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 234 of 365: Testing is killing the curriculum

Too many professors feel right at home talking at students instead of fostering an engaging and interactive learning environment. Students are expected to sit there, take notes, and find some way to stay awake. The suck-it-up-and-endure-a-mind-numbing-lecture mindset is so ingrained in college, schools even assign room names like “Lecture Hall 4”.

– Liz Dwyer

A few months ago, a friend raised an argument to me, “We’re not teaching to the test.”

It was the first time in a while I’d heard someone make this particular case.

The temptation – the overwhelming urge – was to shout, “Of course you are! You are and you have been for years. Mountains of curricular history have been shifted so that exactly what you are doing is teaching to the test.”

Instead, I asked, “I see, then you’re teaching away from it, are you?”

According to Wayne Au of California State University, Fullerton, my initial response would have been the correct one.

In 2007, Au compared 49 studies of how standardized testing had shaped curriculum across 10 different states. He wanted to know what the trends were across studies of high-stakes testing and curricula.

According to Au, “The primary effect of high-stakes testing is that curricular content is narrowed to tested subjects, subject area knowledge is fragmented into test-related pieces, and teachers increase the use of teacher-centered pedagogies.”

Well, there you have it.

But Au found more.

As he began coding the data of his metasynthesis, he found the results breaking down into three categories:

  • subject matter content alignment/contraction vs. subject matter content alignment/expansion
  • form of knowledge changed/fractured vs. form of knowledge changed/integrated
  • pedagogic change to teacher-centered vs. pedagogic change to student-centered

After Au’s data was coded, he started to look for trends in studies that included two or three of the categories.

Were there trends in shifts toward teacher-centered lessons coupled with curriculum contraction.

He found them.

Most frequently, Au found content contraction coupled with a shift toward teacher-centered pedagogy. Teachers, the studies predominantly found, were contracting what they were teaching and teaching in such a way that they were positioning themselves as the sources and makers of knowledge in their classes.

In considering triplets where three of the coded data sets were present in 28 of the 49 studies, the most frequent trio was contracting curriculum, fragmented knowledge and teacher-centered pedagogy.

That sound you hear is the rolling over of John Dewey and Paolo Freiere in their graves.

Au’s reports that some curricula were actually expanding in connection to high-stakes testing was initially heartening. This was short-lived as he wrote that such expansion was often social studies teachers expanding their curriculum to take on those skills tested by English language arts assessments.

Au concludes his report claiming such constrictions were the end goal of policymakers from the outset.

The intent wasn’t to move the mountain. The intent was to chip away, re-shape and grind down the mountain of human knowledge so that students can carry around the pebbles of the human experience as mementos of what once was.

“Given the central findings of this study, however, a crucial

question is raised,” writes Au, “Are test-driven curriculum and teacher-centered instruction good or bad for teachers, students, schools, communities, and education in general?”

Things I Know 182 of 365: Sometimes, I’m ready to move on to the next discussion

Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; argument an exchange of ignorance.

– Robert Quillen

I won’t call it an argument.

What I got into this evening that lasted from the beginning of dinner, through settling the check, the drive to the movie theater and up to the point at which we took our seats for the previews was a discussion.

We discussed education.

In a party of 9, my friend and I ignored all others and searched for common ground.

He discussed from a deficit model.

He discussed the importance of standardized tests.

He discussed there were far more teachers who should be fired than were excellent.

He discussed end-of-year assessment and the ability to write a well-reasoned essay as the marks of a highly-qualified teacher.

I argued against it all.

I argued against it all except the very last point.

I wanted to. In my argument for project-based assessment, for the value of asking students what they can create and teaching to their passions, for the idea that having students read from textbooks precludes the idea that a teacher has created a constructivist classroom – in all of this – I could not make my way to the argument that writing an essay should no longer be the measure.

This thought hung on the coatrack in the back of my mind as I attempted to make my exit from the discussion.

He wasn’t ready for the idea that what might deserve our focus is teaching students to make arguments, but that writing them down – on paper or screen – mightn’t need to be the standard by which we measure their rhetorical abilities.

It was incredibly frustrating to realize how many layers of discussion were necessary before I would be able to get to an idea I recognized as truly progressive.

I wanted to suggest having kids write with video integrating links, tags and annotations a la youtube videos could liberate voice, deepen understanding and lead to more dynamics arguments. I wanted to suggest that writing in words wasn’t native to the human experience, that doing something because it’s what’s been done for centuries isn’t answer enough.

Instead of this, I had a discussion I’ve had time and again regarding truths I take to be self-evident. It was a moment of frustration. I want to be having a better discussion based on a common belief that learning and adequate yearly progress are not the same thing. Tonight, I had hoped that our conversation of what education can be could come from a mutual belief that teaching is a respectable profession and that we must care for teachers as we would care for students. It turned out, we weren’t ready for the conversation.

I’ll find myself in some iteration of tonight’s conversation again (soon, I’m sure). I will listen and question and push with as much vehemence as I did tonight each time I’m allowed.

Still, in some moments, it would be nice if we all decided we were ready for the next big conversations.

Things I Know 151 of 365: Should and could are different

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

– Anonymous (though I first heard it from my high school principal)

A difference exists between the things we can do and the things we should do.

Mostly, I think about the things we should do.

The things we can do are infinite. It just seems more beneficial to focus on those things.

Today, though, I did one of the things we can do, and it struck me that, perhaps, we should be doing it more.

Tomorrow is the end of the term for SLA seniors. For my class, this means their final projects are due tonight by midnight.

Those final projects consist of a close reading of a text of their choice through a literary lens of their choice.

We’ve been working all quarter on close reading and literary lenses, so one would hope these will be strong essays.

The first act of the semester was to have them write the kids write their rough drafts of their essays and turn them in on google docs. They thought of it as an assignment while I thought of it as the collection of baseline data.

I learned where we needed to focus and what pieces of the puzzle were missing.

The closing act of the semester was to revise and finalize that same essay – to fill in the gaps of the rough draft with what they learned in the quarter.

If English teachers are constantly telling their students to take time between drafts to let them breath, these drafts were the equivalent of a fine wine in a decanter.

The problem today in class was my inability to read every document while students were synchronously reading them in google docs. While I did a fair amount of commenting and conferencing, many of the docs missed out.

I had to take my work home with me.

At the same time, my students needed to be working.

When I checked my e-mail this afternoon, I had a message from a student asking for an edit.

She was one of the students I’d missed during class, so I felt even worse.

I logged in to the google doc ready to edit.

I suppose I could have typed my comments and suggestions to this student. I could have.

But they were complex comments about global revision that required some pretty intense explanation.

I decided to take advantage of what I could do.

I e-mailed the student asking for her phone number.

She sent it in her reply.

I called through google voice.

We talked for just under 10 minutes.

“Here is where I think you could really sharpen your analysis,” I said as I moved my cursor to particular place in the document, “Do you see where I’m talking about?”

“I do,” she said.

We went on like that.

“Now, look at the evidence you bring in here,” I said, “Is that necessary to the thesis?”

It wasn’t, and she knew it.

By the end of our conversation, my student had a clear understanding of what was necessary for the strengthening of the argument and for the completion of the project. She got it.

I ended it knowing I was going to get a produce submitted that was much stronger than I would have otherwise.

Those ten minutes improved the learning of my class, though they had no connection to the classroom.

I realize I broke several unspoken rules of teaching.

I talked with a student outside of school.

I talked with a student on the phone – well, google phone.

I gave up free time for teaching.

I brought my work home with me.

I did more than other teachers would have done.

Somewhere along the way, I worked outside of contract or expectation. In the middle of it, I thought to myself, “This is something my English teachers never could have done – even if they wanted to.”

And that’s the key. That’s the thing that must transform our craft and practice as teachers. It’s the thing traditional teaching contracts and pedagogy haven’t caught up to. If I can teacher anytime and anywhere, I should be.

If I can be positively impacting a student’s learning outside of the school day, I should be.

If I can be thinking about the school day in completely different terms, I should be.

Tonight I used about four different technologies to teach a lesson more completely and impactfully than I could have in my classroom during the regular day.

After that, I ran smack into the fact that our thinking about education hasn’t caught up with the opening gambit of what’s possible.

We should work on that.

Things I Know 144 of 365: I learn by teaching

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case.

– Donald Schön

As of tomorrow, SLA will have been host for two weeks to 5 pre-service teachers from Millersville University. They’re part of a larger cohort taking part in an urban seminar built around the idea of providing experience in urban classrooms to pre-service teachers who would otherwise not have such exposure.

I’ve been happy to have them.

No part of that has come from any excitement over providing these students with a taste of the urban teaching experience. Sadly, SLA isn’t the average urban school.

Instead, my excitement has come from the thoughtfulness in my own practice inspired by, in some small way, being responsible for helping future teachers learn their craft.

I gave Spencer, the student assigned to my classes, room to teach a lesson to my G11 classes today.

He did well.

As we were processing the lesson, I talked to him about having students share their thinking with the person sitting next to them and then sharing out what they heard with the whole class.

I explained it helps encourage active listening, takes off the pressure of having to say something original on the spot and builds their summarization skills.

As I was talking, it occurred to me that I had done the exact opposite during the first period when I randomly called on students to answer questions or offer their thinking on a text.

“Let me explain why I didn’t do any of what I just suggested with the earlier class today.”

In an average day with just my students and I in the classroom, I probably would have taken the advice I’d just given Spencer when working with the G11 classes and employed the random calling method with the senior class, thinking nothing of the disparity of the two approaches.

Held up to the mirror of attempting to explain my pedagogy and practice to someone I was attempting to help prepare for a teaching career, understanding my rationale became suddenly important.

The concepts with which we were dealing in the senior classes have been the topic of our learning and inquiry for the past month or so. By this point, any question should be met with a confident and thorough response. What I was doing was meant as a quick formative assessment to help me decide if they were ready for the next step.

The ideas with which Spencer was asking the G11 students to play were newer, fresher and unanticipated. Giving the students time to think about their understandings and perceptions around the issues would have insured a deeper and more thoughtful conversation.

It didn’t take me long to realize my reasoning. I wasn’t even making excuses. Those were truly the reasons I’d suggested approaching the classes differently.

Because Spencer was there and because I very earnestly want to help him and the others of his cohort meet with as much success as possible when they enter their student teaching experiences and eventual classrooms, it was incumbent for me to pull my thinking apart and explain it.

And aside from all the teaching of pedagogy, being mindful of someone observing my classroom and teaching from a place of curiosity has made me a sharper teacher over these past two weeks.

I’m going to miss Spencer and the others next week. They’ve helped me be a better version of Mr. Chase.

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 80 of 365: Building online courses is scary

In my experience, it takes about twice as long — prep time, putting materials together — to actually deliver the online course than it does to deliver the on-campus course.

– Denise Keele, professor of environmental policy, quoted on

For about an hour this afternoon, I felt as though I’d written myself into a corner. I’m doing some work with a school district’s professional development office to build a course on inquiry and project-based learning in the literacy classroom.

The thing should be a piece of cake.

I’ve spent the better part of a year in an online grad program that gets it wrong in so many ways that I am acutely aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of online learning.

Building the course is about more than distilling the core beliefs and approaches of how I think about teaching and passing on those ideals.

It is also about building a space where the discussion board isn’t a place where discussions go to die and feedback consists of copying and pasting from a rubric.

After eight months of knowing what it feels like when done wrong, I sat scheming today, dedicated to constructing an online learning space and process that felt real.

The worry we have about K-12 teachers ignoring the needs of their students and teaching in mentally tortuous ways because their education is compulsory, is too often exacerbated in adult learning spaces.

Sometimes, I let my mind wander and imagine what the planning sessions must be like.

“Okay, we want our faculty to be trained in how to take an inquiry-based approach in the classroom. Let’s sit them all in a cafegymnatorium and tell them about inquiry.”

“That’s a great idea. I’ll build a PowerPoint with all the information from the book we’ll buy them and see how many words I can fit on each slide.”

“Great! While you two are doing that, I’ll build the online follow-up that will vacillate between assignments giving them directions to follow that are so specific that the implementation can’t possibly fit their students’ needs and assignments so vague they’ll never be certain they completed them correctly until they receive the final e-mail.”

You can see what I was working against this afternoon.

I don’t want to build what I hate.

Turned out the answer was the same as it ever was. I need to do what I say I believe. I started drafting questions to help focus on the ends toward which participants will work. I imagined how a participant would ideally shape his classroom upon completion and worked backward to design modules that help participants raise relevant questions and work toward their answers through inquiry, implementation and reflection.

The course is still in its most nascent stages, but I’m building somewhere I’d like to learn. That can’t be all bad.

It turned out the best way to avoid becoming the practitioners I resent wasn’t to work against becoming them, but to work to be more myself.

I wonder how many times I’m going to have to learn that lesson.