Category Archives: Big Picture

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.


New Historicist Lens (A Lesson in Reverse)

I just had a chance to send this letter off to one of my Sophomore classes:

Dear Silver Stream,

Just wanted to give you a collective shout out for the quality of today’s conversation in class. Here are a few things that made it so good:

  • You talked about how you felt, not just what you thought. The space was safe enough for you to share some deep feelings. 
  • You really listened and took each other’s viewpoints into consideration. You built off of each other, and sometimes surprised me with where you agreed and disagreed (in a good way).
  • You really used the literary lens we had just learned to dig deeply into the different angles of our topic, so it wasn’t just strong feelings. It was strong feelings and analysis. 

There are many schools where this kind of complex, emotional conversation would never happen. Thank you for making our school a place where we can really talk. I am proud to call you all my students. Keep asking good questions. 

Peace, Ms. Pahomov

Here’s the topic that prompted the conversation that went so well:


And here is the super-condensed literary analysis tools that we reviewed before diving into this discussion:

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Talking about “A Birthday Cake for General Washington” wasn’t even on my official plan for this conversation — but some of my pre-written prompts made me think of it on the fly:

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People often wonder how we make things work at SLA. Listen to Saltz: there is no secret sauce. This lesson was embedded in a book-long conversation about literary lenses, so this was not their first time applying some critical theory. But thanks to a few years of inquiry and learning to talk about race in the classroom — props to the work of fellow SLA English teacher Matt Kay here –the students were able to speak their minds and actually listen to each other.

They were able to say, I’m sick of having to hear about slavery, as if that’s the way my people came into this world.

They were able to say, I’ve spent so long learning about slavery as an abstract, horrible thing with a lot of numbers attached, we need something to humanize what often gets painted as a phenomenon without real people in it.

They were able to argue about when children need to learn about the problems of the world, and whether it’s acceptable to sugar coat the bad stuff (and to what degree).

And they were able to to both agree with and challenge each other, across racial lines that you don’t always see in the room together in Philadelphia, converging and diverging in ways you didn’t expect in the first place.

At the end, we were asking questions: How do you tell the story of somebody who was denied the chance to tell it themselves? Do you even have a right to? Should we trust stories told by anybody other than the person who experienced it personally? What do we have to gain by re-creating the past?

So yes, having this conversation can be easy. And yes, it takes a whole school to make it happen.

And yes, the work is totally, totally worth it.

What physical therapy taught me about learning.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I had bone surgery back in July, and since then have been going through a typically non-typical recovery process.

Starting in August, I attended physical therapy twice a week. This involved me doing lots of balancing exercises and walking over tiny orange traffic cones, like a polite Godzilla. Later, as my recovery didn’t go so well, it involved being wrapped in a lot of heating pads and stretching on the floor.

I was never totally immobile, but I still had the task of essentially learning to walk again. When I was doing well, I felt happy but nervous because I couldn’t explain why; when I wasn’t doing well, I fell to pieces because I really couldn’t explain why. I didn’t have the insight or even the vocabulary.

The overarching lesson was this: I had almost no schema for the learning that I was doing while in physical therapy.

It’s not that the therapists had all of the answers; it’s just that they had an infinite level of content knowledge and experience compared to me. This was fascinating on an abstract level, but frustrating in practice. (Same with my surgery — I was fascinated by the x-ray of the titanium hardware screwed to my femur, but dismayed that I really had not understood what on earth they were going to put in me until after the fact.)

So, I began to take note of how the instruction was going, and what I needed to make sense of my learning with my limited understanding of the field.

  • Explain the purpose of the building blocks. The first exercises I was asked to do — isometric muscle contractions — seemed almost stupidly easy. It wasn’t until I got up and walked around that I could tell that those very muscles weren’t doing what they normally did, so all of the flexing mattered. After that, I asked about the purpose of each exercise.
  • Describe possible mistakes in advance. In those first sessions, when things were going well, my therapist would compliment me, but then also make a serious-but-vague statement: “you don’t want to pick up bad habits.” I had no idea what those habits could be… until I did pick them up, and got my pelvis seriously out of whack in the middle of October. Could that have been avoided? Probably not, but I would have felt more empowered if I had known what my messed up state might look like.
  • Provide a baseline. A couple of months into the work, when I could begin to imagine getting back to “normal,” I realized to my dismay that I couldn’t even remember what “normal” looked like in terms of standing and walking. I had never established a baseline — no photos, no video, no concrete memory. Maybe blame the whole medical system for this one: nobody thought to mention this in advance of my surgery.

To be clear, I don’t fault the therapists I see with this situation. They treat thousands of people, most of them with shorter trajectories than mine. But the whole process has definitely made me think twice about how educators have to work to bridge them and students who might be complete novices in their particular area of expertise.

When do we, as teachers, become so “expert” that we isolate the students who are at the starting line?

View Now: “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age”

Last week I conducted a webinar for ASCD members. I’m thrilled to share the recorded version, which is available to everybody!

The presentation is full of images and examples from SLA. If you’re reading the book and are wondering “what this stuff looks like,” this talk is for you.

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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.)

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.

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.

What do you need to know about the SLA model?

Today is the first day of EduCon. The school is full of visitors, getting tours from students, poking their heads into classrooms, observing the teaching and learning that goes on, finding inspiration.

It seems as good a time as any to announce that, if all goes at as planned, there will be a book published about the SLA model by this time next year!

 (ASCD approached SLA about the project last summer, and they’ve been fabulous to work with. Our goal is to have it published in time for EduCon 2015.)

The overall goal of the book is to provide a how-to for both individual teachers and schools/districts to transition to this kind of learning model, especially when they are taking the leap of going 1:1.

I feel incredibly humbled by this task. At SLA, we already have a culture of transparency and sharing, but the project has given me a good reason to do some extensive exploration the practice of my colleagues. Technically, I’m the “author” of this book, but I feel more like a compiler of the collective knowledge and practices of the school.

Of course, the book isn’t for us — it’s for all of you!  To those ends, I would love your answers to this question:

What would help you understand and implement the SLA model in your own school?

Folks often walk away from EduCon feeling inspired, and this book is intended to give people the advice an guidance needed to kindle that inspiration back in their own buildings.

I feel a little bit funny publicizing a manuscript so far in advance — but any thoughts from potential readers would be appreciated. Leave your comments here, or track me down on Twitter or in person at EduCon this weekend.

What the students are watching.

I just finished The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract by Theodore and Nancy Sizer. Turns out it’s a great read for an evening when tomorrow’s snow day has already been called.

I’ve been thinking periodically about the hidden curriculum that all schools impart to their students, and their chapter categories resonated: modeling, grappling, bluffing, sorting, shoving, and fearing.

My mind quickly turned these categories into probing questions for my own classroom:

Where do I allow students to grapple with complex, un-solvable concepts? When do I discourage that behavior, and why?

When do I “shove” into the academic and personal lives of my students, even if they protest? Does it work, or does it backfire?

Do I induce fear in my students? Intentionally or unintentionally? Does this help or harm their work? How about our relationships?

I love thinking about this stuff. I’m fortunate to work in a building that allows me to address it explicitly with my students, and also with a staff that also wants to have these conversations.

There’s a danger, though, as well — if I think about it too much, I end up down the rabbit hole, over-analyzing every move that I make in the classroom, not to mention the hidden moral lessons being imparted by the larger school system (and in Philadelphia, that gets real depressing real quick).

And yet — in my sixth year of teaching, I can cautiously report that I’m getting better at that balance.

(Not going to try and figure out why, right now. That might ruin it. Wishing you all some balance in the new year.)