need to improve and offer ideas for how to show me their new understanding of newly developed skill. They also learn how to study effectively in order to limit the amount of revisions and relearning they have to do. I think I used to see reflections as tangential instead of as a core part of the learning process.

For Women’s Studies, students are creating their own projects to show their learning and assessing themselves on the project (with my guidance and through conferences).

I created my PBL system to address these problems of practice and increase my ability to use assessment as a conversation starter rather than an evaluative end number or letter.

When we are making systemic changes, it is critical that we identify and largely agree upon the problems of practice we share and how the system works to solve those problems. Without the why of the system, the how is often another form of passive compliance rather than a transformative event.

Empathy Through Experience: Learning Something New as a Teacher


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My school shifted to a new grading system and new grading software this year. A number of us in the building had already made the shift to standards-based grading a few years ago, but many in the building had not. Last year, our principal announced that the whole school would be switching to what we have named Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL) for the 2015-2016 school year and, the week before teachers were to meet, that same principal took an amazing opportunity to help run the district.

So we arrived Monday for a tearful farewell and then promptly got to work on learning how to make this shift from traditional grading to PBL. To say it was messy would be an understatement. There were teachers in all stages of preparation having very different displays of anxiety–some shut down, some shouted out, and others mumbled gallows humor under their breath. It occurred to me later that we are experiencing the kind of anxiety and fear that our must vulnerable students feel on a daily basis. What a great gift for us to be reminded of this feeling first hand. I’m sure many of us, if not all of us, have created lives that very rarely push us to do things that make us feel uncomfortable or fragile in front of others whose respect we seek out. In this way we were freshmen last week.

I also connected our varied emotions to the PBL roll out to the system itself. It is a system based on on the fundamental belief that if we are learning challenging material, then not all of us will understand perfectly right away. Some of us will be further along because of our prior knowledge of the system and others will be just starting out. Our message to students in our system is that it is the learning that matters most, not the day/time at which you learned it. Similarly, if we gave a test to teachers yesterday on their knowledge of PBL and its application some would perform well and others would struggle on certain parts. It would not at all tell us how smart these people are, but rather it would tell us where they are in their understanding and application of the system. This is incredibly useful information. We would provide the supports they need to better understand and then we would check in again to see where they are.

Our system is based on Marzano’s 1-4 scale. Right now, some teachers are at a 2 (developing) and moving to a 3 (achieving). I likely started at a 3, but might not have developed as fast as they have and I remain at a 3 at the end of the week. It doesn’t matter that I arrived at a 3 earlier than others, it matters that we are all moving to our goal of a 4. In the classroom, the more students who move to a 3, the more the entire room rises and each person can improve the understanding and application of those around them. In short, I am better when my colleagues are better. I already see this happening in the kinds of conversations we are having as a staff. They are more focused on how students can show their learning and not behaviors and class rules.

If we are confident enough to be vulnerable in the classroom and talk about how our new learning helped us better understand the anxieties that students face every day and helped us live our belief that we learn as much from failure as we do from success, the young people in our care will respond to this and true community can be the outcome. I am excited to see it happen.

Vulnerability in the Classroom (originally posted in 2012)

When I was first introduced to the work of Brené Brown through her amazing TEDtalk and her first book The Gifts of Imperfection, I kept thinking of its application to my students. Like most teachers, the classroom is never very far away from my mind and I am always collecting ideas and artifacts to bring back to them to help them make sense of their world. However, ever since she inadvertently entered the den of defensive teachers (rightly defensive in many ways…it’s been a tough few years) by saying that teachers sometimes use shame against students, I began to think her work would be much better applied to the adults in the classroom. I hope you will stay with me long enough to explain…

Some teachers have made teaching a job, they clock in and clock out. They do their job and go home. There are days when I deeply envy these people and wish this were just a job for me. For me and many others, it is a craft, a mission, a way to learn about ourselves…and so much more. Because of this, our ability to close off and compartmentalize is limited. Some teachers have told me that this is my greatest weakness as a teacher. A sure fire way to burn out and leave the profession.

This is the first year I have wondered if those naysayers are right. This is the first year that I wonder if my soft heart and passion for creating and sustaining a quality school will lead me to feel like a broken failure in the very career that I have given my life to. If it’s not obvious to you by now, I am really struggling this year. I love my students and still get excited when I see their love of learning emerge from their circled wagons of adolescence. I have some colleagues that inspire me daily to be both a better teacher for my students and better friend to myself. I have an immense passion for my course subjects (Human Geography and Women’s Studies) and love to learn more every week even if that learning never makes its way into my lesson plans. If I spoke this list to anyone, it would seem that I am full of joy and inspiration for my work. Yet, for some reason that isn’t true.

My heart hurts daily and I have a constant stream of fatigue and anxiety that at once puts me to bed before 9pm and wakes me up in the middle of the night. I am just now starting to talk about this to others. I am just now finding the courage to tell this story despite my fears of bringing those who care about me down and hearing “I told you so” from those who have been anxiously awaiting my fall. I had to start talking about it because I was stuck. I could name the emotions but could not find the roots on my own. I needed help…this acknowledgement is the first step of being vulnerable.

Which is what brought me back to Brené Brown’s work and its implications for sustaining teachers and building more wholehearted classroom communities. I think at the core of my anxiety are feelings of shame and a fear of naming those feelings out loud. I am going to spend the next blog posts exploring this in more depth and trying to find the words and the courage to write the words in hopes that I may find my way out of this by going through it. Perhaps it will be helpful to others as well.

The Gifts of Imperfection starts with this opening:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth than I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

I am more than a little overextended these days. Though I have stepped down from various leadership roles at my school, I have taken on more challenges outside of the classroom. I have dropped so many balls in the last year (something that only used to happen rarely) that I am feeling like I am letting people down and representing myself poorly. The line above, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough” particularly resonates with me right now. I am also struggling with making connections to some students in my classes. In some ways, my students success last year on the AP Human Geography test has made me afraid I might not be able to do it again and I am pre-embarrassed about it. I am afraid of not being enough.

And yet it is my students who model drawing deep on their courage to tap into their vulnerability at an age where it is most terrifying. My poetry slam team wrote pieces last week on a moment when they felt vulnerable. The Gay-Straight Alliance students have pestered me endlessly (in a good way) to find a time and day to meet to champion issues we face at our school. My 4th and 5th periods are doing a poetry unit on identity and place and are sharing deeply about their pain. One amazing student wrote an op-ed that was published in the Huffington Post about the Illinois Gay Marriage bill. When I just stop thinking I need to be in charge and I just shut up and listen and watch the incredible young people who live with their hearts inside out, I am reminded that I have a lot more work to do to be their equal.

On Losing a Leader


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I had, for the first time, just started to brag that I had been led by the same principal for the last 9 years. This, for any urban teacher, especially in Chicago Public Schools, is like finding a unicorn. My first school had two principals in the four years I worked there, and, as I left, it was getting a new one who would later, in Chicago style, embezzle school funds and prioritize the interior design of her office over students and teachers. As a teacher, it is hard to find a leader you would follow into the fire. So when I found one…I knew it was special

For the first 5 years, I would always get nervous when a new opportunity arose that he would leave to take it, but like any lasting relationship, my anxiety had grown quiet over the last few years. Yet, he is talented beyond measure (though he’s not perfect, he owns his imperfections) and it was only a matter of time until he felt less challenged leading the staff of strong-willed teacher leaders he had selected and got an offer at a level that matched his influence and suited his skill set. I am happy for him and proud of him. He is the kind of person we need making the bigger decisions for the district.

I can’t spend too much time thinking about my sadness or hurt about the way the news was delivered. There is a school full of incredible young people who, at least for a moment, may see such losses as rejection. They need their teachers more than ever and we need them as well. We all need to be sad together. We all need to talk through our hurt together. We all need to see that by leaning on each other, we can make it through the pain and be stronger for it.

Experience and Novelty–The Challenges of Staying “Funky Fresh” in the Classroom


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I have a student who signs all of her emails to me “Stay Funky Fresh.” I’m not sure why I love it as much as I do…but I do. This post is in honor of her, because she is the kind of student who pushes me to not just draw upon my 13 years of experience in the classroom, but to also challenge myself to change and grow all the time. That is how I’ve decided to interpret the meaning of the term: “funky fresh.”

One of my goals this year is to blog more about this wonderfully, exhausting craft of teaching. I have found myself in what seems likely to be near the middle of my teaching career. I still very much remember my first years of teaching. The excitement of seeing names on a roster, writing on the white board, trying to find ways to make history accessible, relevant, and meaningful for my students, and, far too often, falling asleep in my work clothes with a half eaten dinner on the table and tomorrow’s lesson plan on the computer. It was both incredibly hard and exhilarating. It still is.

I also remember the old guard who looked warily at bright-eyed newbies like myself (though I started teaching at 30) who were so full of enthusiasm and new ideas (or newly packaged old ideas) that would “transform the classroom” and create “21st century learners.” Now, at 43, I am, or am becoming, that old guard. I try to be intentional about remembering my first years of teaching and how, in some ways, my ignorance of all that I still had to learn, kept me going. I try to remember the feeling of defeat that came from the experienced teachers who started most responses with something like, “That’ll never work because…” or “You are doing too much.” In some cases, they were trying to help me learn how to care for myself. I appreciate that…and still need people to remind me that a perfect lesson is often just as good as a good lesson when you have kept the students in the forefront of your planning. Yet, other teachers were tired and resented the energy of the newly hired because they didn’t want to face that they no longer could put the time and energy they used to into their craft because they started a PhD program or had two kids or whatever other good reason they had. And then there was the others…I won’t spend much time on the others. Those who never had the energy and started their careers for the 8am-3pm day and summers off. I won’t talk about them because they are exceedingly rare…powerful culture crushers…but rare.

So as I enter my 14th year of teaching I am committed more than ever to uncovering the wonder of the adolescence. I want to find ways to make my experience useful without using it as a stick to beat the energy and joy out of new teachers. In the spirit of the serenity prayer, I want to be granted the serenity to accept new ideas as possible, have the courage to speak from my experience, and the wisdom to know when which is needed.

Teacher as Salesperson: Reflections on Daniel Pink’s “To Sell is Human”


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I recently read Daniel Pink’s newest book, “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others.” I had a variety of reasons for choosing this book–I loved Dan Pink’s previous book “Drive” and I have come to see teaching and selling as similar skills. It is also useful in my work as the city representative of the Yale Teacher Institute trying to sell the idea of a local institute in Chicago to district officials and university partners.

Teaching Ideas

Steps of project development

Step One: Pitching your idea

When pitching your idea it is important to remember the three questions from Dan Pink’s book.

After your presentation/project…

1. What do you want people to know?

2. What do you want people to feel?

3. What do you want people to do?

One-word pitch-In today’s world of nano-attention spans being able to “essentialize” your idea into one word can help you shape how your project, lesson/unit, school year, etc develops. Pink cites corporate examples like Mastercard’s “Priceless” and Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election slogan “Forward” both of which help shape an idea that you can build off of. Once students have done research for their project, have them identify their one-word pitch and explain why they chose that word.

Another way to use this is to identify the one-word pitch for your unit and to have students identify why you chose that word at the end using evidence from the unit. I think this could also unite a staff around a word that identifies the focus of improvement for the year.

Rhyming pitch-Similarly, this idea has students creating a catchy rhyming summary of their idea. (A favorite of mine that I learned on a California farm is: If it’s yellow let it mellow; If it’s brown flush it down”) This would also work for helping students remember important concepts or procedures in the classroom.

Twitter pitch-This idea requires a little more development of the idea (and will likely lead to a new “one-word pitch” as well). The student has to create a pitch for their project in 140 characters. This is a great time to return to the three questions above to assess the twitter pitch and rework the project idea. This also leads to the compelling introduction of the idea when it is time to present.

Subject-line pitch-This idea does not necessarily build depth into the project, but it does make the creator think about how to draw people in to get support for your idea. One part of our first semester benchmark project is to email community leaders (aldermen, organizers, business owners, etc) to find out what issues they see as most important. We also want students to follow up with these people to share their final project and solicit their help/funding in making it happen. I plan to talk more purposefully about how you craft your subject line to get people to open your email and consider your request/ideas.

Pixar pitchHere is a detailed explanation of the idea with an education-related example. For a project that looks at community problems and solutions, this pitch idea works well. I also think it would work well in grade level teams, departments, or whole faculties in creating a narrative for the group.

Assessing your Knowledge

Five whys-This is a similar strategy to one I learned from a great PD run by the Chicago Metro History Education Center called “Reading in History.” The idea is to make a statement about your topic that you know and follow it with a “why.” After the why, try to provide another answer that responds to the why and then repeat the process.


My neighborhood has seen huge demographic change throughout its history.


Waves of immigrants coming to the neighborhood to work in the stockyards, but leaving once they made enough money.


The quality of housing improved as you moved further away from the industrial core of the city.


…I hope you get the idea.

This is a great way to assess what students know about a topic. When they get tripped up, they have a new research question to seek out answers.

Classroom Community Building Ideas

Mirror, Mirror: All of the ideas in this category come from the improv world. I learned many of them a number of years ago at a Second City class called “Improvisation for the Classroom.” I was taught it again when one of my Women’s Studies students who loves all things drama used it as a warm-up during our monologue assignment. The idea is that two people face each other and one person is the lead. The lead begins to move and the other person must do exactly what the lead does for 1-3 minutes. It requires concentration and trust.

Deep listening: I can’t remember the actual name of this one, but the idea is to listen to a person reveal something important to him or her and the other person listens. After the person is finished with the story, the other person remains silent for 15 more seconds before responding. One quote from the book that got me thinking about this was “Listening without some degree of intimacy isn’t really listening. It’s passive and transactional rather than active and engaged.” (p. 191)

“Yes and…“: I recently spoke at a Yale event and introduced the amazing principal of my school as a “yes and” principal. The idea of this is fundamental to improv philosophy. Basically, when someone comes at you with a proposition you don’t shut it down with a no or a “yes, but.” Instead, you take their idea and add to it with a “yes and.” Here is a great explanation and example.

‘I’m Curious”: Both this idea and “yes and…” could be used in project development as well as in team building. The idea of “I’m Curious” is to choose a relatively controversial topic and, in pairs, one person chooses a side and explains his or her position. The other person only asks questions. The questions must be open-ended and free of judgment or bias and seeking only to understand the other person’s position better. If the questioner violates the rules, the other person can ring a bell to let the whole group know.