This Month's Thoughts...November

  • Interacting with little kids is so cool, because you can make their entire existence joyful; and you know that they will not remember the exact experience, so you're only creating joy to improve their life for a time.  Which is awesome. 
  • I side with Bergdahl.  I am glad the verdict was not more jail time.  This man was held captive for five years by the Taliban.  To come back to your home country after that, and then be sent to jail would be downright unAmerican.  
  • Period.
  • There is a lot of talk and discussion about differences over the past year, and amongst it we forget how similar we are.  Every American (nearly) believes each individual - however errant - is allowed their own opinion. 
  • That we get to express those opinions, and cannot be jailed for them.  I think this is our collective deepest held belief as a country.  Ever the quacks (insert whoever you think they are) get their own opinion.  In some ways, it's nice to see oddballs and think: God bless them...
  • ....but, I'm mostly glad that's not me.
  • When you speak the same language as someone, especially if you're away from your own country for a bit, and then you hear the sounds of something you speak, is a major bond.  But it's hilarious when you then start talking to that person, only to realize you have nothing in common.  
  • I've done that, all excited to speak about a book I saw an American reading.  I opened the convo with enthusiasm, only to have a three minute, awkward talk.  It was like, well, see ya. 
  • Being open to mystery and major - especially cosmic - possibilities opens your thinking to everything.  I've been thinking about the Cosmos a lot for a while, and what's so amazing about the infinite space is that we never know.  
  • As we're going on in our daily lives, we might just get a signal.  It could happen.  
  • Speaking of signals, one Cosmologist was saying that sending a rocket, even unmanned, on a continuous track, is a way better idea that radio (or any other) signal.  The logic is that if we send radio signals out to listen / transmit, we'd really have to be spot on in terms of right place, right time; but, if we send a rocket (projectile) anyone that ever sees it will know: there's someone/something else.  

Thank You LeBron!!! - Ed Blog, special post

LeBron James is my alltime favorite athlete.  There's not even really a close second.  This is only one reason: But more than an athlete, he may be the human I respect the most.  

But more than an athlete, he may be the human I respect the most.  There are many reasons for that, but among the top are:

  • He doesn't complain.
  • He doesn't make excuses.
  • He makes everyone around him better.
  • He sees the best in everyone.  
  • He brings his A-game every day.
  • He practices what he preaches.
  • He chooses to make the world a better place, every day.  

This series has been all about how we can improve our educational system.  It's looked at theory and practice, and: this is the perfect example of how to do both

Mr. James is doing this in his hometown, in a system he knows, in a neighborhood he understands.  

He is providing support at just the age when others stop.  He has also put the foundation in place for when these students are in college.  

Again, Mr. James and his vision to execute will tangibly change the lives of people.  This is an example we should all follow. 

Thank you Mr. James, Thank you.  

We are all witnesses.   

Also be Like .05 - Ed Blog 18, pt. d

Another example of a great teacher is a teacher named Nicole.  I was lucky enough to work with her for four years, and she was very good.  The thing that set her apart was that she knew she was destined to be a teacher.  When she was young, she'd play school and make it relevant to her play dates.  So for her, showing up to school is living her dream job.  And students love her.  They don't simply like and respect her, she's rather the rare one that can connect.  

Since she's doing her passion, teaching, she does really cool things.  She has her students act in plays, do things in the community, and take part if very meaningful field trips.  

While students love her, some teachers were threatened.  The ones that were threatened were the older teachers that had been doing their thing for a while with very mixed results; so when a younger, enthusiastic teacher came in, had instant success, and showed a fast-track to being the lead: they were threatened.  They talked shit.  Tried to beat her down.  Insulted her practice.  Called her young.  Made insinuations.  But she didn't cave.  

Instead, she brought her A-game (more on that here: Get your foot in the door and bring your a-game.  Great podcast.  Please rate and review on iTunes.)  After a few months, the older teachers shit-talking got bland and boring, and Nicole was still relevant and fresh.  So they started asking her questions, taking her advice, and even became better teachers.  

Nicole was asked to be the chair of her department and led meetings with the same enthusiasm.  She did very well.  I applaud Nicole.  We'd be just fine if we were all like her.  

Don't Be Like P and Q - Ed. Blog, pt. c

If Dan (real name) is great, P and Q (not real names, masked genders, hence alternating between his/her) are terrible.  They represent the worst kind of teachers.  And in both of their cases, they've been teaching for years.  

P is the know it all.  P wouldn't be successful on her own, if he didn't work at a school.  The reason this the case is because she likes her classroom because of the power bubble it creates.  Inside that room, he makes all the rules.  No one can question him.  This power makes her feel special, masking an otherwise sad life.  He uses this power to ask and answer questions, and make teenagers feel stupid for not knowing.  P says, "Alex, do you know why April 16, 1927 was so important?"  Alex says no.  P responds, "That's because you don't know anything, and will never amount to anything."  Alex sits there.  Finally, Alex blows up and P gets Alex suspended.  He goes to the teacher's lounge talking about how bad children are getting, uses her exchange with Alex as proof, and gets sympathy from other bad teachers.  Meanwhile, Alex debates dropping out and spends his suspension wondering why am I bad?  

Q is P's opposite, but he his her partner in missing the mark.  Q is "successful" because she hasn't been fired. Q outlasted all the administrations before him, has been in many schools in the district, and is pretty much untouchable by the union.  He is very well meaning, and willing to go above and beyond for his students.  Unfortunately, this means giving answers to her students on tests, making their assignments way too easy, and thereby making students think they are dumb.  Q will be in class with another teacher, and right after the teacher explains something, Q will dumb it down, way down.  He thinks he's helping, but the students are confused.  They easily understood the teacher's comments and instructions, but this older teacher made them feel like they didn't get it.  I must be slow, the students think.  Another part of the problem is that Q had success a long time ago, and very good success with a few students.  Thus, Q always refers to his success in all meetings, "Well, when I helped Alex with her assignment, she ended up in college."  The problem is that Alex is now 40, has five kids, and Q hasn't had that type of success since.  Unfortunately, though, Q doesn't realize this.  To her, the "Alex story" is present day.  And since he did it with Alex, then he can do it with more students.  In fact, she's so success, she should train many student teachers, lead many workshops, and take any leadership role.  His place there makes all these things worse and everyone waits for him to retire.

P and Q have each taught thousands of people.  Every year, P has made people think they are bad and Q has made people think they are dumb.  No one stops them.  

This must stop.  

We Need Better Teachers - Ed Blog, pt. 18a.

At least 50% of the people I've taught with have been bad teachers.  

It wasn't something I noticed right away.  Your first few years teaching, you're too busy to notice.  But once I knew what I was doing, I was able to recognize those who did not.  And once I started noticing, it became very hard to stop.  Bad teachers are typically vocal, often brag about their class without being asked, and are a major reason our educational system is failing.  Bad teachers often have these things in common: they're unkempt, they're terrible listeners, they believe they are the center of the classroom, and they are not active in their field.   

Why I got into teaching was a blend of the summers off and my love of books.  I thought it would be good to be interacting with literature on a daily basis, and I could have the summers to write.  That has always been, and is still, my goal.  I like high school kids, and interacting with them, so it was a good fit in a lot of ways.  I chose the subject of English because I love the written word.  Words, grammar, sentence structure, all of it is interesting to me.  So, whenever a student or colleague would ask why I wanted to be a teacher, I gave some variation of that answer.  When I did, often something odd would happen that may go like this:

"I got in to teaching for my love of books, and so I could have the summers off to write," I'd share.

Another English teacher would say, "I love reading, too."

"Cool," I'd respond.  "Have you read anything good recently?"

Most of the time, maybe 80%, I'd be told, "Oh, I don't have time to read."

"What?" I'd reply, "really?"

They'd say this as a very natural thing, like they do not have the time to do a thing they love.  A thing they teach.  It's much worse with writing.  I've been actively working on something since 2004.  I can only remember two other teachers that have been doing the same.  When you get into other subjects, it gets much worse. The exception seems to be art, music, and (maybe) gym.  Art and music teachers are often creating things, or active in their fields, which makes their classes some of the best.  People will say they're fun because they're easy grades and electives, but I'd argue that it's because a passion naturally comes from a teacher that is active in his or her field.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a student to go to a class where their history teacher hasn't delved into history since college, their science teacher hasn't done an experiment since the lab, their math teacher hasn't been active except Sudoku, and their English teacher hasn't read a book.  

No joke.  

No wonder their classes suck.  

A bigger problem comes because these teachers think they're experts because they took 30 hours of college credits, but they haven't had any accomplishments or experience in their actual field.  

Here are a few examples:

  • I've taught with gym teachers so fat and out of shape that they couldn't run a mile, yet that person was giving grades for gym classes. 
  • I was in a planning seminar with an English teacher, working in the summer on curriculum; this teacher was doing other work instead of paying attention.  When it came time to share, she raised her hand and said, "I don't really like to plan.  Rather, I find inspiration on my way to work and it really motivates my students."  This teacher was serious and thought she was one of the best in the district.
  • One teacher was ten minutes late for every class, walked in and passed out worksheets, sat on the computer for the rest of class working on her side business, and gave her students (60-75%) failing grades.
  • One teacher gave all of her special ed students A's on their papers.  One was supposed to be a critical analysis of The Great Gatsby.  Her student wrote, "I really liked the book."  The teacher put an A on the paper, and posted it on the classroom wall.
  • One teacher handed out a worksheet of literary terms.  The teacher mispronounced the word, gave an errant example, and then proceeded to give the students E's, when they did it 'wrong'.
  • I worked with one teacher that wouldn't ever meet to plan class, but had no problem walking in late and 'teaching' the subject.
  • Another teacher would simply read aloud from a book, every single day, and when the chapter was over go over the worksheets with students.

I could go on.  

Two entries from now is one on heath and wellness, but the teaching staffs in many bad schools are some of the unhappiest people I've ever met.  Very few look alive, and even fewer are healthy.  These people should not be molding the youth.  

Teachers need to be actively pursuing their craft.  This could be listening to Podcasts, reading books/blogs, making art, working out / playing sports, writing, researching, taking classes.  If we're not getting better, we're getting passed up.  If this is you and you feel overworked, underpaid, or uninspired about it, do something else.  What? Be like Dan.       

Be Like Dan - Ed Blog 18b

I worked with a guy named Dan.  We taught a summer class together, and he had a major impact on me.  He probably does not remember me, and I cannot remember his last name.  He was so good with the kids, and was a great teacher.  In a setting where most students failed, Dan could reach them all.  He was passionate, kind, talented, fair, and also firm.  Students respected him.  

Toward the end of the summer, we got to talking.  We got along quite well, and would often talk for a while after class.  I'd been noting more and more how much better of a teacher he was then me, and so I just asked him: "How do you do it?"

"Learning something new is hard," he told me.  I asked him to go on.  "I think a lot of us forget how hard it is, and how much time it takes to learn a new skill.  To remember that, I try learning something new every two years."  His current skill was painting, and he was having a hell of a time doing a water color self portrait.  He wasn't a good painter, but trying make him realize how hard it was to learn this thing.  His painting teacher had patience with him, and he passed that on to his students.  This had a transformative effect on his class.

Dan's view was that all teachers should learn a new skill.  He thought doing so would make all of us compassionate, and I totally agree.  Since that conversation in 2006, I've tried to do something like that myself.  When you try and fail at something performance based, you become naturally more compassionate.  More kind.  More understanding.  Your students notice this, and it benefits everyone.     

We should all be like Dan. 

The Best Lesson I've Ever Taught - Ed Blog pt. 17

There are ten parts left in this series on education, and the first of these ten is going to mark a bit of a stylistic difference.  Rather than giving overviews of School in general, I'm going to give examples and then tie them in to larger things, or allow the reader to tie them into larger things.  You'll notice that I'm not giving advice on elementary or middle school, because I do not know much about them.  But I do get high school, and will be focusing on high school, and my experience therein, for the next few posts.  

The best lesson that I've ever taught happened in evening school.  This was a 2.5 hour a day, 4-day a week, 8-week class where students could make up credit.  Being there meant that they'd failed during the day, which meant that typical school wasn't always reaching these kids.  To me, this meant you had to approach them in a different way.  A lot of times, the situation that caused a kid to fail was something personal, a battle they were facing, a point they were trying to make, or something along those lines.  It wasn't uncommon to ask a kid, "Why did you fail the first time?" and be told, "Fuck that teacher.  She didn't like me, so I wasn't going to pass her class."

This logic may not hold up to rule followers, but it did to an entire group that was also failing.  They saw it like this: that teacher doesn't like me, believe in me, or care about me, so I'm not going to care about what they're doing.  Think of it more like a boycott.  

So, after hearing a bunch of things like this, an idea came to me.  I shut the door, pretended to lock it, and made a real dramatic show that the lesson I was about to give could get me in trouble.  Then I gave this assignment (keep in mind this was an English class, and many of the students never wrote): write about the worst teacher you've ever had.  Tell me - in detail - why you don't like them, and I'm not going to censor for content of language.  This is you, writing to us, giving your opinion.  If you share this opinion, you'll get full credit, but you have to be honest.  And, you have to be silent and write the entire time, (which I think was 25 minutes).  If you do that, I told them, you'll get an A.  

As soon as I set the timer, the kids began writing furiously.  Almost all of the wrote the entire time.  When the timer went off, one kid - a kid that almost never asked questions - said, "Is it okay if I finish, or do I have to stop now?"

That was a win.

This was a kid that had failed a writing class, yet I was able to get him to not only finish an assignment, but to want to do more than was asked.  

Then we shared.  

I did put the parameters that they couldn't say the teacher's name.  They also couldn't swear in a way that was demeaning.  So, they could say "I was so fucking mad" but they couldn't say, "That teacher's a fucking bitch".  This is a pretty big distinction.

They shared their work for about 45-minutes.  Class ended not too long after the sharing, and kids said goodbye as they filed out the door, and went home in a pretty good mood.


People will have different reactions to that story.  Some people will hear it and say that I'm a bad teacher.  (They'll probably say: no wonder you were fired).  They'll say there was no objective, no 'lesson', no standards, no rubric, and no discipline.  They'd look at this as an assignment from a teacher that they're better than.  

If that is YOU: please quit the profession.  Or at least, get to know your students better.  They were writing about people like you.

Another type of person will hear that lesson and at least be intrigued.  But here's what happened after.  For the next 6 weeks, those kids came to class every day and were engaged.  They felt listened to and respected, and they read a lot, wrote a lot, and learned a lot.  They were a community of learners for (maybe) the first time.  

During the activity, when they shared about the bad teacher, no one interrupted one another.  They asked questions, gave feedback, and laughed and responded.  OR, they did what all good readers and writers do, by putting themselves inside the story and learned from a character and experience.  

When these kids had a topic they cared about, and a teacher that would listen, they did great.  They liked class.  On one occasion, I even heard one 'day' student brag about how good the class was.


What's my point?

I'm not suggesting that the way I went about it was the best, or suggesting that all students write about their least favorite teacher.  The point is to be creative, get to know your students, and then do things in a way that reaches them.  I had a class of 'tough' students.  Because I was able to reach them, pique their interest, and then craft their responses toward academics, we had a beautifully productive evening school session.  Kids trusted me as an expert.  I was safe and different.  They were intrigued.  They listened to me more, cared about what I had to say, and went back to being successful during the day.  

Isn't this the point?  

Creativity in teaching is all but disallowed these days.  Teachers that are creative are marked down.  They are being replaced by semi-competent people that semi-competently teach a subject.  But semi-competence doesn't inspire passion, encourage curiousity, or do much for anyone.  


Afterward: 

In a summer school class, again for students that failed, I had about an hour a day of silent reading.  The merits of silent reading are a debated issue, but I am a huge fan.  (People against it should also quit, and are wrong).  In silent reading, students choose their own material and then have time to simply read in a quite setting.  

At the end of one of the days, this girl approached me.  She was very quiet, and had failed American Literature.  "Can I borrow this book?" she asked.

It was Twilight.  The next day, she'd finished it.  That weekend, she read the other three books in the series. 

Before this point, the girl had never read a book.  In her entire life, she'd never read one book, but when she was given options and a place to read, she read 1,500 pages in a weekend.  

This potential is in our students.  We must be willing, creative, and caring enough to pull it out of them.   

Without Discipline, You Can't Teach - Ed. Blog, pt. 14

In the last part of this series, I argued that Discipline Must Come First.  This post if a further explanation on that.  It might be hard to believe if you're naturally obedient, follow rules, and see a need for order, that there are entire schools where no children pay attention or follow the rules.  But, if you've taught in a bad school, you've seen it on a daily basis.  

It is my belief that students want to be challenged, and that most students will follow rules if they are fair and consistent.  Barring the occasional outlier, students want to feel safe and want to know what to expect.   Curriculum 'experts' talk about this in content all the time; daily objectives, and rubrics are all the rage, but this same logic often goes out the door when it comes to discipline.  

If you have a good principal that is willing to set and follow codes of behavior, a school can begin taking shape in two weeks.  That's about the amount of time it takes for students to fall in line.  It's okay to give a warning on some rules, but the second time a student breaks any rule, there must be a consequence.  

When there is no system of discipline, as there wasn't in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, normal behavior falls to slightly better than the worst kids.  At least I'm not that bad, is the logic of the class.  If students are not punished for breaking rules, then more and more students start to break them.  This happens for a few reasons:

  1. Students see that bad behavior is how they get attention, so they mimic what they see for attention.
  2. When bad behavior is allowed, standards are lowered.  Humans tend to either rise or sink to the standards and expectations set for them. 
    1. Ex. If you tell a student they will not understand something, they often will not understand it.
    2. If you tell a student that they'll probably end up in jail: they'll probably get in some trouble in school. 

But what is worse is that when all students act badly, then nothing academic can happen.  Like, at Alger Middle School.  In theory, they had a 10-minute period of silent reading to start every class period on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  In practice, it looked like this: students ran in the room, wouldn't sit down, threw books around, and talked for the entire class 10-minutes.  No one could read.  Thus, the objective of the lesson was not met.  Or, at UPREP if a student cussed out a teacher and was then kicked out of class, this is what would happen.  When they were kicked out of class they'd go to a principal; a principal would walk the student back to class, and pull the teacher in the hall.  They'd have a long conversation about the incident, ignoring the content and the other students in the class.  If the student mentioned what a hard time they were having in life, he or she would be allowed back in class with no consequence.  What did the class hear: It's okay to cuss out a teacher.  Your situation at home is more important than how you act in class.  The result: academics suffer.

How the bulk of students behave is called The School Culture.  The two real examples show a culture of bad behavior.  At both places, bad behavior was rewarded.  When this is the case, academics are not the center, and - in turn - students perform poorly.  In districts like GRPS, where administrators are more worried about suspension rates and public relations than student success, they lower the number of suspensions by easing up on the consequences of bad actions.  The result is poor academics.

This cannot happen.  

Rather, there needs to be clearly established rules that are explicitly and directly explained to students.  When the rules are broken, consequences are needed.  These consequences need to be timely and fair.  When this happens, a culture of respect and responsibility is established, and then, and only then, can academics improve.    

Discipline Must Come First - Ed Blog, pt 13

The most important thing in a school, more important than the students, the teachers, the admin, or the building is the structure.  The most important part of structure is discipline.  The counter point to this, or the alternative view, is that relationships are most important.  But, that errant belief neglects to acknowledge that the point of school is learning.  Education needs to be for the whole child, in an environment structured to help the child succeed.  There is a place for many things; academics of course, but also sports, field trips, enrichment opportunities, and discipline.  Without discipline, entire schools fail.  

School is the formation of a large basis of the worldview of our nation's youth.  The good schools use the school years to shape character, ethics, and interest.  The bad ones ignore those same things, focusing on some abstract 'content' over character and self-control.  By doing so, they don't deal with discipline, and are unknowingly also teaching students a lesson.  When a kid acts up and doesn't get in trouble for it, they start to think their actions are no big deal.  They learn that behaving on emotion is acceptable, and should be tolerated instead of controlled.  So they do worse and worse things.  This isn't unique to students.  

Let's take this situation: A student wants to go to the bathroom, so interrupts instruction to get permission.  The teacher tells the student to wait for a moment or two, so he or she can finish the instruction, and proceeds to do just that.  The student gets mad and says, "You're fucking annoying" and walks out of the room and slams the door.  Getting cussed out by students is something that happens to every (at least almost) single teacher of low income students.  It's a part of the deal.  How the school responds, changes.

What happens next - in how both the other students and the principal reacts - lets you know how a school does academically.  

Here are two real life examples of how different schools respond to this situation.  

At Union High School, in Grand Rapids, MI.  The student would run up to the principal, say that the teacher doesn't allow students to go to the bathroom, and was then kicked out of class.  The principal will side with the student, walk the student back to class, and tell the teacher to be more sensitive.  When the teacher says, "Did you know that the student interrupted the class to say 'you're fucking annoying' and then walked out without permission and slammed the door?"  The principal will say that teachers need to be more sensitive in how they respond to students.  The principal will tell the teacher, in front of the student, to allow the student to go to the bathroom.  The next time, the student will simply walk out of class, and when her friend says, "You can't do that", will respond, "The principal lets me."   Problem neglected, students realize there are no consequences.  Academics suffer. 

At Global Visions Academy in Chicago, IL.  The student will walk up to the principal, and complain about the teacher.  The principal will ask "What did you say?"  The student will respond, "I cussed him out."  The principal will say, "What did you say?" The kid will respond, "I said he was fucking annoying."  The principal will suspend the kid for the minimum of a day.  When the student comes back to class, he or she must apologize.  The next time the student needs to go to the bathroom, the student waits for permission.  Problem solved, student and class learn a lesson.  Academics improve.

When the student walks out, the reaction of the students in the classroom will also let you know how the school performs.  If the students are like, "That's a suspension", you know that there are standards of behavior that permeate throughout the school.  You know that there is a threshold.  If, however, the students turn to the teacher and say, "You're going to get in trouble" or "the principal is going to yell at you" you know the place does not value academics.  

Rocket science, this is not.  

If discipline problems happen only in one teachers room, that teacher is often thought of as bad.  Bad teachers are often the ones that cannot control a classroom.  The kids run all over the teacher, and in turn, the students don't learn.  If that's the case, it's on the teacher.  But, if a school doesn't have a structure in place to deal with the discipline, the whole school suffers.  

I've argued in the last few posts that the principal is responsible for how the school is run.  One of the easiest ways you can tell the difference between a good and a bad principal is how the school deals with discipline.  If the students receive no discipline, then the school has an incompetent administrator that will fuck up virtually all areas of the school, especially academics.

I've been in a lot of schools, and this is true in every single one.  No boundaries ='s No academics.  But think about it a little bit and it's obvious.  Learning something new is hard, and can be frustrating.  You need to be engaged, be challenged, and even make mistakes.  When these things happen, they trigger certain types of emotions that can lead to lashing out and doing something you shouldn't.  Which is fine.  When this happens, students must be accountable for how they act.  

School is one of the easiest - and safest - places to make mistakes, because the stakes are the lowest.  Cussing out a teacher, getting in a fight, walking out of a class: these are all pretty low stakes in the scheme of things.  If someone makes a bunch of them, suspension is better than getting fired, getting sued, or going to jail.  So, if you learn from them: all good.  When they don't, the ramifications are huge in the real world.  Not teaching discipline is a major part of the school-to-prison pipeline (but more on that in a later post).

That's why the discipline matters so much.  

Discipline must be a pillar in a school.  Must be consistent and fair.  It must be given quickly, and used as a lesson.  And, it must affirm the importance of academics.