Goodbye 2009, Thanks For All The Lessons.

Surely we must be learning
Image by tonyhall via Flickr

These past few days of relative idleness instead of work have given me time to think, consolidate, reflect on and synthesize from what I have learned in the past year.

I wanted to write a post thanking the people who taught me this year but there are far too many of them to name individually.

Of course my wife and son top the list, here is a brief rundown of some of the others I want to thank:

–my PLN on Twitter has been an incredible resource of knowledge, advice, support and amusement;

–my principal who asks his teachers open-ended questions about grading philosophies, for example, then actually listens to what we have to say;

— the other administrators and colleagues at my school are daily sources of inspiration, encouragement, kindness and challenge;

— my students, they think I’m teaching them but I’m learning more from them than I could possibly put into a decade of lesson plans.

I’ve grown and learned an amazing amount this year, just like every other one. It is what I’ve learned that’s different.

Humans are sponges, we learn all the time. Sometimes students even learn what we want them to and what we think we are teaching them.

All of us teach all the time. The only difference between someone called a teacher and everyone else is that we get paid for our efforts.

The difference between teaching in school and teaching through our lives is that professional teachers, like me, are under the delusion we know what we’re teaching when we plan a lesson.

Academics are a very small part of the lessons we deliver each moment through our behaviors, tone of voice, manner of dress, choice of vocabulary and sets of expectations.


I’ve learned that if you want a student to learn a new skill you name the skill, show what it looks like, model using it, and give students time to practice using the skill in a low-threat environment before asking the student to perform the skill in a summative assessment.

Why do we forget this when we teach teachers?

One of my Twitter friends, Eric Sheninger (@NHMS_Principal), posted this today:

Prof. New Years resolution: provide even more PD so my staff realizes the true potential of edtech and web2.0

Tech PD is great, but if you really want teachers to use the tech you have to give them time to practice, to learn from mistakes made privately, to develop enough skill so that they have confidence they won’t look like complete fools once they are in front of students.

Asking a teacher to use or teach using the technology without adequate time to practice is equivalent to giving a student a summative assessment the day after a lesson.
I’ve discovered that change is easier for me than I thought it was, but it is still not easy. The problem isn’t change per se, but how it can challenge one sense of control and one’s place in the general organization of things.

The same things that make change difficult for me also makes learning difficult for my students.

The place a student knows, his home, community or school situation  — as bad as it may seem to us — is often less threatening to a student than any new one.

I seer this when I try to move students in self-contained special education classes into inclusion classes. The students have mastered survival in a class of 12; the skills and behaviors required in a class of 32 are very different.

While the student may be able to do the academic work, the social adaptations required are often overwhelming because they threaten the student’s self-definition.


My professional resolution for the new year is to be more aware of, more tuned-in to my student’s need and the factors that interfere with their learning. I resolve to make my classes even safer environments for growth and development.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope it is a safe, healthy, enjoyable year filled with opportunity, growth and love.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

An update on “Please don’t call my mom”

Fisher 500 AM/FM hi-fi receiver from 1959. Cou...
Image via Wikipedia

The post I made in reaction to seeing the film “Precious” and talking to my students about what happens when a teacher calls home has gotten a lot of attention.

Today I was a guest on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC radio to discuss the post and to get feedback from his listeners.

Thirty years ago I worked in radio doing a talk show very similar to Mr. Lehrer’s so being on air was not that big a deal, though it did feel a bit odd being on the other side of the table from the host.

A lot of people called into the show and others commented online. You can hear the broadcast and read the comments here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

This Is America; Ain’t It Great?

From upper left: Manhattan south of Rockefelle...
Image via Wikipedia

Today one of my Islamic students gave Jewish me a Christmas present.

There are not many countries on earth where that could happen and I am very, very happy to be living in one of them.

There are those who look around them, see people who speak different languages, have different religions, wear different kinds of clothes or who possess different skin tones and retreat into enclaves of people like themselves.

I have never understood that way of life.

I grew up and work in diverse neighborhoods of what may be the most diverse city in the world.

I look around me at students and colleagues from more than two-dozen countries, who come in a rainbow of skin tones and who speak a babble of different languages that contribute to and color their English.

I want to set off fireworks in celebration.

It is common at this time of year to wish for peace on earth and good will to all.

I saw a demonstration of those ideals today.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Lessons Learned from Great Educators: Education On the Plate Edition


One of the nicest things about blogging is the cross pollination that occurs when other bloggers challenge me to think and write about something I had not planned to consider.

This is the case now. My friend Mary Beth Hertz, an inspired teacher in Philadelphia and an occasional commenter here, responded to a challenge from our mutual friend, Shelly Terrell to reflect on the people from whom she has learned.

Mary Beth has now passed the challenge along to me.

I am naming this post Lessons Learned from Great Educators: Education On the Plate Edition as an echo of their titles, and I highly recommend you read the original and the Philly Teacher versions.

This could be a very long essay. I have lived a half-century and more, done a lot of things and learned so much from so many people, most of whom had no idea they were teaching me and others who thought they were teaching me one thing while I was busy learning something entirely different from them.

In the interest of completing this in a timely manner I will limit this to mentioning the people who were paid to teach me. Perhaps I will honor those other people at other times.

Pearl Lorenz

Pearl Lorenz taught me how to stand up for myself.

It was 1963, I was in fifth grade. I had long hair.

The Beatles had not yet made an impression on America; my mother just thought my then very wavy hair looked best falling over my eyes and flowing over my shirt collar. That all the other boys in the class had crew cuts made my hair look that much longer.

My teacher, Mrs. Lorenz, made it very clear that she did not like my long hair; that if I came to school on Monday with my hair uncut she would put a pink ribbon in it.

I did, so she did.

I think it was supposed to embarrass me into getting a hair cut.

It didn’t work.

The first day the other kids laughed. They laughed the second day, too.

When I came to school the third day with the ribbon back in my hair, no one laughed.

On the fourth day Mrs. Lorenz was angry that I was still wearing the ribbon. Perhaps she thought I was mocking her.

She told me to take the ribbon off. I refused.

I continued to refuse the following week, too.

When I came in the third Monday with the ribbon in my hair, Mrs. Lorenz sighed heavily and conceded defeat. I could wear my hair anyway I wanted, with or without the ribbon.

Then she told me that she hoped I would always have the courage and strength to stand up for my beliefs.

And I realized that that is what I had done.

I also stopped wearing the ribbon.

And I learned a lesson about tolerance: its very different from acceptance.

Miriam Tatzel

Shortly before I turned 40 I decided to give college another try.

Almost 25 years earlier I had dropped out for a variety of reasons including a major dose of lack of direction.

This time I enrolled in Empire State College, a part of the SUNY system. It was then – and to some small degree still is – a non-traditional school at which each student has a mentor and the course of study is a series of learning contracts for individual or small group studies designed by the two working in concert.

Each eight-week contract is negotiated to specify the subject matter, the curriculum and the forms of assessment. Everything tied into a neat package from the start.

That’s not how my mentor Miriam and I worked.

We would start each study with a question, an idea or a supposition. Then Miriam adapted the process of how studies were constructed to suit my inquisitive mind, my penchant for following tangents, and my fear of being hemmed in.

Miriam would introduce me to a book. I’d read the book and write a paper. We’d talk about it, then Miriam would suggest another book or author. I’d read it and write another paper. In a typical eight-week study I would read as many as six books and write three or four papers.

Only then, when the work was completed, did we write the contract so that it encompassed what I had just studied and written about.

There were no textbooks for most of what we did. Instead, Miriam had me read John Locke, Gregory Bateson, Douglas Hofstadter, Alfred North Whitehead, R. D. Laing, and Ted Sizer. Also John Goodlad, Adler – both Mortimer and Alfred, Freire, Erik Erickson, Jerome Bruner, Castaneda, Gardner, Jung, Grant Wiggins, Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria, and much, much more.

I read John Dewey from beginning to end. Twice.

I loved having the freedom to delve into what excited me, to veer off into what seemed like barely related tangents only to discover unforeseen connections.

Learning this way matched my holistic view of things, and I loved the intellectual rigor of the work.

Part of Miriam’s job was to steer my efforts in the direction of my degree’s requirements and she did so with a very broad outlook on what a degree could encompass. I ended up with a BS in Education Studies with a large minor in psychology.

What I did not realize until I started writing this evening is that Miriam was ahead of her time in education methodology. Twenty years ago Miriam put the abilities and needs of her student first, then bent the system to them.

It was differentiation writ large and an excellent model for any teacher.

Passing the torch…

I could go on, but I’ll give someone else a chance. In fact, I’m tagging Paul Bogush, Crista Anderson, Sandra McCarron, Andrew B Watt, and Will Deyamport to take up the mantle and reflect on who they learned from, and how, in their path toward teaching.

Please, Please, Please, Don’t Call My Mom


Like most school districts, NYC has a printed discipline code. Ours spells out four degrees of violations ranging from the mild, insubordination, perhaps, to the potentially lethal, bringing a gun to school.

Every student and every teacher is given a copy of the code and, to make sure the first day of school is as tedious as possible, foreshadowing the 179 or so to follow, the entire code is read to the students by their homeroom teacher.

Each category of indiscretion is paired with what the system has deemed an appropriate response or punishment. These range from a scowl to a lengthy suspension, and these, too, are read to the students.

Sometime in the day or two before the first day of school, teachers are given a roughly two-pound document to read and sign-off that they have done so by the end of the day. These are the Standard Operating Procedures.

The SOPs delineate the format of our lessons, the forms to be used to request classroom repairs, what to do if one is arrested outside of school (there is a different procedure if you are arrested inside the school), and much more.

One of the SOPs spells out the ladder of disciplinary referral. Starting with a student reprimand and ending with referral to the principal for possible suspension, the sequence of what teachers are supposed to do when a student misbehaves are spelled out.

Most of the measures are classroom-based: scowl; verbal reprimand; student conference; short-term (one period) removal from the room.

The next step is to call the parent or guardian.

All I have to do is mention that I might call is almost always enough to make most students offer abject apologies and beg, sometimes on their knees, for forgiveness.

I know from the looks on their faces that these students are terrified.

Sunday I saw the movie ‘Precious’ and I’m beginning to understand that fear.

If you haven’t seen it, Precious is the story of Clarisse Precious Jones, a high school-aged girl in Harlem, pregnant with her second child – both the result of rapes by her father – who is brutalized physically and emotionally by her mother.

Precious reads at the second grade level and when a teacher takes enough of an interest in the girl to try to visit her at her home in order to tell her of an alternative school she could attend, the mother beats, berates and blames Precious for “inviting” the intervention.

When Precious tries to escape the beating by running down the stairs, mom throws the TV at her, just missing hitting the poor girl in the head.

At school yesterday and today I asked my students what happens when a teacher calls home.

This is what these twelve and thirteen year olds told me:

“I get yelled at.”

“I get slapped and yelled at.”

“My mom spanks me with a belt.”

“I get beat and locked in my room.”

“I get grounded for a month… and I get hit a lot.”

I try to call parents with good news, like when a student aces a test, but one girl told me her father beats her even then just because a teacher called.

I don’t think anyone is treated as badly as Precious, but I’m not positive about that.

I’m starting to understand that fear I see when I mention a phone call to mom.

Now I’m afraid, too.