I’ve Been My Own Identify Thief (1/365)

blurred image of a figure in outlineI’ve been thinking about the things I tell people about myself. I tell them I’m an educator, I tell them I’m a writer, I tell them I’m a vegetarian. I’m imagining, you do something similar. There are labels you carry with you and offer up to new people when you meet them. They might also be labels you count on as the fascia that binds you to your network of friends and colleagues. I wonder, though, if your labels are anything like mine.

When I say I’m an educator, I hope no one notices it’s been a while since I’ve had to write up unit plans, counsel a student through a tough decision, or any of the day-to-day I remember so well. And, it if’s down to memory, that’s telling.

When I tell them I’m a writer, I hope they don’t notice my contributions have largely been twitter-related in the past few months (and many of them retweets) and that this is the first post up on the blog in nearly half a year.

When I identify as a vegetarian, I hope no one’s around who saw the last time I ordered a tuna salad sandwich for lunch.

Those are the big labels. To open up the smaller assumed characteristics and claimed habits would be a longer conversation than I’ve time for.

In short, I’ve stolen my own identity from a past version of me who got much more use out of it and who might have been a more authentic version of me. It reminds me of when I would call my students “writers” or “readers”. The difference is, they would then read and write.

While this isn’t really a resolution, I recognize and am taking advantage of the spirit of new beginnings that springs forth from this side of New Year’s Eves. I’ll be writing here daily. Hold me to that. I’ll be working on reclaiming some of the other pieces of who I’ve been telling myself and others I am for longer than I can remember.

What about you? Who might you reclaim from the labels you’ve been using, but not necessarily living?

Take 5 Minutes for Civil Rights Today

You may have seen the following in your social media feeds:

ACTION ALERT: Through the Federal Register, the U.S. Dept. of Education is receiving comments on why it’s important to preserve and expand the Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection. The Obama Administration published this request for comments on December 30, 2016 and it is essential that we flood Secretary DeVos with comments that explain why this data collection is essential for enforcing civil rights statutes and helping to protect all students. 
Comments are due on Tuesday, February 28. Please click HERE to comment.
All you have to say is: “The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) provides much-needed transparency and information on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools. This data helps the U.S. Department of Education achieve its mission of ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for all students. Secretary DeVos must preserve, expand, and publicly share the results of the CRDC.”
Copy and paste on Facebook, but do not share.
This is a real thing.
Here’s some background:
The CRDC collects a variety of information including student enrollment and educational programs and services, most of which is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, sex, limited English proficiency, and disability. The CRDC is a longstanding and important aspect of the ED Office for Civil Rights (OCR) overall strategy for administering and enforcing the civil rights statutes for which it is responsible. Information collected by the CRDC is also used by other ED offices as well as policymakers and researchers outside of ED.
These data range from enrollment numbers to math course offerings to instances of reported bullying. And, for the first time ever, OCR is including school internet access as a  component of healthy civil rights:
2. Access to Internet While many school districts have used the internet to enhance educational opportunities, there have been concerns that schools and school districts do not have equitable access to high-speed internet. This equity concern occurs at both among and within school districts. For the 2017–18 CRDC, OCR is proposing to collect new information regarding internet access:  Amount of school bandwidth in Megabit per second [see Attachment A-2, page 69 (Data Group 1014)] Do many school districts already collect (or could they easily obtain) school bandwidth data that would allow OCR to determine the existence and scope of any such access disparity? Are there other data about connectivity that OCR should consider collecting to gauge access disparity?
The comments you make, published to the Federal Register, require agency staff to respond to the significant issues raised in comments:

How can I use the Federal Register to affect Federal rulemaking?

Federal agencies are required to publish notices of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register to enable citizens to participate in the decision making process of the Government. This notice and comment procedure is simple.

  1. A proposed rule published in the Federal Register notifies the public of a pending regulation.
  2. Any person or organization may comment on it directly, either in writing, or orally at a hearing. Many agencies also accept comments online or via e-mail. The comment period varies, but it usually is 30, 60, or 90 days. For each notice, the Federal Register gives detailed instructions on how, when, and where a viewpoint may be expressed. In addition, agencies must list the name and telephone number of a person to contact for further information.
  3. When agencies publish final regulations in the Federal Register, they must address the significant issues raised in comments and discuss any changes made in response to them. Agencies also may use the notice and comment process to stay in contact with constituents and to solicit their views on various policy and program issues.

If you are someone like me who cares deeply about civil rights, then please take the five minutes to tell the Department of ED why knowing who is in our schools and how they are treated is still important information for our country.

What are We Hiring For: 3 things to look for in potential faculty members

Interivewees in profile“Hire happy people.”

When asked what he looks for in potential new hires, this was the advice from John Kellam, Head of School for The Oakridge School in Arlington, TX.

Kellam and some other intelligent folks were participating in a panel discussion on hiring in modern schools at last week’s LLI Southwest conference, and his words have had me thinking for the last few days.

As we head into hiring season at schools across the country, what should we be looking for? While I’ve a much longer list in my head detailing what I think every teacher should bring to the classroom, for blogging brevity, let’s keep it to the top three more unusual asks.

  1. Hire learners. It’s one thing to say you are looking to hire great teachers. It’s another bag altogether to say you are building a team of teacher learners. By committing only to ask curious, folks who are driven to find answers alongside the children in their care to join your team, you’re committing to hire not only teachers, but role models of what it looks like to be a scientist in a science class, a writer in an English class, an anthropologist in a social studies class. Yes, capable teaching is necessary. Without the complementary identity of learner though, you’re hiring proficiency without empathy. Things to ask that might get you close to this goal:
    • How do you learn best?
    • What’s something you’re curious about?
    • When is the last time you learned something new?
    • How does who you are as a learner influence your teaching?
  2. Include students. At SLA no interview committee was convened without an equal student voice. Think about it this way, “Why would you exclude from the interview process those people who would be most directly impacted by a person’s hiring?” I can’t quite recall the adults on my interview panel, but I can remember Allison, Jordan, and Sam as clear as day. Not only did they help decide to invite me into the community, but their presence was a strong reason I accepted the invitation. Some prep work if you add students to your hiring process:
    • This is authentic learning, that means dedicating some time ahead of the interview to see what questions the students have and helping them understand key legal requirements of an interview in your district.
    • Avoid cherry picking. Sure, this teacher might have the student council president in her classes, but that’s not the only student who will be impacted by the hiring. Invite a broad swath of students to participate in the process.
  3. Play the whole game. In the same way classroom lessons are most effective when they have students participating in legitimate versions of the work of whatever discipline they’re learning about, our consideration of who we might ask to join our learning communities should ask them to participate fully in the work of the community. Stuart McCathie, Headmaster of Lusanne Collegiate School in Memphis, said on last week’s panel that he asks potential hires to spend the day with the faculty and students. “If they have as much energy at the end of the day as they did in the morning, then they’re a good candidate.” Ways of playing close-to-whole versions of the game:
    • Observe and discuss. Model lessons can give an idea of how candidates might structure learning experiences for students, but they’re not tremendously authentic. No one knows one another and the lessons are usually drop-in. Instead, sit with a candidate and observe the lesson of a teacher who would be a close hire. Afterward, debrief with the candidate and the teacher and listen for questions and comments that signal alignment to your school’s vision and values.
    • Break bread. Whether lunch, coffee, or drinks after school; ask a candidate to join you in an informal setting where food will be eaten. Every new person is a new piece of culture and identity for your school. Understanding how they will fit your puzzle in the classroom and out will help you understand if they are the people you want to learn alongside.

Making the Most of Essential Questions and Exit Tickets


Most any time I’m visiting a classroom, I’m having a conversation with the students I meet. The first few questions are pretty expected –  “What are you learning about?” and “What are you doing?”

The last two questions I routinely bring to the table working with students are less expected – “Why is that important?” and “What questions do you have?”

I know those last two are less expected because they are met with silence and stares from students – no matter the grade level. For me, it raises the questions of why are students are doing what they are doing and whether they have been asked to consider the deeper implications of a text. Whether it’s a third-grade student reading The Year of Miss Agnes or a ninth-grader wrestling with Regine’s Book, our expectation must be that students can consider key ideas, themes, styles, etc. outside of the pages of what they’re reading.

Much work has been done on the transfer of knowledge and skills, and there are certainly some thoughtful, complex projects students can embark upon to show those abilities. For the purposes of this post, though, I want to focus on two activities that can build students’ understandings of their learning and thinking while helping teachers understand areas of growth and need.

Essential Question journals can help students track their thinking about essential questions within lessons or units of study. For each of the curriculum modules within our elementary curriculum resources, for instance, students are asked to consider essential questions as they read, write, and speak their way through complex texts. Journaling around those essential questions can be easy.

  • Make routine time (5-10 min) once or twice each week for students to journal their answers to the essential questions within a unit of study. As they journal, have them consider what they wrote in their previous entries and focus on what they know or understand now that they didn’t before. Ask students to share/compare their journals with their peers and then engage in whole-class conversations about reading and writing.

Standing exit tickets help your students focus on a stationary target for thinking about their learning while giving you some quick formative information on what they think they are learning and wondering.

  • Have students fill out slips of paper with their names on them at the end of each class or lesson. Have them respond to the same prompts each time – “What can you do now that you couldn’t do at the beginning of class?” and “What is one question you have as a result of your learning?” If technology is available, have students respond via a google form. Imagine being able to conference with students with not only numbers and summative assessment results, but a portfolio of their own statements of learning and inquiry as well.

Not matter their age, all learners improve their abilities and skills if they have consistent, dedicated time to reflect on their learning. By including time to journal on essential questions and checking in at the end of a class, we make that time for our learners and provide ourselves with new windows into how we can alter our instructional practice to meet students’ needs.

Previously published on the professional blog.

How Do We Begin to Create a Culture of Reading and Writing?

Boy reading book on the floor of a book store.“Do me a favor,” I say, “and close your eyes. I’m going to ask you to visualize something. If I told you you’re visiting a school with a healthy culture of reading and writing, I want to you visit it in your imagination. Start with the lobby or entryway. Notice everything you see and hear as you walk through.”

The exercise goes on for about thirty seconds. I ask the assembled room of teachers to walk the halls, look in on classrooms, listen in on the conversations in common spaces and between the folks they pass in hallways.

I ask them to pay attention to the adults and to the students equally. “Everyone is responsible for creating and sustaining culture, so make sure to observe and listen in on everyone.”

When each teacher has finished their tour, it’s tie to write. “Take five minutes and put it all out in writing. Capture as much of the detail as possible. If you draw a blank, keep writing, ‘and, and, and, and,’ until your brain fills in the holes. Trust that it will.” And, the room takes five minutes to write.

Next, I ask them to share with someone else in the room, not reading the writing verbatim, but distilling to key ideas. I limit the time to talk because conversations at this point are fully-fed and reproducing like tribbles.

The final step, jumping into a shared and open google doc where they answer one question as many times as they can, “What would it take to create the kind of culture you envisioned in your school?”

Again, the activity is timed. Most of the time, I’m having this conversation as a drop-in to a larger meeting. There are other atomized conversations about literacy on the agenda.

I’ve run this conversation several times in the last few months. As the language arts coordinator, it’s one of my favorites. The creativity and joy it elicits each time can be unfamiliar for your average professional meeting.

All of that said, we need to be having this conversation or some variant thereof as much as possible in schools of every level. From pK to 12, we need a picture of the kind of culture of reading and writing we’re hoping to inspire and establish if we want the people in our care to see themselves as readers and writers who aspire to ask and answer better questions.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in each iteration of this conversation:

  • No one – no matter their subject area – has ever said, “I don’t know” at any point of the process.
  • No one has argued with the assumption what they’re being asked to envision is not important, worth their time, helpful to students, or a better version of what learning and teaching can be.
  • Once they get started with the writing and the talking and the coming up with ideas of how to make it work, the conversations are difficult to curtail or contain.
  • Almost every single idea these teachers generate for how to shift the culture of their schools is free to implement. When it’s not free, it’s low-cost or an idea any PTO would be thrilled to help realize these ideas.

So, let’s do it. Let us build a context around the atomized skills we’re all-too-clear our students need help building and then make it the norm that every person in our care instinctually knows our schools are places where our implied shared identity is one of curious readers and writers.

My Anger and My Fear

I am angry, and I am scared.

I forgot they were shooting at us. In the year since I was granted the right to marry whomever I want and the words, “It is so ordered” were tattooed on my heart, I let my guard down and forgot they were shooting at us. It had been nice living in a foolish state of ignorance about the fact strangers want me dead.

I am worried for the kids like me. In the towns small and large, there are queer kids who haven’t said anything to anyone about what they know makes them different, because, somehow, other people know and ridicule them for even a perceived difference. In too many schools, like mine, that ridicule and vitriol go unanswered by the very adults whose job it is to care for and protect these students. I worry for the kids like me who were maybe hopeful that life after school would be better, because they have seen the world will let things get much worse.

I am crushed by the almost immediate straight washing of the reporting and response to this massacre at a gay club. While it is no less saddening to see Republican congresspeople sidestepping any acknowledgement that members of the LGBTQ community were killed in Orlando, it’s not surprising. To see headlines remove the word “gay” in news reporting, though, hurt and surprised. It eased the road to, “We are all Orlando,” which hurt my heart in ways I can only imagine are similar to the hurt my friends of color feel every time someone proclaims, #AllLivesMatter.

I am stung by the fact that this overt act of homohatred also illuminated the institutionalized policies of homophobia that prevented so many survivors, friends, and family of those injured in the attack from donating blood. Compounded by the fact these arcane rules were born out of a health crisis representing one of the most horrible failures of a government to protect its citizens.

All of this is to say keep your thoughts and prayers. Send your words and actions.

If, at some point you let a child or adult in your care say something derogatory about an LGBTQ person, you helped pave a path to queer-identifying kids believing they are less-than.

And then, when they saw someone actually shooting at them in a place that has, throughout history been a symbol of safety and togetherness, they put two and two together and realized the danger they felt in your classroom was much bigger in the wider world.

You may say “We are all Orlando,” but that’s not all we are.
We are the ugly tacit approval of everything that led to the killing of 49 members of my community being shot at a gay club in Orlando last weekend.

Don’t think and pray. Do and say.

That is what I’m feeling.

1 New Lesson on Caring Teachers

From the minute the bearded man in the black suit and ponytail took the stage, all eyes of the choir were on him. He was the conductor, so that’s to be expected. What’s to be hoped for, but not always expected is the change in students’ eyes and smiles in the brief seconds as he prepared them to begin their two pieces.

Last night, at a school spring music concert here in the Czech Republic, I admit to being unaware of where we were in the program at least 70% of the time. I clapped when we all clapped, I chuckled when we all chuckled. Otherwise, I was going through the motions.

That was what struck me about the change in these young singers when their teacher took the stage. The look they gave him and the overall shift in composure when he was interacting with them signaled that this is a good teacher.

I’ve worked with teachers and students all over the world, and it’s never struck me as clearly as it did last night that the look I saw was universal. More finely put, it was a visual manifestation of a caring relation in action. When thinking about the ethic of care in the past, my focus has been turned to the one caring and the cared for. I’m worried about whether those I care for recognize it as care. I’m not ever concerned with what it looks like on the outside.

I realized last night night, when people are engaged in a caring relation, those on the outside can see it. It draws us in. I don’t play an instrument, and it’s been more than a decade since I tried to sing anything other than along with whatever music is streaming on my computer. Still, I wanted to be in this teacher’s class. I wanted him to teach my one-day children. If I were leading a school, I’d have considered slipping him my card.

Yes he knew his content and how to help students access it. Each piece in the concert evidenced this. But, only when I saw him interact with the students was I able to say, “This is a good teacher.”

Now I’m thinking back to demo lessons and interviews. Was content and technical proficiency really what mattered in selecting new faculty members? Partially, yes. A math teacher who’s no good with numbers and great with kids doesn’t sound like a good hire. A candidate who is proficient and great with kids, though, this strikes me as someone to be considered more closely.

I’ve always thought demo lessons a strange activity. When considering an entire group of students’ learning, watching a stranger teach them for 15 minutes isn’t going to give me much on their overall approach or effectiveness. Those teachers who end that 15 minutes and no longer feel like strangers to that classroom — those are the ones to keep around.

Friends who argue with me time and again when I attack their data-driven instruction as anti-humanist are equally flummoxed by me when I hold to the claim that you “just know” a good teacher when you see them. For our next bout, though, I’ll have a new line of reasoning ready. It turns on the old axiom, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I know a good teacher because, like the conductor last night, the caring is clear in their teaching.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Whether in formal evaluative observations or when peers sit in on a class, ask for feedback on where visitors saw evidence of the ethic of care in action and how they came to that conclusion.
  • When checking references on a potential new hire, ask “And how did you know they cared for students?” It’s likely to throw the conversation in a different direction. Good, it’s about time.
  • At the end of a project or unit of study, ask students to reflect on where they saw evidence of your caring for them. Be prepared for some tough love from students you have a difficult time reaching and those you think you’ve got a great connection with. Most importantly, be open to that feedback and considering how you might shift your practice in the future.

Music I’m Supposed to be Ashamed Of

Cassette Tape

I understand that the question is about cassettes. Where that specific medium is concerned, I didn’t wear any out other than in recording and re-recording improvised “radio shows” I’d make as a kid. Instead, listed below are those albums I listened to more than I should have, but just as much as I needed.

I was never good at understanding what was cool. Some of that probably stems from growing up in a family ripe with musicians of all ilks. Add to that experiences like my grandmother never telling 10-year-old me that my peers likely weren’t singing along with Neil Diamond cassettes in their family cars, and you’ve got a perfect storm of eclectic, peer-chided musical tastes. Enter, Matchbox Twenty’s Mad Season. Released in 2000 when I was “going through some things,” Mad Season was both the album I needed and the album I deserved. Each song could be counted on to hit some emotional cord my mid-adolescent self needed to experience through music. I listened to “Bed of Lies” as though it might have led to full-time employment. The whole album was my jam. This is why, after a year, I needed to buy another copy of the CD. As it turns out, you can listen to a CD too much. Mine was scratched and tired. Still, I’ll hit up Mad Season every once in a while to remember who I was and what I was feeling at the turn of the century.

I’ve never really known what I should and shouldn’t like. When it came to hanging out at my grandparents, I was always keen to flip through their record collection. It was where I learned about Mel Tormé, brass bands, and Peter and the Commissar. If you’ve heard, “Hello, Muddah”, then you know the wordplay joy of this album capturing a live performance of Allan Sherman, Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. I’m sure I didn’t get the political overtones of Sherman’s text, but the music and intelligence of the words shown through to my little-kid self. Anyone interested in understanding my sense of humor should probably listen to this album (both sides) to get a handle on what you’re in for.

I’ve owned two copies of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell CD. The first was never opened or listened to. While not triggering Tipper Gore’s parental advisory standards, this album was reported to my mother by work colleagues as containing swearing. She decided it hadn’t been the appropriate inclusion in my Easter basket. A similar decision would be reached the next year for Green Day’s Dookie. As a result, she asked for it back. I obliged. As soon as I was old enough to drive to the mall and had the money, I bought Meatloaf’s second opus. To this day, I love every song on that album. If you need me to, I will come and sing them to you.

Last week was a big week for my childhood. Netflix began streaming all 99 Animaniacs episodes. For almost the entirety of the show’s run on afternoon TV, my friend Travis and would call each other and conduct a telephone version of what today would likely be an award-winning post mortem podcast. When the first and second cassettes of Animaniacs songs hit shelves, I was there. I was there and I was singing along. To this day, my aunt and uncle remember (differently) my insistence on listening to one of the tapes when I went to visit them in Nashville.

In few places in my life am I cliché. In one recording, I fully embrace that cliché, Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album. It was my mom’s vinyl copy that I first “borrowed” into my record collection when I was 7. With the door to my bedroom closed, I would pump up the volume on my suitcase record player and belt out these Broadway classics without any sense of irony. When I bought the album on CD (around the same time I was making up for the Meatloaf mishap) I still had no appreciation for the irony. It wasn’t until college when I downloaded the digital version of the album that I recognized the stereotype I was furthering. At that point, it didn’t matter. The record had been in my life more than 11 years, and all I knew was that listening to it allowed me to tap in to something I hadn’t had words for the first time I heard it.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

What Wakes Me Up

A friend at the day gig questioned aloud what good the work we do has in the world. In the face of the extreme tragedies and chaos occurring daily, there are few occupations and roles I could imagine feeling as though they had maximum impact on the world or individuals. Luckily, as I’ve said before, I’ve got faith that we’re all working on all the stuff that needs attention all the time.

Still, I replied to my friend with the thing that keeps me showing up at the office every day. While I’ll never know all the good we do in the world, I’ve got to believe things are a little better at the end of the day than if we’d done nothing.

Thus, waking up, getting out of bed, and facing each day.

There are forces of ignorance at work in the world, and they are much more pernicious than evil.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Is Youtube Recommending Me to Me?

Screenshot of My Youtube Homepage

Let’s start in that top row. Youtube’s algorithms are moving in the right direction. I started this year with a yoga binge, and it’s not showing any signs of stopping. My musical tastes tend to follow the weather patterns. So, deep in the heart of winter, I’m likely to ask Sufjan to keep me company while I’m reading or writing. In those moments of sunshine (internally or climactically), watching the Tricia Miranda-choreographed video to Missy Elliot’s “WTF” is a definite bright spot. Youtube knows I’m going to watch this again because I’ve already watched it so many times.

In the recommended row, we jump all over the place. Yoga, sure. Stephen Colbert, Ze Frank, Lip Sync Battle, and Lianna LaHavas all make sense as well. I can only guess the Kimmel recommendation was inspired by Colbert. Similarly, the Tina Fey suggestions likely came from my searching for her cold open appearance on last week’s SNL. “Stop searching for your passion,” though? No real idea.

But that wasn’t the question. What do they say about me as a person? I appreciate talented, funny, thoughtful women who make unexpected choices. And, to a lesser extent, men who talk into cameras. They point to the idea that I like to laugh, and I enjoy music. When the two of them can happen together, all the better.

Interestingly, when you asked, I started to worry a bit. I’v enever thought about whether the person I am when I drop into a Youtube hole is the same person I am on Twitter, Instagram, or here. Those places are all productive. Even when I’m liking or retweeting, I’m they are making public acts of expression. They don’t let you know what tweets made me smile or think, but that I decided I didn’t want to share.

Youtube, on the other hand, is still a place of consumption for me. While I’ve a few videos posted there and on other sites, I’m more often searching than uploading. I was worried the questioner and the talker might not be the same person. They were.