Author Archives: lpahomov

About lpahomov

English teacher at SLA, resident of Philadelphia.

Becoming #FutureReady, one step at a time.

In the EEOB Auditorium.

In the EEOB Auditorium.

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at the Future Ready Superintendent Summit, organized by the Department of Education and hosted by the White House.

I have to confess: I only learned about the #FutureReady initiative when I received the invitation to speak. Admittedly, I’m not the target audience, but I felt a little sheepish about my ignorance, and I also wondered if I would be out of place at the event. Dr. Hite was present at the conference, but we’re hardly a city-wide model of technology integration. SLA has its laptop program, but that’s never been paid for by the district, always through our own fundraising. It felt a little duplicitous to get up and talk about device usage in my classroom when too many schools in Philadelphia (read: more than one) currently don’t have potable water.

But then, I dug into the pledge that attending superintendents signed that day. Here are some of the finer points:

  • We work together to protect student privacy and to teach students to become responsible, engaged, and contributing digital citizens.
  • Future Ready districts develop tools to support a robust infrastructure for managing and optimizing safe and effective use of technology, so students have opportunities to be active learners, creating and sharing content, not just consuming it.
  • Future Ready districts strive to provide everyone with access to personalized learning opportunities and instructional experts that give teachers and leaders the individual support they need, when they need it.

I am for these things. Because they are straight-up good things — but also because points go beyond content standards or standardized exams. They recognize that at least some of the most important work that students and teachers are doing isn’t being assessed by our current systems — and that maybe they can’t be “assessed” at all, at least not by anything that we currently have in our toolkit.

The best thing about the day? I heard a bunch of superintendents bring up the exact same point throughout the day, including directly to Secretary Duncan, with loud applause in support, when they met with him that afternoon. I also heard them talk about how trust is a necessary component in embracing this initiative, between all stakeholders involved. How love matters. How learning should be a joy. Not (just) how many 3D printers their districts had.

I have given plenty of talks about the subtle, transformational power of technology when authentically integrated into the classroom. Here, I was seeing it — or, at least, the seeds of it — on a national level.

That was pretty cool.

(Also, turns out that, as one of the few non-superintendents in the room, I had a useful perspective to share, along with Ben, Rafranz, John, and others. Should have trusted Zac Chase on that one when he invited me.)

I’m having a banner week.

The book is currently sold out on Thanks everybody! It will be restocked soon, so keep ordering! Tell your friends! Read the sample chapter here!

On Saturday, I found out that I passed the National Boards for Teaching. I actually feel a little bashful about it, because it was my second time around — didn’t quite nail it the first year, and re-did one section last year, which just barely bumped me to a passing score. There’s definitely a deep lesson in there about being the teacher getting reminded of the joys of academic failure.

I would write that blog post, but I’m too busy preparing for Wednesday, when I will be a panelist at the Future Ready Superintendent Summit, organized by the Department of Education and hosted by the White House. So I can technically now say “I’ve been invited to speak at the White House,” although it has nothing to do with the White House directly, and everything to do with somebody who I used to talk to a lot on the school telephone, between our classrooms.

And on Thursday, I’ll be doing a members-only webinar for ASCD on a topic related to the book.

(…did I mention that my surgery recovery is not over? Somebody tell my muscles to get with the program here.)


Join the Book Club!

If you’re an ASCD member, you’ve already received your copy of Authentic Learning in the Digital Age. Perhaps you have gotten into the first chapter or two. I am thrilled that you are getting to know the school environment that I enjoy being a part of every day.

I am even more thrilled to announce that you have a chance to communicate directly with that environment.

Starting tomorrow, myself and ten other SLA educators will be participating in online discussion Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 6.20.13 PMand sharing of resources via ASCD EDge, their discussion and sharing platform.

Have a question about a particular activity? Curious to see the full lesson plan behind an anecdote from the book? Want some advice on how to apply a piece of the framework to your environment?

Over the next five weeks, Marcie Hull, Matthew Kay, Tim Best, Pearl Jonas, Stephanie Dunda, and others will all be available to expand on the book and help you get the most out of the text.

And the best part is, you don’t have to be a member to sign up for the discussion — just create a profile for ASCD and you’re in!

Why are these educators willing to help out? Apart from the fact that they want authentic learning for all students? Apart from the fact that I asked them to, and they are nice to me?

Well, you should know that 100% of the profits from the sale of the book go directly to SLA, so we also have a tiny bit of self-interest in seeing copies sell. So if you haven’t ordered yours already, you can do so directly via ASCD or on Amazon.

We’re Trying to Work Over Here

AuthenticLearningCoverSo, for the last couple of weeks I have been thinking about how to best promote my new book on this blog. Here’s my pitch:

If you’ve ever been curious about SLA, this is THE text for you. If you’re a little worried that our model of teaching and learning couldn’t work for you, don’t be — because this book has detailed “making the shift” sections that will help you transition your current practices as much or as little as your environment allows. And if you know somebody who would never consider trying to do what we do, well, order the book for them anyway and watch them get converted a little bit.

If you’re an ASCD member, congratulations, because Authentic Learning in the Digital Age is the book of the month, and you’ll be receiving your copy in early November!

For the rest of you, the book’s official release is November 4th — go ahead and pre-order now. 100% of the profits go directly to SLA, so you can feel good about the purchase.

What I also want and need to say here is that the book celebrates every one of my colleagues, who continue to do the noble work of teaching in the face of crushing inequality, an ongoing attack on their livelihoods, and the sinking feeling that we are the last thing standing between our students and the forces that would like to see public education dismantled entirely. I extend this compliment not only to teachers at SLA, but at schools across Philadelphia.

In the last few weeks, months, and years, many of us educators have chosen to defend our students and our schools on a larger stage. We have written letters, built websites, held creative protests, started a new union caucus, and spoken out anywhere and everywhere about the plight of the School District of Philadelphia.

But let’s be entirely clear: We don’t do these things because we love it. We do them to save the thing we love, because we are just trying to do our jobs as best we can, and right now that includes defending the very structure that allows us to educate our students.

So, in addition to being a regular interviewee on Newsworks and commenter on Twitter, Andrew Saltz also dresses up as a wizard to encourage the academic motivation of his students. Amy Roat finds time to talk to The New York TImes and publish accounts of material shortages at her school alongside her teaching and prep work. And at Penn on Saturday, Matthew Kay delivers a six-minute keynote address that fires back those who “paint us as the enemy” while also talking about his classroom practice:

So yes, as long as we keep getting compared to bad apples, and our employer throws out our contract like yesterday’s news, and the Mayor asks on Twitter whether we need toilet paper, we will continue to speak out in defense of our schools and our students.

But let’s be clear: we’d much rather that you just gave us full fair funding. Because we’d rather be in our classrooms, teaching.

Keeping the Social Contract.

Almost exactly a month ago, I wrote about recovering from surgery and going back to work.

Then, on Monday, my school district had a stealth meeting to cancel my union’s contract and impose health care payments onto staff.

In response, I sent out a tweet that was personal, but important to me.

If you’ve been following the #phled news recently, you know that students at several schools took matters into their own hands today and held their own strikes, organized under the hasthag #studentsforteachers.

(One of their big reasons for doing this? According to state law, Philadelphia teachers cannot strike, or we risk having our teaching licenses revoked. We are the only district in Pennsylvania for which this is true.)

There have been many times on this blog when I have described the community that is SLA, from the thank you notes I write to students to the “safety net of actual human care” that has helped me in the last month. But then last night I got this e-mail:

Hi Ms. Pahomov,

Hope this email finds you well. I was wondering if I could turn your tweet, the one in the attachment, into a poster for the student strike tomorrow

Thanks for your help!


And then, she did:

I also received the following e-mails from my student assistant teachers while they were striking in front of the school:

Hi I’m outside protesting for you guys. If you need me I’ll come up.

Hiii Ms Pahomov, I’m outside protesting right now but if you need me to help next band I can come up, I don’t want to leave you if you need me.

These are students who I teach and care for — but in a very real and concrete way have cared for me as well, in the last month since I returned to work, and in the years prior to that as well.

As I said to a reporter earlier today, this is not a Hallmark card. This is a situation where both their education and my livelihood are under attack. But in the best version of school, teachers and students have a reciprocal level of trust and respect that allows them to continue to learn and be human — even in the face of crushing adversity.

So why do I keep showing up to work, even though my contract is supposedly canceled? Because I’m trying to be as thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind as my students are to me.

Teaching After Surgery.

At the end of July, I had hip surgery. Nothing about this event or the condition that caused it were life-threatening — I had a tumor in my femur that we already knew was benign, but it still had to go. However, I am new to the recovery game.

Many people have already experienced their own personalized version of this game. (If you haven’t yet, here’s a spoiler: it’s not linear.) My version of the recovery game involves a cane, a boatload of physical therapy, and a joint that will occasionally ping me just to announce its continued existence.

On our first day of school, despite a great day overall, the recovery game meant that I spent a good portion of my prep period cuddling with an ice pack, face down on a couch in the counselor’s office.

My principal casually poked his head in and asked how I was feeling.

“I’m awake!” I replied.

“It wouldn’t be a problem if you were asleep,” he said.

This may sound like one educational Kodak moment, but variations on this scene played out several times (right down to my advisees checking out the x-ray of my newly installed hardware, or one of my senior student assistant teachers telling me to stop walking around already.)

For some of you in caring school environments, your reaction may be something along the lines of “yeah, duh.” But at the end of today, I am acutely aware of why this stuff matters. In my analytical moments, I might say to myself “well, I’m just getting back what I have put in,” but that’s applying a very corporate approach to a culture that is anything but. Banking your sick days is one thing. Having the safety net of actual human care is something else entirely.

I wrote a book.

Back in January, I announced on this blog that I was in charge of a new book about SLA.

I’m happy to say that the project is in its final rounds of editing, and will be published in November. The title is Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry.

I say that I’m “in charge of” the book because yes, technically I wrote it, but the project really belongs to all of the members of the SLA community, who work every day to build and maintain our learning environment. My job was just to share their stories and methods. We already encourage collaboration and cross-visiting of classrooms, but I’m happy to say that this project took that to a whole new level for me. Studying the work of my colleagues and our students was a real pleasure.

Another pleasure was sharing my writing process with my students. Like many of us English teachers, I resolve each year to do more writing alongside my students, and then an avalanche of grading comes along and sweeps away that plan. Sharing the project with them — especially the editor comments in the margins, that looked not-too-different from the feedback I give them — put us all in the same boat. Good stuff.

I am especially excited to share the book in Philadelphia, where there appears to be a rare opportunity for teachers to take the lead in redesigning their own school environments. The book is very much a framework that can be adopted and adapted by teachers themselves, instead of a rigid set of directives or scripts handed down from above. I look forward to working with anyone who’s interested in using the book at their school!

My paycheck needs protection from bad legislation!

Last month, I got a survey call on behalf of AFT-Pennsylvania. They started naming a bunch of individuals and organizations and then asking my impression of them.

There was only one group on the list I hadn’t heard of: The Commonwealth Foundation.

A quick perusal of the site brought me to an article title that I couldn’t resist: “Union Dues Exploit Teachers, Taxpayers.”

The crux of the first argument goes as follows:

“The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) is a powerful teachers’ union that runs a highly partisan political machine. Each year, it forces tens of thousands of public school teachers to fund its brazen political agenda under the guise that it “represents teachers’ interests.””

I was surprised. I know that my own union (PFT) lets teachers opt in to both union dues and PAC contributions. These items appear separately on my paycheck — the PAC donation is set at a $1 per cycle, aka $26 a year.

It took me all of 30 seconds to find the PAC site for PSEA. It states quite clearly on their main page:

“No PSEA member dues dollars support PACE. PACE is a nonpartisan organization, funded by voluntary member contributions.”

Now, I’m no language expert — oh wait, yes I am. “Voluntary” does not mean “forced.” It is, in fact, listed by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an antonym of “forced.”

Now, onto the second claim by the Commonwealth Foundation — that union dues exploit taxpayers:

“You and I pay for it. Government union contracts often require state and local governments to deduct union dues and Political Action Committee donations from employees’ paychecks using taxpayer-funded payroll systems.”

I struggle to find a metaphor that adequately reveals the ridiculousness of this claim. It’s like using a public highway, only we don’t cause any traffic. It’s like we’re using pipes to deliver water, only the pipes never erode. I can choose any number of voluntary deductions, including retirement funds and health care reserves, with no burden to the taxpayer. I have a right to opt into deductions that benefit me. Conservative forces may not like my politics, but that’s not grounds for making my financial choices illegal (and vice versa).

So what’s the purpose of this article? Why, it’s a laughably weak (but possibly still effective) attempt at drumming up public support for Pennsylvania House Bill 1507, which seeks to end the ability of all unions to deduct both PAC contributions and regular union dues from the paychecks of public employees. Firemen and policemen are notably exempted. (Presumably because they’ve got nightsticks and water cannons to fight back with, and I’ll I’ve got are some freshly sharpened pencils. Also this blog.)

Can unions be busted in Pennsylvania? It worked in Wisconsin. Legislation exactly like this eviscerated union membership there. Teachers had a small victory when a recent resolution asking County Commissioners to support the bill was taken off the table before they could vote. But the real threat, the house bill, is still out there. And the busters-at-large are going unchecked in Philadelphia media outlets. (At least western PA is publishing rebuttals.)

As an educator, I’m disappointed that the writers for the Commonwealth Foundation, who presumably graduated high school, could forget the writing lessons they learned from their teachers. Present the facts honestly. Don’t manipulate the truth.

As a union member, I am once again reminded that these forces are out there, and it’s not some secret conspiracy we don’t have access to. It’s right in front of our faces.

Tell everyone you know: the Commonwealth Foundation wants to destroy Pennsylvania unions.

Book Club Toolkit: Meeting Protocol

This post describes some of the policies and procedures of the book club, originally described in this earlier post.

Lucky for us, both of our 10th grade classes are staffed by Student Assistant Teachers, who had experienced the book club before, either as freshmen or seniors with Alexa Dunn or Matt Kay.

They gave us a lot of pointers in the planning process, including:

  • Let students set their own pace for reading (but provide guidance to keep them moving)
  • Make sure there’s follow up for the job sheets, or else people will slack (they were emphatic about this!
  • Don’t let the meetings drag on — if it feels like groups are wrapping up, end the session, even if it’s less time than you expected.
  • Keep computer use to a minimum — as evidenced in the photo, one student took notes on their laptop, but everybody else was on paper. This prevented the screen-as-shield effect on discussion.

Because many of our students had participated in book club last year, the introduction went smoothly. We suggested a “median” number of pages they would need to read if they wanted to move at a steady pace, and then students quickly got down to business selecting jobs and deciding on their page goals for the first meeting.

When the meetings happened, here are some unexpected results:

  • Students did police each other to get the work done, but not until after the first or second meeting — when it really sank in that a group was crippled if somebody came to the meeting empty handed.
  • After four meetings, some groups requested flexibility in how they prepared. One group elected to write letters to the main character. Another group chose to finish the book faster, and then watched the movie version for the last two meetings. We always allowed this.
  • Groups sometimes explored a particular theory over multiple meetings. This was great — each meeting allowed them to add new data that confirmed / refuted their idea. (Two groups reading “Passing” became especially focused on the possible gay subtext in the novel — and were then thrilled to see that they weren’t the only critics with that theory.)

Because they only had two options, several students (and sometimes an entire group) did not “love” their books. But the culture of the book club kept them more tuned in than they would have been otherwise–and also gave them space to discuss why they didn’t love it in a critical, productive way.

After the first couple of meetings, we introduced one more element, namely an introduction to literary theory and applying those “lenses” to their book club. More on that later.