Things I Know 305 of 365: The initial results are in

Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

– John F. Kennedy

Thank you to everyone who has taken a moment to add their thoughts to the School Purpose Project so far. A particular shout out goes to Marcie Hull, Patrick Higgins, Meredith Stewart and Karl Fisch who have pushed the link to the project out to their students and faculty.

The close of the semester meant my partner Trevor and I had to do something with the data we’ve collected so far and turn in our initial results to our professor. That report can be read here.

Though the report has been submitted, we’re not done with the project. The variety of responses has been amazing, and we’re hungry for more. We’ve also decided to submit a proposal to present further findings at the upcoming Student Research Conference at HGSE.

This means we still need your responses, your friends’ responses, your families’ responses and your students’ responses.

It also means our coded data is available for use by anyone who’s interested. Admittedly, I don’t yet know how to create any sort of dynamic infographics, but I hope you do. Maybe you’re a classroom teacher looking to incorporate a data set into your lessons. Maybe you’re a student looking for an only project. Maybe you’re just looking for numbers to play around with.

The SPP is as much about the process of collecting and sharing our process and data as it is about people’s responses. Please, take a look and see what you can build. If you’ve any questions, please comment below. If you build anything, we’d love to see it and feature it on the site.

At the very least, if you haven’t shared your answer to the question, “What should be the purpose of school?” now’s the time.

Things I Know 279 of 365: School would be better if we weren’t playing school

We should also remember that children (like adults), and above all young children, know and understand much more than they can put into words.

– John Holt

My reading of John Holt’s How Children Learn continues to act as the water filling in the spaces between the rocks of other readings required by my course work. For all of the well-reasoned structures proposed by those readings of requirement, Holt provides a voice of contention, making the case for being people with kids rather than teachers.

He describes the type of talk you might hear from a parent talking through the process of tying shoes with his child. “And I suspect that most people who try to talk this way to children will have so much more teaching in their voices than love and pleasure that they will wind up doing more harm than good.”

It gets me thinking about the kinds of conversations I’m involved in throughout the week. I’ve started paying particular attention to the tones I take with professors and classmates and the tones they take with me.

When I’m speaking, I hear my voice as almost penitent. It’s not quite the same thing as respectful, but more a tone of not wanting to upset the order of things. In some cases, “gee whiz” is implied.

The tones I hear are distant and nice – “We are learning together,” or “I am going to teach you.”

Those aren’t tones I hear when I’m doing learning anywhere other than school.

Holt’s contention that these tones of teaching are doing more harm than good might be a bit inflated. That said, how close can we get to doing work that is real and meaningful if we are playing our roles rather than playing ourselves?

Holt brings his examination back to the topic of quizzing suggesting too much “is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.”

Right now, it leads me to more questions than answers. Are our teacher and student voices the products of assigning work too distant from the learning being done outside of school or do the roles and voices we put on to play school precluding school learning from being more aligned with life learning?

Things I Know 272 of 365: Sketching a school brought clarity of practice

Architecture aims at eternity.

– Christopher Wren

Tonight, in preparation for our next learning task, the class was asked to think about the physical design of a school or learning organization.

What would it look like?

On the heals of drafting our theories of learning and how we might design for difference, this learning tasks makes sense.

It’s also right up the alley of thought I’ve been strolling down recently. Design has been on my brain.

Interestingly, when the professor gave us time to play and told us to see what we could come up with in sketching out what our schools would look like, I had no previous experience to draw from.

I’ve spent the last 8 years re-tooling, rearranging and rethinking classroom design. For the last 6, I’ve been thinking heavily about the systems, structures and pedagogy that work best to the good of the children and adults in schools.

If you asked me what I thought it would look like to see teachers and students interacting in these environments, I’d rattle off words like caring, collaborative, curious, reflective. Then I’d pepper it with examples from my own experiences.

The thing I haven’t done, that I hadn’t done until tonight, is sit down and sketch out what the physical structure of that place might be.

Part of that is likely tied to the fact that those in schools rarely get input into the spaces in which they teach and learn. Often, it’s a rehabilitated building or one that’s been around for decades. To design the physical space is a rarity.

I doodled for a bit tonight, playing with shapes and trying to piece together the structures I’m drawn to and where my students have told me they learn best.

More than anything, I wanted a set of LEGOs. The paper didn’t do what I wanted it to. I needed something bigger and more malleable.

Just before time was called, my group asked me to piece all of our sketches together for a composite final product. You can see it below.

What I said to me team, and what is still true, was that this space is a place I’d both want to teach in and send my kids to.

And that’s just one the first try.

I wonder what would happen if teachers took five minutes to doodle their ideal teaching spaces and then worked to teach as though they were in those spaces. I wonder what would shift. I wonder how interactions and expectations of the students would change.

I wonder what they would sketch with their practice.

Some Useful Words from Ted Sizer on a Common Curriculum

From Horace’s Compromise:

Some today, with earnest good intentions, urge that a common core of subjects be legislated for high school students. Depending on one’s point of view, much of this certainly is nice. Laudable or not in the abstract, however, if it is mandatory, it is an abuse of state power, an excessive reach of political authority. Again, the state is fully justified in providing it at public expense, if it wishes, and prescribing it for certain certificates and diplomas that citizens may voluntarily choose to earn.

Some others say that an adolescent should have a “high school experience,” something that is inherently a Good Thing, an experience that teaches young people to “get along with others.” Proponents of this view offer no evidence for support of their argument for mandatory “residence” at school. This is prudent on their part: there isn’t any. Most real reasons for enforced attendance actually turn on the need to preserve adults’ jobs. Compulsory attendance in an educational institution should cease when a young citizen demonstrates mastery of the minima, and most young citizens should master those minima before senior high school. As a result, schooling for most adolescents would be voluntary. Few would be compelled to attend high school, though a prudent state would vigorously encourage it. High school would be an opportunity, not an obligation.

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 120 of 365: I’m pretty sure we meant to build schools

America is the land of the second chance – and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.

– Pres. George W. Bush

Think back to your school. Elementary, middle or high – it doesn’t matter. Picture the structure, the hallways, the classroom, the layout. I’m guessing you had a central location where you could stand and monitor the goings on in multiple hallways as you turned around.

Picture the materials. Cinder block. Windows that opened, but only a little. (If the room had windows.) A heating system that worked – sometimes. An air conditioning system that didn’t exist. Periodically throughout the day you heard a PA system that announced who should be where when. This was in addition to the bells or tones that sounded at regular intervals to move people from one place to another. The system was likely made complete with the addition of closed circuit cameras and metal detectors in the mid-90s.

Did I get pretty close?

Now add uniforms.

Now add 8-foot fences.

Now add razor wire.

Now you’re in a prison.

We’ve been building schools like prisons for a long time. Lately, we’ve been arguing the design has been about security. I’m uncertain if we’re protecting the students from the outside world or the outside world from the students. Either way, there’s not much about traditional school design that screams “Learning!”

Diana jokes that my classroom is more of a club house. Within my first weeks at SLA, the architects whose offices were directly under my room showed up at the door with a tape measure.

“You have the students moving around quite a bit,” they said, “We’re going to pay for carpeting to help soften the noise.” Since then, I’ve been adding to the room the way large families store things in their garages or attics.

Most recently was the addition of desks whose surfaces operate as dry-erase boards. Throw in the bean bag chairs, icicle lights, and bright paper from lessons past and the club house description becomes apropos. Oh, and their’s a picture my students drew of Neverland on a 14-foot sheet of butcher block paper. It’s hanging from the ceiling.

Levity aside, my classroom is a constant effort to build a comfortable space where people would want to read and write.

Many of my students’ initial literacy educations were in school lockdown. Seated in rows of desks facing a teacher desk, they compliantly learned how school readers read and how school writers write. They did as they were asked to do.

It was incarceration-based education.

A part of me wonders whether the education community should be looking for leadership in the work of L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca who is beta testing his new Education-Based Incarceration Initiative designed to prevent recidivism once inmates are released.

According to NPR, “Baca wants his prisoners to accomplish more than academic achievement. He wants the program to equip inmates for a better life outside prison walls. Courses in life skills like leadership and decision making give time in prison a constructive purpose.”

Not unlike the description of the physical space, replace “prison” with “school,” and you have a decent explanation of what I want for my students.

Things I Know 101 of 365: I teach at a wonderful school

If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

– Proverb

In advisory Monday, we talked about public displays of affection. A couple of days of the week, it’s Spring in Philadelphia, our students appear to have taken note of it.

In an effort to avert any of our 19 ninth grade advisees hanging all over one another in the hall the way so many others have been in the last few weeks, my co-advisor and I decided to meet the issue head on.

We spent a solid portion of advisory discussing how you treat and touch the people you’re attracted to as well as how you set boundaries for touching with the people who are attracted to you.

For good measure, we also talked about how to handle situations where your friends were the ones being hung on and clearly wish they weren’t.

Oh, and I talked about hickies.

In a move that had me feeling all of my 8 years of classroom experience, I brought up hickies and had an open and frank conversation about what it said about a person to want to put their mark (of ownership) on someone else and what it said about a person to let someone else mark them.

“I’ve never thought about it like that,” said one advisee who’d been eyeing me suspiciously as I made my case.

Tonight, I received an e-mail with a link to this story from the Daily News with the comment, “Fodder for advisory, or would it be too much?”

The e-mail was passed along by one of our advisory parents.

We hadn’t e-mailed the parents our lessons or anything, this mom had simply had a conversation about her student’s school day and noted the story when it crossed her path. She was being active and supportive.

In another moment of active support today, a fellow teacher engaged me in a conversation about what I would be studying at Harvard. As conversations do, this one found tangents in teachers unions, sustainability, teacher leadership and what we want for kids. After a day of teaching and a faculty meeting, this colleague invested his time in trying to know me better and to exchange ideas.

The faculty meeting our conversation followed had focused on two main issues. The second issue was the writing of narrative report cards – something I spent the better part of my afternoon crafting. Twice each school year, we get to sit with our students’ work and write thoughtfully about their progress, challenges and successes. I waded through a quarter’s worth of quantitative data to make certain I was saying things that showed each student I’d been paying attention throughout our time together and urged them to continue growing in the final quarter of the year.

Earlier in the meeting, the faculty had been urged to continue to be the amazing school we are in the face of tremendous, district-wide budget cuts. In a time where Chris could just have easily encouraged us to fall to our knees and begin wailing to the heavens, his message was that we should do all we can to continue to serve our students.

The students were not the only focus of the day.

Parents were rallied tonight in an emergency meeting of the Home and School Association to alert them to the budget crisis and begin to move them to raise the money we’ll need next year for supplies and programs while also asking them to contact state officials to let them know our school has a voice.

While the meeting was attended by those you’d expect , it was also attended by students. Not just students who were tagging along with their parents, mind you. We had students speaking out on what they wanted to do to help the school, students helping to set up for the meeting and students in the audience asking pointed questions and offering suggestions for fundraising.

They were engaging the agency they’ve known in our care to solve the problem of sustaining our community.

It was this agency I was reminded of when I continued to scroll through my e-mail on my walk home tonight. Aside from the advisory parent’s e-mail, I had a message from a student turning in homework, a message letting me know a student finished reading a book of choice and wanted to know if she should write a review, a message from a student saying she’d have class during a scheduled meeting but would e-mail me if she had any questions.

I work in a place of invested individuals who teach and learn on their worst days and lead, create, inspire and question on their best.

Everyone should have such a place.

Things I Know 49 of 365: Boredom scales

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.

– Ellen Parr

Noah and I were chilling in my godmother’s living room earlier tonight.

He and his family had caught a 5 AM flight from Topeka to D.C., so I assumed he was a bit frayed.

He told me no. He’d fallen asleep before takeoff. I asked him about missing the in-flight movie and he stared at me blankly. Evidently, this is not a feature of the Topeka-D.C. run.

I switched the subject.

“I’m guessing you’re in third grade?”

Noah shook his head.


I stopped short, noticing a decided uptick in Noah’s head shaking.



This is why I’d sat down next to Noah. He was easily the youngest person at the party in that way I remembered meaning I needed to entertain myself when I was his age.

Plus, I like talking to little kids. They give the most honest answers.

As he didn’t have the air of a dropout about him, I began to ask Noah about school.

“Who’s your teacher?”

“Do you like him?”

“What do you think about school?”

The last one surprised me.

Noah had been keeping himself busy for the better part of an hour and a half – following the dog around, walking around in circles, entering a room and whispering “Does anyone want to play Follow-the-Leader” so he didn’t get in trouble for interrupting. The kid was pretty fantastic by all accounts.

I’d totally love to teach him.

By fourth grade, though, Noah was broken.

“I don’t like school.”

“Wait, school’s awesome. How can you not like school? Give me the top three reasons you don’t like school.”

“I can give you four,” he said, and held up four fingers. “Boring, boring, boring, and boring,” he explained ticking off each finger as he spoke.

In some ways, I’m a little relieved. After four years in Philly, I was beginning to worry we could only bore the creativity and curiosity out of children in urban settings.

Noah was offering up evidence young children’s imaginations were being neglected in the rural Midwest as well. It’s a striking display of continuity of message.

It’s easy to argue I’m making snap judgements about Noah’s education after only a few seconds of conversation. As I said, though, little kids give the most honest answers. Imagine, though, what systems must be in place so that Noah can so quickly and self-assuredly jump directly to boredom when asked his opinion on school after only 5 years of what I’m certain his parents hope will at least be a 16-year tenure in education.

Some Topekan had the chance to make this funny little guy think and create, but he’d gone and bored him instead. That’s damage it’ll take years to repair, and faith in his teachers-to-come that Noah might never regain.

It made me sad.

So, I did what I do.

“Does your teacher know you’re bored.”

“Um, I don’t think so.”

“Have you ever told him?”

A smile, “no.”

“You should.”

It might have been wrong of me. I might have just set Noah and his parents up for a parent-teacher meeting. Then again, I’m sure Noah has had to sit and listen to what his teacher thinks and knows and feels for the better part of the school year. I’m a little bit ok with the tables being turned.