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3 Destructive Things School Teaches

The title comes from this article:

3 Destructive Things School Taught You Without You Even Realizing It

It’s a brilliant article…and I want to take on each point and talk about how I try hard to UNTEACH these things in my classroom.

First, number 3 in the article:


What is authority, and was our country created through the dependency on authority? What would the United States look like had we depended on England, instead of relying on ourselves, those of us who were right here in the “New World.” When should we depend on authority and when should we question it? IS it simply a matter of depending on it?

Should we depend on authority or RESPECT authority? My kids better listen to me when we have a fire drill, or God forbid, a real fire or other natural disaster. But if I tell them to respond to questions 15-60 in a workbook in one night and it happens to be the night of the school play that most of them are either in or going to, they better ask me what I am thinking. I teach my kids to question me…respectfully.

For example, when I taught kindergarten, I really thought schools had too many rules–I still do.  See my post, Rules-Schools Have Too Many, here. There are specific structures I put into place to take the “permission giving role” away from me. Turn the questions around to the child and make them think about what they are asking. (“Can I go to the bathroom?”  me–“I don’t know, can you?” Someone then reminds them the rule is go when you need to, and try to avoid missing direct instruction.) When kids complain to me about another kid bothering them, I ask, “Did I do that to you?”  And when they say no, I encourage them to talk tot he individual and use the strategies I have taught in class.  (1st, talk to the person using an “I statement.” 2nd, if the botherer doesn’t stop, be more direct and tell them to stop, repeating the “I statement.”  3rd, Walk away. 4th ask for help–from a teacher, adult or friend.) I encourage problem solving, sharing your feelings and being independent in notonly schoolwork, but social situations as well.

There are specific structures I use to get kids to think deeply–see this blog post, My Class Didn’t Work This Morning–or Did It?

As the article says, But we should all be capable of choosing the authority in our lives. Adherence to authority should never be compulsory, and it should never go unquestioned — whether they’re your preacher, your boss, your teacher or your best friend. No one knows what’s right for you as well as you do. And not letting kids discover that fact for themselves may be the biggest failure of all.

Okay, so let’s speak to failure.


 I take specific actions to help kids understand they are not perfect and need to accept and learn from mistakes. We certainly talk about how mistakes help us learn, that we can’t learn and grow if we don’t make mistakes and I have a sign posted in my room that says, “Mistakes are an opportunity to learn.” But, I also do things to help kids see that as true for others outside of our classroom as well. Check out this blog and what I did with it.

It, for me, is really about helping all of us to get smarter, together–not about ranking and having folks feel smarter than others–it’s about feeling smarter right now that you did a few minutes ago because of increased knowledge, competence or skill–your own, not someone else’s.

Schools CAN accomplish this–read this former student’s comments about his High School experiences–and yes, he’s talking HIGH SCHOOL (in my county)!

(copied from a Facebook reply because i couldn’t figure out how to get the link to it.  See?  I failed in that, but found an alternative strategy.)

“Robert T. Packard Hmm. This was a fascinating read for me, and it reminds me how fortunate I was to find Murray High School.

Murray did have standardized tests, obviously, but the rest of the year the focus wasn’t on our grades so much as our progress and achievements. Having the option to actually redo assignments to get the grade that we wanted gave me the ability to set my own standards for myself, rather than measuring my success by some numerical score from my teacher. I also got a lot of freedom in catering assignments towards my personal interests, rather than having to deal with a one-size-fits-all model.

Another beauty of Murray is that we were given the freedom to fail. Well, technically, no, we weren’t, because there was no such thing as failing, just being incomplete. When our work didn’t meet the requirements, we got to try again and do better. That taught me that failure can be an important step along the way to success, as well as a good teacher in its own right.

As for depending on authority, I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian by nature, and Murray’s atmosphere really allowed that aspect of me to flourish. I never really viewed the teachers as authority figures there, but as people trying to share knowledge and experiences. I formed friendships with many of them, on a more equal level than would be possible in a more traditional high school.

Murray is proof that it’s possible to go more in this direction than traditional schools do and still succeed. Not all of the techniques would work for everyone, of course, but I think that’s exactly the point; by trying to fit all students into some cookie cutter format, nobody is getting the best possible experience from their education.

Students aren’t lumps of clay to be molded into some shape. They’re more like the proverbial sculptor’s marble: A teacher helps the shape hidden within the marble to come out in all its glory.”

And, now for number 1 in the article:


“The why’s of life are far more important than the what’s of life and that’s a message that is rarely communicated growing up.” (from the article)

I constantly say to my kids, “It’s not important what I think. I’m not always going to be around to give you feedback.  Your parents aren’t always going to be around to tell you what to do. You have to learn to rely on yourself–who knows better than you what makes you happy? Who knows better than you if you are confident in a skill?  I don’t know if you copied it, or your Dad helped you, or if you found the answer on the Internet, or if you did it yourself.  If you did the first 3, you cheated yourself out of learning.”

I don’t say, “Please don’t yell out answers because it’s against the rules.” I tell them not to do it because they take learning away from other people if they get the answer first and shout it out. I tell them they are not being a good member of our group. I tell them they are making themselves look inconsiderate and selfish. I work hard in all that I do to get kids to learn self-regulation, not learn behaviors just to please the teacher.

This is one of the hardest things for many really smart/gifted kids to learn. After all, a life need is to belong–to feel accepted—and if we aren’t given that feedback by the behaviors of others around us, we seek it verbally–is this right? Did I do it correctly? Gifted/smart kids often think they have to be ranked to be successful–they have to be better than others to show their learning–they have to be perfect and always right and if they aren’t something is wrong-with them.

I don’t give a lot of grades in the work I give kids because they know whether they know how to do it or not. The conversations we have in class, their confidence in working new problems, their willingness to share with others gives them that feedback. Their parents may care about daily grades, but learners just want feedback on whether they are successful or not at that particular task. When they are  practicing a specific algorithm or strategy in math, for example, and I mark on their paper, they don’t ask me what’s the grade?  They look at the ones I marked they need to revisit and go try again. I don’t need to give grades as long as they get the feedback–and most times they don’t care if it’s from me or a buddy. I simply help when they need it, when they are confused. I ask the questions that help them understand deeper. I share info that helps them look at things from a different perspective. I listen and affirm, but don’t generally talk right or wrong. We talk “better responses” or “more efficient” or faster, more detailed, easier to understand, etc. We compare and contrast–and by sharing our thoughts and strategies, kids learn there is not one right way to do things, not one right answer, necessarily, and they learn to be flexible thinkers.

THEY know if they know the skill or not–and when they go home and Mom or Dad asks if they did well in school, and if they got an A, and they say, “I don’t know, Ms. White didn’t tell me” I believe they aren’t being completely honest-either with themselves or their parents–and it could be conscious or unknowingly. Learners know when they know how to do it confidently or not. When parents then complain to me about no grades, I know something about the kid’s willingness to communicate–or their willingness to understand their own learning.

Success does not come in the form of grades, or the teacher’s approval, or the information in a note the teacher sends home. Success comes from an inner feeling of knowledge, of happiness, of satisfaction, of confidence, of knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses and being willing to work on or accept those. That’s what I try to help children learn.

These are some of the videos I show my kids as we talk about feedback and understanding one’s own learning.

“What is success? | Playlist |
Success can mean: feeling that tingle of excitement about what you do, sticking with what matters through hard times, living a life you can feel proud of in retrospect. These talks say it all.” (straight from googling, what is success?”

So as we begin a new school year, I once again revisit my own beliefs, and my own history to remind myself that distracters and naysayers cannot change my inner core beliefs about helping my students be independent learners who are empathetic, confident contributors to our world who know how to think, communicate, justify their responses in ways that share their learning, respect others and make sense.

This article should be the basis for any school’s revisiting their school vision and mission to make sure we are supporting kids who will not be afraid of failure, but learn from it; who will respect authority, but think critically, know how to search facts and understand the nuances of putting someone else in charge of oneself, and who will choose the authorities in their lives; and who will, most of all, look inwardly for measures of success, who will be successful in life and thrive, happily, doing something that contributes to our world and feeds their inner soul much as teaching and working with kids does mine.

Endings and Beginnings

No matter how many last days of school I have, I am always gratified by the kids who stop by to say something to me–whether it be a simple “I’ll miss you” or a heartfelt “You were the best teacher I ever had” kinds of comments. This year was special, though, in many, many ways.

Yesterday one of my 5th grade boys came in and I showed him I had just gotten the 2nd book in a series we began this year. He was SO excited, so I handed it to him and asked if he wanted to read it. He took it gratefully, and asked if it was good. When I told him I hadn’t read it yet, he tried to give it back–“It’s your book, you should read it first.”  Nope, kid, it’s yours to read now…think I’d squelch that excitement you showed?  No way, no how.

I got an email from another boy’s Mom, this one a 4th grader–“We bought Neptune Challenge and he’s already started it.”  (Another book we read the first one together- the second one just came out.) This kid talks to his MOTHER about books, he goes home so excited! They read books together now…and that just began this year.

A girl came in this afternoon to make sure she still would have access to our ebook library this summer–and was wanting to make sure I didn’t remove her.  Two of my kids are planning to make a movie this summer, two others are planning to co-write a book together, they told me today.  Another Mom–“Thank you for helping K LOVE to learn!” Another 5th grade boy–“I was worried I was not going to be prepared for 5th grade, but then I went to you every week and I know I’ll be prepared for 6th grade.” A complete tear-jerker from a special helper this year-“You were a blessing that fell from Heaven and was given to me.”

As I reflected today on the end of my day, I realized that in August, I’ll begin the school year for the first time as an NBCT, since my certification began in November. I then thought that kids should be part of the National Board Certification process…and then I said to myself–wait a minute, they really are already.  When we who aspire to get that special certification videotape in our classroom, we show other professionals our kids, and how we teach. When those same already-recognized-with-this-honor teachers read our case studies and see our kids’ work, the kids are speaking to them as well as I did when writing those studies. The kids speak by how they act when learning–by what they say when they are with other kids, and how they grow and change as they work throughout the year.

Being an NBCT is humbling, as I am, with this certification, a teacher recognized nationally as being able to teach in any state because I have those kinds of skills. I am the only Gifted Resource Teacher in my division with this certification. (One other got it, but he moved out of the gifted field.) I am the only NBCT in my school, but not our county–we have a high number of teachers here who have also done the work to be certified. It is hard work to become one–to earn the licensed credential given by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. One has to prove in a multitude of ways that one is not just a good teacher, but an excellent one-one worthy of receiving the highest honor our profession bestows. These standards have been years in the making, and are rigorous, acknowledging the teachers with the particular knowledge and skills necessary to perform the role of being an educator. Being an excellent teacher means constantly reflecting on what we can do to become even better–to move from “Yeah, I do that pretty well and kids get it” to “Gosh! What I did made a real difference in how deeply the kids learned and understood that material.”

As we end this school year, we educators always begin thinking about our next school year. We all need to show our kids we are lifelong learners, and not rest on our laurels. I encourage anyone who reads this who has not gone for their board certification to do so–yes, it is a lot of work, but every bit of it is worth it. I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and embrace a change–big or small, but do something you’ve been thinking about, or wondering, or talked with a colleague about trying. As I begin my 42nd year, I will look to my kids and their families as my support partners–because that’s when miracles happen–when families and educators work toward a common goal of excellence, hard work and achievement. That’s when kids say things like “You have inspired me to push my limits and allways think outside the box. I hope you inspire many other students in the future the same way you inspired me. I am so grateful for everything you have taught me and will miss you so much.”

That’s my “new beginning” goal–to do what that kid wants me to do–inspire others to push their limits and think outside of the box.

How do I Know What I Think…

Until I Hear What I Say?

Back in the late 80’s I rode in a car to Dayton , Ohio with some other folks from my county, along with my mentor from UVA, Daniel Walsh, to have a conversation at some small conference about that question.  That was the name of our presentation–

How Do I Know What I Think Until I Hear What I Say?

Doesn’t that sound strange?  However, back then, our instructional facilitator for early childhood, Jamie Endahl, had begun a series of Early Childhood conversations where any K-1 (and sometimes grades 2-3) teacher who wanted to, came together to just talk about our practice.  The conversations were powerful.  They were life-changing, and they changed practice around our county.  I, for one, felt heard for one of the first times in my life.  I had a place to talk about my practice, my art, my science of working in a classroom with young learners. It was the beginning of being a Connected Educator for me. The power of finding both like and unlike thinkers to challenge, support and question me was simply amazing.

I’ve never forgotten how powerful doing that conference with others was –Carole Lear, Jamie, Mary Smith, Janice Eiden, Daniel, and a couple of others, I think.  We didn’t formally prepare–we simply shared about our EC conversations, and talked about the transformation they had caused in our practice and beliefs.

Simple conversations–but in them, I gleaned new understandings into why and how I was shaping my class to allow K kids to grow and learn.  Sitting and hearing others describe their classes, their practices, their beliefs made me delve more deeply into my own–and doing that solidified some things, challenged some things and definitely changed some things.

As another blogger writes in a post with the same name, “It is not until we are forced to articulate our ideas that they take real shape and we can gain clarity around what our thoughts are really about.” And  another blogger on yet another post with the same name also says, “I have always found that I work out my view or understanding of something by talking about it. It gets my brain connections working.”

Gaining clarity…

Brain connections…

Feeling heard…

Aren’t those things we want our children to experience and feel? So how do we find time for that in our standardized test-driven classes?

I believe it’s in our literacy classes. I believe it’s in our social studies classes. I believe it’s in our math classes and our writing classes, and our science classes, and our field trip bus rides and our lunch conversations and recess conversations…in other words, whenever we can. We have to get kids talking to one another, sharing thoughts and questioning, listening, challenging and empathizing with one another.

Writing is a powerful way to do that. When we ask kids to write to our prompts, to our directives, in our ways, we stifle what they bring to the table. We stifle what they have to say, because they are living within our constraints. We need to find ways to bring them into the conversation with their thoughts, not what they think we want to hear.  I really hate it when smart kids play school and give me the answer they think I want to hear rather than their own thoughts.

Last summer (2012) I was one of the state workshop presenters for writing in the summer SOL workshops for teachers.  I was presenting on media literacy, but we began with a presentation for everyone on the state writing tests.  The literacy person for the state said clearly in that workshop that they did NOT want to see 5 paragraph essays in the March writing test–and that if they saw a cohort of kids doing that on the test from a particular school that they would know real writing instruction had not occurred.  She further went on to say that the typical beginning is to restate the prompt and the typical ending is to ask a question.  We’ve all taught those conventions at one point or another.  So what do we put in place of it?

How do we “get there” with reluctant writers?  How do we scaffold kids who have never felt heard and who often don’t have a clue how to organize their thoughts?  How do we keep kids from ending a piece of writing with things like “That’s all forks.” (Seriously, I had a 5th grader write that this week.)

We talk with them.  We listen to them and question them–carefully–so they will continue to share.  We hold writing workshops. We confer with them, letting them do most of the talking. We share good writing, and we share our passion for amazing and powerful words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs and stories and books. We share our own writing, and talk about OUR process as writers…but we never talk more than the kids.  You see, how do they connect to others if they are only writing for the teacher?  How do they learn to share and empathize and understand their likenesses and differences form other people if they cannot see those? And most of all,

How do they know what they are thinking if they don’t hear what they say?

Just Because Someone Says It…

doesn’t make it true. Not everything on the Internet is true.  Not everything people say about a tool is true.  We all come to things with our own lens, our own biases, and sometimes limited knowledge.

And, as we evaluate resources we use in our classrooms, we need to be thinkers about them–looking carefully at how it’s used, who uses it, and often we have to think about unintended uses as well.

I recently wrote about Minecraft.  I’ve been struggling with letting kids play it in my room for a while now, and I readily admit it’s because I don’t know it well enough. I’ve read and heard enough to know there’s no doubt it can be beneficial, but I really don’t want kids in my room just killing zombies on the devices I have.  Too many other kids want a turn at the other apps I have carefully selected for them.

So today I followed a link about 4 reasons kids should play Minecraft. I was interested in why this Mom changed her mind about her kids playing Minecraft–but as I read, I became more concerned with the title (Minecraft: The Video Game That Makes Kids Good) and some assumptions that were being made.

The writer quotes some experts on Minecraft, but I think she also makes some pretty big leaps.For example, the first reason kids should play Minecraft is because it teaches morality. Yet the expert’s quote is “It’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’, but hopefully with happier outcomes.” Well, that means it could be horrible… and jumping from that to it teaching morality is a huge leap. Maybe it can teach morality when kids get into it deeper than my elementary kids are, or maybe when they have a kid mentor that teaches them how to play, or maybe when they talk about it with someone, but just playing it?  I doubt it. I don’t care who says so.

And, as for it being Facebook with training wheels?  Well, again, that’s only if there’s guidance to go with it. The person quoted teaches gaming, for goodness sake.  Of course he’s going to have conversations about good uses and how to play it ethically.  If he doesn’t, he’s not a good gaming teacher. But I venture to say that in many places Minecraft is being played, there is no one there having those conversations.

As for #3 and #4, there is no doubt the game CAN support those things, with a knowledgeable adult to guide children… but the game itself does NOT teach impulse control or foster collaboration.  What a silly statement. It’s not about the game itself…but what folks do with the game. Even the person quoted in #4 says the kid “MIGHT” think about Minecraft and use what he learned there.

It’s NOT about the tool.  It’s about how the tool (in this case, Minecraft) is used and exploited and guided and yes, maybe even ignored. What causes learning is  the context in which the game is played–it’s the conversations and interactions that come from playing the game.

And that’s really how it is with any resource we choose to use–it’s not all about the tool , but how we choose to use it.  When people claim any game–or resource– can do things, we should look long and hard at how that happens–and whether it’s a true statement, or there are other conditions that impact whether the tool or resource is worthwhile.

Just because someone (even an expert) says it, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Rules for Life

I believe the most important thing we can do in school is help kids navigate their own lives. That includes helping them be smart enough to do so, and that includes learning facts and how to maneuver in this world, but most of all it involves understanding oneself and others. Teachers have an amazing amount of power over how a child thinks, especially when they are young, and we absolutely can impact how a child approaches learning and life to at least some extent.

There’s been a lot of buzz in social media recently about Matt B. Gomez’ rule for his Kindergarten class, making his one classroom rule, “Be Brave!”  I like that and would definitely add it to the three I used with Kindergarten. In fact, as Betsy (my collab teacher) and I were talking to our fifth graders the other day, I cited those three from my K class to them.

My first rule–Be Safe.  When you come to school, you should be safe–no one wants anyone to get hurt–so as you work and play, do it in a way that you won’t get hurt. (This negates me having to constantly say the “Don’ts”…don’t run in the hall, don’t hang off the slide, don’t run with scissors, etc.) Instead of saying, “Don’t” all the time, and fussing at kids for being careless, when they do something that is not safe, I help them become conscious of their actions through questioning and helping them think through the options.  “Were you just being safe?  What could happen if you continue?  What can you do instead?  What are other options you have?” AND, if the behavior happens multiple times, then I add, “What can you do to help you  remember what you’re saying right now and act on it? Do you need my help?  If so, what can I do to help you remember?”

Second rule–Be considerate. The main thing little kids (and honestly, some big ones, too) need to understand is that they are part of a group and with that comes a different mindset than when you are alone. I say to kids–you are NOT the only person in this room and we all have to help one another for it to be a great place to be. With my K kids, we talked about how when you are by yourself at home or in your own space (bedroom, playhouse, outside, etc.) you can do things you can’t necessarily do in a group. For example, if you are watching a movie at home, you might get your cars or dolls or legos and play with them as you are watching the movie. But if you try to do that at school, you’ll be distracting other people and keeping them from learning, because people will be watching you. If you’re sharing scissors at the table, you can’t keep the scissors by your seat all the time, because others need to use them–use them when you need them and then put them back in the center of the table.  If you’re at home, sometimes you can leave your toys out and come back to them later–but when in a classroom of 20 kids, you need to clean up after yourself so others don’t have to walk around or over whatever you take out.  The more explicit the examples are, the better kids understand what being considerate means. Again, when a child does something that is more egocentric, you can simply ask about the rule: “Are you being considerate?  Does that show you are thinking of other people in here? How does that support everyone else in here?  What can you do differently?”

Third rule:  Be a Thinker. School is a place you come to learn, so be a thinker. Think about what you know, what you have learned, what you already know and questions you have.  We do a lot of  talking about “smart kids.”  Smart kids ask questions.  Smart kids listen carefully to instructions, and ask clarifying questions if they don’t understand.  Smart kids pick out a variety of books from the library–ones that will be fun, ones that will challenge them, ones that will help them learn,. etc. Smart kids keep trying , even when something is hard, but when they get frustrated , they may take a break or ask for help, or walk away from the problem for a bit, etc. The idea is to help kids develop strategies for being a thinker all the time. We especially talk about play as thinking. Even during play, you are thinking–you are making choices and decisions, using your imagination and exercising your brain as you relax and/or increase the blood flowing to it.

These are reinforced over and over as we live our year together…not spouted as rules all at once the first days of school. These are rules that if everyone followed for their lives, we could all live very differently, don’t you think?

Once You Have Bad Sound….

there’s nothing you can do about it, the expert brought in to teach kids about making movies said to each group.

And in each group (3 sets of mixed classes of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders) at least one kid turned to me and said something to the effect of, “Hasn’t he ever heard of voiceovers?”

My response?  “No one knows everything, so learn what you can from whomever you can, whenever you can.”

He was using a mac for his powerpoint, but I don’t know if iMovie is his movie editing software…it’s simple to do voiceovers in that program. Maybe he thought kids couldn’t do them. I don’t know.

What I do know is that Joe Lambert is an expert with them, and that’s who I learned my skills from, first in 1999 and later, from  2003-2004 as I worked with him at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC to help teachers create podcasts at a teacher institute there. Then, I taught how to do voiceovers from 2004-2009 as I continued to work at the NGA in their summer Teacher Institute.  So many of my kids know about voiceovers–when we do movies, I always teach them.

The point though, is that definitive statements that negate kids solving their own problems don’t teach kids to be learners. When we make blanket statements about this doesn’t work, or that doesn’t work, we teach kids to not look for alternatives. We teach kids not to be thinkers. We teach kids not to be creative in their approaches to problems.

And we all do it. But thinking about it and being aware of it might help me next time I start to say something like that.  I certainly hope so!



What’s Your Pivot Point?

I went to see The Butler this past weekend with @Beckyfisher73. butler

Afterwards, we began talking about the power of this movie, and of course, with Becky being a detail dudette (as her family calls her), she began wondering how historically accurate it was, so she checked it out on Wikipedia, which states at least some of those inaccuracies. Despite those, we both feel this movie is pretty moving, and like Lincoln or 42, worth using in school or at the very least, recommending to parents that kids go see it to amplify their minds.

In this movie, there were several perspective shifting moments–pivot points, if you will, for changing perspectives, beliefs or behavior. This won’t be a spoiler post, but I will say that after serving 8 presidents as a White House butler, near the end of the movie, Cecil sits at a state dinner being served by the black butlers he has worked with for so many years. Experiencing something he has lived for many years from a different perspective, he has an epiphany that rocks his world.

It wasn’t that he welcomed that moment, but neither did he run from it.  And we wondered…

Do we, as human beings–adult or child–see those moments in our lives?

If we see them, do we ignore them, or embrace them?

We sometimes recognize them in hindsight–does it matter if our epiphany comes in the moment or later?

Do we seek out those opportunities to think deeply, wrestle with our beliefs and perhaps change our perspective or point of view?

How do we amplify our minds to have those experiences?

In the classroom, we do activities that ask kids to take a different point of view or write ‘in the voice of.” How do we do that authentically but put banks on the river?

For example, simulating slave auctions in the classroom is not right, but what is? I believe that making any kid feel inferior is just wrong.

I also believe we need to tap into deep emotion to have kids really experience a change of perspective.

I remember vividly an experience in my 4th grade classroom 15 or 16 years ago. I had to teach about the Civil War, and as I said in my last post I really don’t like violence and avoid it (reading about it, watching it, talking about it, whatever) if I possibly can.  I was sincerely worried about having to teach war to my kids, as I wasn’t sure how I would handle it.

So I did it through literature.  We read Carolyn Reeder’s Across the Lines together (a great point/counterpoint between two 10 year olds, a white landowner’s son, and his black servant who has run away). We watched some informational videos along with Jimmy Stewart’s Shenandoah.  ( I conveniently scheduled a lunch break when the marauders went upstairs at the farm after one of the son’s wives, and that part was over when we resumed after lunch.) The kids independently read other Civil War novels and brought that knowledge to our class discussions. We discussed various differences between the north and south and also used Elaine Marie Alphin’s Ghost Cadet to solidy some of that.

In one of our final discussions, I was sharing how I had been really nervous about teaching about the Civil War and how I was not looking forward to teaching bloody battles, and all the gore that goes with learning about war. I said I thought we’d done a pretty good job avoiding that piece, but learning about the war and all of its consequences, reasons for occurring and the people and its effect on them. One kid, Aaron, raised his hand and said something like, “I was afraid of the horror, too, when we first began. And, I thought the reasons for the war were pretty simple and straightforward. It was about slavery, which the North didn’t believe in and the South did. But as we talked and as I read, I realized the reasons for slavery and the war were more complicated than that, and that it was just like the title of Carolyn Reeder’s book, Shades of Grey–slavery was not black or white–it was shades of grey.”

In another powerful experience in my classroom a few years later, 5th graders explored  the displacement of people from the Blue Ridge Mountains during the “New Deal” era (What Price This Mountain?) and we created web pages to help organize our student research. I’ll never forget Sarah’s response, cited here.

So, the bottom line for me is to touch their hearts to find a pivot point and help students amplify their mind through thoughtful discourse, writing, thinking and pondering. I want to provide opportunities and books to find those pivot points–to help them be critical thinkers, considerate human beings and to get them to be thoughtful about not only their actions, but their belief systems.


Thanks a bunch to Becky, for the conversations that prompted this post!

Our School Board–and the 4th pathway

Yesterday our Superintendent and one of our school board members came by to the last faculty meeting before the first day of school. It was one of those meetings where we were going to go over bus schedules, lunch duties, who sits where in the cafeteria, etc. EVERY teacher’s favorite meeting, right?  But it began with our school board member talking.

Now you have to know how much I respect our school board.  Years ago, I blogged about them here, where I talk about them being a learning board.  They are thoughtful, question-asking thinkers who listen and learn and deeply care about the learners in our system.

Steve Koleszar, our Chair, came to our school yesterday, and I’d just like to share some quotes from what he said.

1. The poor quality of the VA SOL assessments is the biggest threat to education in Albemarle County Public Schools.

To hear it posed that strongly blew me away.  The biggest threat?  Yeah, it is–I completely resent the time wasted on test prep and getting kids to answer stupid questions, or do a dictated writing prompt weekly, or read books just to answer comprehension questions, or do math just to get the problem right…not for understanding. 

2. We, as a board, believe it is more important that our kids can DO, rather than pass a test.

Thus, the emphasis on maker curriculum (which, by the way, is the 4th pathway.) Our board has supported a maker summer school,  renovations in our schools to support making, and professional development that supports teacher understanding of making through doing it themselves! 

Let me be perfectly clear. Neither Mr. Koleszar nor our Superintendent are against assessment.  Nor is anyone else in our Central office, or, I believe, a leadership position in this system.  The overwhelming belief, though, is that assessment should be meaningful, make sense, inform the learner, make a difference and be based in reality–something that the learner will use and find useful in real life. 

3. Everything we do as a Board is focused on improving instruction.

Our board has supported a Math, Engineering and Science Academy, and Health and Sciences Medical Academy, and many, many other opportunities that support our learners in a variety of ways.  We have not reduced art, music and PE during the budget woes in our county.  We still have recess, and believe it is important that children be children while they learn–so they should be active and talk, not be silent  as they learn.

Then, Pam Moran, our Superintendent stood up and said “Creativity, curiosity, passion and engagement are all sucked out of kids with SOLs.”

Can people understand the craziness of high-stakes, standardized testing any better?

UDL And Differentiation

Our 3rd Pathway

(I guess names can change—this one is different from what we used in the spring introducing it. Then it wasn’t individualization, it was differentiation.)

So here’s the county definition:

Universal Design for Learning/Individualization of Learning: Uses alternative representations of information, multiple tools, and a variety of instructional strategies to provide access for all learners to acquire lifelong learning competencies and knowledge and skills specified in curricular standards; creates a classroom culture that fully embraces differentiation of instruction, student work, and assessment based upon individual learners’ needs; applies contemporary learning science to create accessibility entry points for all students in the learning environment; supports students to learn how to make technology choices to overcome disabilities and inabilities.

It’s interesting to me that this definition is worded to discuss teacher behaviors, for the most part. For me, it’s about the kids becoming competent at making their own informed choices, knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do, and not only having a variety of tools and strategies to use to help themselves learn, but knowing enough about themselves and those tools to know what works for them.

That means that we have to help students understand and know that “contemporary learning science” mentioned in the definition. It’s about, as Becky Fisher (aka @beckyfisher73 on Twitter) says, connecting kids to content and skills in ways that matter—to them and to the world.

It means when a child asks a question, we don’t presume to know where that question is coming from without probing for deep understanding of the child’s thinking.

It means that providing IOS devices, Android devices or Chromebooks, or any of the other myriad devices and/or platforms is not enough. People who use them should understand the choices involved and be knowledgeable enough to know which tool is best for the situation.

It means we ourselves have to understand, use, and explicitly teach “alternative representations of information, multiple tools, and a variety of instructional strategies.”  Eighteen to twenty years ago, I worked with a SPED teacher, Ann Welch, who was a MASTER of differentiation. She took some 3rd graders from my homeroom and had them doing all kinds of alternative work with word study words so that they REALLY knew those words and spelling patterns so they could pass a test each week that included sentences, sorting, and definitions. That work began with her, then I started doing it with other kids, then her kids started writing their own sentences and making their own sorts on the tests They were figuring out how to show in their own ways what they knew. That student ownership was carefully scaffolded through increasing success and teaching the science of learning to the kids.

This pathway means that when we “fully embrace differentiation of instruction, student work, and assessment based upon individual learners’ needs” every kid does NOT take the same test or do the same work for a learning activity, or answer the same questions posed by the teacher. Ann also took every single written test we 4th grade teachers gave in the content area and rewrote and reorganized them to eliminate the “noise” and zone in on what was really being assessed—and then she worked to help the kids learn those facts and/or skills to be successful. That might have meant reading aloud some of it—or allowing research—or doing projects to enhance understanding, but she did whatever it took for each kid on her caseload, and then some. I was blessed to work with her for many years over several grade levels, and I can never be appreciative enough of all I learned with her.

The bottom line is that through my lifelong commitment to listening to kids, and through my opportunities to work with highly skilled educators such as Ann, this is a pathway that resonates with me. Hopefully the kids owning and understanding their own learning is apparent to anyone, kid or adult, who joins my classroom, even if only for a visit.

This Is a Cup…

…”but you don’t want it to look like a cup, right?” my sister asked as she picked up her coffee cup and put it in front of me. I laughed, but she had a point. I needed to explain better what I was trying to say.

My school is involved in one of our county “Design 2015” grants, which we created to help us teach through 7 specific pathways.  We are working to use the P21 4 C’s (collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking) as we include choice and comfort and work on our learning spaces to meet the needs of our learners.

So, my sister and I were sitting in my room today, trying to figure out how to shake up my classroom to be able to see the 7 pathways and make my room not look like a classroom–or at least look different from traditional classrooms. So, let’s start with the first pathway and check it out–

(The following definition is taken right from our system’s “pathways” page.)

Choice and Comfort

Provides learners with a variety of learning space choices based on task-based and physical comfort-based needs while supporting learners to alter and use spaces to initiate and accomplish collaborative and individual work as they use multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies; student learning products demonstrate student choices in curriculum, task, technologies, and media.

So if I dissect that…

well, you decide:

Provides learners with a variety of learning space choices based on task-based and physical comfort-based needs

Hmmm, there is this and this and maybe even this.

while supporting learners to alter and use spaces to initiate and accomplish collaborative and individual work as they use multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies;

The picture referenced above shows how kids move things around in my room.

I think these ideas clearly say we use multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies.

student learning products demonstrate student choices in curriculum, task, technologies, and media.

Student Choices? Here and here and even here.

So does that cover it?  It still hasn’t helped me figure out how to rearrange, and what I need to change to “see” the 7 pathways…

Maybe I should move on to the second pathway–Instructional Tolerance.

Oh, that’s my next post. See you then!




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