Category Archives: Ethic of Care

How to prevent testing fatigue.

It’s simple: don’t test too much.

Seriously though. That doesn’t mean that you don’t prep. It just means that you get creative. I’ve written about lots of these tactics before:

Attack sample questions as a class. Teach them the structure behind the different types of questions. Send them on scavenger hunts in pairs. Have them write questions on their own.Let them be frustrated, and don’t forget to tell them that you love them.

The last thing you want to do is hit them on the head with multiple choice practice tests, day after day after day. It’s the educational equivalent of the assembly line. At some point, people get so bored that they quit. And you don’t want that to happen before the actual testing happens.

When kids start to say, “this is dumb,” I replace that with: “No, this is easy.” This is my adult equivalent of “it’s not that deep.” And I mean it.

Throwing students off the deep end.

My experience as a high school student of English often consisted of being given complicated material, being told it was Very Important or A Part of The Canon, and muddling through it as best I could, with some vague notion that this experience would mean something later.

On the whole, I find this approach silly. It was too much of the now-you-will-sound-cultured-at-cocktail-parties mindset.

However, there were a bunch a moments when, upon entering college or “real life,” that the lightbulb went off in my brain: so that’s what they were talking about. Tough literature seemed less daunting after having slogged through “Absalom, Absalom!” my senior year of high school.

It is with this in mind that I occasionally throw my students something that will take a maximum amount of effort to unpack. For example, take the very first paragraph of James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

We read it twice. We talk about what the original argument is, and theorize as to what Baldwin’s trouble with it must be. We define “incontestably” and “dubiously,” We discuss the academic meaning of “the other.” We talk about who that other is, and what reasons “he” might have for refusing to be defined by it. This takes a while. It’s not easy work.

As the reading continues, we pull from African American History class in 9th grade, we pull from our geographical knowledge (quick, who knows where Martinique is? Or the where the Basque live?) I ask them if they know why Malcolm Little chose “X” as his last name. Somebody explains that. We get to this line:

To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.

Who knows something about British Accents? Who talked to the exchange students from Liverpool when they were here last year? Next time, ask them about how they sound different from Londoners; you’ll get an earful. Maybe we put “ask” on the board, and see whether people pronounce it “ask” or “axe.” We talk about that, too.

We hack our way through the whole thing, and by the end we’ve gone in a dozen different interesting directions regarding language, identity, and power. Great set-up for a benchmark essay. Throwing students off the deep end is okay, as long as you jump in with them.

And then, to cap off the class, I show them the goofiest photo of James Baldwin I can find.


If I don’t know theory, I’m just a cog in the education machine.

When I was in graduate school for teaching, a common gripe from some students in my program was that our coursework was too theoretical, that it didn’t give us enough practical info or concrete methods for working in the classroom.

I thought of those folks as I read Doug Lemov’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal. His description of a new teaching school stood out:

My colleague Norman Atkins, founder of the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York, likes to invoke the example of Michael Jordan, whose demanding methods of practice “reset” the habits of the Chicago Bulls and improved the team. Mr. Atkins adds, “Once you have good teachers who as a matter of course like to practice and rehearse and think, it’s the most professional thing you can do. It will raise the expectations of teams in their field as well.”

So his graduate school, in contrast to more theory-heavy programs, preps teachers for what they will do all day on the job. And he finds that they love it.

Back in my year of graduate school, when I was in my field placement all day and going to classes at night, there are moments I would have loved practicing my methods all day. But when people complained that our program was “too theoretical,” it made my skin crawl. These were the same folks who thought reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was a waste of time. Even scarier was how they weren’t interested in encouraging any critical thinking on the part of their students. The kids were too behind on basic skills, they would argue. No time for literary analysis or theory.

And if we had studied at Relay? Here’s what we would have gotten, according to the Washington Post:

Degrees are earned by online video and reading modules, attending discussion groups and by the uncertified teacher’s students’ test scores. If the test scores are not up to snuff, the teacher does not earn her degree. There are no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection. It is cookie-cutter training grounded in one vision of instruction — the charter school vision. Each candidate’s pail is filled with the same techniques.

Just think, if I had been educated at Relay, I would be such a great team player. I would be an expert and enacting every new method and initiative handed down by my district or my administration, and I would never ask “why” or have the tools to explore what was behind it.  My students would never get riled up, because I would never incite them to question their world. I wouldn’t even know the phrase “critical pedagogy.” I would never have gotten hired at a place like SLA, joined Teacher Action Group, or started this blog.

If we don’t teach our students to look at the bigger picture, then we condemn them to live with all of the systemic problems that they can’t see. Same goes for teachers.

School Solution: Student Assistant Teachers

Lehmann has written about SLA’s Student Assistant Teacher program before, but as we just had our first meeting for the program today, I thought I would give you a window in — hopefully to convince you and your high school to give it a try.

In brief, the SAT program brings seniors into underclass courses as, well, a teaching assistant. They attend that course full time, and they work with the teacher to provide learning support as fits the class needs, and also their personal interests and inclinations.

Here are just a few examples of what my SATs have been up to since the start of the school year:

  • Observing group dynamics and making seating charts.
  • Giving feedback to student ideas for thesis statements online.
  • Floating around the room and checking in with small groups as they work.
  • Picking out relevant quotes from a text to share while we’re having an all-class discussion.
  • Sharing their own experiences or advice for a particular assignment (they’ve all had me as a teacher before.)
  • Building personal relationships with students who would rather go to this “expert student” for help before they ask me.
  • Cluing me in when there’s some confusion about a task, or a group that’s having trouble getting along, or… really anything else I didn’t notice.

Obviously they didn’t do all of this from day one. However, I’d like to point out that we’re only around day 30, and they already do a lot. Part of this is the general culture of transparency at SLA — we like to talk about teaching and learning, so kids are paying attention to our methods even before they choose to become an SAT. But it’s not automatic.

I have had SATs in my classes for three years now, and at first I struggled to help them find their place. (Turns out saying “do whatever you want!” isn’t very instructive.) Each year they become a richer, more authentic resource in my classroom. With 30+ students in each class, that makes a huge difference.

That’s not the only benefit, though. Their very presence helps me, in a way I didn’t expect at first.

One of the things I really didn’t know about teaching until I was in the thick of is how lonely it can be. You’re surrounded by students all the time, but in many ways you’re totally on your own in your classroom. While our SATs are not professionals — and I would never ask that level of commitment or responsibility of them — they come to inhabit the same mental space as I do. When something kicks butt, they notice. When a lesson flops, or doesn’t make sense, we can figure out why. When something absurd happens, we can laugh about it later. More than once I have told an SAT, “I was glad you were there for that.”

All of this is swirling in my brain after our first general SAT meeting, facilitated by the wonderful Alexa Dunn and Josh Block (who run the program). This meeting is no joke — it involves over half of the senior class, and most of the teachers in the school.

Part of the meeting involved a quick check-in with all of my SATs together. I see the value of the program for them all the time, but today’s meeting really confirmed it. They already know their strengths and weaknesses as students (reflection is one of our core values, after all) but this work allows them to feel out their skills in a real setting. They take pride in growing their own abilities, and are delighted when the students in their class see them as a resource.

So, have I convinced you to bring this to your school yet?

#Engchat Reflection: The college essays you shouldn’t write.

As I mentioned on #engchat this past Monday, my father is a retired college professor. He taught at Bryn Mawr College, and also read applications for admission there (they rotated faculty into the process each year).

Since he retired, he has been coming to SLA every fall to meet with seniors one-on-one and workshop their college essays. This has been a great resource for the students, and also for us teachers — he gives each of them 20-30 minutes of his undivided attention, time that’s hard to carve out of a regular teaching schedule.

He and I have talked plenty about what makes a good essay. Sometimes, to help drive the point home with students, we flip the focus and talk about what makes a bad one. One year we actually gave a joint presentation to rising seniors about college essays, and came up with the following list of Yellow, Red, and Green Flags for essay topics:

Yellow flags:

  • How you’re so awesome. How did you get that way? Your essay should make you look awesome without just saying it.
  • Your High School Drama. Because it makes you look like high school is your whole life, instead of thinking about college.
  • Your Travel Journal. It can be done well, but you have to show what YOU gained from the experience, not just how cool the places you visited were.
  • Religious or Philosophical Arguments. Figured out the meaning of life? Great. But don’t preach to the person who’s reading your essay.

Red Flags:

  • Quoting famous people. Martin Luther King once said… that students should come up with their OWN brilliant words!
  • Making fun of the prompt. You can put a little humor in the essay, but don’t try to turn it into a satire, or be cynical – colleges won’t want you on their campus.
  • Your Excuses. There may be very good reasons that you didn’t perform as well as you should have in high school – but this should be coming from your advisor. Stay positive in your own essay.
  • Your Illegal Behavior. Even if you got caught, got punished and learned from the experience… colleges don’t want trouble.
  • Hot-Button Topics. People have strong feelings about topics like abortion, terrorism, gun control, police, etc… no matter what you write, you may offend the reader of your essay.

And a few Green Flags:

  • Stories outside of high school. Show that you’re engaged with the larger world!
  • Show how you’ve grown. You may be awesome now, but what key life experience, mentor, or idea did you have which helped you get there?
  • Specific personal details. Your essay should be so specific that there is no WAY it could belong to anybody else.

He also shared his perspective as a former admissions worker, which was eye-opening for the students… he described having 40 applications to read in a day, and what it feels like when essay #38 has spelling errors. On the flip side, he noted that a powerful essay makes him want to go to bat for a candidate.

What other do’s or don’ts do you share with your students? What do you think sticks?

Slideshow of those points:

Like Teacher, Like Student: First Day Surveys.

Towards the end of the first day of class, I ask all of my students the following survey questions:

  • Tell me about your name.
  • Where are you from? How do you feel about it?
  • How do you like to express yourself?
  • What’s a book that has made an impression on you? Why?
  • How can I help you this year?
  • Anything else I need to know?

Before they dive in, I read my own answers to this survey aloud. I tweak my answers every year (especially for that last question, there’s always some new random factoid to share.) I’m not going to post the whole thing here, but I share plenty of details, both serious and whimsical. Especially key is my answer to Question #5, which sets up an important class expectation:

I guess I’ll turn this around and say how you, my students, can help me: 

Give up your stereotypes and be your best self.

At some time or another you have had a teacher–or maybe many teachers–who have judged your character. Teachers who labeled you dumb/quiet/loud/angry/rude/hopeless, and you could never shake it. I promise never to judge you this way, and I will always work to bring out your best self in my class — even when you’re struggling or having a bad day. Of course, if I don’t use labels, then there are no labels to hide behind! So get ready to redefine yourself.

I realize I’m a little late to the party, posting a first day activity in October. What brought me to it now, though, is that these surveys continue to be a resource for me all through the year. I read through them the first week, and I take notes on any crucial details that students shared, as well as learn their names through their stories about them. But with a full course load, many of the details don’t stick the first time around. Here’s some things that I look for when revisiting the surveys later in the year:

  • What did the reluctant readers say for the book that made an impression on them? How could this information inform my approach with them?
  • Are there any books in our curriculum that get mentioned a lot? Why?
  • For students who are struggling: What was their advice for how can I help them?
  • For students who are excelling: Same thing as above.
  • What patterns are out there? Does this reflect a similarity in the students, or our teaching? Or both?

Of all of my responsibilities as a public school teacher, one of the ones that weighs on me the most is that I’m expected to have meaningful interactions with my students every day. The ideal in my mind is a personal conversation or exchange — but with 120 students, that’s not possible on a daily basis. The first-day survey gives me a valuable starting point that I can always return to.

Like teacher, like student: partner portraits.

I had originally envisioned this post as a first-day-activity suggestion, but now the first days of school have pretty much passed. Then I realized there’s another purpose to sharing it.

At the beginning of last school year, we did a fun little activity during one of our PD days. You sit across from a partner, paper on the table and markers in hand. You then have one minute to draw a portrait of your partner.

The catch? You can’t look down.

One tense minute later, you have a lot of hilarity on the page. People pass the papers around; several of ours ended up on a piece of string and were displayed all year in the main office. We talked about what we focused on (hair style! earrings!) and what we left out or messed up (ears, noses, eyes, mouths…)

I totally forget who on staff presented this activity; kudos to them. Ostensibly it was shared as a “you can do this with your kids” sample. But the key thing was that we enjoyed doing it ourselves. As teachers, I would argue that we have an even lower tolerance for crap than our students — if it’s insincere, or pointless, or boring, our alarms go off right away. Talking to teachers around Philadelphia, I heard plenty of stories about new initiatives, slogans, or activities that were being handed down to teachers at the beginning of the year — stuff that has been developed and tested and standardized for maximum effectiveness… and that you know in your bones kids aren’t going to buy into. If it doesn’t have legs in the teacher’s meeting, it is destined to fail in the classroom.

I kept the partner portrait activity in the back of my mind for a while, and then we busted it our with our new freshmen advisees on the first day of school. An awkward first hour melted away to instant laughter.

“We did this last year,” I told them. “You should see ours!”

What’s your Teacher Temperament?

Like schools across Philadelphia and the country, SLA is in the midst of preparing for our first day of school. My twitter feed is full of anxiety about meeting new students, pictures of spiffy classrooms, and conversations about the first day.

One more thing to consider: are you ready to have a productive year with your fellow teachers?

I know that schools can be highly dysfunctional working environments — and that I’m lucky to work in a building that avoids most of the typical pitfalls. But we’re still a staff with very different working styles, and with so much energy going into our classrooms, we don’t always have the time or energy to understand each other. And with dozens of committees and two hours of staff planning time each week, working together well is even more vital than in a more typical top-down school.

To help us start this year on the right foot, the Diversity committee — which looks at all varieties of issues relating to both teachers and students — presented a one-hour activity today.

Teachers took a quick assessment survey (adapted from this page) and then identified themselves as belonging to one of the four temperaments. We then all had time to read through the following charts, and see what language applied to them:

The emphasis was not on feeling bound to one particular category, but getting some language to talk about your work style. Groups had plenty to chat about, including which qualities they clashed with.

This culminated in everybody answering the following questions on a public forum:

1. Your dominant categorie(s):

2. How do you work best? (probable strengths)

3. Where/when do you need to check yourself? (possible weaknesses)

4. What challenges you? What do you struggle or clash with? How do you deal?

5. What tips do you have for others to work well with you?

I obviously won’t be posting those replies here, but some great things happened as people had a chance to respond to each others’ posts and appreciate each other:

  • People identified shared goals or work styles that they hadn’t seen before.
  • People commented on how some perceived weaknesses can also be strengths, depending on the situation.
  • The value of having a diversity of interesting and working styles became clearer — people complimented others for excelling at what they themselves ignore or don’t do well at, even when that difference might lead to clashes.

When I was designing this activity, I was a little bit nervous that it could turn into a gripe fest, with people focusing more on the weaknesses of others than their own. Plus I have zero training in personality assessment. But everybody turned a decent critical eye towards themselves, with the goal of self-improvement. Hopefully the awareness now will help prevent frustration later. I like to think that we were modeling a good process for our students.


Making Tech Meaningful.

I had the pleasure of speaking at the VAIS Technology Conference last weekend, on the theme of  “Making Tech Meaningful” — a phrase and focus that came to me at least year’s EdCampPhilly, in response to all of the gadget-y sessions that were popping up on that day’s schedule.

After I talked at them for about 30 minutes, most of the (many) questions focused on SLA’s culture and approach towards technology use towards social media.

Many of the people in the crowd were the tech coordinators or IT specialists and their schools, and their questions often reflected a culture of restriction vs. responsibility when it comes to the role technology plays with our students. Sometimes I forget that questions like “Don’t the laptops distract them?” or “What if they download pornography?” are the first things coming from worried administrators.

After the talk, many people came and said I had given them a lot to think about. After lunch, one woman came and whispered to me: “I agree with you! We should be teaching responsible use, not restricting them.”

“You don’t have to whisper here!” I replied. “Just say it!”

Test prep, part 4: the little guys.

You might expect that the phrase “the little guys” to be some kind of diminutive for those humble, overlooked students who just need more attention when it comes to test prep.

In fact, “the little guys” is what we’re calling the small plastic figures I gave my students who are PSSA testing next week.

Purple little guy.

Once the news broke that there was no way I would be proctoring tests with my own students, I wanted a way to be in the room with them. A few google searches later and I had these little tokens for a few dollars a dozen.

Call it a totem, or a good luck charm, or an avatar — although I didn’t use any of these phrases when they first got distributed. I handed them out when we were working on a practice test — kids picked the color they wanted, purple’s just one iteration — and asked them to think about what their little guy needed to say to them when I’m not there in the room.

You are unique snowflake?

Slow down?

Wake up?

Write more?

We agreed that frustrations could be taken out on the little guys (provided that it doesn’t get noisy or do any lasting damage.) Plus their joints bend, so you can have them be a little active for you when you’re stuck in your seat.

Turns out the little guys are not so good at standing up, but they do sit. They can hug each other pretty well. And they can stand on their heads.

Look ma!

Look ma!

I will have you know, this official instructional method is Testing-Coordinator-Approved. And in a week that has been a little low on excitement, my 11th graders are feeling good about the little guys. A little island of play in a big sea of multiple choice bubbles.