December 4, 2013
[Cross-posted on Edutopia]
I had been trying to start class for several minutes. Our normal post-weekend check-in had failed. Instead of hearing updates from each other, students were having side conversations about the school dance. Once I regained everyone’s attention, two girls walked in late and the whole class stopped to watch as they gave each other a consoling hug before they moved toward their seats.
I was losing patience. This was not the strong start I had envisioned for the first in-class workday of our project. “Who is ready to share the main question for their project?” I asked in an attempt to refocus everyone and manage the energy emanating from 33 frenetic 15- and 16-year-olds.
The number of decisions that teachers have to make in the course of a teaching day, or even during a ten-minute period, is enormous. Like so many other teachers, I feel stretched to my max during a school day, so the thought of setting another goal feels daunting. Yet I wonder if, in the midst of the controlled chaos of classrooms, it is possible to increase compassion.
At Science Leadership Academy, where I teach, we talk of creating a school-wide Ethic of Care (as described by Nel Noddings). As I continually investigate new ways to help more students find success in their work and confidence in their abilities, I become increasingly convinced that I must develop a stronger ethic of compassion within the daily, overflowing moments of a class period.
December 3, 2013
[Cross-posted on Cooperative Catalyst]
Earlier today my American Government students watched the amazing film The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy. The documentary, which is framed around Frederick Douglass’ famous quote that “Power concedes nothing without demand,” is a powerful reminder that democracy is an ongoing process and continual struggle.
While watching the film I realized that its structure is a model for the type of inquiry that I try to implement within my classroom. Instead of blindly accepting a concept and a simplistic definition, the film problematizes, challenges, and examines democracy in ways that lead to more questions.
Civics education should not merely be students learning “how the system works.” Democratic education needs to teach citizens the knowledge and skills necessary to analyze, organize, mobilize, and have their voices heard. Teaching history and teaching about society as if they are static entities fails to acknowledge the world we live in. According to Saul Alinsky:
Change means movement. Movement means friction.
Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract
world can movement or change occur without that abrasive
friction of conflict.
October 28, 2013
Early in my teaching career, I viewed students’ struggles as a temporary phase that would end once they started working harder and “figured it out.” Students would come to me with questions, or I would notice their confusion and talk with them, but I was very careful not to give them too much information. I was a progressive educator, and if I shared too many ideas, the work would be mine, and not theirs (or so I told myself).
For my classroom, I still strongly believe in the concept of student as worker, teacher as coach (thank you CES), and I continue to structure learning so that students — and not the teacher — are the focus. And yet, the more I’ve become aware of my own learning process, the more I’ve come to value the importance of strategic modeling for students.
When I feel stuck in the midst of a project of my own, or when I am attempting something that is beyond my knowledge base, I turn to others as I slowly figure out my own path. There is no way that my writing, my teaching, my parenting or even my plumbing could have improved were it not for conversations I had with others, and for outside examples that moved my thinking forward.
October 26, 2013
One personal effect of the budget cuts in the School District of Philadelphia has been that my teaching load has switched from a combination of English and History classes to all History. I miss teaching English but it is amazing how much I become immersed in whatever is in front of me. I find myself spending large amounts of time thinking through curriculum for the new courses that I am teaching and I get really excited about the work that students are doing.
In the American Government course the 12th graders have been developing ideas of different historical lenses in preparation for their projects as modern day Alexis de Tocquevilles. (More on that in a future post). As part of our studies of the foundations of US Government students investigated the question of American Exceptionalism, they read different theories about Nationalism and Patriotism, they read Gordon S. Wood and Howard Zinn’s accounts of the American Revolution, and the intro to Zinn’s book Declarations of Independence. All of these readings and the different writing assignments and notes that went along with them were used for a Formal Discussion that we had as a class.
The product from the Formal Discussion was a list of different historical lenses generated by the classes. This list has been a guide for us to evaluate different history museums and historical sites in Philadelphia. Among other things, students have noticed when the primary message conveyed was one of patriotism and when history was presented in a way that acknowledged struggle and conflict as part of our nation’s history. On each of these trips students have also conducted interviews as part of an inquiry into the ways different population groups frame, interpret, and prioritize different parts of US history.
I am missing teaching English…
(And/But/Also…) I am really enjoying the rigor and excitement of what we are doing in my new courses.
October 1, 2013
This is a longer version of a post that I edited down for Edutopia. You can read the full version here or the shorter version there.
As part of my family’s summer travels we stayed with some friends who had recently moved into a new house. They discussed wanting to change a light over their table to a ceiling fan and I happily volunteered to take on the task. Here was a chance to offer something to them as thanks for hosting us and a way to help them improve their new home.
Once the electricity was off, the old fixture was down, and I opened the large cardboard box with the new fan my goal was clear. There was no need to remind myself to focus or pay attention. The fan needed to be mounted over the open hole in the ceiling and working before people began to arrive for the five year old’s birthday party that was beginning in three hours. I sorted the various pieces, regularly consulted the instructions, and slowly, a fan began to take shape.
After about half an hour my arms had become heavy from holding pieces up while standing on the ladder but my mind was interested only in the process. I went to unscrew the plate covering the old light switch and skipped a breath when I saw what was inside. There were more than two black wires. The fixture was on a three way switch and the new fan switch was not compatible. This was unexpected– my friends hadn’t told me that this was a three way switch!
At this point I was not separate from my task. I had become what I was doing. Because the fan was controlled by a special switch, I had to figure out how to change the circuit from a three way to a single pole and then finish with the fan installation. I took a brief pause to look at the scene: the table was pushed to the side of the room, the drop cloth and ladder were covered with tools and fan parts. Without wasting more time I dashed towards the computer to get the information that I needed to proceed.
September 24, 2013
Today my American Government classes wrapped up our unit on Democracy and Education. We started the class by viewing and commenting on the digital stories that students made to communicate unique ideas about democracy and education at this moment in Philadelphia. Students had done a great job of creating work that is poignant, insightful, and ready to be shared with a larger public audience.
To close the unit students shared a final thought about their learning and/or thinking about the issues. Students spoke of a range of topics. Most interesting to me was a student who spoke about education as an issue that is not often thought about but now he sees education as something that needs to be studied and more deeply examined.
To see the digital stories click on the image below.
September 15, 2013
One of the only positive side effects of the manufactured crisis facing Philadelphia public schools is that it provides an excellent opportunity for students to think deeply about Democracy and Education. In my 12th grade American Government class we started off the year by challenging narrow ideas and simplistic definitions of democracy. Students had an opportunity to figure out how they would like to develop a definition based on different ways of thinking about the concept. We discussed these student definitions and, as a class, agreed upon a list of democratic values (things like freedom, equality, opportunity, having a voice…)
Students then had a chance to develop their own thinking about the connections between democracy and education. After sharing their initial thoughts we read and discussed a quote from John Dewey. Students also read and pulled quotes of interest from the Harpers Magazine article “School on a Hill.”
After developing background thinking on the issue, we were fortunate to have a visit from the amazing Helen Gym. Helen spoke about her views of education “reform” in general and gave the students specific information about recent history in the School District of Philadelphia.
This week students will be broadening their perspectives on the issues by researching on their own and with a collection of resources that I created for them. Later in the week they will learn about the format of digital stories, develop essential questions for their projects, write scripts, and then get my approval to proceed with their projects. The final project is a digital story that says something unique about Democracy and Education at this moment in Philadelphia. The full project description can be found here. (I am still tweaking some final details).
Stay tuned to see the projects! In addition to having students publicize their own work I plan to post examples here and on Twitter.
August 29, 2013
In the midst of a catastrophic budget and management crisis in Philadelphia schools, I am spending the last weeks of my summer alternately mourning the state of public schools in my city, advocating for an equitable funding system, and feeling excitement about the school year ahead.
As I enter my thirteenth year of teaching I am becoming more aware of what sustains me and what I need to do in order to enter each school year fresh and passionate. For me summer is time to plan and reflect. I have come to realize that, for me, these processes are about being a learner and finding inspiration. If I am not learning, discovering, and creating, I am not able to discover and access what is necessary for me to create meaningful experiences for my students. My summer preparations tend to follow predictable patterns:
Reading: I use summer to consume texts. I read a wide range to flood my mind with ideas, insights, and beauty. Often one book or article will lead to another. This summer, among many other things, I read a lot of international fiction to help me brainstorm for my Globalization class. Half of a Yellow Sun was one of the books that is still occupying my mind and helping me to think about having students “enter” in the heads of others as part of our class.
Researching: I love the fact that designing curriculum gives me a reason and a motivation to do in-depth research. During the summer I can be found at events and performances, in libraries, bookstores, and with my laptop as I compile articles, find excerpts from books for my students, or make connections that will help to frame units in engaging ways. I find it helpful to use social bookmarking to help organize the vast amount of resources that I compile.
Consulting With Experts: My students are capable of grappling with real world issues and controversies. Learning has meaning for all of us when we are doing work that matters in the world. For these reasons I try to learn from those who are specialists and bring scholarship and insights to my students. Some of my consulting with experts happens in person as I attend events or connect with people I know. Other connections happen when I follow experts on Twitter, find interviews online, or add RSS feeds to my reader.
Consulting With Friends and Colleagues: I am fortunate to be part of a wonderful community of smart, thoughtful, and creative people. I love being able to share ideas and get feedback or insights from those around me. My friends continually lead me to so many interesting ideas and connections. It is inspiring to be around so much interesting work and thought.
Every school year is an arc of community building, learning, and growth. The work is powerful, exciting, draining, and consuming. I cannot imagine doing this work without having ways to renew myself intellectually, spiritually, and creatively.
July 15, 2013
I’m excited to be teaching SLA’s Summer Teacher Institute. Our pre-assignment for participants was to write a vision statement of themselves as educators. We felt that it was important for the teachers of the institute to do this as well. Here is what I wrote:
I became an educator because of the magnificent feelings of power and liberation that I felt, and continue to feel, as part of my own intellectual development. I can’t imagine not having a critical consciousness, knowledge, and an ability to analyze. My goal as a teacher is to provide students with the tools to develop these qualities within themselves.
Most of my intellectual turning points did not occur in school settings. I remember attending university classes in a Zionist setting in Jerusalem and then (separately) travelling to the Gaza Strip as part of a human rights tour. The dissonance was overwhelming and frightening. I had no classroom setting or formal learning environment that helped me understand or process the different worldviews and realities that I was being asked to accept.
My hope as an educator is to create a classroom setting where students can do deep, personal, intellectual and emotional work. I want them to be able to honestly explore themselves, their backgrounds, their understandings, and the world around them. In order for this to happen students need to feel safe, nurtured, and part of a community. With this in mind I work hard to build trusting relationships with students that allow me to challenge them and push them beyond what they think they are capable of achieving.
July 8, 2013
[Cross-posted on Edutopia]
For the past five years I have collaborated with a playwright who works with my students as they write original plays. Each year, on the first day that she has been in the room with us, Kate and I stage a conflict about what should come next in the lesson. As students squirm uncomfortably in their seats and turn to each other with unbelieving eyes, Kate and I debate what makes the most sense to do next. The goal of the staged conflict is getting students to think about the crucial role of conflict in drama and playwriting. We use our brief skit as a way to open up a larger conversation about the power of theater and the different elements of a play.
Although we never feel that our acting is very convincing, we have been amazed to see and hear the intensity of student responses to these moments of classroom confusion and leadership uncertainty. Outside collaborations can lead to profound experiences for students, but, as our moments of staged conflict have demonstrated, collaborations can also be precarious — and students quickly sense (real) moments when things are not proceeding as planned.
The Right Mix
I both actively pursue classroom collaborators and agonize about welcoming others to come work with my students. I want them to have real-world experiences that will take them (both physically and virtually) beyond classroom walls. By collaborating with experts in different fields, my students are able to immerse themselves in experiences and projects in authentic and meaningful ways.
At the same time, dysfunctional collaborations can be incredibly frustrating for teachers and students. No one benefits from classroom visitors who are unpredictable or talk down to young people. Visitors must be willing to listen and not enter with an attitude that their presence means students should act as passive receptacles of information. We all know that young people are quick to sense condescension and will feel insulted by someone who does not respect their knowledge.