Getting Out of the Building


Teachers generally spend very little time with other adults. I spend less than most teachers.


In my school, when a teacher wants to talk to a colleague he or she can just walk out of the classroom and into a colleague’s next door. When I want to talk to a colleague I have to go down a hallway and up a staircase to get to anyone’s classroom.

Or I can just wait for someone to come into the library to make copies and hope I’m not busy with students at that time.

When I want to talk to another librarian face-to-face I have to leave the building.

That is why this weekend is so important to me.I’m spending this weekend in Philadelphia at the Science Leadership Academy, a fantastic high school, where Educon takes place the last weekend of January.

Educon is a different kind of conference. It is not free, like one-day EdCamps, but it is not expensive like the multi-day extravaganzas like the ISTE, ALA, or AASL conferences. But that is not what makes it special.

At Educon there are sessions but they’re conversations not presentations. I’ll be with about 400 other educators of all kinds: classroom teachers at every level, music teachers, art teachers, special education teachers, professors, theorists, advocates and even a few librarians in this school all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday. Educon2.3 conversarion

I can walk into one session and, if it doesn’t captivate me I can walk down the hall a few steps and go into a different session. I hardly ever do that. Oh, I’ve walked out of a session or two but I never seem to make it to the next one without getting caught up in an interesting discussion in the hallway.

There are times when Educon feels like a reunion. I see people there that I usually see only on Twitter or Facebook. Many of these people have been going to Educon since it started four or five years ago. This will be my third. I’ll also be meeting face-to-face for the first time some people I’ve known online for a few years.

I learn a lot in Educon sessions. I’ve become a more thoughtful teacher, a better teacher because of things I’ve learned there. Last year Educon came six weeks after I suddenly became a school librarian. What a joy it was to meet Joyce Valenza and Shannon McClintock Miller and to be able to converse with them one-on-one and have them to help me put my feet back on the ground and get my head above water (to mix metaphors). I was so needy that Shannon even gave me a big hug.

Odd, isn’t it? I’m willing to drive two hours or more to go to Educon but not to take the time to walk upstairs to visit with my colleagues at my school.

I’m not saying anything against my colleagues, many of whom are wonderful, warm, intelligent hard-working professionals, it is just that Educon is so much better. Instead of a five minute conversation between periods or over the copying machine, I get to spend hours and hours, breakfasts, sessions, lunches, dinners and even time having a few drinks with 400+ of others who, just like me, can’t think of a better way or a better place to spend a weekend.

I might even see the Liberty Bell.

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10 + 1 Not To Miss


I recently got tagged in a blog post by Shelly Terrell (@shellterrell) one of the many people I rely on for my continuing teacher education.

Tagging sometimes seems like the blog equivalent of literary logrolling in which authors conspire to praise each other’s books, but I really do read and recommend the blogs I am about to tag.

If you are tagged, follow these rules:

1) Insert the picture above into your blog with a link back to the blog that nominated you
2) List 10 blogs you feel others should read
3) Tell the bloggers you have nominated that you have tagged them.

Here, in no particular order, are the ten blogs that have made a difference in my teaching and/or my thinking.

SpeEdChange by Ira Socol (@irasocol) Ira is the single most interesting person I have met on Twitter. He’s a dyslexic former NYC police officer, author, and now doctoral candidate in Special Education and Educational Technology at Michigan State University. He is a passionate advocate for Universal Design in Education.

Philly Teacher by Mary Beth Hertz  (@mbteach) An inner-city technology teacher reflecting on teaching, learning, leadership and life with intelligence and spirit.

For the Love of Learning by Joe Bower (@joebower) challenges the “deeply rotted myths” that modern teaching and schools live by and explores more progressive forms of education. Always interesting, stimulating, incisive and quite often fun.

Keeping Kids First by Kelly Hines (@kellyhines) The title says it all. This blog is focused on teaching and learning, but takes a broad view of those topics. Don’t let Kelly’s easy-going North Carolina charm distract you from the deep thinking going on in these posts.

Learning is Messy by Brian Crosby (@bcrosby) His students are 4th graders, mostly second-language learners, many of them in special education. Brian focuses on how policies, processes and politics affects his teaching and students.

Upside Down Education by Amanda Dyles (@amandacdykes) She’s passionate about “using technology to ignite learning” and the subjects she teaches her 6th graders: science and social studies. And, despite living in Alabama, she’s a passionate Red Sox fan.

Human by Tomas Lasic (@lasic) A tinkerer who likes to ask ‘what if…’, Tomaz says “Rather than teaching people, I prefer to make them think and learn together.” And he plays water polo.

A Geeky Momma’s Blog by Lee Kolbert (@TeachaKidd) Asks questions. Asks lots of questions. Really good questions. Sometimes she finds answers. by Chad Sansing (@classroots) One of the people with whom I often disagree. Here’s where we meet: presents failure and learning from it as equal partners with success in innovative teaching.

Reflections of a Science Teacher by Sandra McCarron (@sanmccarron), who describes herself as scientist educator and life-long learner. She likes to blow things up; all in the name of science, of course.

And one more…

Living the Dream by Diana Laufenberg (@dlaufenberg). Diana teaches social studies with passion and it comes through in every single post of this blog I recently started following. Diana discusses her teaching at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy and explores larger themes of teaching and learning.


Take time the rest of the week to read these blogs and see which ones to add to your daily read! If you’re tagged in this post, please spread the love.

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Teachers Have Dreams, Too


Many of the things I hear or read from teachers lead me to think they live in a fantasy world.

Today I participated in an hour-long chat via Twitter on the subject of how technology can help build community in the classroom.

The chat was one in the Edchat series of Tuesday chats. Usually upwards of 50 people participate in the chats and the tweets come fast and furious.

I usually just scan them as they roll by on my screen. I respond to a few, but usually just occasionally drop in necessarily terse (there’s a limit of 140 characters per Tweet) comments.

Today’s chat really irritated me and led me to post the comment I used as the first line here.

For an hour I read messages about the advantages of creating communities in classrooms and how tech may or may not help one do so.

For an hour I read idyllic comments about creating learning communities in which everyone teaches and everyone learns, and other ideal situations.

It was like watching the teacher version of a Disney movie in snippets of text.

Well, I am going to be the evil witch.

You cannot create communities in which all learn and teach in a classroom.

You can create a situation in which the students learn and teach, and the teacher learns while teaching, but they are not members of the same community.

As my friend and self-described “big goober” William Chamberlain pointed out, communities are created around similarities.

Let’s examine the similarities between teachers and students:

Teachers spend all day in a classroom.

Students spend all day in a classroom.

Teachers are paid to be in the classroom.

Students are required to be there.

Teachers have authority in the classroom

Students are subject to that authority.

Teachers determine the décor of the classroom.

Students’ completed work is part of the décor.

Teachers specify the procedures in classroom.

Students have to follow those procedures.

Teachers determine the activities of the class.

Students have to perform the activities.
There’s not much similarity or common interest, is there?

Instead of spending an hour dreaming, thake the time to think about the power dynamics in your classroom.
William Chamberlain again: “Forcing students to work together when they don’t want to is like hitting your head on the wall. It feels good when you stop.”

Think about the idea that your students are aware that the idea and demand for community is coming from the only person in the room with any power.

When that happens, community becomes a requirement.

Required community doesn’t sound very good, does it?

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Life vs. The Curriculum


I went off the reservation today.

The Scope & Sequence, the map for mapping the curriculum map, says I should be teaching about Africa right about now and I was planning to introduce the unit today. Then something very unfortunate happened.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Paradoxically, the unfortunate event pointed out to me how professionally fortunate I am.

Calling the Haitian earthquake an unfortunate event is a massive understatement: the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere had what little they had, including life and relative health, disappear in a flash and rumble.

I went to high school with some Haitian students, lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Haitians, and now live in a county with a sizable Haitian population. I’ve never been to Haiti, and never particularly wanted to go, but I could not get the devastation out of my mind.

When my smart, chatty 6th graders came into the classroom I had this picture of the devastation on the SmartBoard.

(REUTERS/Reuters TV)

I asked the students to tell me where they thought the picture was taken. The Middle East was a popular guess.

I told them the picture was of some of the destruction caused by the earthquake in Haiti and then showed them a few more photos.

That’s when things became interesting.

These students are very smart and usually very, very chatty.

They were silent.


Awed by the destruction, the pain, and the death.

Then the questions started.

“Is it better to be inside or outside when an earthquake comes?”

None of us knew.

I pointed out that after the big 2008 earthquake in China, people were afraid to stay inside because the building could collapse on them. I showed a picture of collapsed buildings in Haiti.

“What causes earthquakes?”

Detail of the Cocos and Caribbean plates from:...
Image via Wikipedia

I told the oddly quiet students about plate tectonics, using two sheets of paper and some paperclips to demonstrate what happens when the plates separate or collide. Either way the paperclips ended up on the floor.

Map of Pangaea showing where today's continent...
Image via Wikipedia

I told them that I was going to start our Africa unit today, then mentioned that at one time, millions of years ago, Africa, North America and South America were likely one big continent called Pangaea and popped a world map onto the Smart Board so they could see how today’s continents could fit together.

Then I told them that in a way we were studying Africa as most of the Haitian population is made up of descendants of Africans brought to the island as slaves.

One girl who hardly ever speaks in class raised her hand.

“Is that why Haitian people look so different from my relatives on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic?”

Another Dominican girl asked, “Could an earthquake separate Haiti and the Dominican Republic?”

I asked her to tell me the difference between a political map and a topographic map.

The light went on.

“Oh! Earthquakes are topological and borders are political. The earth doesn’t care where the border is.”

Suddenly one girl jumped up and said, “WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP THESE PEOPLE!”

The students took over the class to discuss what they could do and how fast they could do it.

When the bell rang and they filed out the door, several students asked me to print some of those pictures so they could put them on the posters they were going to make to help in their fundraising effort.

When the class cleared I took a deep breath.

And that’s when it hit me.

My resume shows a lot of different jobs in different fields: print journalism, radio new and talk shows, restaurants, political action, advertising, and more.

I sometimes tell people all about it when they ask how it came to be that I started teaching when I was 50.
Then I tell them that every bit of knowledge, every experience, every sensation I’ve gained comes into the classroom with me.

And today it all came out.

The lesson my students got today could only have come from me.

I’m very fortunate not to have to prepare my students for a standardized test lurking at the end of the year.

And I’m fortunate not to work in a system or for an administrator requiring me to teach the same lesson that every other 6th grade teacher is scheduled to teach on January 13, 2010.

I know my supervisors would have been very happy had they been sitting in my room today.

Real learning took place. Authentic learning. The kind of learning you don’t need to use a test to see.

The students learned new material, made connections, and acted on their learning.

They realized that history is not a series of encapsulated isolated events, that its an intricate weave of people, places, ideas and situations, .

And I was very fortunate to have the time, the freedom, and the ability to go off the reservation.

Teaching has a much nicer view from there.

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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.

No Education, Just Plate

Assorted wine corks
Image via Wikipedia

I call this blog Education On The Plate, but so far it has been almost all education and very little plate.

Today will be different.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. As I make every attempt to be thankful for all the good things in my life every day, yesterday was mostly about food.

And wine.

If anyone ever tells you to try a sparkling Shiraz, take his or her advice. If they really know their stuff they’ll tell you to drink it VERY cold (yes, cold red wine) from red wine glasses, not champagne flutes. Listen to them.

I go to a great wine store in Orangeburg, NY and they introduced me to Bleasdale Vineyards The Red Brute Sparkling Shiraz, a deep purple liquid with an abundant share of all the typical Shiraz berry and chocolate flavors, plus bubbles. Festive and perfect with turkey.

My brother-in-law’s table groaned with turkey, cornbread stuffing, roasted sweet potatoes, carrot-parsnip puree, red cabbage, and two cranberry-based dressings. My wife’s concoction involving cranberries, tequila, jalapenos and some other stuff was a big hit.

My contribution to the meal, aside from my appetite, was cranberry chutney made from a recipe belonging to a food writer whose pen name was Vladimir Estragon. I clipped it from the Village Voice in 1982.

Here’s the recipe:

Two cups cider vinegar

1-cup water

1 & ½-pounds light brown sugar

1 & ½-pounds fresh whole cranberries

½-pound currants (substitute white raisins if you can’t find currants)

½-pound seedless raisins

2 ounces fresh ginger, sliced very thin

1 medium head of garlic, peeled and chopped fine

2 large lemons, chopped fine (remove seeds, but include peel)

½-teaspoon cayenne pepper

Bring vinegar and water to boil and then add the sugar. When all the sugar is dissolved, add all other ingredients.  Bring to boil again, and then simmer two hours or so.  Stir gently from time to time, adding more water if necessary. (You may want to use a heat diffuser under the pot to help prevent scorching.) It’s okay if it seems a little thin; it will gel when cooled. Put in jars and seal.

I usually make a double batch so I have lots to spread on leftover turkey sandwiches. It is also good with pork, chicken, and cheddar cheese. It lasts for months in the refrigerator.

I’m probably not going to be posting a lot of recipes here, but I hope to do more writing about food and drink now that my food writer/restaurant critic newspaper gig has come to an end.

School lunch, anyone?

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Bewitched, Bothered & Bedazzled


Okay, that’s not exactly the name of the song but that’s how I’m feeling on this Tuesday morning as I sit surrounded by the latest and greatest in technology, teaching and twitter. I have learned more in the first three days here than I have learned in my five years of teaching and the MS degree that preceded it.

The problem is that its all coming at me so fast and from so many directions that I’m having trouble digesting it, thinking about it and trying to determine what of what I am learning I need to retain and what I can safely discard or file deep in the recesses of my brain; a brain that is beginning to feel as crowded as that New Delhi slum shown in the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire. Doing the meta-cognition involved in making those decisions is almost painful given the paucity of my coffee ingestion this morning. And there are two more days to go!

I was going to write about some of the incredible people I’ve met, the learning sessions I’ve attended, the skills I have gained, the hardware I’ve played with, the software I’ve seen demonstrated and the websites I’ve been turned onto, but somewhere in the paragraph above I got insight into what my students experience in their classes and to why writing this blog is so valuable to me that I will continue to do it whether or not anyone else ever reads it.

My students are easily distracted. So am I as I wander the exhibit hall and my eyes are drawn left, right, up, down, right again, wait – what was that I just walked by on the left?

My students have trouble processing multi-step instructions and I am, too, as I try to keep up with the highly enthusiastic instructor teaching two dozen of my colleagues and I how to use Audacity, iMovie, VoiceThread, GarageBand, Windows Movie Maker, Vigo (no, wait, those two were a different session) to create a podcast and make it accessible to the world. I have again learned that I can either listen or use my hands to take notes or click links, but I can’t do both at the same time.

My students have vocabulary deficiencies that often prevent them from communicating what they know and what they don’t. Same here. I talk to exhibitors and my mind goes blank trying to remember the name of a program or technique, and the new, unfamiliar words I am hearing are coming to me so quickly that by they time I realize I need to ask what one word means six more have passed by without comprehension.

My students have deficiencies in short-term and working memory, or in transferring those memories into long-term retention. Not usually a problem for me, but it is here.

Auditory processing problems? Visual processing problems? Verbal expression problems? Sensory processing disorders? Guilty of all that and more.

To paraphrase Pogo, I have met the enemy and it is I; I have become on of the students my professors taught me about. My name on Twitter is spedteacher, but this week it should be spedlearner.

I will come back from this wonderful convention a better teacher, not because I’ve learned all this new stuff about technology, but because I’ve learned so much about my students and myself.

One of the big themes in the speeches and discussions here is to give students the opportunity to fail without penalty and the time to try again and again. Boy do I need that now.

That’s why I write this blog. I don’t write to communicate with an audience. I write this to communicate with myself, to do the reflection and self-assessment inherent in learning from experience. You’re welcome to listen in, especially if it stimulates that same cognitive activity in you.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

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The Light In Their Eyes


I’ve written about how some of the teachers in my school seem to be afraid of using technology in their lessons, what I see as the reasons for that fear and the implications our awareness of those reasons could hold for our teaching.

We held a lengthy academy meeting yesterday afternoon, taking advantage of time set aside for that during a full day of professional development sessions. We talked about the color of polo shirt that will be part of our uniform, our intention to enforce wearing of the uniform, and how we would go about that.

We also talked of our desire to form partnerships with the parents of our students, how we would have a parent breakfast one day, a dinner one evening, and a regular schedule of family events like picnics, bowling parties and more. My academy, now teacher administered and making decisions though consensus, is forming a cohesiveness planning for next year that has been missing all this year.

One of our tasks has been to create a brochure to give to the fifth graders in our feeder schools to interest them in expressing a preference for our academy over the five others in the building. I did the drafting and my colleagues did the tweaking, and it turned out pretty well.

Things were going so well in our meeting that I decided to give my colleagues their first lesson about integrating technology in teaching. I fired up my trusty Macbook, launched
Firefox and went to I then pasted the text of our brochure into the textbox and hit the “go” button.

Wordle takes text, drops out the most common English words like ‘the’ and ‘it’, then takes the rest of the words and creates a design in which the most repeated words are larger and more prominent than the words used less often.

This is what appeared:


I bet you get a good idea of what our academy is all about.

My colleagues’ jaws dropped. Then, when they realized how simple it was, I saw the light in their eyes.

Now its my job to keep it there.

Its going to be a fun year.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

Why is this post different from all others?


Today, on the last day of Passover, i wanted to write about the celebration of freedom from oppression that is the heart of the story that is told each year at seders so that we will never forget that once we were oppressed and now we are not. I also wanted to write about Passover food. This week always brings special treats to make up for the oppression of matzoh. Apparently there is no wild yeast in the desert because in the 40 years the Jews wandered there their dough did not rise.

I wanted to write clearly, eloquently and movingly. Then I read a wonderful piece of writing by a really smart, caring, and aware fellow named Will Richardson. He says what I keep trying to say much better than I manage. I strongly suggest you read the blog post he put up a couple of days ago called “Failing Our Kids.”

Today is just one more day when I realize and appreciate how fortunate I am.

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My Motivation


My earliest memory is of an evening in our apartment when I was about three years old. There was a cardboard box on the table in the dining area and my parents were taking canned goods out of the kitchen cabinet and putting them in the box.

They explained to me that while we did not have a lot of money, we had a lot more than some other people in the world and they could not afford to buy food. Because we were lucky enough to have enough to eat we had a responsibility to help others in need.

The power of that memory has ruled my life, and I am very happy about that.

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