Day 1 Activity: Who gets to inherit our intellectual traditions?

In the many dinner table conversations we have around education, my husband and I like to parse out what lasting impressions our different high schools left on us.

My husband attended one of the region’s prominent Quaker schools, so he knows how to sit and reflect and reach consensus. In terms of the humanities, teachers also clearly communicated to him — explicitly and implicitly — that there was a direct line between the great thinkers and doers of eras past and their own classroom.

Now, there are plenty elitist reasons why private schools naturally impart this message, and some aspects of their structure (small seminar-style classes, courses in Greek and Latin) that reinforce it.

And yet — in talking to him, I realized that while I believe my own students are equal inheritors of the global intellectual tradition, that fact is not something I do a great job of communicating in my classroom. And as a result, perhaps my kids were missing out on the empowered mindset that helps us grow into (and trouble, and challenge, and blow up) the adult world of thought.

So, today I made sure my first-day slide show included some explicit discussion about the tradition of writing, reading, and thinking that exists in our world — examples of the people that got together and hashed out some insightful, important, and entertaining documents that have shaped the course of literature and history.

Here’s a few examples.

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And here’s the prompt that lead to our first-day sticky-note activity:

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Phase two was “How did this work impact your life?” Phase three will come later, and will lead to the generation of new topics and ideas for writing.

Day 1 and we already have a rich collection of suggested reading for the class, and themes that can serve as a springboard for writing. And it all came from sharing our own positions in the larger tradition of reading and writing.

Summer Thoughts and Check-In

Here’s just a few professional things I am up to this summer:

On a more personal note, I am also interested in sitting on beaches, swimming in the ocean (and, in a new one for me, pools), eating watermelon, and playing skee ball on the boardwalk. Gotten to all but that last one so far.

Lastly, if you are in the Philadelphia area, you should already be signed up for the Caucus of Working Educators’ Summer Reading Series. In its second year there are ten books with twenty-plus facilitators, who are all among the best and the brightest in our fair city. Each book connects to the topic of structural racism. You do NOT have to have read the book in advance (that’s the point), nor do you have to attend every meeting of your book club. I will be out of town for several meetings of The New Jim Crow, but that didn’t stop me from signing up and thinking yes, yes, yes when I read the first page today:


The freedom to write about #Ferguson.

Late last year, I tweeted out the following photograph. The brainstorm was student-produced a few days after the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting.


What was great about this brainstorm — apart from the conversation itself — was that it didn’t involve a “break” from our regularly scheduled programming. Juniors already write 2Fer Essays where they analyze a topic of their choice, and we typically pick a topic to play with as a group. Lots of students were keyed up about this topic, and went with one of the questions we generated. But lots of them chose not to as well.

Here are a few of the thesis statements that evolved out of that day:

If citizens and law enforcers are on the same page, fewer crimes will take place and more people will be safe.”

Because they are held to such an unrealistically high standard, cops are unreasonably criticized when they make mistakes.”

“The conversations on the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases tend to drift away from the core of the problem, police brutality against black men, and instead use these instances as a platform for discussion on black on black crime and respectability politics. This is because media outlets, which influence much of the public debate, find it easier to comfort in addressing black responsibilities as opposed to addressing a systemic issue.”

“Since because people follow what they are taught… policemen are not at fault, it is the institutions fault because they are corrupt in the way they teach individual officers.”

Again, I emphasize: I didn’t do anything “special” for this assignment — the vehicle for individual research and composition was already built into our curriculum. That’s a benefit of authentic inquiry. Students know they have a safe venue to ask the hard questions and attempt an answer as best they can.

Photo Post: Snow Day

Hello PECO Building.

Hello PECO Building.

I’ve got a great view from my classroom. And with a gentle snow today, it’s even better.

When I came in this morning, the shades were down, and for a split second I hesitated. Would it be better to keep the view blocked? Will we be more productive? Will today devolve into a day-long whine about snow days?

That idea did not linger. I’m happy to report that authentic learning and a nice view blend well together.

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.)