Mar 04

The Wisdom of the Room

This is related to EduCon, but it’s also just about pedagogy.

I was sitting in a session at SXSWedu where a panel of educators were talking about how they had achieved a new initiative for their school. It was an hour-long session, and really, after about ten or fifteen minutes, it was clear what they had done — it was cool — but after that, the panel quickly got into the weeds about some very specific details about their implementation. I was sitting next to a friend, and we were quietly challenging each other about how this idea could work in our schools. And I realized that what I wanted was the chance to sit and talk about that idea with a few folks around me – in short, I wanted a more “EduCon-y” session.

I wanted this group to challenge the folks in the room to think about how the idea would work in their worlds. I wanted to be able to consider the stumbling blocks to the idea. I wanted to be able to collaborate.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t ever a place for panel discussions – there is. If you follow my twitter stream, you’ll know that I was in seventh heaven watching Randi Weingarten, Peter Cunningham and Valerie Strauss debate assessment and accountability. But when you have an idea about how to make schools better, letting people have the discussion and debate and engage fully in the idea will greatly enhance the probability that those ideas will stay with the folks in the room… and even better… you greatly increase the probability that some really novel ways to think about the idea will come out.

When it comes to playing with ideas, we need to remember that the wisdom of the room is something that needs to be respected. And when it comes to our classrooms, we need to remember that honoring the wisdom of the room also — and importantly — is a powerful way to ensure that students will more willingly engage in the idea itself.

Feb 13

Teaching Kids: Good For Teachers Too

[One of the cool things about being willing to talk through what you actually think about teaching is that sometimes you stumble across new ways of thinking about the things you think. This post stems from one of those conversations.]

Anyone who has ever heard me talk about what I believe about teaching has probably heard me talk about the difference between the statement, “I teach English,” and “I teach kids English.” It is at the core of what I believe about how we can make schools more caring, human places. Most of the time, we talk about this in terms of how this can make school so much more powerful for kids, but it’s also an idea that can make school so much more powerful for the adults as well.

One of the things that we worry about in our profession is teacher burn-out. It’s real. The job is exhausting, and there are any number of factors that can cause teachers to lose their effectiveness and lose their passion. One of those reasons is that it can be very difficult to keep finding the energy to teach the same thing over and over again for a forty-year career. And if you think of your teaching as “subject first,” not “student first,” maintaining love of the subject can get really hard. But our students are forever new, often (to me) fascinating, and as infinitely variable as we can imagine. When we focus on always learning who are students are as the first and most important thing we do, we can find one more way to sustain our energy for the work we do.


Sep 22

Kurt Vonnegut, Facebook and the Teaching Life


SLA Ultimate

SLA Ultimate

 “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five was one of my favorite books when I was younger – and it probably deserves a re-read now – and I was always struck by the idea of being able to live and relive the moments of one’s life at all moments of one’s life as the Tralfamadorians do, seeing life across four dimensions rather than three.

I am starting to think we all have become unstuck in time.

The other day, I posted a photo of the SLA Ultimate Frisbee team warming up before our first game of the year. Within an hour or two, there were “likes” and comments from former players, folks I used to coach against, former students and, of course, members of the current SLA community. What is incredible about that is that it connects the generations of my coaching and teaching life in some really amazing ways.

The teaching life is a strange one… as educators, we have these incredibly powerful relationships with kids at a moment in time in their lives and then they go on their way… and we do that over and over again. And over time – at least for me – it becomes harder to remember who overlapped with whom in the time they spent with you, especially because the time line is less important than the time spent.

And now, with Facebook, the teaching life overlaps more. Former students interact with current students with comments on photos like, “I remember 6:30 am…” and such.

My teaching life has become unstuck in time, and all of the students of my life can interact regardless of the moment in time we were teacher and student.

What a wonderful evolution of the teaching life.

Apr 22

Educators Are Lucky

[This post is in reaction to the incredible pain we are feeling in the School District of Philadelphia right now. We are facing down massive cuts to our schools, and with those cuts will come layoffs, and teachers and students both stand to lose unless things change very soon. But despite that, school ran today. The kids showed up. The teachers honored the trust placed in them and taught well. Learning happened. On some level, it was the best reminder to what we do and why we do it as I can imagine.]

At 6:30 this morning, I was on a field with fourteen young men, practicing a sport we all love.

At 9:00 this morning, I watched a group of students work with a teacher as they worked on a robot they were building.

At lunch today, I sat with a student and her advisor and looked over financial aid packages from the various colleges she was accepted to.

And this afternoon, I watched a group of kids performing Shakespeare in an 11th grade English class.

In between those events, there were emails answered, phone calls made, a memo or two written, but more importantly, there were lots of conversations with students and teachers, some light and fun, some serious. It was, in other words, a typical day at school.

We need to understand how precious that really is.

Most people don’t have the kind of days teachers have. Most people don’t have a chance to pull a student aside and make them think or care or wonder. Most people don’t laugh as much during the days as we do. Most people don’t cry as often as teachers do. Most people simply don’t feel as much as we do.

And many people have to sit in offices, which I did for a few years — school is more fun.

This isn’t to say the job is easy – it’s not. The point isn’t that we get our summers off or anything like that. Teachers work hard at an incredibly emotionally and intellectually challenging job every day. But we need to remember a few things:

  1. No one made us do this.
  2. We don’t have to keep doing it.
  3. We aren’t the only people in the world who work hard.
  4. We get to hang out with kids all day long.

We need to keep these things in perspective, because we do no one any good when we perceive ourselves to be victims or martyrs. We need to own that we made the decision to teach and keep teaching. And it was a good decision to make, because as hard as we work, and as ridiculous as some of the policies being imposed on schools are, we stay the lucky ones.

We get to teach.

Jan 07

Take the Work Seriously, But Don’t Take Yourself Seriously.

When I was sixteen years old, my three best friends and I decided to see how many tissues we could shove in our mouths. There was no reason. It was after school one day, and it was something we could compete over. I was “winning” this contest when the gag reflex kicked in and I came closer to choking to death than I’d like to admit.

I tell this story to say this — no matter what I do in my life, I am still the same moron who nearly died in a tissue-mouth-shoving contest. That’s important.

Think of the most ridiculous thing you did in high school. You are still that person. You will always be that person. It doesn’t matter how much wisdom you have accumulated in the intervening years, you are still that person.

And that’s a good thing for so many reasons.

A career in education is a powerful way to spend your life. The work we do is important, meaningful, and incredibly challenging. We should take the work of helping children learn incredibly seriously. But we should remember to never take ourselves all that seriously. Because, to quote the kids, “It’s just not that deep.”

When we have the humility to remember all the twists and turns in the path that got us to where we are today, we are more likely to be understanding of the twists and turns in the paths our students take.

When we don’t fall in love with our own ideas, we remain open to change and grow. We are more likely to allow our ideas to be influenced and made better by our students and our colleagues.

When we remember to laugh at ourselves, we display an openness to students that is so important to model.

When we have enough sense of the long view of our lives, we laugh more easily, smile more broadly and are more likely to share a sense of joy with the people around us.

When we are not overly invested in our own seriousness of purpose, we remember that we are the lucky ones – we get to spend our working lives teaching and learning with our students, and really, that’s a pretty awesome way to spend our time.

When we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we remember that the work isn’t about us. It’s about the kids.

So let’s find a reason to laugh with the kids and our colleagues every day. Pick up the guitar and play with the kids, even if we sing off-key. Play basketball with our students – even if they cream us. Let’s let them see us as whole people, so that they might let us see them the same way.

And, then when we can really all talk to one another without the view of each other’s egos in the way, we can ask them what they think about our schools, and we can listen deeply to their answers and let their ideas change our own.

Oct 29

The Teacher We Are, The Student We Were

I was speaking at the School Library Journal Leadership Conference on Saturday when I accidentally stumbled upon an idea that was a real evolution of the stuff I think. (It’s one of the really good things about public speaking – especially when you only have an outline, not a ‘speech,’ talking about what you believe to different audiences can really cause you to examine what you actually believe – out loud and for an audience to see. But I digress.)

Much of the conference was focused on the need for the role of libraries to evolve, and I asked the following questions:

“How many of you were A and B students in school?”

And around 95% of the room raised their hands.

And I asked, “How many of you, when you were in school, really just wanted a quiet place to read books?”

And about 80% of the room raised their hands.

And I asked, “How many of you have built the library you wanted when you were a student… and who is excluded from your vision?”

And the room was quiet.

Now, I talk a lot about the need to unlearn, but I usually talk about it in terms of our own evolution as educators, but the more I think about it, the same holds true for thinking about our own evolution from before we became educators.

Most teachers I talked to were good at school, and I’d argue that much of the effort we undertake is to help kids be good at the same kind of classroom we loved the most. And while we want all kids to be good in that classroom, we have to ask ourselves — who do we accidentally value most in our classrooms?

When I started teaching, I hated silence in class discussions, so I called on the first person to raise their hand. And not shockingly, that was the kind of kid I was in class (when I liked the teacher.) It took me time to learn to appreciate the silence as more kids thought of something to say. It took me time to learn to let kids write out ideas before opening up class discussion. It took me time to discover ways to create a classroom that wasn’t just the classroom I wanted when I was in school.

It makes sense. Every teacher walks into their own classroom with the ghosts of the experiences s/he had as a student. And most folks, just by human nature, would want their classroom to be a place that the younger version of themselves would enjoy. That’s not a bad place to start, but it cannot be the end.

The teacher we are today is, without question, informed by the student we were. But we have to make sure that we create a vision of our classrooms — and our schools — that include all students in that vision, not just in ways to “make them fit,” but to create spaces where all students can find themselves and find success.

Sep 11

What I Learned from 9/11

As befits a day of remembrance, it feels appropriate to not only think about what we lost on 9/11, but what I learned.

I was teaching in New York City that day, so 9/11 is and always will be an intensely personal memory for me. But today, I want to focus on one lesson I learned.

As parents came to my school from downtown, covered in soot and ash, they only wanted to have their child in their arms. When the planes hit the towers, it was as if a homing beacon went off in their heads, and the only thing that matter to them was being with their child. Parents didn’t stop to wipe off their face; they just started walking. You could look at them and see it in their eyes, “If I can get my child in my arms, it’s going to be o.k.”

That day completely changed how I understood the parent-child relationship. Jakob and Theo weren’t around yet, so I only understood parenting from the perspective of a teacher. So for me, it deepened my understanding of the deeply visceral nature of parenting, and that – along with being a parent myself – deeply informs the way I do my job. After 9/11, I can never look at the concern or fear or love in a parent’s eyes and underestimate how deeply that parent is feeling that emotion.

That’s how I make sense of 9/11 and how I try to take something from that day that allows me to move forward.

Sep 07

Mrs. Morello and Making a Difference

As we enter a new school year and the next phase of the 2012 Presidential Election, let’s remember the difference we all can make in a child’s life with a scene from my favorite fictional White House:

Have a wonderful start of the school year everyone. May we all be lucky enough to have a phone call like that some day.

Aug 24

On Teaching and Being a Good Person

So… an SLA alum who is studying to be a teacher texted me this the other day (it took several texts):

I definitely think <SLA teacher> is the most gifted teacher technically speaking in the school. He has an ability to figure out how each student’s brain will best understand whatever he’s teaching and explain it accordingly. Do you know if he took some program to learn how to figure out the learning styles or just learned it on the job or if he was just born with it like some super power? Because I want to be able to do that.

Here was my response:

Here’s the Super Power: Listen and watch a lot. Be aware of who the kid in front of you IS, not who you want them to be.

Her response was that I made complex ideas sound simple. To which I replied:

Sometimes we make the world harder than it has to be. Be kind, listen deeply, care a lot, have enough strength in yourself not to get taken advantage of, but never let your own ego get in the way of seeing a kid in need. And always remember, you are never that far away from being idiot you were when you were sixteen, so honor the fact that people helped you survive that time and remember that the wisdom you have today comes from the doofus stuff you did then.

Oh yeah, and forgive other people their flaws in the hope that people will forgive you yours.

Astrophysics is hard. Being a good person is pretty easy. And the first step to being a great teacher is being a good person.

It was late at night, so you’ll forgive me for being a little preachy. But it’s not terrible advice for a young teacher or even an old teacher / principal, I think. The both good and bad thing about teaching is that who we are as people comes through in who we are as teachers. You can be a very good person, and not be a great teacher, of course, but I’m not sure you can be a great teacher without being a good person.