A Thing that Reminds Me How Much I Miss Teaching: Unit Planning (16/365)

hand holding a light bulb

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

My first meeting of the day Wednesday is with a group of teachers from one of our high schools. They’re interested in moving toward an integrated approach to teaching 9th-grade English and social studies, and I get to go and help. I’ll be coordinating the heck out of some curriculum. In preparation for our meeting, I started drafting an idea for an integrated unit. You can find it here.

It’s not completed. My goal was to give enough of a start to help the teachers in the room see some catalyzing ideas and think about where they might want to go with it.

More specifically, it’s not completed because, the closer I get to completing it, the more I want to try out the unit with my own classroom. The most difficult part of designing lessons and units as part of my job is not teaching.

I miss it tremendously. I miss being Mr. Chase. I miss listening to whole class discussions. I miss doing my part to help lessen the weirdness of growing up. I miss helping a class of strangers come to think of themselves as community and then family. I miss being a teacher.

I’m a teaching surrogate. I get to help form and build the thing, but in the end, it will be someone else’s. They will decide how to shift approaches when an assignment doesn’t quite hit. They’ll get the thrill of watching as the otherwise unengaged students starts to realize they might kind of enjoy this stuff.

A much larger part of my job is helping teachers to build their capacity and refine their practice. Much of the time I do this by positing ideas and questions that move them to see situations and challenges as the opportunities I can’t help seeing. As is often the response to the new and the uncomfortable – change, I guess you’d call it – the response from others is a litany of reasons why they can’t do the thing.

Those are the moments I miss the classroom the most. In them I have two options. I can either give in and say, “Maybe you’re right,” or hunker down and do everything I can to make sure the spark of a creative idea we’ve built together is not extinguished.

I cannot imagine giving in.

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?

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.

I’m Glad I Waited to Teach

Calendar Card - January


Just like you, I knew in 8th grade I wanted to be a teacher. It was where I started to realize the power of words and the effect playing with those words, studying them, and using them thoughtfully could build or destroy.

If you’d asked me then, I would have said something like, “Because I like English class.” Subtext.

Not knowing what a “good” teacher preparation program looked like as a high school senior, I trusted the promotional materials I’d received from Illinois State University, and handed them four years of my future.

For all of the grumbling and complaining I did along the way, I’m so very glad I did. And I’m glad it took time.

While everyone around me seemed to be lamenting the fact none of the required general education courses aligned with their intended majors, I thought it was fantastic. I learned that geology wasn’t for me and that chemistry might be (something my HS experience had eliminated as a possibility time and again). Those courses afforded me the opportunity to take courses on Islamic art and culture, and the theater of the Civil War. Both offered me perspectives I’d never anticipated and to which I’ve turned more frequently than expected in the years since.

As courses in my major began, I was deep into elements of English I’d never considered before and asked to participate in what seemed like onerous hours of classroom observations and a multitude of mini lessons.

Plan, justify, teach, reflect, repeat.

It was a pattern, but not a monotony. That reflection–public and private–is where I started to play with nascent ideas and justify why views on quality learning and teaching were different from my peers’.

From lab schools to local schools to my student placement teaching, it all felt as though my university was purposefully getting in the way of me being a teacher.

They were.

They were getting in the way of me being a teacher who found himself in the deep end with no experiences, mentors, or theoretical framework on which he could rely. They were getting in the way of me thinking the kids I went to school with growing up were going to be the same as the kids I taught in Florida or Philadelphia in the years ahead.

I was sure I was ready to teach as soon as I thought I was done learning. Luckily, those who’d come the way before were there to show me knowing I was never done with one was the ultimate preparation for the other.

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.

On Whose Shoulders: Barn Raising


Today’s shoulders provided more than key ideas for inclusion in Building School 2.0, they were also key for the how of building Building School 2.0.

The barn raising in question is that described by Don McCormick and Michael Kahn in their article “Barn Raising: Collaborative group process in seminars.”

McCormick and Kahn present a possibility for running class discussions and seminars that run contrary to Person A making a point, Person B poking holes, and Person C poking holes in those holes, and so on ad nauseam. Instead, McCormick and Kahn write:

We would like to suggest:

  1. The classroom battle is not a good way to teach thinking.

  2. Even if it were, it makes idea-conversation so unpleasant that students do their best to avoid it, in college and afterwards.

  3. It is a significant contribution to the building of a society of contention and enmity.

  4. And, as an alternative, there is another way to talk about ideas which obviates those difficulties.

That alternative, barn raising. Finding an idea and agreeing as a community to do whatever we can to build on that ideas as a community. In classrooms, in faculty meetings, in any room where ideas are discussed – barn raising can change the game by changing the unexamined rules.

As Chris and I were writing, barn raising occurred time and again as an idea we wanted to situate in the context of the larger messages of the book and as a guiding principle for marrying my ideas to his and his to mine. We would not have gotten anywhere if we’d positioned ourselves as partners whose objectives were to tear down whatever wall of the text the other had just completed.

Here’s the other thing about barn raising – once you know about it, you can’t not see its place in conversations. Every meeting I’m in where we’re supposed to be coming up with ideas or working together to build something, I can’t help imagine how things might have gone if we were all amenable to building something. Instead – and you’ll see it – so many meetings operate on a theory of pulling down whatever ideas propped up next to yours. Nothing of merit tends to get built that way.

On Whose Shoulders: @GLSEN

Just when you thought this month’s series of posts was going to focus on singular writers, their individual texts, and how they influenced the writing of Building School 2.0 – bam, the unexpected.

In all seriousness, the good people of GLSEN work tirelessly to compile one of the most helpful, if not stark and sobering, data sets available on the lived experiences of our LQBTQ students.

GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey is one of the most complete accountings how our country and states are progressing in helping students walk through their compulsory school days without hearing being mocked for differences – real or perceived.

Beyond the Survey, though, GLSEN is also acting on its findings. From resources to start and support school-based Gay Straight Alliances to the Day of Silence and Ally Week, GLSEN is building tools and resources for LGBTQ students, teachers, and their allies to foster understanding, conversations, and change within schools so that everyone might have the chance to feel more comfortable in their own humanity.

While the book may only call out GLSEN’s work directly one or two times, the organization’s work toward its mission “…to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression” embodies the Ethic of Care.

'13 School Climate Survey Infographic

On Whose Shoulders: Lisa Delpit’s _Other People’s Children_

cover of Other People's Children

A quick keyword search for Lisa Delpit on the blog will show I’ve thought and written about her work pretty deeply over the years as I’ve thought about what it means to be the other in my classroom (both as a teacher relating to my students, and for my students relating to me).

As I continue this series of posts about those thinkers, practitioners, and researchers who directly influenced what you’ll find in Building School 2.0 in the run-up to its Sept. 8 release, I cannot say enough about Delpit’s work and this title in particular.

In Other People’s Childrenc, Delpit is challenging, fair, thoughtful, and caring in laying out – over the course of several essays – some key considerations and understandings teachers (particularly teachers who are white) need to take up so that they might be better versions of themselves when working with students who come lived experiences wholly different from their own.

More than anything, I hope you pick up Other People’s Children, select a chapter, and start a lunch-time reading group with faculty friends. The conversations won’t be comfortable or easy, and they shouldn’t be. Most important conversations, most acts of changing your mind, are difficult. That’s good.

I hope, in some small way, Chris and I honor Delpit’s ideas and weave them with those of others.

On Whose Shoulders: Dan Lortie’s _Schoolteacher_

cover of Dan Lortie's SchoolteacherIn exactly one month, Chris and my book Building School 2.0 will be out for your reading pleasure. As excited as that makes me, it feels most appropriate over the next month to point those who are interested to the shoulders on which we stood when playing with the ideas we hope will be helpful to you and anyone else who decides to pick up the book.

First off, in the battle against education and teaching’s frustrating ahistoricism, I point you to Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.

Most people’s understanding of the history of teaching began with their kindergarten years and ended with a collected throng of teachers in senior year. This is helpful for a personal narrative, but not excellent for knowing the history of our profession.

Lortie goes well beyond an individual’s experience in public education and places schoolteachers within the larger historical context and should be required reading for anyone who has been ever ventured a sentence on the status of teachers and their role in supporting the formation of informed public.

Even more, for those fighting the good fight today to put teaching in its rightful position as a profession worthy of esteem and honor, Lortie’s book helps put in perspective the many battles (large and small) that have taken us from living the back of one-room school houses to those on the cutting edge of helping our students be the architects of tomorrow.

For Chris and me, Lortie’s Schoolteacher provided not only a set of shoulders on which we stood, but a reminder of all the voices throughout history who did quiet, thankless work of showing up each day to figure out what it meant to build public education in America.

The Forever Teacher

A regulation MLB baseball sits on my desk in a plexiglass cube. It is accompanied by a ticket stub from the game of its provinence – May 12, 2001 Reds vs. Astros, Cinergy Field, Aisle 105, Row 10, Seat 2.

I wasn’t at the game. I didn’t catch the ball, nor was it tossed to me by one of the players during batting practice.

The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

The ball has a signature on it. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at it – Scooter Gennett #11. The S in Scooter is fashioned to look like a lightning bolt. The rest of the text is in the cursive of a young hand.

Scooter was 11 at the time. He’s 25 now and playing pro ball for the Milwaukee Brewers. When he handed me the cube at the end of my first year of teaching, he was just finishing 8th grade. The ball means something to me because it meant something to him and he handed it to me, I’ve always believed, to fill the space between us when our year as teacher and student ended and he headed off to his last four years before being a professional baseball player.

This ball has made 5 moves across as many states, and it lives near the box of things I’ll grab on my way out of the house in the event of a fire.

Scooter, or Ryan as I insisted on calling him, gives me the tremendous gift of knowing where he is and what he’s up to by way of being in the public spotlight.

This past weekend, I got to share a couple of meals with former students while I was in Philadelphia for ISTE. A recent education grad, an employee of the city, another college grad on his way to a pottery studio to make his art, a film-turned-communication major, and a neurobiology major who might want to be an engineer or a dentist.

We sat at these meals and I shared as briefly as possible what I’ve been up to since we’d last met. Then, I got to find out who they’d become in these newest versions of themselves. They are beautiful. They are tremendous. They give me hope for the People we will become – together.

I don’t know what it was like to teach students with whom I couldn’t connect after they’d left my classroom. I find it difficult to imagine a world where I don’t get to see status updates of their growings and mistakes, their discoveries and setbacks. Simply saying goodbye at the end of 180 days is a foreign idea.

I’d be able to find Ryan, sorry – Scooter – with a google search no matter what. To be able to shoot out a message when I’m coming to town and be able to sit down and hear about their lives first-hand, though, that is an affordance of the modern world.

What’s more, it speaks to the communities I hope schools will be. More than once, I’ve said to parting students, “Let me know what you need, and I’ll do my best to help you out. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.” I’ve meant it every time.

Perhaps that’s a part of the new contract that’s written between teachers and students rather than districts and unions. The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

That’s a world I want to live in, and it’s what I want to model. I want my students to know I’ll be here. I want them to see that as a way of caring for those around them.

Yes, to those who read these words and worry about boundaries, perhaps this approach invites difficult conversations about what I can’t do to help students. It’s true. When I think about those students I’ve lost or the world has lost after I’m no longer their teacher, though, I’d much rather have the difficult conversation than grieve a life that might have been.

Much is made of the importance of lifelong learners. This weekend, and this baseball sitting on my desk, make me wonder if we’re not missing a chance to think about lifelong teachers.

69/365 I am Filled with Hope by the Future of Education

My sister Kirstie is studying to be a health teacher at SIU-E. A few weeks ago, she sent me the text message below. I am already an incredibly proud big brother. My sisters and my brother are the three most amazing people I know. That said, my pride in Kirstie’s words, her learning and her commitment to helping those coming after her has its own space in my heart. In a week where cynicism and coursework have ruled most days, returning to this text has been helpful.

Today I was teaching yoga at Glenwood middle school to a few of the girls pe classes, and I had them do an activity to help with positive thinking and so I told them to write a list of 5 things they like about themselves. A good amount of the girls didn’t have too much trouble, but there were far too many of them that thought it was difficult. The saddest piece of paper I found had only the word “none” written on it. I think that the positive reinforcement needs to start at home, but why can’t our schools help children love themselves too? I believe in what you’re doing Zachary, I hope you do make a difference for every student and help make school a better place for everyone. Middle school is tough, but it shouldn’t be so hard that a 12 year old can’t name one thing they like about him or herself.

I am sad that my little sister has to feel and build her understanding of the places where the world falls down, but I feel much better knowing she’s out there helping to pull it back up.