Looking Back on 2010


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As this year comes to a close, I decided to look back at some of my posts from this year. A lot has happened for me, my blog and educators. I have grown as a teacher and a blogger and I have learned much from my colleagues across the globe.

Here are 5 of my posts that received the most hits this year. I think they speak for the many of events in my career and the education world this past year.

1.) Reflections on Waiting for Superman

2.) My Top 10 To-Do List for Administrators

3.) Should We Ban Fiction from the Curriculum?

4.) I Miss My Old Brain

5.) EduPunks

Thank you to all of my readers for a year of growth and reflection.  I look forward to many more.

Have a wonderful New Year!
Read On

Why Scale It?


photo courtesy of FreeFoto.com
I recently read an article entitled, "Education's Status Quo to Parents: How Dare You Use the Parent Trigger and Make Decisions!" on the blog Dropout Nation.  I won't get into the details of the article, which was about the uproar over a private company helping parents in California use the "Parent Trigger" to call for the closing of a failing elementary school.  Rather, a comment by the author of the post grabbed me.

We had been engaging on various points back and forth in the comment area and one of my comments claimed that many of these privatized charter schools are not scalable. They cannot replace traditional schools on the larger scale. To which the author, RiShawn Biddle replied,
The obsession with scale, both among traditionalists and school reformers, from where I sit, fails to consider what actually happens in the real world. Which leads to another point: Your concept of a “corporate” approach is rather false. In the corporate world, there is rarely full standardization; companies will approach their operations, markets and array of products and services differently. Proctor & Gamble is different from Colgate-Palmolive and from Unilever. All are successful in the space in which they compete and satisfy the needs of their customers. Same is true for Apple and Microsoft. What these companies do have in common is what all successful companies share (including strong talent development, and clear focus on product, service and customers). What each company does that is particular to its corporate culture and historical development will not work for others.
I stopped to think for a minute.

While I find it heartbreaking to think of students as customers and schools as customer service--first of all, this applies only to private schools with tuition, second, it's a team effort so the road goes both ways.  I wonder about the argument, "it's not scalable."

We are constantly talking about how learning should be individualized, how we need to teach students, not subjects, how what works for one student may not work for another.  So why are we constantly seeking that one model that 'works?'

As I stated in my comment on the post:
Privatized charter schools are not scalable. What IS scalable is giving ALL schools the freedom they need to educate students. Give ALL parents the power to make changes in their schools not because they are privately run charters, but because their school has the freedom to meet the needs of the community rather than bow down to district mandates.
There are a lot of 'franchise' type charter schools out there right now (Mastery, KIPP, Harlem Success and others), and I won't expound on my feelings for some of them, but these kinds of school networks ARE trying to scale their model by taking over more and traditional public schools.  Whenever a traditional public school is taken over by a charter school, in my experience here in Philadelphia, the 'no excuses' environment and high expectation for parent involvement often causes huge attrition rates.  Where do these students go? Back to a traditional public school.

It seems that the more control the government wants to have over schools the worse off everyone is. In a district as big as Philadelphia, with over 200 schools, we have the federal government telling us what to do thanks to Race to the Top, and we are run by the state rather than an elected school board. We have programs that are mandated across the board for all low-performing schools (usually scripted programs) and decisions are made for sometimes all elementary schools across the board no matter what part of the city or what population the schools serve.

This is what scalability looks like.  And, as Biddle states, it doesn't work.

So when will politicians, teachers, unions, parents and edreforms galore stop looking for the magic solution and understand that any organization that deals entirely with people is complicated and defies the logic of scalability? We need schools that serve the communities and children in which they stand, not the blanket mandates of districts and large network franchises.


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Should We Ban Fiction From the Curriculum?


Today I had a day-long conversation on Twitter about whether we should still be teaching fiction in the curriculum.  This was in response to a recent article by Grant Wiggins entitled "Ban fiction from the curriculum."  In the article, Wiggins makes the argument that fiction is essentially a sissy genre read by women at the turn of the century (the last century, not this one).  He also argues that most of the reading we do in our adult lives is non-fiction, and fiction reading is more of a hobby than a necessity.

I will agree that reading fiction for me was a hobby as a child. More like a necessity. I was always reading as a child. I devoured Dahl, Tolkien and L'Engle as well as The Dark is Rising Series, and The Chronicles of Narnia.  As I got older it became Herman Hesse, Vonnegut, Joyce, Huxley, Toni Morrison, Castaneda and others. I've even read the Bible cover to cover (I highly recommend it. The whole world makes a lot more sense if you have.)

By the way, none of these were required readings for school, though I was lucky to have a few teachers who let us pick a book from a list to read.

image courtesy of Celeste on Flickr
However, these books helped fuel my imagination. They kept me company when I moved to a new school and had yet to make friends.  They gave a voice to teenage angst and inspired me to write my own stories and poems. (Like my friend, Nick, I, too have published poems myself, though not online--yet.) In all, reading fiction helped me explore ideas, worlds and possibilities that would shape who I am today. My best teachers guided me through the process of unwrapping fiction and making connections between characters, across novels and across time periods.  I learned what it may have been like to be a slave, I studied how C.S. Lewis' religious life inspired his stories of Narnia. I sifted through beautiful imagery and marveled as a story unfolded, twisted, and was resolved through the power of skillful writing. It inspired me to write. Which I did nearly every day of my life for at least 5 years. (I have the journals to prove it.)

So what does this have to do with Wiggins?

I would agree that much of the fiction I was asked to read in school was poorly chosen (Sarah Plain and Tall is a horrendously boring book, as is The Long Winter), though to say that fiction is 'girlie' is a blanket statement that belittles some of the inspiring and talented authors listed above. There is nothing girlie about the dark thoughts of Damien or the death, betrayal and battles of Tolkien and Lewis.

I would also agree that in my adult life I tend to read more non-fiction that applies to the work that I do.  I now devour education books the way I used to devour Tolkien.  Some, I must admit are hard to get through (Marzano's The Art and Science of Teaching). I also have an RSS feeder full of blog posts, articles and resources that I sift through on a regular basis. That said, I find myself picking up books like Matilda or even the Narnia series to escape reality a little. I find that for every non-fiction book I read I am also reading a fiction book at the same time.

Recently, I began reading Salman Rushdie's acclaimed Midnight's Children as my fiction book (David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames is next on the list) to keep by my bedside.  I have to admit, I had to re-teach myself how to read this kind of fiction. It contains visceral images, metaphors that appear and re-appear throughout the story like thread holding together a tapestry, and the writing has an irregular rhythm to it like waves crashing on the shore. Needless to say, it's a beautiful piece of writing unlike anything I've read in the last 10 years or so.


Our brains work differently when we read non-fiction as opposed to fiction (this is my own observation, I can't quote any research). It is imperative that we are able to read non-fiction for obvious reasons--it is practical and pertains to our daily lives/needs. However, when I read non-fiction, I may be touched by a story, but it doesn't paint pictures in my head or weave intricate tales of daring and adventure (aside from a biographical/autobiographical story).  It reaches a different part of my brain, and (dare I say) my heart.  Sometimes we don't know how we feel until we read how someone else has expressed or described a feeling we can understand and with which we can empathize. 

All the mushy stuff aside, learning how to unravel a story through its metaphors, trying to decipher a character's motive or grasping an author's double entendre helps students work out real-life scenarios.  Think about all of the messages our students are bombarded with every day on the TV, Internet, radio and magazines. These texts, scripts, etc... were not written by researchers or scientists, they were written by writers. People who write fiction.

This is not to say that there is not poorly-written fiction out there that could be designated as 'trashy' or 'shallow' or the like. There are also poorly-written history books, poorly-written whitepapers and trashy research written by poor scientists.

So rather than ban fiction, let's re-think how we teach fiction and non-fiction.

  • give students choices
  • do away with the 'standard' books that everyone reads in 'x' grade
  • require students to read one non-fiction book for every fiction book they read
  • stop silo-ing texts into subject areas and teach reading across the curriculum
  • if a kid really hates fiction, then let them read what they enjoy reading
Thanks to Nick Provenzano, Chad Lehman and Lark for starting me thinking about this.

Please stop by and read Nick's take on the issue on his wonderful blog, The Nerdy Teacher.
Read On

The Homework Conundrum


I just finished reading an excellent book, Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools.  While it doesn't contain a lot of new ideas for me, it is still a great read that has ideas for me to reinforce in my classroom and a few things to try. It's an important book, I believe, for anyone who teaches in an urban setting (though it is universally applicable).

One of the chapters is about homework.  This is a contentious issue in urban schools. Many of my students go home to an empty house with no supervision, many have loud, chaotic homes that are not conducive to studying. I, personally, have never given homework since I am a 'specials' teacher. When I was an intern in a 1st grade classroom I remember giving homework from the workbook that matched whatever lesson in our literacy program we had done that day in class.  Many times the parent did the homework. Many times it just wasn't done and I honestly can't remember why I was assigning it aside from the fact that it was required by administration.

I love reading posts at Joe Bower's blog about Abolishing Homework, but I've been having some positive thoughts about homework today. Some of my thoughts have been reinforced through conversations on Twitter with Chad Lehman and David Andrade.

Here are some thoughts:

1) Homework isn't inherently bad. Worksheets and busy work are.
2) For many urban students, homework helps teach study habits and helps build skills for learning outside of school.
3) Bad homework IS pointless. It should challenge but not frustrate. It should require some thinking and, if possible, connect with students' lives outside of school. Its purpose should be to build anticipation or get students thinking about a lesson the next day.
4) Homework may not be as important for upper/middle class students, but not giving homework to students who don't have someone at home teaching them how to learn outside of school can do more harm than hurt.

Feel free to agree or disagree, but let me know your thoughts.
Read On

Motivation in Urban Schools


I have had this book sitting on my shelf for about 6 months now and, due to it's over-simplistic title have avoided picking it up. I'm happy I changed my mind.

Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools, by Richard L. Curwin, has turned out to be a gem.

On labeling students
Try doing substitution when you are tempted to use a label or when you hear another teacher use one. When you want to say a student is arrogant, for example, try "She defends herself" instead. Rather than calling a student a gangster, consider saying "That student has troublesome friends." If you find yourself starting to describe a student as lazy, switch to "I've yet to find the key to involving her."
 Make a list of commonly used labels--both labels that you use and ones that you've heard used--and find reasonable substitutions for them.
 On threats and rewards
  • Threats lead to finishing, not learning
  • Threats lead to an "I have to" mentality, not an "I want to" mentality
  • Threats satiate, requiring the use of stronger and stronger threats over time.
More on rewards and punishments

When deciding whether to use threats, punishments, and rewards, think like a physician: first, do no harm.
and my personal favorite:
I hear a variety of arguments for rewarding urban students when they do well academically or behaviorally. One argument goes thus: "So many urban kids are deprived of positive reinforcement. They never get rewarded for doing well. Often, they never get noticed. They need and deserve rewards." ...so what's the problem? Although I agree that urban students' lives frequently lack positive reinforcement and that offering rewards can, indeed, compel students to do their work, rewards do not necessarily result in learning.  If a reward is offered to solicit specific behavior, even desirable behavior, it is little more than a bribe, and bribes are not effective motivators. Looked at another way, bribes are simply threats in disguise. If I say to you, "If you do everything in this book, I'll give you a sticker to put on the cover," what I'm really saying is, "If you don't do what I say, I will deny you a sticker." The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control.

I'm only partially through the book, but after 7 years of teaching in inner city schools, I find the advice to be well crafted, realistic, practical and while not anything completely new for me, it is a great overview of best practices and a chance to reflect on my own practices.

If you teach in an urban school, or even if you don't, I suggest picking up a copy.
Read On

When You Fail, I Fail


This year has been a transformative year for me. Maybe it's because it's my 4th year in a lab, maybe it's because of my improved school environment or maybe it's because I've hit that point in my career where I can really begin to hone my craft.

One of my main focuses this year (as many of my readers may have already guessed) has been assessment. I have been discovering ways to know if my students 'get it.' Sometimes, even after what I think is a great lesson, I discover that they don't.

photo courtesy of annais on Flickr
The great thing? I actually know that they don't get it. Through developing methods for quick checks for understanding and by narrowing down my focus and learning goals for each 45 minute period I have been able to ensure that my students have mastered the skill or concept required to move them to the next part of a project or to push them to apply the skill to a new situation.

I walk methodically to each student during the class period checking off whether a student has mastered the skill I want them to have by the end of the period (i.e. "Show me how to use the paintbrush tool." or "What do you click if you want to leave this website and go to a different one?")  In this way, I can quickly pick up who 'gets it' and who doesn't. I have found this vital to ensuring that everyone is ready to move on and that I address any misconceptions before applying these skills to a new situation.

The biggest realization for me has been the acceptance that when my students fail it's usually a direct result of something I have or haven't done.

This fact has been proven to me a few times this year as I changed my approach or my method or allowed my students to revise projects based around feedback.  I have watched my students succeed and produce better and better projects and I smile inwardly as I hear them tell each other how to move files around and teach each other how to find applications with the Spotlight.

It's not all roses. I have stumbled and there have been lessons that failed. When this happens and my students obviously didn't get it or are not ready to move on, I have to take a step back and assess what they need to be prepared for the task or tasks ahead.

Today I told my 4th graders, "If you fail, that means that there's something that I didn't do right. If you fail, that means I failed."

It's a bold statement, but I'm starting to think that it's true.
Read On

Thank you....


I am honored to have been nominated for an Edublog award.

I also deeply regret not having completed my nomination post in time!

There are a TON of amazing blogs, groups and people nominated this year, so please take the time to vote.

I also want to extend my gratitude on behalf of the Edcamp Philly team for our nomination for Best Educational Use of a Social Network.  We are humbled.

Please take the time to vote for ALL of the nominated categories here:

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Save Trees: Don't print me!