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

Resilience, grit. . . something good

I wanted to write about something positive. One of my students showed up today exhausted – not sleepy, but worn out. When I asked him what was up, he said he’d biked to school because he’d missed the bus. He knew we were testing today and wanted to try to earn some points towards graduation.

So, let me unpack that. He planned to come to school on a Friday – not a thing to be taken for granted at our school. He missed the bus and didn’t turn around and go home. He rode his bike to school because he was aware enough to understand how the point system worked for standardized tests.

Now you can’t measure any of that on standardized tests. Or on a report card. But the resilience and awareness he demonstrated today are, to my mind, quite impressive. Now if you knew him, you wouldn’t be too surprised by his actions, but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked – which is something we do (focus on the negative, take the positive for granted).

How do we teach the skills he showed today? Where did he learn them? How do we measure them? How do we report out on them?

I will never get used to this. . . again

A text. A post. A group text. Shot. Surgery. Talking to parents.

And what are we doing? Standardized testing.

We’re fiddling; our students are getting shot.

My Opus, not Richard Dreyfuss’

I never planned it this way. I am moving on to yet another school. Let’s review the record.

The Harvard School, Wharton Arts Magnet MS, Hume-Fogg HS, the American School in London, Baltimore City College High School, Harding High School, the Blake School, Shaker Heights HS, JFK-Eagle Academy and now, Campus International.

Ten. And I had to read the list a few times to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

This was a hard decision. I helped start this school three years ago. I really wanted to see this first group graduate. But our leadership changed and the school changed, and people began looking for exits, and I really didn’t want to be here to re-start the school, not without my allies. I haven’t told the students yet; that will be hard. They will feel betrayed, I think. They’ve had so many people leave them; it is hard to re-build relationships, but this isn’t the school I signed up for.

I am very excited about Campus International. The K-8 program has a fantastic reputation as does its leader. We will be building the high school year-by-year, a process I do relish. I will be back in the International Baccalaureate program for the third time (Baltimore City College, Harding) which I love. It is connected to and has support from Cleveland State. And there is, I’m told, great support from the parents as well. My new Principal is inspiring. I liked his questions and comments. And he likes poetry.

I think the 10th time will be the charm.

Doing Away with the Docent: A Challenge to Museums

I love field trips. Ask anyone who has ever worked with me. If I could, I’d have students out of the classroom almost every day. And I even have a stupidly persistent knack for being able to navigate the intense bureaucracy required to make them work. And I prepare for them – not only using the materials the site offers me, but materials that I find and / or design myself. In sum, I feel like I’m doing my part.

So here’s my challenge to places that are open to field trips, particularly museums. Do away with the docents. I know they are volunteers (and therefore cheap) and that many of them know a lot (though many have just memorized a lot). Many of them (in my experience) are older, which it makes it challenging for them to connect with high school students. And, in my experience, the large majority of them are white, which makes it challenging for them to connect with my students.

Obviously, it’s easier (though not easy) to have students interact at the likes of a hands-on science museum. (Some of you know the reason for my bias; nevertheless, it’s true.) Students do stuff there.

My worst experience ever was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (when it was at its original location). I saw an article about the work of Lorna Simpson. The focus was on her work on hair and how it related to identity. I saw the exhibit myself and took notes. I prepared an assignment for my students. I also prepared them for behavioral expectations. And, for the only time in my 24 years, a field trip destination provided a free bus! (Field trip sites take note: Free and discounted tickets are great, but not if we can’t get there. Include transportation when you write grants for funding.)

And then we got there. And we got a docent. And she had a plan. And no interest in mine. She was going to talk. The students were going to listen (and not have time to complete their assignment). And while the students found some of the other modern art pieces interesting, they did not have time to immerse themselves in the Simpson exhibit. Nor did they have the opportunity to form their own interpretations of any of the art; the docent simply told them what it “meant.” She read from her notecards.

Recently, I attended a field trip with my daughter because I’d seen the exhibit she was going to see (twice) and had sent students to see it with another teacher (and I helped her prepare). It was this, a great photography exhibit featuring images and objects from the Civil Rights Movement. We got our docent. And he began to talk, to tell the students about the Movement. Now perhaps they needed it and perhaps they didn’t, but they were there to look at the pictures – to learn how to ‘read’ pictures and, in particular, these pictures. I’m a big fan of Visual Thinking Strategies. You can practice in the classroom, and the process invariably elicits great observations, inferences, and insights. Let students do. Practice enough, and they will internalize the process. Have them write / draw and (gasp!) even talk right there in the gallery. Let them choose which images attract their attention. Let them make meaning – in small groups and / or individually – with the docent or teacher as the proverbial guide on the side.

So, teachers, do your part. Take these opportunities not as an opportunity to have someone else teach for a few hours, but as a spectacular chance to have everyone do some real learning. And museums, do away with the docent approach.

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Robinson and Aronica)

At times, this book seemed more like an overview of a topic than an argument for any kind of revolution. And Robinson is perhaps a bit too fond of something I’ve noticed in many polished speakers – he reduces things to certain numbers and often uses alliteration (the 5 C’s, for example). Still, there’s much to be learned here, and I was always grateful when Robinson offered the names of other texts to pursue and / or schools / programs to investigate, so I could go into more depth if I wanted to.

It’s hard to imagine at this point who genuinely disagrees with what’s here. I think the two more important questions are how to generate the kind of political will necessary to “scale up” from some of the exemplars Robinson provides and how to manage the transition in the least disruptive way possible.

Ken Robinson’s TED talk

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