Bringing the Phone Tree out of the Moth Balls

Never having played sports in school (or ever, really), the phone tree, as I understood it being used by soccer moms, never really entered into my life. I got the concept, but never needed.

When talking to a music teacher a few weeks ago about how he was using technology to care for students, the phone tree became suddenly relevant.

After a marching band gig, the teacher had sent a mass text to all of his musicians thanking them for showing up and performing. A simple act this teacher hadn’t thought much about until I’d worked to underline the importance of the ethic of care in the classroom.

It was a simple act that, after the instruments had been packed away, reminded the students that what they did mattered to other people and that they were valued.


It also got me thinking about a possiblity for phone trees in the classroom. Apps are great and I’m all for welcoming kids to bring tech into school spaces. Oftentimes, this transitions to a mandate or a platform requirement.

Enter, phone ring.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. At a class’ opening, each student is linked to another. A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until Z is linked back around to A in the end. (More of a phone ring, I’m realizing.)
  2. Working on anything – homework, projects, whatever – if C has a question she can’t quite figure out, she gets ahold of D via whatever means necessary. It can be text, IM, e-mail (gasp), phone call (double gasp). D and C work together find an answer.
  3. If they can’t, that’s cool. The ring continues. D says, “I think we need another brain,” and gets ahold of E. The ring continues.
  4. Knowing the system is in place, the teacher begins the next class asking if any questions or troubles made it around the ring since their last meeting. It’s a formative assessment gold mine.

Student are practicing social skills, it’s low-threat collaboration, it values the asking of questions. It’s low-cost and allows for the use of mobile technologies without requiring them or the installation of new functionalities.

P.S. In putting together the chain, I’d probably take personalities into consideration and try to build in as much student choice. The easiest way I’ve found is starting with a conversation of what it means to be connected to someone who supports your learning and then asking each student to write down the names of three students they know would support their learning if they were linked and one student who would probably derail their learning. After that, it’s up to teachers’ professional opinion to make matches that foster student growth.

Things I Know 360 of 365: They’ll always be my students

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A former student and I have been messaging back and forth. He posted a status update on his wall that had that air of moving beyond the public moodiness of a teenager to being a public plea for a little help correcting course in the post-high school world.

I started simply, “If you need help, I’m here.”

We’ve been writing since then. He’s been putting down on digital paper what’s happening in his life and what he’d like to have happening. I’ve been offering up possibilities for course adjustment and asking questions.

If he told me to mind my own business or back off, I would. It’s his life, and I get that.

Only it’s not just his. I’ve got time, work, and care invested in him the same way I’m invested in all of my students. I chose to spend time in their lives because they were worth it. It was an investment of me.

Perhaps, in an unconnected world where living hundreds of miles away from my former students meant actually being separated from them, I would find it easier to withhold assistance or cut off the caring. Or, I’d simply find myself idly wondering what happened in the chapters of their lives following the one in which I featured.

Either way, this is not the world in which I live. I am connected to my students. My approach may be different than generations of teachers before me, but that is because the tools and environments of those teachers were also different. My students populate my information feeds each day, creating threads that may be no more than gossamer, but bind us together nonetheless.

One of the reasons my mom decided against a major in education was the danger she’d want to bring every student home.

That’s not my issue. I don’t want that. I don’t want to lose myself in my students. The principle and ethic that guides me, and always will, is that I will never turn my back on any students who are in danger of losing sight of themselves.

Things I Know 241 of 365: We’ve been talking about this for a while

There is no book I know of that shows so well what a free and humane education can be like, nor is there a more eloquent description of its philosophy.

– Herbert Kohl on The Lives of Children

For A-107 this week, we read a few chapters from George Dennison’s The Lives of Children. Dennison writes about the pedagogy and practice of The First Street School. I’ve read the book before as part of my teacher preparation, but haven’t visited it since then.

I’m glad I did.

It reminded me how beautiful the relationships between caring adults attending to the needs of children caring teachers attending to the needs and personhoods of students can be.

It also left me a bit saddened.

Dennison was writing 50 years ago about what schools can be and how we can most humanely treat children. He was writing half a century ago and still we have stories of school-regulated caste systems based on test performance. And so, I thought it important to type up and stow away some of the bits and pieces of Dennison that resonated most with me as I read. I’ll archive them in the cloud and pull them out when I need to be reminded of what we can do and how we can care for kids.

The closer one comes to the faces of life, the less exemplary they seem, but the more human and the richer. (p. 5)

Learning, in its essentials, is not a distinct and separate process. It is a function of growth. (p. 5)

We might cease thinking of school as a place, and learn to believe that is is basically relationships: between children and adults, adults and adults, children and other children. (p. 7)

We did not give report cards. We knew each child, knew his capacities and his problems, and the vagaries of his growth. This knowledge could not be recorded on little cards. The parents found – again – that they approved of this. It diminished the blind anxieties of life, for grades ha never meant much to them anyway except some dim sense of problem, or some dim sense reassurance that things were all right. (p. 8)

They had discovered each other – and had discovered themselves – in more richly human terms. (p. 11)

Motivated, of course, means eager, alive, curious, responsive, trusting, persistent; and its not as good a word as any of these. (p. 13)

Rousseau: The most useful rule of education is this: do not save time, but lost it. (p. 13)

Now what is so precious about a curriculum (which no one assimilates anyway), or a schedule of classes (which piles boredom upon failure and failure upon boredom) that these things should supersede the actual needs of the child? (p. 17)

…by accepting her needs precisely as needs, we diminished them; in supporting her powers, in all their uniqueness, we allowed them to grow. (p. 18)

But let me replace the word “freedom” with more specific terms: 1) we trusted that some true organic bond existed between the wishes of the children and their actual needs, and 2) we acceded to their wishes (though certainly not to all of them), and thus encouraged their childish desiring to take on the qualities of decision-making. (p. 21)

We read of statistics and percentages, and are told that learning is the result of teaching, which it never is and never was. We hear of new trends in curriculum and in the training of teachers, and of developments in programmed instruction – of everything, in short, but the one true object of all this activity: the children themselves. (p. 33)

School was not a parenthesis inserted within life, but was actually an intensified part of life. (p. 33)

Why is it, then that so many children fail? Let me put it bluntly: it is because our system of public education is a horrendous, life-destroying mess. (p. 74)

It can be stated axiomatically that the schoolchild’s chief expense of energy is self-defense against the environment. When this culminates in impairment of growth – and it almost always does – it is quite hopeless to reverse at the trend by teaching phonics instead of Look-Say. The environment itself must be changed. (p. 80)

Would growth be possible – indeed, would there be a world at all – if the intake of the young were restricted to those things deliberately offered them by adults? (p. 83)

We cannot raise children to be free men by treating them like little robots; we cannot produce adult democrats by putting children in lock step and placing all decisions in the hands of authorities (p. 88)

I know that in the course of our lessons I committed errors and God knows how many omissions, yet this physical base was so important and so reliable that it provided all kinds of leeway. It took the sting (though not the seriousness) out of my rebukes, it expressed a concern I could not have put into words, it gave a reality and continuity to sessions which were sometimes of the most ephemeral content. If one single formula were capable of curing the ills of our present methods of education, it would be this physical formula: bring the bodies back. (p. 169)

Dennison, G. (1999) The lives of children: The story of the First Street School. New York, NY: Boynton/Cook

Things I Know 175 of 365: They gave me music

If music be the food of love, play on.

– William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night I.i.1

“I listen to different music now.”

At the end of my first year at SLA, this was the answer from one student to my question of how my students had changed in their freshman year.

She explained she’d come to the school listening to a mix of emo and pop and was leaving her first year with an appreciation of rock, R&B, Hip Hop and oldies. She even admitted to not hating some classical music. (That one was my fault.)

Other students commented on their changes during their first year of high school too. Four years later, only the music comment sticks in the attic of my brain. I’ve packed it away in the box labeled, “Things Will Be Okay.”

I come from a family of musicians. If they don’t play, they appreciate those who can. Music was everywhere as I grew up. From Tomé to Presley to Tears for Fears to Manhattan Transfer – depending on where I was and whom I was with, anyone could have been providing the soundtrack to my day.

It’s what led to the giddiness when Myspace first asked me to include what song I was listening to when writing a blog post. It always seemed silly they asked about the song and asked how I was feeling. To me, they were one and the same.

When I write, I listen to anything by Hans Zimmer, Balmorhea or Rachel’s. Lately, an album called Cocktail Mix: 4 has started to work its way onto that list.

Music is how I feel.

Rather than wading through the murky waters of a Secret Santa this year, SLA teachers had the chance to opt in to a mixtape exchange. Pick a name, compile a mixtape of at least 15 songs for that person and exchange burned CDs at the staff holiday party. It was better than any $5-limit tchotchke I’ve ever received. Try it.

I drove away from Philly yesterday morning.

As I did, I put a CD in my car’s stereo – Mr. Chase, ❤ MUD.

On one of the last days of school, two students appeared in my room and presented the disk to me.

“These are songs that remind us of you,” one of the students explained.

Both of my G11 classes collaborated on the project to suggest songs which were then curated. The result was a disc I kept myself from listening to until I was safely alone, in my car, driving away from Philadelphia.

To say I was touched by such thoughtfulness would be an amazing understatement. They were caring for me.

The mix is a collection of songs I played mercilessly in class, songs we connected over and songs I’d never heard but am honored they connect with me.

I am humbled.

This mix has been added to that box in the attic of my brain.

I share it here because I hope it makes you smile the way it made me smile.

Thank you.

Things I Know 135 of 365: Processing matters

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.

– Peter F. Drucker

My friend Darlene earned her master’s in counseling. Never one to do things in a small way, Darlene’s degree is in Adventure-Based Counseling.

In the two years we worked in the same school and the eight years we’ve been friends, Darlene’s made one point about ABC over and over again: The activities are only only useful if you process them with the kids.

Darlene’s processing mantra of choice was, “What? So what? Now what?” asking the kids what they noticed about the activity, the implications of what they noticed on their success during the activity and what they would do to move this new knowledge into practice in their daily lives.

At SLA, we introduce students to inquiry thinking by taking them along a similar line of questioning: “I noticed…Iwonder…What if?”

As I’ve been considering caring lately, these questions and other iterations thereof have been striking me as increasingly important from both an academic and socio-emotional point of view.

On a recent flight, I sat next to a grandmother who was flying home after watching one of her grandsons graduate. I confessed to being a teacher and we felt silent again as often happens with the edd and flow of airline conversation.

“You know, every child needs at least one good and important teacher in their life,” she said, pulling me back to the conversation.

“More than one if they’re lucky,” I said.

“Mine was in ninth grade,” she said, “He told me, ‘I’m going to transfer you out of my class because it’s not quite what you need,’ but he also took the time to explain why.”

We talked for a while about how much it meant to her that the teacher explained to her why another class would be a better fit.

Now in her 70s, it is the processing she carries with her as the memory from both of those math classes. The processing of the why of it all turned out to be the greater moment of learning for her.

I suspect it influenced how she interacted with her own children – taking the time to explain when they asked the omnipresent, “Why?”

Darlene is right, what we do is only as useful as our effort to process it with our students. The processing takes many forms such as giving a response more detailed than “Good answer” in class or providing words rather than numbers when filling out a rubric.

Not only is processing in this way helpful to my practice as a teacher, it’s helpful to my students in their acquisition of the language of learning.

I’m a little cagey on the idea of teaching students to learn. Teaching students the language of learning and how to express the ideas and progress inherent in their learning – that I can get behind.

Things I Know 59 of 365: I want to be Mr. Curry

I never realized I had that much influence on anyone. I hope you enjoy your teaching career as much as I did mine.

– John Curry

My senior year of high school, I took AP Calculus. In my rural school of fewer than 400 students, 5 of us took the class.

When spring arrived, we sat in the conference room, #2 pencils in hand, and attacked the AP A/B Calculus exam.

Well, 4 of us attacked it.

I held on as long as I could. Through the bubble and grid section, I played it cool.

Arriving at the open answer section, I froze.

My mind was a blank. Not a blank as in something had been their and was erased by anxiety, but blank in the sense that I had no idea what was being asked of me.

I looked around the room and surmised I was the only one. Throughout the room, pencils were scribbling.

In that moment, I wanted to quit even more than I had wanted to quit when my third grade T-Ball team lost every game. Every. Game.

John Curry taught me math each year from eighth through twelfth grade, save one.

He wasn’t looping with my class. It was a small school with two math teachers.

If, on my best days, I am half the teacher Mr. Curry was, I have made something of myself.

He was as traditional and by-the-book a teacher as you’re likely to meet. It is entirely possible our pedagogies are somewhat divergent at this point. We are products of different eras.

Still, I remember he cared.

When a student earned a B or above on a test, Mr. Curry would place a sticker on the paper before handing it back. As we moved to higher math, got our driver’s licenses and first jobs, we continued to treasure those stickers. The covers of our TI-83s were laden with stickers like fighter pilots noting our kills.

For a score of 90% or above, students received certificates congratulating them on showing their ability to master the content of the chapter. Mine hung in my locker.

Perhaps best were the letters. At the close of each unit, after the tests and quizzes were graded, Mr. Curry would send letters to the parents of those students earning Bs or higher, congratulating them on their students’ successes.

I remember seeing the letters as I pulled the mail from the mailbox. It wasn’t the handwriting which gave it away (Mr. Curry was mail merging before it was cool). It was the stationary. Out of his own pocket, Mr. Curry purchased stationary in our school colors watermarked with our mascot. When a Kelly green envelope showed up in the mail, you knew what was inside.

The letters did more than offer congratulations to my parents, they also explained what concepts and material I had shown mastery of. Dinner on letter nights was always interesting, “So, Zachary, explain the slope-intercept formula to me.”

Mr. Curry made me care about math because he showed he cared about me.

Sitting in the conference room, my blank drawn with amazing detail, I knew I could not quit. I could not fail Mr. Curry.

Realizing any attempt at calculus would be a mockery of the mathematics he held so dear, I played to my strengths.

I remember the first lines of the essay I wrote, “If you saw my answers in the previous section of the test, you know I’ve been holding on by a thread. Rather than waste both of our time, let me tell you why I needed to take this test and how great my math teacher is. No matter what you think of my math skills, please, don’t take them as a reflection of his teaching.”

Though I’d struggle if you put a factorial in front of me today, I learned the value of more than I can ever say from Mr. Curry.

Things I Know 41 of 365: Caring is reciprocal

Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.

– Benjamin Franklin

It should be said, I was ready to go home.

On my way out of school today, I stopped by one of the tables in the hallway near my classroom. Gathering my things, I’d heard some students using their outdoor voices at the table.

I stopped not to tell them to move or repremand them. I started with a simple observation, “You are all sitting within 2 feet of one another.”

A slight smile from one of the students. I went on to bemoan the fact that it was the end of the day and we were all full up on crazy for the time being in that lesser referenced teacher voice that says, “I’m kidding around with you, but truly making a point at the same time.”

My message delivered, one of the students said they’d keep it down. I started to walk away when one of the students who’d been quiet since I’d stopped by said something ugly to another student at the table.

It was one of those moments of stupid. One of those adolescent powerplays meant to show his peers he was grown enough to spit ugly words in front of a teacher. As a former assistant principal of mine once said, he was feeling himself.

In that moment, my simple stop to ask the table to quiet down became something else.

In that moment, I needed to be present. I needed to be caring.

My coat, bag and water bottle in hand, I suggested he and I go for a walk. It took a few suggestions and the encouragment of one of the other students present before aquiesced to my invitation. This was not before he let fly a flurry of words that made a verbal cocktail with the rare quality of being profane without including any profanity.

He would leave, but not without assuring all present that he was the one wielding the power.

We walked a ways down the hall and turned the corner. I’d hoped to make it to another floor, but he had a good 50 lbs and a few inches on me, so I knew not to push my luck.

In these moments, when our students choose not to or are incapable of being the better versions of themselves, we must be the best versions of ourselves.

Standing there, in the hall with the lint of the day stuck to my brain and adored with the accessories of my walk home, I needed to be someone other than a teacher ready to go home.

My tone was soft. My sentences were largely questions. My goal diffusion.

He would have none of it.

“See, she says all of that, and I’m the one in trouble.”

“Who said anything about anyone being in trouble?”

And it continued like that – he intent on being angry and me intent on not.

And, I get this is the role adults must play when they choose to spend their days modeling life for those children in their charge.

We must be present. We must care…even when it’s a drag.

Thus was the internal conversation myself and I were having as sentences like, “What would you expect me to do when two students I love deeply are saying hurtful and ugly things to one another.”

He was having none of it.

Indignation fueled by righteousness can be an intoxicating thing.

One thing he failed to take into consideration, I care for all my students.

In a moment of reciprocity I’m certain Nel Noddings heard wherever she is, one of my students, Lenea, turned at the end of the hall.

The student I was listening to had  let loose a particularly baited and patronizing sentence as Lenea passed by.

I’d barely noticed her passing.

That is, until I heard, “You don’t talk to Mr. Chase that way,” in a tone, to that point, I was certain only my mother knew.

Appreciative of the vote of confidence, I kept on, “If someone said something like that about you in my presence, you know I’d take issue with it.”

He was mid-rebuttal when I heard Lenea’s voice, “I’ll talk to him, Mr. Chase.”

I turned to look at her.

She was staring at me with that look that says, “Go along now. Get. I’ve got this covered.” And, I knew she did.

I turned and walked down the hall to attempt to diffuse the other side of the argument.

A few minutes later, I walked back down the hall. Turning the corner, I was ready to re-engage. I couldn’t. They weren’t there.

Lenea had moved him physically (and I’m guessing emotionally) farther than I’d been able.

I’ve been mulling that idea tonight. I’ve considered the ninth grader I met when Lenea first entered my room nearly four years ago. I’m uncertain how many times I’ve hugged her, told her how much I’m proud to teach her and made a point to assure her I see the good she’s created.

What I’m certain of, though, is that all those moments, those pieces of mental and emotional investment, those moments of caring, were worth it.

What I’m certain of is caring is reciprocal.