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 146 of 365: It’s our sights, not our size, that matters

Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king. And chicken soon joined them on the throne. It was during this period that the cycle of dietary and planetary destruction began, the thing we’re only realizing just now.

Mark Bittman

According to 2009 U.S. Census data, the student population of the ten largest school districts in the United States was 3,939,071.

That same census data put the U.S. population at 307,006,550.

In 2009, ten school districts were responsible for the education of roughly 1.2 percent of the nation’s population.

As Sam Chaltain once said to me, American schools are the only public institutions to directly interact with 90 percent of the population.

America’s public schools are too big to fail.

A recent NPR report on talks currently taking place between the School District of Philadelphia and the City Commission regarding financial support from the city referred to the district as a “perpetually hungry child.”

I can see the comparison. Schools are hungry. They’ve always been hungry.

In dealing with a $629 million shortfall this year, I’d say the district is turning to the commission as a soup kitchen, not a buffet.

What’s clear beyond that admission is difficult to tell.

The $48.6 billion channeled to education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created change, but seemingly thoughtless change. The states and districts rushing to claim money for their coffers were as varied as Augustus Gloop and that starving child my mother always told me was waiting for whatever I didn’t eat at dinner.

If your state or district received any portion of the $48.6 billion, I’m willing to guess few people can point to where it was spent. If they can, I’ll go double or nothing the majority of recipients can’t give you a clear answer of how ARRA improved the lives of the students we serve.

I say lives because improving learning requires more than improving tests and textbooks. School lunch, transportation, socio-emotional counseling and a slew of other supports are all part of the web of public education. To think otherwise is to think too small and miss seeing the whole board.

In a 2009 Leaning Point and Mission Measurement brief on assessing the effectiveness of the stimulus, reported one interviewee saying, “States need to think of this as an inheritance and do something they wouldn’t normally do. They should be thinking about putting in a high-efficiency heating system and not just paying the mortgage.”

While some recipients did just that, others made investments equivalent to hiring a gardener.

The thinking was too small, the guidelines too restrictive.

I used to work at a magnet school that recruited only the lowest achieving students in the district. (No easy sell.)

Each time I would approach my principal with a new and oftentimes strange idea for instruction, he would approve it.

One day, I asked him why.

“We know that doing everything as usual doesn’t work with these kids,” he told me, “So, we need to try new things.”

The country understands half of the advice, but is missing the critical point.

If the encouragement is to buy the educational equivalent of high-efficiency heading systems, the caveat is those systems need to be fueled by the same coal that’s always been coming down the chute.

Nothing in the Education Department’s four assurances required for the receipt of further ARRA funds suggests a holistic or even humanist approach to education. Initially part of the 2007 America Competes Act the four requirements are:

  • Making progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable for all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities;
  • Establishing pre-K-to college and career data systems that track progress and foster continuous improvement;
  • Making improvements in teacher effectiveness and in the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students, particularly students who are most in need;
  • Providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

The systems built on and fueled by such requirements inspire compliance, not creativity. The classrooms made manifest by such systems inspire the same.

Our primary worry should not be that America’s public schools are too big to fail, but that its students will be too compliant to succeed.

Things I Know 143 of 365: I failed Tuesday

Do or do not. There is no try.

– Master Yoda

I failed Tuesday.

Standing in front of a few hundred people, I failed.

As the setup to what I wanted as a teacher from “21st Century School Design” I had turned to what I knew – students.

Namely, I want school design to imagine places that inspire students to wonder and create.

To set the tone, I’d prepared the brief video below from my student Thea. She created it as her product for the Building History project.

I gave it a great introduction – explaining the project and the fact Thea chose to create a product I could have been absolutely no help on.

The last words before clicking play were probably something like, “It’s pretty amazing.”


Well, not exactly nothing. The sound accompanying the video was playing. Something was happening. If you watch the video, though, I think you’ll agree the sound wasn’t the most impressive bit.

I stopped the music.

“You’ve just seen me fail.”

Laughter from the audience.

“I knew I was going to fail at some point up here, I’m glad it happened so early.”

I meant it.

Walking up on the stage, I knew I’d packed music, photos, links and more into my presentation and that any of it could have failed. I’d created the possibility of failure as well as a space in my head where I would be fine with that failure.

The failure was actually more to the point of what I wanted to illustrate. I want school design to create spaces where both teachers and students are willing to try new things without the fear of failure.

Thea had been told to choose whatever medium she thought best for presenting her project. Both Diana and I told each of the students we wouldn’t be mandating a specific tool and wanted the students to have free reign.

We worked as diligently as we knew how to create a space where students knew we’d help them back up if something new they tried kicked them on their butts.

I left the high possibility of failure in Tuesday’s presentation because I worry teachers aren’t given that same space to play and learn.

It’s all well and good for the students to be lifelong learners, but it’s nothing we’d necessarily want for ourselves.

Even in the instances where teachers are ready to play with ideas and try new things, they often haven’t had the spaces prepared for them by colleagues and administrators that would give the experience the chance to progress from failure to learning.

If we’re programming students to play school and not simply play, its because we’ve done the same for generations of teachers.

If you want classroom where students are challenged to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and wizards of the ingenious, then we must create schools where teachers are trusted and expected to do the same.

Patrick Larkin wrote the other day that he wants his faculty to be willing to relinquish more control as they head toward a 1:1 laptop program. While I think Larkin is on the right track, many of the other principals and district leaders I’ve heard say this never take the question any deeper.

If they want teachers to relinquish control and stop fearing failure, are they also willing to relinquish control and remove some of the stressors leading to their teachers’ fears?

I made a conscious decision as I took the stage Tuesday that I would be fine with whatever failures came my way.

I was able to make that decision because I’ve had a string of principals who supported my instinct to play and a family who was offering their support long before that.

If we want our teachers to give students room to play, we must give our teachers that same room.

A Humbling Moment

The Whole Story:

This semester has afforded me the opportunity to teach a class I’ve always wanted to teach – Storytelling. Thus far, we’re still fumbling with the ideas of what makes a story and what stories tell us about who we are. We’re playing directly and academically with those ideas every day we meet.

Except one.

Each Tuesday is story slam day. A blend of the stylings of The Moth and Philadelphia’s own First Person Arts’ story slams, the slams in class have some simple rules:

Five storytellers are randomly selected for each slam.

Their stories must be inspired by the week’s theme.

The stories must be true.

No memorization / scripts.

After each story, three randomly selected audience judges score the storyteller on content and presentation on a scale of 1-10. All the SLAms are here and here.

The room is re-arranged and coffee and tea are served.

In general, it’s a light-hearted, informal experience.

This Tuesday, though, proved one of the most profound and humbling experiences I’ve had in a classroom from my first days in Kindergarten.

The theme was “Giving Up,” and Lewam took the stage.

(audio not available in feed readers)

I’ve been working to process the story from the moment she told it.

Here’s where my mind stands. I’m at once incredibly sad and incredibly proud.

No matter how much I’ve tried or organized or listened or worked, a student in my charge felt pain within my room and within my walls.

In talking to Chris about it, he gave me the words I think I needed. Pieces of what we do will always be invisible. Pieces of our students’ lives will always be invisible. Unless we want to suit up with full-on, both-end-of-candle-burning messiah complexes, we will never see all of the invisible pieces of each child’s life. I’m not so dense as to be ignorant of this fact.

When the fact stands at a microphone in front of 30 of its peers and pronounces itself, though, the effect is markedly different. It is strikingly visible.

She stood in front of the room and said that, to her, the care and culture and collaboration had, for much of her time, failed her.

So, what do stories tell us about ourselves?

What does this moment mean?

It is complex.

When her name was called, she did not hesitate to take the mic. She did not attempt to negotiate to tell her story later or go last. She spoke truth to the power of community because the community told her it was ok.

What do we do with that?

That is, of course, rhetorical. We must honor it. To maintain integrity, we honor it.

Ego is pushed aside, and the community must reflect.

She found her voice, but felt we did not honor it. I am saddened by this and feel I did the best I could by her. It would be easy to go to “My best wasn’t good enough.” Instead, I’m drawn to the idea that my best should have been different. I’m not the only player here. Her classmates, the faculty, Lewam – they’ve all played their parts. My part is to be responsible for what I do and what I can influence. For sure, I’ll be asking Lewam for advice for the future. I’ve already told her her words impacted me more than most anything I’ve experienced in the classroom.

The Gist:

Lewam likely couldn’t have told this story last year or the year before.

She told it though.

And the room listened.

The applause you hear were the longest and most sincere of any slam we’ve put on. Even the kids who tune out or make cute jibes were silent. They saw her, they connected.

Not altogether surprisingly, she received straight 10s from each judge.

Something sits and works at my brain. What do I do with the fact that her story points to the community’s failure, but her telling of the story leads me to believe the community had something to do with helping her find her voice?

What do stories tell us about who we are?