Long ago, I promised myself that if I completed 25 years of teaching, I would try to write a book about my experiences. Next year will be year 25. So I started this last year to begin to figure out what I wanted to write about. I welcome your comments, resources, links to your own teaching blog, book recommendations, etc.

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Cleveland Museum of Art: Connie Towson Ford Teaching Fellowship (Day 1)

I love, love, love the Cleveland Museum of Art. So when an opportunity entered my email inbox to do some professional development there and it was a program my administration supported, I put in an application and was fortunate enough to be accepted.

We gathered outside the front door of the museum, and I was not too surprised to find that of the 11 (?) of us, only two of us are male. I was also not surprised (though I am disappointed) to find that none of us, at least as far as I can tell, are teachers of color.

An opening challenge – to take a piece of paper and any available supplies and turn it into something that represented me in 3 minutes – quickly revealed that of the 11 of us, I was lodged firmly in 15th place in terms of artistic ability. Nevertheless, it was an effective and efficient way for us to introduce ourselves to each other – one of many activities I intend to bring into my classroom.

It quickly became clear to me that, at least on the surface, this professional development was going to meet my basic standards for PD – respectful use of time, both practical and philosophical, not lecture-based, no one read to me, etc..

We entered the galleries and practiced a few ways to engage students with art. The first was based on Visual Thinking Strategies, an approach I’m somewhat familiar with, but our facilitator lent it a new twist, by having us go around in a circle and just say one (new) word at a time about the picture. Luckily, when I repeated someone else’s word during Round 3, I was not out. Instead, I was just given more time to think. It was the first of several efforts during the day to get us, as viewers, to slow down – to avoid interpretation, to avoid judgment – until we had, at the risk of using a dreaded phrase, ‘collected’ our data – in this case, in the form of observations.

We did several other activities (all in front of works I’d never given a second thought to before). Now, I have a certain amount of skepticism about the 7 Intelligences and a limited amount of patience for hooks. Since we had time to not only practice a variety of activities, but to reflect on them, I realized that these activities – one of which had me adopting the pose of a dog, another – imitating the sound of a cooking fire – were no mere gimmicks. They were drawing me into works that I’d never considered before and giving me openings that I could transfer to the key question about literature namely, how does form make meaning?

As an English teacher, I am used to crafting ways for students to write about art, so when we were told we’d be getting a choice of writing invitations to respond to, I thought I was finally in my comfort zone. Before looking at the prompts, I thought I knew which work I wanted to use as the basis for my response. But then I read the prompt. I was invited to write about the work that said something about me as a teacher.

I turned around and saw this —

It’s called Mapa estelar en arbal and it’s by Gabriel Orozco. To me, it looked like a profile of my brain when I am planning lessons, units, etc.. It was a cool activity – the idea of overlaying my autobiography onto someone else’s artwork. As with everything else in the morning, I will adapt it and use it in the classroom.

The opening question in the afternoon was how comfortable we all were with drawing. In general, if I can look at something, I don’t mind taking a hack at drawing it. We went into one of the Asian galleries and sat in front of this — well, never mind, I must not have taken down the right information because I can’t locate it on their website right now. (If anyone who was with me today can provide a link, I’d be grateful.) We went through a similar process with it that we had with the works in the morning. The challenge with this one was that there was a kind of optical illusion in this painting. There were two characters in it. It took me a while to discern the second one. We were invited to sketch it and, at intervals, we were asked to consider certain elements of mark-making – speed, pressure, etc. When we were prompted to hold our pencil the way the artist held his brush, any success I’d been having went out the window. Then we were given the kind of brush the artist used (but sadly no ink or water) just to get a sense of how that felt. It reminded me a lot of the writing exercise that asks writers to learn the style of another writer by copying a passage. My brain kept code switching to English teacher mode, and thinking about how teaching an International Baccalaureate program requires developing an understanding of how different kinds of stories work. Then I got stuck (and probably stubborn) in a familiar place – the question of context – how much? when? and what weight should it carry?

We spent so much time with this painting that there was not much left for this one —

Try it.

What do you see in the picture? No judgments. No interpretations. Just list what you see. Think about both in terms of form and content (see – just like reading literature). To what effect? What argument can you present based on the evidence provided by the picture? (I loved all of the discussions about museum labels and the prospective assignment of having students write their own labels. Our facilitator made a point of obstructing our view of the label.)

It turned out that, somewhat in violation of the manifesto of the Abstract Expressionists (there is a Jackson Pollock two paintings away from this), this effort, called, “Alabama,” has some realism as its origin story – a photograph of (I think) car headlights and a Klan rally (not owned by the museum). Having now looked at more pictures of Klan rallies than I care to, I will admit to not being able to find the photograph that served as the artist’s (that is, Norman Lewis’) inspiration.

Ultimately, we are to develop an action research question that must focus on an object in the museum’s permanent collection.

So far, I’ve got three ideas:

  1. How do artists (or maybe just photographers), like writers, use techniques to make meaning?
  2. Something about the whole notion of appropriation. The power of the photograph of Emmett Till’s body and the white artist who recently made her own painting of Till. . . (not sure if this connects to anything in the museum’s collection)
  3. a photograph I bought and used as a ‘master work’ when I was teaching at an arts magnet school – two South African schoolboys talking with each other at the gate of a school – the white child is the one on the outside (again, might have to be for practice because I’m not sure what it connects to in the museum’s collection) – could connect well with “Master Harold”

A good, energizing day at a great place. They want to the museum to become more like the kinds of classrooms we’d like to have. And they seem open to any and every possibility. I look forward to tomorrow.


Cleveland Museum of Art

Private Schools III – An Interlude, A Tribute, a Theatre Program

Somewhere in this social media world, there is a page dedicated to those, like me, who absolutely loved our high school theatre program. Now that I have children of my own, one of whom is particularly interested in theatre, I have only gained more appreciation for my own experience. I have long wondered what made it work. On the surface, the success of the program is obvious. The program can boast of actors and writers on Broadway, on TV, movie makers, etc.. (Me? I go to plays. And try to bring students.) But I think it’s success runs deeper than that. While the program was largely in the hands of one person, I’ll call her Lynn (yes, a pseudonym, and yes, we called our teachers by their first names), I don’t think it was a case of cult of personality. And it wasn’t just a case of ‘the theatre crowd.’ Since my private school was small, lots of students did lots of activities and there was, in my memory and experience at least, not a lot of judgment around. Of our current TV stars was also the starting forward on the basketball team. How did the school achieve that culture? I do give Lynn credit for at least two things. She had incredibly high standards – for herself and for all of us. I still remember her delight in telling all of us the story about how one long-time theatre parent told her early in one production that she’d finally “bitten off more than [she] can chew” and then come back to her later and said how much he’d enjoyed the show. I hope he apologized, but I don’t remember. I remember loving the way she refused that there was anything she, and therefore, we could not do, even with a limited budget (and the fact that we produced our shows in the gym). Her spirit was contagious, and the colleagues that worked with her radiated that spirits well. She gave students a lot of responsibility. A LOT. And you had to earn it, especially on the technical side.  (Having no talent for it, I know little about the casting side.) You started on a crew and worked your way up. And it was not all about talent. I was not particularly skilled at designing and building sets, for example, but I’d earned my chance to design and build a set for Pygmalion that was, or at least was supposed to be, in the round. And she let us fail. She had to. She couldn’t do everything herself. I still wince at some of the props I didn’t finish in time for The King & I.

Are there successful and wonderful theatre programs at public schools? Absolutely. Are they so woven into the school culture as ours was and, by all accounts, still is? If you were in a public school theatre program, how much responsibility did you have? Do you still love theatre?

I think the element that has most carried over into my own teaching is the way Lynn treated us like adults. She had to, I think. I don’t know whether it was deliberate; it just was. And we tried hard to live up to her expectations.

Private Schools – Part II

Thanks to those who took the time to read and offer feedback. I genuinely appreciate it. As I’ve mentioned, I’m approaching this blog with a kind of “write to figure out what you think” approach in preparation for trying to write a book. And your thoughts help me reconsider / revise my own.

I was asked about how I think GDS has gotten away from its principles, at least the ones I took from it when I was a student there – complete with the plaque announcing the GDS was the first integrated private school in DC. I was asked to speak at the groundbreaking of the new school, and my efforts to say something about how we seemed to have drifted away from what that plaque represented were squashed. Granted, I could have been more transparent in my intentions to make those comments. But why weren’t they welcome? Encouraged? A groundbreaking ceremony still seems like the right time to recommit to ideals unless what is desired is just a celebratory, superficial event. All this time I’ve regretted not including the part of my speech referencing the absence of black males from my graduating class (and the general absence of teachers of color in the school). Maybe what I should regret is accepting the invitation to speak.

I have not been the most engaged alum, I know. Shortly after I graduated, I started getting invitations to fundraisers. The amounts involved, the prices involved – I couldn’t see myself in them. I knew the school had ambitions and continues to do so. And that’s fine. But what did money do to ideals? I don’t think it’s “nostalgic” to say that it changed them. I’ll leave it there – not better, not worse, just different.

I caught somewhere that GDS had started a teach-in day for Martin Luther King Day. It has long been mysterious to me that MLK day has become a day off of school. While I know churches and other institutions have taken on the day, even that has made me uneasy; I thought the teach-in approach made more sense. King has been whitewashed; I thought taking the day to go into more depth about his work was an outstanding idea. I was teaching at my second private school and was frustrated that people seemed protective of the holiday, not out of much reverence for King, but because it was a good skiing weekend (a bit snarky that). So I contacted GDS and asked how the teach-in day worked. The response I got? I was placed on a mailing list and asked for. . . money.

In my experience as a teacher and administrator – no, I’m not going to qualify it. I am, of course, only speaking from my experience. Take two.

There exists at private schools a kind of unspoken disdain for the route public school teachers have to take to be licensed to teach. While I’ve seen it more clearly in the words and actions of some private school teachers more than others, I try not to blame any of them. What, after all, is a private school saying by definition more than, “We are outside of / above the petty bureaucratic entanglements of public school. We have freedom. Freedom is better. We charge tuition. Money means value. We must be better. We must have better teachers.” The disdain comes with the territory. You can see it in the way teachers shift roles: “I can be a counselor, a librarian, whatever. I’m smart enough to do any job here.”

While I know some private schools encourage certification, they, by definition, reject the public school model. Who were they first invented for? Maybe what I will call the democratic principles I experienced at GDS could never really co-exist with the need for the school to compete for students – that is, with capitalism.

While the freedom of private schools has many advantages (freedom from a fair amount of testing, attracting people who might not otherwise pursue teaching – which is huge), it can promote a sense of entitlement and, in terms of teaching, it can leave gaps.

One teacher I helped hire said that the next department head (I was moving on – there is more to this story) should come from more of a literature background and less of an educational one. First of all, I defy anyone to find that many people more passionate about literature than me. A look at my book review blog should suffice. The teacher, whom I’ll call Tara (look at me, I’m trying pseudonyms) certainly wasn’t better read or more widely read than me. She often mistook enthusiasm for teaching.

Second, what Tara, with her, um, short-sightedness failed to recognize (among many, many, many other things) is that I raised educational questions with her because I thought her foundation in literature was so strong. Perhaps I should have said that to her more clearly and more often. Her planning and pedagogy were her areas “in need of improvement,” a notion she, with a great deal of that arrogance I mentioned above, rejected.

Instead, Tara, and other private school colleagues I’ve encountered, thought they should really just teach themselves. (I’m aware of Parker Palmer’s words on this; I think they are worth less time than I just took to write this sentence.) By this, they presumed that the sheer forces of their personality covered any holes in their education.

And, as with any art, some could do it. I worked with amazingly talented teachers in both PK and 12th grade and in between. Still others, by dint (did I use that word correctly? I’ve always wanted to use that word) of hard work made themselves into well-rounded teachers.

Others forgot that the students they were teaching brought a fair amount of firepower to the table.

How did this lack of preparation manifest itself? When asked why a unit or a lesson worked (even when I agreed with them), teachers were often unable to say more than, “It worked because I say it worked.” Therefore, if it didn’t work for all of the students, the natural corollary would be for those teachers to blame the students. The repertoire of these teachers, their vocabulary was so limited that they didn’t have the conceptual foundation of what had worked, so they weren’t able to transfer it into their next unit plan, let alone consider how to improve their current one so it reached more people the next time around.

They, as my first principal at a private school said of a former teacher, simply “taught their day.” As for what the students did, well, that was of less concern.

Does a teaching license, therefore, make a teacher better? Of course not. Do I know what makes a good teacher? Like a lot of teachers, I have some ideas. Those ideas, together with 25 years of teaching in all sorts of circumstances, should give me some credibility. But that’s another topic for another time. I will get to it, though. As I said, the blog is just about trying to get out what’s on my mind. I’m sure that (and other topics) will come to the forefront at some point.

Private / Independent Schools – Part I

I’ve taught at 3 independent / private schools in my career. (Is there a difference between ‘private’ and ‘independent’?) I think it’s also important to say that, upon facing one of the required desegregation order that I’ve since studied, my parents pulled me and my siblings from our local public school and moved us to private schools. It is also important to say that the gravestones of my maternal grandparents are in the shape of open books. They believed in education. They had no way to anticipate the costs, though they tried.

I loved my own private school. It was a good match for me. Georgetown Day School. 2nd – 12th grade. It was small enough that I was known. I had good connections with my teachers, some of whom I still talk to. The school, once in a converted office building, has since moved, and I still go back to visit. I recently took our son to show him around.

I remember some less than wonderful years (5th grade, Amy, if you are a GDS person reading this) and some less than wonderful teachers (Jerry, Chemistry). And yes, we called our teachers by their first names. But most of the teachers, especially my English teachers, were wonderful, game-changing people. And they put up with me. I was, to put it mildly, a temperamental child. I came out of the experience better prepared in some subjects (English, history, even math) than others (science, languages), but I was ready for college. I had the work ethic.

The place was small enough that I could be involved in lots of extra-curricular activities. At 6′ 1″ (6’3″ in the program!), I was the center on the basketball team for my last two years. I worked backstage on the plays and musicals. I was part of the Model UN program. I even went on a school trip to Russia. (No, I didn’t meet with anyone about the 2016 election.)

I was infused with a strong sense of social justice, even as my school began, with the shift to its new building, to betray its own principles. So much so, I was determined to teach in public schools. So it was odd that I would start my teaching career at a private school. But that’s for Part II.


There is an illusion that teachers get summers ‘off.’ First of all, is it me or are summers getting shorter? Maybe I’m still dealing with the hangover of being at a year-round school. I remember sitting in front of someone at a college soccer game who was clearly in training to be an elementary teacher. She said she was learning how to make bulletin boards and was looking forward to having summers off.

Me? I probably go too far. I can’t turn my teaching brain off. And there are a lot of great opportunities for teachers – the NEH has many, for example. But here’s the thing. I always feel like there’s something I can do, something I should do to prepare, to get better, to get ready. Even if it’s just taking some time to take care of myself so I can be reinvigorated for the new school year. School years are marathons; they take endurance.

Should I care about disabusing the general public (particularly those who object to any pay raises) that we don’t really get summers off (in the same way that we don’t really finish work at 3)? I know it bugs me (as do many of the public perceptions of teachers and teaching), but I’m not sure it’s a priority.

What do you like to do – personally, professionally – over the summer?

This is (NOT) how it ends

It was never the plan, but I’ve now started working at my 10th school. Much has been written about how to begin the school year, and I’ll probably add my 2.5 cents on another day, but today, I want to write about how NOT to end the school year.

Now we had kind of a unique situation. We were on a year-round schedule. The students’ bus cards stopped working when the regular year ended (so did the counselors, but that was the topic for another entry). Summer jobs, travel, programs, internships, etc. all still work on the traditional school calendar. We offered, however feebly, some end-of-year trips.

We’d always add some attendance attrition, but this year, attendance just fell off of a cliff. Classes that were once 16 became 4. Teachers, admittedly including me, were taking time off. Some, again including me, were packing up their rooms.

In the past, though, we’d anticipated student attrition and adjusted accordingly. Students were grouped by subject, for example. We had the (yes!) data to say who was really close to finishing a class, so we’d just assign students to English or math (for example) for 3 straight periods in order to maximize their chances to pass the class. This would also allow us to consolidate teaching responsibilities. Need to plan for next year? Need to organize the laptops? Those teachers would have a break from student contact time. Need to work with a few students 1-1? Then do that. Some final details for the trip to DC? Go do that.

Not this year, no. First of all, each morning we played the game, “Where in the world is the Principal?” He essentially stopped communicating with us. There may have been a professional development meeting. There certainly was a lot of hiring to do. To this day, I’m not sure whether he went on one of the year-end trips. I simply had no idea where he was.

Since he was not present and our former practice of solving problems collaboratively had suffered death by a 1,008 cuts, we simply defaulted to running the same old schedule. 4 students. Then 6. Then 3. And so on.

And I didn’t need a gold watch or anything, but I did help found the bloody school. We had a last day of PD, and again, no Principal. No one to say, “Thanks” or “Good-bye.” No reflection on the year. Just a breakfast paid for by members of our Sunshine Committee (with donations from us) and goofy awards they’d created. Much appreciated, to be sure, but those of us who’d founded the school, we deserved more than that.

On-Line Learning: After 3 years, one ‘no’ vote

This is Edgenuity, a word and a program I’d never heard of before I started at this school, and one I hope I’ll never hear of again. I never thought the curriculum was anything special. They essentially took a textbook (in the case of English, at least) and dumped it on-line. They had actors (I think) read lectures, had some practice questions, and had (mostly) multiple choice assessments.

What happened? Well, we got better at adjusting the amount of on-line work we expected from students, linking on-line learning with classroom learning, and developing our own assessments. Students did work at their own pace, so some finished classes before the end of the year, and others completed them after they returned from the summer. Some students made great progress.

Here’s what else happened – Our laptop situation became a mess. The inventory was difficult to manage, especially when we let the computers go home. This included maintaining enough chargers. And students cheated – using each other and on-line resources. And, most importantly, there is every indication, by whatever measure you want to discuss, that they didn’t really learn much. And they certainly hated the program.

Part of the issue is the program itself. Though I’m no on-line curriculum expert, I think it was an early entry into the field. The company leapt at a niche and consistently sent us non-educators to check on how the program was working. Part of the issue was and is the expense. We have to make a transition this year to another on-line program, and it’s going to be a challenge to negotiate.  Part of the issue was the abrupt transition, not only in terms of having students work on-line when they entered high school, but also the expectation that went along with it – independent or personalized learning.

During the last few years, I’ve tried exploring other on-line programs, like Coursera. I’ve even signed up for a few courses. Signed up and not finished. Maybe I’m too to learn this way. I will say that, given some technical assistance, I think I could design a useful on-line course. I’d like to try. We visited one school in New York that really seemed to have things figured out. I wish I could remember the name. They were really able to personalize instruction for their students and keep track of it. Interestingly, they had had their own tracking program designed and they deliberately sought out people not in the education field.

And I haven’t even gotten to this question –

Can online courses replace campus education?

and its financial implications.



Atticus doesn’t live here anymore

When Scout learns of the verdict in her father’s case, she, like children are wont to do, asks about how it could happen. His response is famous –

They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.

There was a lot of violence in Cleveland over Memorial Day weekend. And as much as I try to avoid reading about it, I also look to see if there are the names of any of our students. Well, I came in to school this morning relieved. None of our students seemed to be involved.

But my relief turned to tears quickly. The father of one of our students was killed.

I’ve known the student in question for two years now. She’s a good writer and a bit volatile in temperament. She signed up for an elective I co-teach and has really flourished.

The thing I noticed is that while I’m hiding in an office trying to recover myself enough to proceed with classes, the students. . . they are not weeping. This is neither unexpected nor abnormal for them. They’ve stopped crying. This violence has become part of their vocabulary. If it’s done anything, it has cemented further their beliefs that their view of the world – one ruled by inescapable violence – is corrent.

So while I have the privilege of reading and crying about violence, our students have made it normal. I imagine they have to. Otherwise, the relentlessness of it would probably traumatize them even more than many of them are already traumatized. It is, quite literally, a question of survival.

The Art of Critical Pedagogy – a book review

This is an extremely compelling book. The authors articulate a vision for the use of critical pedagogy in K-12 classrooms in such a way that it is intertwined with the teaching of the skills necessary for students to navigate the world they are simultaneously trying to change. After they present their rationale for critical pedagogy, they provide several good examples of how they’ve executed it. The authors are aware they are standing on the shoulders of others, educators and other sources for inspiration, and they pay them – particularly Freire – the proper tribute. In that way, this is a ‘gateway’ book because reading it will lead you to others. (I’ve already ordered the two books mentioned in the preface.) I appreciated their constant attention that the development of this approach needs to begin in teacher training, and I was thunderstruck with the accuracy of their claim that public education is not failing. It is, they argue, doing exactly what it was designed to do – create a permanent underclass. An invigorating and challenging read – one I’ll keep close at hand.

Duncan-Andrade’s TEDx talk

Duncan-Andrade founded and is currently Board Chair of this school

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