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.

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.

EduCon Session: How to Build Teacher Tools that Work

Here are the links from my EduCon 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


Reclaiming PD in Philadelphia

One of the hardest things about working in a large school district is the unique combination of proximity and isolation that schools have to one another. There are over 200 public schools in Philly, but I’ve only been in a handful of them (and much of that happened the year I was in graduate school getting my teaching degree). Teachers can take an “observation day” to go see another school, but this needs principal approval, and with the current substitute fill rate, I expect administrators are loathe to release teachers from their classrooms. As a result, we’re all on our own islands. It can be tough to get into a colleague’s classroom next door, much less a different school.

But! There are not one but two fabulous events taking place in the next couple of months that do much to connect and enrich the professional lives of educators.

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The first is Educon – Friday, January 29th to Sunday, Jan 31st.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Smack in the middle of your school year, this is a place to dream. We have conversations, throw out ideas, challenge each other, and get to hear from some fabulous speakers (including Philadelphia’s newly appointed Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney.)
  • Folks from both around Philadelphia AND around the country come to visit SLA for a weekend. The opportunities for cross-pollination are huge.
  • Virtually everybody from SLA will be presenting, so if you’re interested in x y or z aspect of the school, there is a session for you. My session is going to be a workshop on how to build the right online tools for your classroom.

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The second is the February 26th Professional Development Day, where SLA will be hosting a Collaboration of Educators. Here are a few highlights:

  • Can’t make it to EduCon on a weekend? Many of the SLA sessions (as well as sessions from other Philly schools) will be repeated here.
  • Entire schools will be attending — if you would like your school to sign up en masse, let me know and I can issue your administration a formal invite. Ask now!
  • There will be specific time for teachers from different subject areas to get to know each other, trade contact info, and share best practices.

I hope to see many of you at either (or both) events.

Teaching Bias: Where Do You Stand?

Last week, I posted about students taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) in my classroom. A common question I got in response to this post was, “what did you do to set up your students so they could participate in this activity successfully?”

The big answer is that SLA does a lot to make students comfortable with tough moments and difficult conversations. The small answer is that we did several activities in the days leading up to the IAT that primed students to be open and vulnerable.

On day one, I asked them to simply define bias, prejudice, and stereotype, and then  create a poster that visually clarified the differences between these terms — without perpetuating any of the stereotypes or myths that get tossed around these days.

This set a valuable precedent: we can mention common prejudices and stereotypes, but proceed with caution, because the way we talk can impact how people are affected by these ideas, even if they are not being presented as true.

On day two, we played one of my favorite games, which I call “Where Do You Stand?” The room gets cleared, and I project a series of prompts on the board. If you agree with the statement, you move to the window side of the room. If you disagree, you move to the wall.

The prompts, as you can see below, move from more personal and straight-up qualitative statements to more nuanced and complicated aspects of our society.

Once students have picked a side (and no, I don’t let them stand in the middle), it’s time to go back and forth and have folks try and convince their peers to come to their side. Students can switch at any time. One of my favorite scenarios is where just one or two students pick the less popular side of an argument–but by the end they’ve got more people thinking their way.

I think it’s also important to mention that, as the teacher, I hardly say anything during this discussion. Apart from reading the prompts, and an occasional “tell us more” nudge, I am just listening. Because everybody is an active participant, everybody has a stake in the outcome — and the fact that people can move at any time keeps interest up as the debate unfolds.

This game is consistently cited by my students as one of their favorite activities in my class. It consistently gets students who rarely speak to open up, sometimes because it gives them a concrete action they can describe (“Hey [student], why did you switch sides?”). In a class with lopsided participation, requiring everybody to comment once before somebody can speak again can work.

Do you play similar games in your classroom? What’s your experience with them?

Teaching Bias: The IAT Test

It’s a regular occurrence in my 10th grade English class that we spend some time talking about bias, prejudice and stereotypes. Phase one is graduating kids out of the blanket “these things are bad” attitude that can shut down potentially useful discussion about what’s actually going on.

After we have spent some time exploring our beliefs on what role these forces play in our society, it’s time to take the Harvard Implicit Attitude Tests.

If you wish, you can impress your students by showing this Buzzfeed video, and pausing it for some notes, and making a disclaimer for the out-of-context comments spliced together at the end of the clip (which unfortunately conflate bias, implicit attitudes, and racism).

After that viewing, kids are excited to take the test. In fact, about half of my students already have.  Then I tell them that I will take the test in front of them, projected on the screen  — and I want them to predict what they think my results will be.

This typically leads to nervous laughter, or dead silence, or a gasp, or sometimes even applause. Kids who want to make an educated guess try and ask some clarifying questions (“Who are your friends?” “What are you, again?”) and then they write down what they think.

I won’t reveal their predictions or my typical results, but I will say that this is the most nerve-racking thing I do in class all year, to the point where I make jokes during the first half of the test, and then say I’m going to shut up because I think it might skew the results.

Here’s what else I tell them: nobody has zero bias in this world.

After they see me do it, we’re off to the races: kids take one or two tests, journal about how their results turned out, and then brainstorm one or two “tough questions” that they want to bring to the whole class for a closing discussion.

Here are a few questions that got posed today:

  • How did you react if you got a result that was the opposite of what you expected?
  • How did it feel when the test was asking you to associate negative terms or ideas to a particular group of people?
  • Did you use any mental “tricks” to try and be less biased while taking the tests?

And then, the one we talked about the most:

  • For the test that asks you to specifically test your bias for or against Arab Muslims, do you think that your sympathy or pity for Muslims might have made you more biased towards them?

I am paraphrasing that last question, but that was the gist of how it was worded. That particular exam (“This IAT requires the ability to distinguish names that are likely to belong to Arab-Muslims versus people of other nationalities or religions”) was taken by several students… and several additional students confessed that they purposefully avoided that test, because they were too nervous about what their results might be.

“I have Muslim friends,” one girl pleaded. “I don’t want to find out that I’m biased against them.”

We scratched the surface of this issue with some reports about attitudes towards Muslims in the United States (making sure to pull from both Fox News and The Nation, naturally). Looking at multiple research studies, we tentatively concluded that knowing a group of people doesn’t necessarily increase your comfort level with them, but not having any direct contact with them seems to definitely decrease your tolerance and acceptance.

A small part of me wishes I could say we came to a big conclusion here, because it would make a nice kicker to this blog post. We didn’t. A bigger part of me wishes I could say, “my Muslim students felt better about their place in America after this conversation.” I have no idea whether that’s true (although I’ll follow up on that).

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started working at SLA: A successful class is not about finding the answer, it’s about asking the questions together.


Note: At a school that’s ranked as one of the most diverse in the nation, that’s harder in some ways, but easier in others, because students cannot automatically assume that they are in the majority, or the group that they’re talking about is not in the room. If you work in a more homogeneous environment, I will be interested to hear how these activities play in your classroom.