What if we learned about our students differently?

When I started teaching at SLA, there was a standing assignment for 9th grade students. It had begun with the inaugural class and had continued into the second year when I picked up my teaching load. Me Magazineswere a way for students in their English classes to get to know and share about one another as they started a new year in a new school. As SLA draws from myriad middle schools around Philadelphia, it made sense for this new cohort to have a chance to share and get to know one another.

I don’t share this with any illusions that Me Magazines were avant garde or broke any molds of creativity. I’ve been around enough to know the Me Magazine was of a family of activities teachers ask of their students at the start of the school year. There’s the Where I’m From poem, the I Am poem and any number of derivations. Instead, I’m sharing about Me Magazines because I wish I hadn’t assigned them.

They started my year off on the wrong foot. It was in that gray area that looks like augmented student agency. It tiptoes around authenticity. “The students are writing about themselves, their lives, and their experiences,” you might say, “How is that not agency and authenticity?”

Well, for one, their doing it in a way that says, “This is how you share about yourself in this space. I want you to talk about yourself and consider where you’re from, but I want you to do it in the way I tell you to.” While the content may be specific to the student, such assignments are often a more creative version of telling students they need to make a PowerPoint presentation and it needs to have N slides with X on Slide Y, etc.

To redesign the assignment, my question is always to return to the purpose of the task and experience. What, at its core, are we attempting to do when we assign these get-to-know-you openers to the school year?

  1. We, as teachers, want to know who these fresh faces are and how they talk about themselves.
  2. We want to students to have a forum to share pieces of their histories with their peers.
  3. We want to see what they can do as a baseline in writing when give familiar content.
  4. We want to create a sense that this space is one where it is safe to share.
  5. We want to position the class as one where agency, voice, and authenticity matter.

So, let’s take a turn at opening up the assignment so that we are adding structure to the experience, but not necessarily the final product.

  1. Instead of building in your questions for content, open up the assignment for students to share the aspects of classmates they think it’s important to know and share. Compile a brainstormed list as a class and then give students (maybe in groups) a chance to elect one question to priority status, so it’s built into the assignment. This is also an opportunity to work on building consensus.
  2. Open the format of the presentation of learning to student choice. “What’s the best way for you to share who you are with this class?” This not only opens up student agency and choice, but it will help you see whom among your students decides to perform and who decides to build or code.
  3. Explain your purpose as a teacher. The learning shouldn’t be a secret. Yes, you’ll open it up to students’ chosen presentation formats, and you’re looking for some specific understandings as well. If this is an assignment that is meant to help you understand students as writers, then tell perhaps whatever they design must include a written component. Or, if you want to keep the thrust of things open, say the one thing you’re going to require is a reflective piece of writing explaining why they made the choices they did and how they think those choices affected the outcome.
  4. Have options at the ready. As was the case in my classroom, you’re going to have students who are overwhelmed by choice. Have pathways at the ready to help these students work through selecting the right format for them. This is where you might drop in Diana’s speed learning activity. You might pair students who are stuck with parents who immediately stand out as wealths of ideas. And, in the rare moments all this doesn’t help, you’ve got those formats mentioned above at the ready to be modified to fit whatever the class has decided is important.

Making these tweaks to the traditional assignment moves us closer to our goals for the experience while also adding in elements of collaboration, student inquiry, and making the classroom a more transparent place.

Cross-posted on Medium.

Things I Know 208 of 365: Let the teachers teach

The only way to predict the future is to have the power to shape it.

– Eric Hoffer

Ironically, though I won’t be teaching this year, I’ve attended or been party to more district commencement events than any single year I’ve been teaching. Most interesting about each of these events are the similarities I’ve seen across districts.

With only Sarasota and Philadelphia to use as my in-person barometers of district cultures, I’ve relied the last few years on what I’ve read on the edublogs I follow.

When those posts have echoed experiences similar to my own, I’ve written it off as an expected consequence.

Of course these people would have similar thoughts to mine. I’d chosen to follow them, hadn’t I?

This year’s commencement sampling has included reports from Nebraska, New York City, rural Texas, suburban Ohio and Chicago.

I’ve gone back to school virtually or physically all over the country.

Outside the realm of my usually reading, the sentiments of teachers are remarkably unified – let us do our job.

At least three of the districts a bracing for new state-wide standardized tests.

As one teacher put it, “We’d just about figured out the old test and now we’ve got to figure out a new one.”

I suppose one way to make sure teachers aren’t teaching to the test is to completely revamp the exam when students start to experience success.

Very tricky.

Five points to Slytherin.

In almost all of the schools and districts I’ve connected with, I’ve heard some variation of the phrase, “We’re in a transition period right now,”

This has meant anything from the traditional superintendent shuffle (no less off-putting than the Super Bowl Shuffle of the 1985 Chicago Bears), massive layoffs, the adoption of new store-bought curriculum (rhymes with “Fearson”), or re-structuring to bring a district into compliance with a newly-chiseled state commandment.

What strikes me with particular force as I encounter these stories is the fact that none of these changes are coming from the school or teacher level. All of them, without exception, are being handed down with compliance as the expectation and termination as the unspoken stick.

I have this notion that teachers can have some pretty innovative ideas and be tremendous forces for positive change if well-meaning, but misguided leadership got out of the way.

It’s just a theory. I’ve only ever seen it work two times.

My favorite line across state lines when it comes to commencement has been uttered by every superintendent I’ve encountered – “We are not teaching to the test.”


Are you sure?

Because you’re certainly not teaching away from it,

After a speech I gave recently, a teacher came up to me to explain why no one had engaged when I opened the floor up to Q&A, “Plenty of people wanted to,” she told me, “but we’re on lockdown with scripted curriculum. We like the ideas you talked about, but we can’t talk about them with the administration in the room.”

They were so frightened of getting in trouble for doing their job that they couldn’t talk about doing their job.

As she walked away, the teacher turned and said, “I wish they’d just let us do our jobs.”

Five points Gryffindor.

Things I Know 206 of 365: I’m going back to school

He who opens a school door closes a prison.

– Victor Hugo

I’m flying to Alice, TX at the moment. The good folks of Alice have invited me to speak at their back to school commencement.

This, to me, it weird.

I’ll be speaking about my work with the Freedom Writers Foundation. Specifically, I’ll be talking about what it was like to write and edit a book with 149 other teachers and what insights the process and the content of the book provided. I’m also trying to think about what I wanted to hear at the beginning of my school years.

Without fail, before heading back to the classroom, I consulted the writings of Harry Wong in The First Days of School. The first two years I read the entire book, sure what I needed to be the best possible teacher was contained within those pages.

It wasn’t.

Before my third year of teaching, I read only one section of the book. In fact, I read only two pages of the book – the section titled seven questions students have on the first day of school.

It’s only as I write this that I realize the help Wong provided was rooted in my answering of students’ questions, not his answering of mine.

In shifting my thinking toward anticipating and answering those questions for my students, Wong shifted my thinking from my summer mindset of paying attention largely to my own needs and wants to those of my students.

It started the ignition of my teacher brain.

Yes, I would need to be challenged and cared for throughout the year. I would have my own questions that needed answering. Those six questions, though, reminded me that even the toughest, most frustrating students entered my classroom trepidacious about what they were getting themselves into,and it was my job to start the year by anticipating and working to meet their most basic needs – to start our time together by assuaging as much of their fears as I could.

I’m not one for the customer service model of education. The adoption of any type of capitalist thinking into a realm that is only at it’s best when everyone is supporting everyone else, muddies the waters in a way that is counterproductive to the mission of a democratically educated citizenry.

We do not work to anticipate and meet the needs of students because of the gains it might garner down the road. We anticipate and meet the needs of students because they are people and we care for them.

I suppose that’s the larger message for tomorrow – I do not matter. More to the point, any advice I give does not matter. If I can ask the right questions and encourage the teachers of Alice to ask the right questions of how best to see and serve their students,  perhaps I will have done some good.

Things I Know 202 of 365: It’s time to re-collect

Today is tomorrow. It happened.

– Bill Murray, Groundhog Day

I had a chance today to interview a fellow teacher from Omaha for a new podcast episode. She’s been in the classroom 17 years and brings to the table all of the perspective of those years.

We talked a bit about teacher burnout and she brought up the movie Groundhog Day.

She said she certainly had her moments of burnout when she knew she wasn’t the best she could be, but that she knew those moments wouldn’t last.

“In the movie,” she said, “Bill Murray’s character goes through a phase where he tries to kill himself because he can’t find any way out of the day. Then, at some point he changes and starts making ice sculptures.”

As it was a perennial favorite in my household growing up, I remembered the scenes she was describing.

“It’s like that with the classroom – sometimes I want to die, but most of the time I’m making ice sculptures.”

I’ve been collecting teachers’ comments and thoughts as they gear up for the trip back to the classroom.

This is the first time in eight years I won’t be entering the classroom as a teacher, and I’m enjoying observing the rituals of return that I’ve been too tied up in myself for the past several years to truly appreciate.

My friend Henry posted tonight that many of his students are coming from other schools:

They have been rejected. I understand rejection because when I was in high school I didn’t fit in and it was very visible. Today, I am a better person and a better teacher.

Henry was one of the first African Americans to integrate his school district in the South. I’ve talked with him about the experience and read his recollections of the events.

And that is what he was doing when he wrote his post, he was re-collecting.

It’s what the teacher I interviewed does as she’s “making ice sculptures” – re-collecting all the moments of weariness and frustration from the darkest parts of teaching and connecting them to the moments that bring her the most joy.

When Henry enters the classroom tomorrow, he will not have simply collected whatever rest and renewal his summer break provided, he will have re-collected every memory of being other, different, afraid or strong that has made him who he is as well.

And to truly teach and connect to the children in our charge, we must re-collect all the pieces and experiences of who we are so that we can see the richness of experience each student brings to the classroom.

While the perspective of 17 years in the classroom is a powerful source of strength, it is nothing if we do not re-collect who we are as people and offer that to our students.