Sunday, January 30, 2011

How do we improve schools?

Certainly there are thousands of opinions, but one I hear all the time is to extend the school year - more time = more learning.  This article also points out that a shorter summer is a way to minimize summer issue that affects our lower quartile students far more than others.  Check this out...

Friday, January 28, 2011

You will all enjoy this...

Thanks to a friend, I am passing this along.  Watch this video and be provoked into re-thinking schools and education.

So, how about some education reform?  I am not sure where to start and don't have the answers, but let's entertain the questions.  What can we do with school structures, grades, calendars, curriculum, even our very basic philosophies of education???

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Really? Jail? There must be a better way....

The issues this raises are infinite.  Sit with this a while....

What do you think?

State of the Union

Check out variety of responses to the Obama administration in today's New York Times Room for Debate at

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why a Blog? Why Now? Why Me?

Over ten years ago students told me what I needed to be doing.  I was teaching African-American Studies at the time and had an overwhelmingly African-American enrollment in the class.  I was thoroughly enjoying my students’ work which was exhibiting wonderful talents and intellectual insights.  It was validating and exciting to see student growth and learning.  But one day I glanced at the senior class rankings and saw that the vast majority of my students ranked at the bottom of their class.  I was perplexed and disturbed.  Why would students who showed me such ability, dedication, curiosity, and talent be doing so poorly at school?  So I asked them.   I asked my student teacher to take notes on the dialogue; I was going off-script.  I explained my observations of them and the realities of their career performance – or lack thereof.  I asked why there seemed to be such a disconnect.  What I thought would be a one-hour discussion went on for four days.  Students gave me an earful.  The explanation ranged from boredom, lack of relevance, lack of empathy from schools, to pressures such as jobs and challenging homes.  I simply listened and tried to validate their experiences.  At the end of it all one student simply said, “Look, you get it.  You hear us.  Now you need to go tell all your teacher friends.”  I had always tried to provoke my students to make a difference, to speak out and speak often.  Now they were telling me to do the same, to step out of my safe classroom and speak up on their behalf and make a difference.  That is what I have been doing ever since. 
I have spent the last decade doing what I can to lead my building, district, and community to explore and address the role of race in the classroom and the achievement gap.  This has involved educating myself with research, books, and conferences.  I’ve interviewed and shared my experiences with students, families, teachers, administrators and community leaders.  I’ve spoken at conferences, conducted workshops with building and district faculties and administrations, and worked with national organizations.  My perspective and message has evolved.  I believe we have to continue to discuss race, but we also need to discuss appropriate and supportive teacher-student relationships, teaching techniques, school structure and many more issues.  We need to be discussing creating school systems that truly meet the needs of the widest number of students possible.  We need to think outside the box.  And I am encouraging you to engage in this process with me – for our students.
Why a blog?  Well, I’d love to write a book, and this may well be the beginning of it.  I’d love to be on the speaking circuit and stir the dialogue in person.  I’d love to lead a district or school through these times.  But I need to keep my day job.  I need to pay the bills. 
But a blog also is immediate and participatory.  I want you, my readers, to comment and participate in the conversation.  I want to provoke you to be part of this.  I don’t pretend to have answers.  But I know I have questions and can provoke more.  Together, we can explore answers and try a few in our own settings.  We can only do it together.   
Why now?  It seems to be the ideal time to jump into, stir, provoke, and continue a dialogue that has been growing.  Where the achievement gap and inequity was once an issue amongst some teachers it has become part of the national dialogue under the Bush and Obama administrations and now the movie, Waiting for Superman.  Education reform comes to the fore with a movie like Race to Nowhere.   The floundering economy, diminishing funding, greater competition and increasing college costs all conspire to force us to seriously look at American education. 
Now is the time.  If not now, when?  If not you and me, who?    

Monday, January 24, 2011

Technology or Communication?

For as long as I can remember, while education trends have come and gone, one issue seems to have remained nearly constant.  Outcomes-based, mastery learning, Coalition of Essential Schools and A Nation at Risk have all been at the fore.  Now we have accountability, standardization and No Child Left Behind.  These issues and others have come and gone, have been incorporated into what teachers do or will go away – eventually.  But concerns about technology have never gone away.  To me it appears to be a fascination with the myriad abilities of the computer that fuels dialogue.  But I suppose when the VCR, TV, electricity, printing press and paper were all invented educators recognized each technology’s ability to transform teaching and learning.  Computers have certainly revolutionized the way we all live, and they have and will continue to have an impact on education.  Recent discussion about technological applications have pointed towards the possibilities of distance learning - on-line instruction and teleconferencing.

I understand the allure of these ideas.  In the long run each of these technologies is far less expensive than hiring teachers to fill classrooms across the country.  It is unrealistic to insist that small, rural school districts hire teachers to teach dozens of Advanced Placement courses, multiple foreign languages, and a wide spectrum of vocational and arts programs.  It is simply prohibitively expensive.  Small districts just don’t have access to the pools of money or talent that the likes of your average metro-area, suburban school system may have.  But I am not convinced that on-line courses or teleconferencing can or will revolutionize anything beyond technology corporations’ bottom lines.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love having web access right on my desk.  When students ask questions to which I don’t have answers we can go online and learn together.  Having programs like PowerPoint and projectors allow me to illustrate concepts well beyond what was possible with a chalk board.  Email has made communicating with parents far easier.  Even school grading and attendance programs have allowed me to analyze my students’ performance in ways almost impossible a few years ago.  But there are limits to what technology can do. 

I went into education because I was in love with the romantic idea of Socrates questioning his students and the public in the marketplace.  I’ve often said that if the school could get me a large oak tree and good weather I could teach just as effectively beneath that tree as in my room with all its technology.  At its core education has changed little in the 2500 years since Socrates.  Some like to point this out as evidence of the ineffectiveness of public education.  But education is little changed over the millennia, not because of teachers’ resistance to change, but because what is fundamental to teaching and learning does not change – ever.  Teaching and learning are at their very core human endeavors.  It is a matter of relationships and effective and affective communication between people.

Consider your own experience at school.  What teachers do you remember?  What did you learn from them and why?  Most likely, you and a great teacher formed a relationship in which you learned far more than just academic content.  How might that have been different if that teacher were on a video monitor?  How might your communication with that teacher been altered if your only communication was via email?

Consider the over-romanticized but inspirational stories of teaching in popular culture – Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Blackboard Jungle, Dead Poets’ Society, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Coach Carter.  When will we have a great movie about the passionate, dedicated and selfless educator who motivated students via a telescreen or a blog?  Can you imagine the teacher in any of these films getting students excited with a PowerPoint presentation or an online chat?           

Good teaching and learning is about the relationship formed between teacher and student.  It involves verbal and written communication, body language, physical presence, trust and respect, questioning and challenging, dialogue and discussion, conflict and resolution – real meeting of the minds.  Distance learning may be economically efficient and quite practical.  But we will need to work to preserve what is the beauty of the teaching and learning process – the human relationship.  

What Does Your Money Buy?

Educating the entire American population is phenomenally expensive.  And if you’re like me, you immediately think of the expense of huge high schools with fitness club-quality weight rooms, stadiums with artificial turf, swimming pools, computers for every kid, Smart Boards, air conditioning, administrators with laptop computers, athletic teams traveling all over the country, and lunch options rivaling mall food courts.  I’ve had a computer on my desk since 1994.  I’ve had my own projector for at least five years.  It has been since my time in the inner-city that I have ever had to worry about the supply of paper or the dependability of copiers.  I have had a resource-rich career. 

But the reality is that about 80% of a school district’s funds are spent on teachers’ salaries.  As a high school teacher myself, I thought you might appreciate hearing just what you get for the bulk of your tax money.

I receive a paycheck all year, every two weeks, summer included.  However, I have few obligations in June, July or early August.  That’s that nasty summer vacation so many people complain about.  Teachers don’t really work an entire year, right?  I certainly have nice summers.  During a few I traveled more than some people do in a decade, even a lifetime.  I had the time to read, think, contemplate – things that I realize many people lack the luxury of doing.  I am fortunate.  But of the dozens of books I read each summer, about a third are exclusively for school and another third will find a way to serve me in improving my classroom instruction.  Few books I read are fiction; when they are they tend to be classics such as Don Quixote De La Mancha.  I’ve spent all or part of seven summers traveling in Europe, most with a small group of invited students.  There’s nothing like teaching the function of a flying buttress while standing in the shadow of one outside Notre Dame in Paris.  Some of my travel may include conferences about the achievement gap, school improvement and school reform and I will spend over a week travelling to grade a national exam.  I will also start planning for the coming school year at least a week or two before my contract begins. 

I’m in my classroom by 6:30 most mornings so that I can get some work done before my room is flooded with teenagers.  My first class normally begins between 7:45 and 8am.  I have had a massive room with 60 sophomores and small rooms with less than 10 freshmen.  For the next 45 to 100 minutes my teaching partner, should I be so fortunate to have one, and I do our best to develop critical readers, descriptive writers, inquisitive thinkers, and all-around kind young people.  Once they leave, another crowd enters and I will try to duplicate the successes while repairing the stumbles.  Eventually the clock strikes 11:30 or noon, and I head off to a 20-60 minute lunch (shorter is the norm) and a chance to catch my breath.  Following lunch I head to a hallway to keep it safe for democracy, a study hall to protect academic integrity, or an in-school suspension room protecting the guilty.  I will probably teach a couple more classes.  By 4pm I am done with the classroom.  Maybe I have work to grade, or another day’s lessons to prepare.  I may also have a meeting to attend.  If I am lucky I can get out of the building right away and fight rush hour traffic for 35 miles.  Hopefully my schedule will occasionally have some common time available with my teaching partners so we can plan future units and lessons.

Over the years I have spent much time after school with a variety of activities.  I may be involved in curriculum writing, school and district leadership, school improvement activities, coaching, club sponsorship, leading students through enrichment activities, or meeting with parents.  I’ve regularly shown movies after school such as Gandhi, Amistad or The Battle of Algiers.  I may also be writing college recommendation letters or simply attending students’ activities.  I dedicated a huge portion of my career to guiding teachers and administrators investigating achievement gaps in their classrooms and buildings.  This evolved into helping teachers form supportive relationships with students and looking deeply at the role of race in their lives. 

At home I do all I can to avoid doing school work, but it’s impossible.  I may spend time reading journal articles or books about teaching, but most likely I’ll be grading.  Over the years I probably averaged about 10 hours a week doing something at home for school.  Some weeks were certainly better, but others far, far worse.  I’ve just about eliminated this though.         

One year I kept track of all my hours.  Then I added them all and spread them over a 52 week year to see what it looked like.  It worked out to 47 hours per week.  But I had done it all from late August to the first week of June.  It did not count time attending and teaching summer professional development or studying over the summer.   

Some might say that this is not like most teachers.  I have peers who work a lot more than I do, and I see some who don’t – but they likely spend more time at home doing school work.  It’s an awfully hard job to coast through; teenagers will eat you alive.  And others may say, “Big deal, we all work that hard.”  They’re right. But the public deserves to have a realistic idea of what their tax and tuition dollars do, and in much of the country your property taxes pay an awful lot of teachers to work with great dedication, far beyond the minimum requirements of their contracts.  Many communities are getting a bargain for their education dollars. 

My Inspirations

By the end of first grade I had been diagnosed with severe asthma and animal allergies.  I missed almost one quarter of each of my first two years of school.  So when Mrs. Leland gave the class permission slips for the field trip to the Boston Zoo I knew there was no need for me to get it signed; I wouldn’t be going.  But Mrs. Leland followed-up with my mother and discovered my health problems.  She felt bad and vowed to make it up to me.  The following summer Mrs. Leland loaded me in a car with her entire family and took us all to Revere Beach and the Peabody Museum.  She also happened to be a Winnie the Pooh fan, a love she passed on to me.  

Every kid should be so fortunate to have at least one teacher in their life so compassionate and selfless.  I was and continue to be blessed with many, each of whom are a portion of my foundation.  Whether it be the third grade teacher who helped me tackle school-phobia or the high school literature teacher whose final exam simply asked us to write about all we had learned in his class – they all helped me succeed.  They each helped me discover my place in the world and my ability to play a part in it.  If someday I can be half as good as these teachers were, I will have a very successful career.

In junior high my family lived overseas, and I attended the small American private school there.  Most of my teachers were amazing, but they were led by one unique man, the Head Master, Dr. Barteau, who terrified everyone.  He was a throw-back to the days of Mr. Chips.  Educated at Harvard, he knew something about high expectations.  The school was truly “his” school and ran according to his vision.  When displeased, one eyebrow would travel to the extreme upper reaches of his forehead.  Under those scary, watchful eyes we would succeed in challenging coursework.  We would compete athletically (and most often lose) with honor.  We would go on to the world’s best universities.  But he trusted us.  In fact, he gave a small group of us keys to the building so we could construct a spook-house for the school carnival overnight – with no supervision.  What principal instills such respect and gives such trust today?

I was lucky again in high school with at least half a dozen great teachers, but one stands out, literally and figuratively.  Ms. Tenholder was about 100 years old and 10 feet tall – or so it seemed.  She greeted every student at the door each day, saying, “Good morning, young scholar.”  A strange bird she was.  But she, above all others, got me ready for college.  There was a particular way things were to be done, and nothing less would suffice.  We could do it over and over, but the work was not done until it was correct.  She used art, poetry and literature to teach history.  We read Tolstoy, studied Caravaggio and discovered Taosim in Chinese poetry.  For once I began to understand the bigger picture.  I began to love the romance of learning.  I began to grapple with my place in the world.  She’s also the first person to tell me I had a gift for teaching others. 

Some of the most influential teachers in my life I have the pleasure to call colleagues.  At another school I coached with Coach Davis, whose ability to pull the best out of kids and help them see their potential was awe inspiring.  Through goal-setting and constant encouragement, kids succeed with Davis.  And if I can ever approach the skills and dedication of Ms. Grupe I shall be honored and probably exhausted.  She, more than any teacher I know, truly believes that every kid can and will learn in her classroom.

Teaching is phenomenally difficult and challenging.  None of us do it well without role models, either in our youth or on the job.  I can only hope that I do honor to Mrs. Leland’s compassion, Dr. Barteau’s expectations, Ms. Tenholder’s love for life and learning, Coach Davis’ fundamental belief in kids’ greatness, and Ms. Grupe’s commitment.  I am eternally grateful for having so many amazing teachers in my life.  Isaac Newton said he’d stood on the shoulders of giants.  While I am no Newton, these teachers and others have the giants’ shoulders I stand on.

Why I Teach

Sometimes students ask me if I get nervous or anxious before the first day of school.  The answer is Yes!  And No!  Since I was four years old I have been ending each summer with a First Day of School; how could I be nervous anymore?  When I think about it like that, I’m fine.  Been there, done that.  In fact last year I don’t think my blood pressure moved a beat in August.  It all just felt like the movie Groundhog Day.  The kids and lessons might have been different, but it all felt like a re-run of something I had done before.  But I got the chance to make it better. 

But when I stop and think about what I really do, it does scare me.  Families and the general public trust me to care for and teach their children.  They expect their child to learn and be safe in my classroom.  They know their kids have dreams and they expect the schools, specifically teachers, to help their child reach them.  Think about the responsibility involved.  Am I up for it?  Am I worthy of meeting those families’ expectations?  Do I have the energy and passion left for another year?  Do I know how to help every kid reach his or her potential?  These thoughts make me nervous, anxious and terrified for each and every First Day of School.

As I approach 20 years of teaching I have reached the point at which I thought I would be worn out or bored or both.  I’ve always been someone with varied interests in activities and places, so I knew there was no way I’d be able to teach for 20 or 30 years and certainly not in one place.  But I feel like I’m just getting started.  The vacation time, which I disdained at the beginning because of what so many think of teachers’ schedules, serves to replenish my energy.  I’ve immersed myself in the challenge of closing the achievement gap and learning more than ever.  So if I am still learning how to teach and still have the energy, what really keeps me going back year after year? 

It sounds so cliché, but truthfully, it’s the kids who keep me coming back.  For some teachers it may be the kids who love school, have attentive families and do all their homework who help keep their enthusiasm and sanity.  For others it might be their love of their content area they can’t wait to share each year.  Some teachers love the process of teaching kids how to read or write effectively.  And I suppose some just like the summer vacations at the end.  For me, it’s the dreams of the so-called average kid, the one who might slip under the radar, the one with undiscovered, untapped potential.  And it’s the kids with green hair, tattoos, bad attitudes and obscene t-shirts.  And it’s the disconnected and disenfranchised kids who keep me coming back.  Show me a kid willing to challenge everything school is all about, for that matter, all that society is all about, and I’ll show you a pretty enthusiastic teacher.  I’ll be in my classroom everyday by .   

These kids have dreams, and I get the honor and pleasure of playing a part in helping them each achieve whatever future they envision.  These kids have dreams that most of us only have as teenagers.  Most of them don’t have to worry about mortgages, loans, bills, families and retirement.  So these kids want to be dentists and oncologists, no matter how much time and money it takes.  They want to be painters and tattoo artists, poets and Saturday Night Live performers and want punk bands and hip-hop groups no matter how much hard work, luck and restaurant-serving it takes.  They want any job that will let them travel to other countries and cultures.  They want to own restaurants, salons, and fashion design houses no matter what the odds of success might be.  They want to shake thing up with muckraking journalism, no matter how homogenized our media gets.  They want to be civil rights attorneys, nurses and social workers regardless of the hard, challenging, emotional work ahead.  They want to cure AIDS, build gorgeous buildings, cook gourmet meals, make people laugh, cry and dance, and solve the world’s problems.  Then there was the kid last spring who, when asked what she wanted to do, “I don’t know.  I just want to change the world and make a difference.”  They have dreams that require a combination of education, luck, hard work, money and time.  They have dreams that only the innocence of youth allows.  I can’t help but admire each and every one of them.

The entire world of possibility is open to these kids, and I get to play a part in it.  They are just about at the last point in their lives where they get to experiment with who they are and what they are all about.  Most of them don’t have life’s constraints or cynicism altering their plans just yet.  They have families and communities that, to one degree or another, will pick them up if they stumble.  They can take risks without things like a mortgage to haunt them.  And I get the challenge of figuring out how to make history or literature relevant and important to each of them.  And it’s a blast.    

It’s not always such fun.  Sometimes the opportunity to make a difference takes on a more sinister tone.  It’s never fun being told by a kid that he or she needs help because a parent beats them.  Emotional and physical abuse is far too common in my students’ lives.  Their families are dealing with poverty, drugs, and crime, and the kids are supposed to be able to focus at school and learn.  Too many are dealing with pregnancy.  And far too many just don’t have any guidance or support at home.  They come to school seeking whatever they can get.  For some, teachers may provide their last, great hope.  For some, a classroom is sanctuary from all the rest of their lives throw at them.  And their faces get etched on my mind and keep me awake at night.   

But that’s a lot of idealism and altruism to fuel a career.  There’s a more self-centered, even selfish, element to this too.  There’s something about teaching that indulges me.  I had no idea how personally it would affect me.  Over the years I have lost track of the thank you cards, gift certificates, gracious emails, and pleasant phone calls from parents and students.  There’s a lot of power in those notes of gratitude.  But there’s more.  There’s the dental school graduation invitation from the young lady who I told when she was 15 that if she became a dentist, I’d be her first patient.  I wasn’t, but she tells me I have a free cleaning coming my way when I visit her practice… in Hawaii!  There was a phone call from a US Navy submarine in the Mediterranean the month the current war in Iraq started.  The sailor was just calling to say hello and let me know he was doing well.  There have been numerous wedding invitations, including one wedding between two former students with a request to sit with their parents at the reception.  There was a mom who called me her daughter’s Mr. Holland.  I’ve been blessed with numerous students who have discovered my love of food.  There have been hunters who love sharing a bit of deer jerky, steaks or tenderloin, fishermen with pounds of fish unavailable in markets, and bakers who just know I’d love their chocolate chip cookies.  There have been baby shower invitations, collegiate singing and acting performance schedules, Eagle Scout presentations, church performances and invitations to family Ramadan dinners.  How could all of that not motivate me to be my best each day?

But there are dark days.  There are days that find me thinking surely there’s something else I can do to double my money with half the frustration.  There are days that leave me so exhausted I fall asleep by 7 and don’t get up till morning.  There are days where the adults are so frustrating I’d rather just close my door and not deal with another one.  There’s the perpetual grading, rarely the fun part of the job, constant meetings, a system that needs lots of change and 70 hour weeks.  There are the computer and emotional meltdowns, bureaucrats and politicians.  I don’t care to ever hear anything else about standardized tests or lack of funding.  I don’t want to see another memo reminding all of us to simply do our job.  I’d rather see a memo inviting those who can’t do their job to go do something else.  And I have dreams too – I’d like to own my own pub, be a food and travel writer, tour guide, race car driver, James Bond, elected public official, novelist and gentleman farmer.  (I suppose re-incarnation might be necessary.)  But on these dark days it never fails, by some power of the gods, an old student drops by to share the latest achievement, invite me to a game or performance, or to just say hello.  And I am reminded that I do this job for the thrill of seeing kids dream and take steps to realizing them all. 

I don’t know if I will be able to do this for 20 more years.  Like everything else in American society, there seems to be a push towards greater homogenization and alignment, greater business-style management.  I’m not sure I want to go though all that.  But as long as I get to discover kids’ dreams and play my little part in getting them there, I suppose I can do it for quite some time!