Things I Know 284 of 365: We should feed teachers

Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.

– Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be making some suggestions of possible sources of gifts for the teachers in your life. Some will be products for purchase. Some will be ideas of things to make. All of them will be meant to help remember teachers as worthy of thanks.

One of my favorite rituals at SLA was the Back-to-School potluck that welcomed 9th grade students and their families to the school. I still remember the first year when Chris was worried we wouldn’t have enough food. Then, families’ favorite dishes started walking through the door.

Food, the breaking of bread, is a fine way to build community.

It’s also a way to show you care.

This semester, I was feeling as though a small group I was a part of in one of my courses wasn’t quite clicking. It was an evening course, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help the group jell.

Each week, on my way to class, I started picking up a snack the five of us could share. It wasn’t much, maybe chips and salsa or trail mix – but it was a way to build community and show I cared for the other members of my group. Two weeks ago, three of us brought snacks to share, and other groups commented on our spread of food.

Not only can food help build culture or welcome newcomers into a culture, food can be how we share culture.

One of my favorite cinematic moments occurs in It’s a Wonderful Life when Mary Bailey welcomes a family into their new home with the words, “Bread… that this house may never know hunger. Salt… that life may always have flavor. And wine… that joy and prosperity may reign forever. Enter the Martini Castle.”

Given the close ties of food in culture in my brain, it should come as no surprise that I suggest gifting a meal to your or your child’s teacher this holiday season.

This is a little trickier, but definitely worthwhile. Here’s how I’d do it:

  • Give the teacher a card or certificate explaining the gift.
  • Ask the teacher to send home a note or e-mail when they would like to redeem the meal.
  • Inquire as to any allergies or dietary restrictions.
  • Let the teacher know how much lead time you’ll need on the preparing the meal, e.g., one calendar week.

The meal can either be delivered to take home for dinner or prepared to be consumed for lunch at school. If it’s the latter, go all out and provide the recipient a real plate, real silverware and a proper glass.

I can think of few ways to show care and respect for the work a teacher does to nourish the lives of students than to offer a moment of sustenance for that teacher.

Food is our culture, and food is how we build culture.


Things I Know 269 of 365: I’ve got an idea for disrupting PD

The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.

– Charles Darwin

I’m working to understand a framework for professional development and capacity building that disrupts traditional thinking and builds toward the type of risk-ready culture Richard Elmore describes and of which I was a part at SLA. In the simplest of terms, it’s a culture of responsible citizenship and stewardship for the educational community. Several different ideas have been influencing my thinking.

The first was the idea of the “Chinese restaurant” approach to “spreading” an educational model described by Charles Leadbeater in his TED talk. Not everything looks the same, but you know when you’re in one. For me, the idea of a coffee shop works best. They are places I seek out, that “pull” me as Leadbeater said, and invite me to stay longer than I intend. It’s got me thinking how one could design a space (physical or virtual) where this is the reaction of those students and teachers who are part of the community.

As my studies returned me to our thinking on “the instructional core,” I started to think about a recent Forbes interview with Don Tapscott. Describing the path to “Enterprise 2.0” and a looming crisis of patent expiration in the pharma market, Tapscott said, “You need to change the whole modus operandi of the industry and how you do research. They need to start sharing science and sharing clinical trial data… The current model is unsustainable, even if it didn’t happen to be coincidentally all coming together over a cliff.” I’ve started to wonder if pharma’s cliff is near education’s cliff.

In many ways, this strikes me as the path to the type of interaction and capacity building Richard Elmore writes about. It also seems a fair way for inspiring risk-taking he mentions. This is a similar idea to that of KIPP Open Book, a project of Philadelphia’s KIPP schools meant to make their data and practices more transparent. It’s an example of system-level transparency of practice, that could potentially influence the transparency of teachers and students, though it would likely require a substantial shift in pedagogy to allow for the agency required for teachers and students to feel more comfortable to take risks associated with such transparency.

This returns me to the question of how I would build a culture comfortable with risk-taking and responsible citizenship to increase capacity and align our practice with a goal toward improvement. To the extent possible, I’d hire the “right” people. At Science Leadership Academy (SLA), each interview committee included the principal, teachers from the department with the open position and at least one student and one parent. These committees were formed ad hoc. Though the principal maintained final say, I cannot recall an interview where the final decision differed from the consensus of the committee. This practice was built into the culture of the school. Oftentimes, students were the first to speak up in deliberations to point out that a particular candidate was a poor fit for the school. In my own practice, I would adopt a hiring approach similar to if not the same as SLA’s.

As to the question of professional development, I’m tempted to stray further from the norm and suggest a rotating position of Professional Coach. Each year a different teacher would assume a reduced course load to work with the school’s leadership team as the director of professional development. The role would entail observations, leading PD around the school’s improvement goals and helping to research particular issues of practice in the coach’s own classroom. The position would last a year, after which, that teacher would return to a full load. Other teachers would submit their names (and perhaps an application) for the following year and the leadership team, whole faculty, or principal would select the next year’s Professional Coach. Again, it’s an idea I’m toying with, and I’m still working to conceptualize the possible impact on school culture.

The thing I want to know is this, how can we prevent the standard testing accountability measures from being the tail that wags the dog of professional development and setting the definition of improvement?

Things I Know 167 of 365: ‘I don’t know, but…’ is sexy

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

– President Abraham Lincoln

Pay attention, because you won’t hear this next sentence from me again. Abe was wrong.

Peter Senge writes, “School trains us never to admit that we do not know the answer, and most corporations reinforce that lesson by rewarding the people who excel in advocating their views, not inquiring into complex issues.”

If this is the case, Senge’s other supposition that business leaders are trained to ignore systems thinking or see issues more deeply because of similar school training, an amazing opportunity exists for teachers.

I struggled with this all through the school year. On vocabulary quizzes, I asked students to use each word in a meaningful sentence to demonstrate their ability to use a word in context.

“Even if you don’t know,” I would tell them, “write something down.”

My mom always said, “If you don’t ask, then the answer is always ‘no,’” and I was attempting to apply the same logic to the quiz.

No matter how emphatically, personally and repeatedly I urged, students left blanks on their papers.

Later, I’d inquire as to why.

“I didn’t know it.”

“You realize, writing anything down gave you more of a chance than leaving it blank?”


I went out of my mind.

Senge sums up the problem nicely.

My students weren’t showing me they didn’t know the answer. They would have to write something down to do that. Instead, they were showing me they could choose not to write an answer.

Setting aside all I could have done to improve their learning of the vocabulary, let’s focus on what I could have done – what all teachers can do – to improve the rate of response when students feel they are in the dark.

The best answer for my money is giving classroom credence to some variation of “I don’t know, but here’s my best guess.”

“Even if we feel uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain of ignorant,” Senge writes.

Certainly, by the time I met them in high school, my students have learned the survival techniques.

Creating a classroom culture that honors “I don’t know” is a difficult proposition. It works against the majority of what students have been taught and what led most teachers to the classroom. We are there because we knew and kept right on knowing until we were charged helping others know.

If our students sense even a fragment of that path on us as we walk in the door, imagine the intimidation they could feel.

A student once admitted to me the reason she hadn’t turned in a single assignment for the first month of class was that she worried nothing would be good enough.

I failed.

Yes, some of this rests in the foibles of the students, but a chunk of it belongs to me. My job was to make “I don’t know,” cool and to set a tone that helped students see value in whatever they created.

Eventually, the student began submitting work, but it pains me to think of what I missed in that month.

The four most powerful words in any classroom should be, “I don’t know, but…”

Things I Know 74 of 365: Story is currency

On the day when man told the story of his life to man, history was born.

– Alfred de Vigny

Stories have always fascinated me. My family trades stories like currency. From the garbled message from my cousin Milo explaining why the book I sent him was so important to my great-grandparents’ and now grandparents’ recollections of where we come from, stories matter in my family.

When I interviewed to teach at SLA, I was asked to describe my dream class. I was nervous and unprepared. I have no idea what I described. Now, though, I am teaching it. Second semester, for two years now, I teach a class called Storytelling to SLA seniors.

As I’ve explained before, Tuesday afternoons, I set up the class like a performance space, heat a percolator of coffee and one of hot water for tea. I set out cream and sugar and cookies. Beside them, I have a tip jar.

At the front of the room is a microphone. Beside it is a table with a small sound board and a laptop.

For two hours at the end of my Tuesday, I sit at that table and listen as my students share and explode moments of their lives in our weekly class story slams. Built around the rules of Philadelphia’s First Person Arts Story Slams, the rules are simple.

Three random audience judges scoring on content and presentation.

Five random storytellers.

No more than 5 minutes.

No notes.

True stories.

Tuesday, I woke up with a Daylight Saving Time hangover. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to leave their bed. I dragged through much of the day. Then, during lunch, I remembered – slams.

I set up the room, bought the supplies and greeted the students as they filed in.

Describing the stories would fall short. There’s something at once vulnerable and empowered as my students stand behind the mic and share parts of their lives the people in the room have usually never been privy to.

I’ll stop here and let you listen to two selections from this week’s slam around Malice.

No matter the discipline, story should be the currency of our classrooms.
Ralen and Freda by MrChase