“Accept, Reject, Dismantle”

murphy_cover_web_border-bmThis past summer, I got an email inviting me to write about what it’s like to work in a school that doesn’t really believe in standardized tests… but still has to administer them.

Unbeknownst to Brett Murphy, the esteemed editor of Inside Our Schools, I am one of the testing coordinators at SLA, so I had a lot to say on this topic. The title of the chapter became a summation of our options — and by “our” I mean all of us: Accept, Reject, Dismantle.

If that sounds heavy, don’t worry. The chapter also gave me the chance to share a delightful tradition we have for the role of testing coordinator at SLA. It was established many years ago by Mr. Zac Chase:

“From here on out, I am not going to be Zac when I am doing this work,” he announced at the start of one of our proctor training sessions, somewhere back in the Spring of 2009. “I don’t want to be myself while I’m doing this job. Whenever you need to talk to me about testing, you need to talk to Rick.” Rick was randomly selected, but subsequent testing coordinators leaned towards adopting celebrity names or fictional personas: Nurse Ratched, Marky Mark, Beach Dave.

After a brief brainstorming session, we hit on an obvious choice: Boris and Natasha. We would play the villains, but they would be the loveable, cartoonish kind. The fact that one of us is Russian leant a vague air of legitimacy to the choice. The staff responded positively to the appearance of our cartoon personas in the training slide shows. But more than anything, the names were valuable because they gave us open license to be grumps. Teachers stopped asking me about testing matters without any warning. They developed the delightful habit of saying, “I have a question for Natasha”—to which I could reply, “sorry, she’s not available right now.” Conversely, on a testing day, they would warn the (mildly confused) students: “Don’t bother her. She’s not Pahomov today.”

I am beyond excited to get my hands on the final product, not in the least because the other chapters are written by Michelle Gunderson and a host of other excellent educators, some of whom I will be meeting for the first time through their writing.

If you are at all curious as to what life is really like in schools, order your copy today. You can get 20% off your order directly from Harvard Press with the code IOSS17.

EduCon Reflection: How to Teach Like a Human

A lesson I am still learning from EduCon is that the less planning you put into your session, the more interesting the outcome of that conversation will be.

Here’s my write-up for this year’s session:

Classrooms in “progressive,” “alternative,” or “non-traditional” schools are often seen as magical spaces — free of conflict and without any need for classroom management. But teachers in these spaces actually have many concrete, specific techniques. What do they do? Come discuss and discover.

The secret was that I had not prepared any specific examples from SLA — this session was going to rely entirely on examples that we all generated together and shared.

The first step was to brainstorm what human qualities we wanted our students to develop in school — to think not about skills and content, at least not as it relates to our “subject areas,” but to think about what abilities we wanted our students to carry with them five or more years after they left our classroom.

Tables made free-form lists on poster paper.

After that, we looked at the most common practices of a typical school day or class period — openers and closers, direct instruction, class discussion, independent practice, keeping students on task, and dealing with conflict.

For each category, participants wrote their answers to the following prompts:

What exactly do you do and say?

What skills does this encourage in your students?

There was a lot of scribbling and typing for most of the hour. Many responses live on this 15-page Google Doc.

People had a LOT to share. The challenge of this session, though, was not just describing your practice — it was explaining how your practice directly supported the human qualities you wanted to instill in your students in the long term. Making a list of those in the abstract was easy. And most educators knew that their classroom practice did encourage their students to be better people. But when, exactly? And how?

Here are a few examples of how people made their practice transparent — in our session, and also to their students:

  • For group work, I encourage them to establish norms and expectations for their groups. I tell them, “How you work together here is at least as important as what you accomplish.” This helps them understand each other’s individual goals and build positive relationships with the folks they’re working with.  – Brian Lakatos
  • With my first period class we typically start with a little bit of time (3ish minutes) to just talk. Sometimes there’s a prompt (silly ice breakers at the start of the year, acknowledgement about something happening currently at school / in the city / in the country) sometimes it is just a chance to talk about how we spent our evenings. The idea is that we acknowledge there is a transition between home and school – they are different spaces which require different kinds of navigating. The idea is also to show that we value one another and the opportunity to just be together. – Hilary Hamilton
  • I often set up a backchannel conversation space or a collaborative notes document so learners can share their thinking during the instruction, and have a place to capture their questions and identify which should be addressed in the moment and which might be able to be addressed afterward. This encourages learners to take responsibility for their own thinking and learn how to share the responsibilities of notetaking as well as add to one another’s thinking. – Jessica Raleigh

What I like about these examples is that they are very concrete things that people DO in the course of a class period. They are not strictly “classroom management techniques” but they’re not curriculum-based either. They are examples of how the methods of teaching are what ultimately send the most powerful message.

You can check out the video of the full session here:


P.S. At one point, a participant did ask: when are you going to share the SLA examples? At which point my secret was revealed: SLA has lots of answers to these prompts, but we don’t have THE answer. The expertise does not exist in some distant book or building — it’s already in the room, waiting to be built out of the collective knowledge of the group. 

P.P.S. There were, admittedly, a few people utterly transfixed by the fact that their classroom practice did nothing to encourage the qualities they wanted to see in their students. I’m glad that they were in the room to think about it for the first time. 


Not By Force, But By Example


What does it take for a movement to become mainstream?

I thought about this a great deal as I walked nine miles during the Women’s March on Washington yesterday. It weighed on me most deeply at the MLK memorial, where the above photo was taken.

I would not have described myself as a political person before I became a teacher. A voter, sure. In college, I was your average English major without a plan (being a teacher was not in the cards, or so I thought). What I believed in was reading, thinking about it, coming up with analysis, and writing that down.

The thing is, when you do these things well — when you truly are literate — you figure stuff out. And once you figure stuff out, you can’t go back to where you were before.

I have chosen to dedicate my life to helping students become literate, but I have not paused my own ongoing exploration of the world in the process. It’s been quite the opposite. As inequality in our country increases, I find myself both working harder to make my classroom a place where students can freely explore the “how” and “why” of our world, while also personally becoming more certain as to some of the reasons that our nation fails at ensuring justice and security for all its people.

There are plenty of moments I where I don’t share my personal opinion on something we are exploring in class. But that doesn’t mean I stop thinking it, or that I hide it from them permanently. My responsibility as a teacher is to both educate my students and advocate for a world in which they will be able to achieve everything that education promises them. They are capable of understanding that complexity.

So: I can have students making all kinds of economic arguments in their 2Fer essays, and also choose to stand with Fight for $15 protestors outside City Hall.

I can be honest about my personal voting record, and still watch and analyze the inauguration with my journalism students, imaginary press passes hanging around our necks.

I can both help a student revise their “Why I Supported Donald Trump in the Election” column and also be clear that, if our current president can’t bring himself to follow the three rules for conversation at SLA, he is not welcome in my classroom.

And when it comes to matters of civil rights, I can help set the stage for our nation to evolve  — not by force, but by example. Schools set the bar for what our world should and will look like. The pressure is huge, but the potential payoff enormous.

This coming week, teachers at my school are choosing to explore the foundational ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement with their students. This is a part of a citywide effort on the part of my union caucus to raise consciousness about issues of racial justice. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have, the moments of discovery and debate. I feel fortunate that my union, the American Federation of Teachers, has already given significant support to BLM. And I feel hopeful that individuals and groups who are just getting to know this new chapter in our nation’s history of civil rights will join us in our learning.

Figuring this out was not a complex political act. It is not activism. What it took was some reading, thinking, and talking with others. Stop by my classroom this week, we’ll be doing just that.

In The Room Together

What does a truly diverse school look like?

One of the things that I love most about SLA is that our student body is diverse on many fronts — their country of origin, race or ethnicity, socio-economic status, which neighborhood they hail from. We pack a lot into one building.

But what does this look like beyond the numbers? How does it actually play out for our students over the years?

One thing Matt Kay constantly points out to the freshmen (and then to staff) is that most of our students also hail from middle schools where most of their peers looked like them. Transitioning to a school where no single demographic makes up more than 50% of the population is not always easy. Our home is not perfect (and never will be). But I think it’s telling that, when you assign the juniors a project called “Best Personal Essay Ever,” many students choose to write about what that transition has been like for them, clear-eyed, honest, appreciative and critical of both themselves and the world around them.

Here are three two-minute “visual essays” from three students who, had it not been for SLA, may never have crossed paths in our fair city. With these stories, each of them is weaving themselves into the world, making it one more cohesive fabric.



Speaking of Love


In my first year of teaching at SLA — which was my first year of teaching in my own classroom — a student asked me, “do you love us?”

The question gave me pause. This was a student in the crankiest class I taught that year (hello, Fire Stream, class of 2010) and it seemed, for a moment, that the query might be a trick. But I still knew the answer in my heart.

“Yes, of course I love you.”

The student wasn’t buying it. “What? You lyin’. We really annoy you in our class.”

Zac Chase, who was listening in, came to the rescue here: “You mean you’ve never been driven crazy by somebody you love?”

It was only a couple of years in that I came to realize how truly rare this conversation was at the high school level. Love exists between young children and their parents, with teachers serving as proxy; as those children become adolescents, the definition of love shifts towards romance. Our popular portrayals of “I love you” further narrow our understanding of the experience — with our heads full of images of (straight, white) couples in joy or anguish, we lose contact with the universal experience that love can be.

And yet. I am lucky — beyond lucky — to work at SLA. What I have witnessed here has helped expand my understanding of what love is and how it can save us.

When a student carries a friend in a cast down the stairs during a fire drill, that’s love.

When an entire advisory turns out for the funeral of a parent, that’s love.

When a teacher takes a student into their own home so they will make it to graduation, that’s love.

And when we feel concern, fear, even terror about the changing political landscape, our love for each other is not just comfort or safety, but an act of resistance against the forces that would prefer to see us tear each other down in hate rather than lift each other up.

Late in the evening of election night — but long before the results were made official — a question formed in my head: What are we going to say to the kids tomorrow?

That question lead to a few lines of text, which then became a collective letter that SLA teachers composed between midnight and 7AM the next morning. We got to school early, wrote it out on poster paper, and made photocopies for every teacher to read out loud at the start of first period.

These actions saved me that day, and it brought strength to many teachers (perhaps even more than the students).

At the end of the next day, I had a chance to debrief a bit with my advisory. I had to tell them: It’s not every teaching staff that would start a letter with “to our school family” and sign off with “love.”

And yet, I’ve been hearing and seeing expressions of love more than ever since last week.  Not just in my building, or in my house, but all over this fine city.

There are some dark times ahead. But it is the dark moments that make love the most precious, the most essential. Let’s not lose that.

Conference Session: Building Teacher Tools that Work

If you’re here because you attended my session at the SREB HSTW conference or the Leyden Summer Symposium, welcome! Here are the resources that I showcased in the session. They’re all different online tools that SLA teachers have built to improve communication between students, teachers, and administrators.

“Behind the Scenes” Communication Between Teachers and Admin

IEP Progress Monitoring Form

IEP Progress Monitoring Results (Sample)

School “Walk Through” Visitation Form <– Most popular!

Survey for the book “Authentic Learning in the Digital Age”

Tools for Use During Learning Time

Independent Reading Survey

Book Club Meeting Calendar

Group Contract Template <– Most popular!

Water Quality Schuylkill River Testing Form

Student Reflection

SLA School-Wide Rubric

Ms. Pahomov’s first day survey <– Most popular!

Ms. Pahomov’s Mid-Year Survey, version 1

Ms. Pahomov’s Mid-Year Survey, version 2

Ms. Giknis’ “Being Human” course reflection

Eight Years In


I had the incredible good fortune to do entirely too many things this past school year.

First and foremost, I had a teaching year where I didn’t have to spend my prep time laying on a couch.* I already knew that the upside to being sick was the moment when you  begin to feel better. Turns out that is extra true for bone surgery.

Physical improvement also meant I had something to give to helping run a slate for union leadership. Two years prior, the Caucus of Working Educators was a nebulous idea, but one that was sorely needed in a town that hadn’t seen any kind of internal union election in eight years, and had essentially been a one-party union for decades. If you ever have the chance to make the world more democratic: do it. If it’s a struggle, even better. If you win the vote, great. If you don’t, you will have still won so much.

Other things happened, too.

In February, SLA hosted a citywide PD day for district teachers from dozens of schools. We blew past our projected attendance and a few schools are directly adopting some of our best practices, advisory and Student Assistant Teaching, as a result of their experiences that day. Having this event felt like the best kind of reunion–so many good people from so many buildings coming together and sharing their best work.

In March, I helped organize the biggest single meeting SLA has ever hosted, about the state of our current home (which we do not own) and where the future might take us. Over 700 people lined up around the block to show their support, in many cases taking to the mic and sharing their many truths about how SLA and its location mean the world to them. We all wore name tags, and students from the first class got to meet the current freshmen got to meet parents of all years got to meet community partners got to meet former teachers who came out to support.

In April, I got to go to the White House, again (thank you, Jose) — this time as a guest to honor the Teachers of the Year from every state. There were about 300 people packed into the East Room, elbowing each other to get a look at the three speakers on stage, all African-American: The President, The Secretary of Education, and Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes.

“This is the last time we’re doing this,” Obama said. “We figured we should make it a blowout.”

In May, SLA held the first-ever Alumni Organizing Meeting for the six graduated classes of SLA. Thirty-five kids showed up, way more than I expected. With the oldest of them being all of 25, they wanted to know what the school needed–no really, what do we need? A prime piece of Center City real estate and many millions of dollars for a building, I told them. They’re on it.

In June, I hugged my second set of advisees as they crossed the stage at graduation. I started to see my life in cycles of four years. How many left before I retire? How many left before I die? It didn’t seem absurd, all of a sudden. When I started this job, I didn’t have a single thought about how it might affect the rest of my life. Now I see that it already has. For me, SLA has become a place both flat and endless. Flat in that I sometimes feel like I am experiencing every version of it at once, stacked up and playing simultaneously in my mind (see: March) and that I also, for the first time, imagine generations forward into its impact on this city (see: May).

If this is what it means to be a veteran teacher, I’ll take it.

*Not that I didn’t choose to lay on a couch at work at all this year. I definitely did that.