Category Archives: Teaching

I love Rafe Esquith

teachThis book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, should be on every teacher induction and teacher preparation booklist. I love this book. I love Rafe Esquith as a teacher and as a writer. So many of us thrive in life because of our sense of humor and because of our gut instincts to trust and nurture other human beings–and I don’t just mean teachers. I love the candor and the schtick and the passion:

It is 2:00 P.M. on a Tuesday, which means I am about to endure from one to two hours of torture. NO, not thumbscrews and the rack–worse. It is time for the weekly staff meeting. I have struggled for years to convey to outsiders just how horrible these sessions are… Like many other teachers, I have adopted various measures to ease the pain. My fellow teachers and I have mastered the art of seeming to pay attention while some administrator out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth announces the current misinformation. One day, I almost broke down and had a seizure… You see, the children at our school do not read well. They do not like to read. As of this writing, 78 percent of the Latino children on our campus are not proficient at reading, according to our state’s standardized tests. This means one of tho things: Either we have the stupidest kids on the planet, or we are failing these children. Please believe me when I tell you that the vast majority of our students are perfectly capable of learning to read. No one wants to admit it, but a systemic conspiracy of mediocrity keeps these children on the treadmill of illiteracy (29-30).

Page after page, I’m there with him, slapping my knee at the corny, self-depricating jokes and knowingly nodding with the jabs aimed at hapless malice practiced by educators throughout our educational system. It as if with each page, I learn more about my own passion and practice as an educator. I am learning and remembering at the same time Rafe tells  his own story and passes along his own messages about how to teach truly, ruthlessly bucking at convention and futility.

I’m about a fifth of the way through the book, so I expect to write several more times about this topic before I finish and move onto his second book, but I did want to share a collection of powerful tips I learned in the first few chapters.

First, Rafe raves about the success of working toward teaching your kids to notice and practice a personal code of behavior (or ethics) to follow. He discusses just how difficult it is to explicitly teach. Modeling is one thing, but to get kids to really notice it in others, he had to start actively looking. Here is the list he shares:

  1. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, he names Phineas as a role model for living by a code.separatepeace
  2. In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, he names Bernard as a role model.
  3. In High Noon by Gary Cooper, he names Sheriff Will Kane.high_noon
  4. In the film, Shawshank Redemption, he names Red played by Morgan Freeman as role model for living by a code.

I would, of course, add Omar from the television show The Wire.

omarlittleRafe also talks about the power of the right voices reading the right stories to kids, citing CDs of actor Joe Morton reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and actress Winona Ryder reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

And the last tip I’ll share is a website he discusses for great (and affordable!) supplemental resources for literature.

Both parents and teachers can go to a Web site called www.learninglinks.com. this company offers a series of study guides called Novel-ties, which I find to be excellent supplements to reading… As a parent and teacher, my time is incredibly limited. Given my schedule, I cannot possibly prepared dozens of comprehension questions for each chapter I read with students. Novel-ties solve the problem. They are well organized and, most important of all, reach for the highest levels of understanding. They never ‘dumb down’ the material. By using the workbooks, my students become better readers, writers, and thinkers (41).

As if you did need motivating on this point, but I love this quote about how and why adults are such powerful rolemodels when it come to literacy and young people. I love Rafe Esquith!

Children–even very bright ones–need guidance. Whether they are selecting food or literature, kids need our leadership to help them find the right path. I’m not smarter than my students. But I know more than they do because I am older than they are. I know about fabulous books that they might not yet have come across. It is my job as their mentor to put these books in their hands. Because the  kids trust me, they re more likely to try a book I suggest. If one of my students is a Harry Potter fan, it’s easy to introduce him to other wonderful fantasy books. The joy of hearing one of the children laugh out loud while reading The Phantom Tollbooth or ask if she can boor the next installment of The Chronicles of Narnia remains a thrill for me. I get chills watching their minds try to comprehend the layers upon layers of Alice in Wonderland. Sharing the joy of great literature can be a cornerstone of a relationship between an adult and a child. It is through literature that young people first begin to look at the world differently, to open their minds to new ideas, to journey down an avenue of excellence (34-35).

What really matters when you’re at work?

Of course, I answer as an educator…

It’s the people in front of you. Those of us who love our jobs as educators constantly put the work of listening and advising first. We do it because as human beings we love to tell stories, to listen to others’ stories, to find humor and humanity in our shared experiences, to probe for the deepest and most adequate answers to our questions, to create opportunities for learning and teaching.

A significant portion of our workload though extends beyond conversation and human-to-human connection and learning. Much of our work is predicated on our individual time spent toiling and twittering away at our computers, copiers, and classroom materials. The actual “work” of our work–or so it seems. When do we have time to create our lessons, find the right reading, assess and sort student work? Or as administrators, when do we have the time to finish the PowerPoint presentation on our school’s data, write and send the reminder letter about classroom expectations to families and students, locate missing student records? For so many of us, what stresses us most is the constant drain of this competition for our attention: human development and learning vs. followthrough on tangible products.

Layer onto that the reality that we increasingly seem to suffer from the attention deficit disorder of internet multitasking at our computer screens and desks. Many of us living in this “Web2.0 World” turn to our email or favorite news sources for one reason but end up gleefully following curiosities and new questions further afield from our original intents. We see the interconnectedness of our interests and needs, and suddenly all information seems to be somehow relevant to our goals. And it is because our interests and our questions expand with the vast array of knowledge and tools at our fingertips. The more we learn, the more we search. Before we know it, instead of “getting work done” and making headway on those all-too-numerous products we so desperately want and need to finish, we have constructed a time and space to advance our own learning. So when does the work get done? When do we shut off the learning?

When you choose to work in education it is because you are good at learning. You learn from communicating with others. You learn from the music you listen to and create, from the art you consume and create, from what you read, from your hobbies. You love learning, so perhaps the work of the educator is ever-expanding and borders between home and work easily penetrated and falsely constructed because of this deep desire and capacity to learn that we have as educators.

What really matters when you’re at work? Learning. Teaching.

Stepping into the role of intern and outsider this fall has allowed me to more easily take on the perspectives of others and compare and contrast them with my own values and actions. Today I observed educators more experienced than I answer this question for me about what really matters when at work. They didn’t answer with their words, and I didn’t even have to ask it. Their actions spoke clearly and convincingly. When you’re at work as an educator, what matters is the learning and the teaching you do with the other human beings around you–students, teachers, interns, administrators, parents, community members. The importance of products and followthrough corresponds to your personal ambition. If you are ambitious, you carve out time of your evenings, your mornings, your weekends to toil away at these products. What you come to work for each day though has nothing to do with making photocopies, organizing binders, or making sure you have speakers for your computer. As an educator you come to work to learn and teach. You will find time to do all (or at least the most essential) of the detail work that marks your reputation as a doer elsewhere. Showing up to work is all about investing in the people that make the organization, the teaching, and the learning excellent and long-lasting.

A conversation between two teachers (IM)

Teacher 1: hey Teacher 2!

Teacher 2: hey!

Teacher 1: teaching my first class in 2 hours. Got any advice?

Teacher 2: wow!

don’t forget the bring the syllabus!

🙂

what kind of class is it

Teacher 1: lol thanks!

11:45 AM

Teacher 2: small, big? intro? advanced?

Teacher 1: [advanced college class] Kinda my dream class. about 10 juniors and seniors

Teacher 2: how long is the class?

meets once a week?

Teacher 1: just shy of 2 hrs

twice a week

Teacher 2: two hours twice a week?

or one hour each session?

Teacher 1: 4 hours total

Teacher 2: wow

Teacher 1: yeah!

11:46 AM

Teacher 2: what students need more than anything is three things. you ready?

Teacher 1: yes

Teacher 2: one: set high expectations for everyone in the class. tell them they are high standards, tell them why you are expecting so much for them

11:47 AM

two: tell them that you know every single student is capable of that work. then in the next week, make sure you touch base with each student and tell them knowingly that you know they individually can do the work.

Teacher 1: ok!

Teacher 2: three: then work your ass off to scaffold their learning (we love this term.. it just means think about each step of the process for doing a complex task and teach students how to do it)

11:48 AM

make sure that each student gets the extra help and practice they need to make up for their deficits

above all else: students want a teacher who believes they are capable of great things and they want to trust that you will support them to get there

11:49 AM

Teacher 1: awesome – i’m gonna copy/paste that!

Teacher 2: and then of course you don’t have to worry about the other things because you’re a natural… things like humor, interesting ideas, etc.

Teacher 1: (it’s been a long time since intro to ed!)

Teacher 2: they’ll go along with you because you’ll treat them right

11:50 AM

and bring them things that are worthy of study

that’s my three-minute speal

11:51 AM

Teacher 1: awesome!

you’ve done more to prepare me than any of the new faculty orientation stuff!

(it’s kind of trial by fire here)

Teacher 2: well, happy to help

11:52 AM

and happy you asked 🙂

your students will be great, and you’ll be great today. it will be a lot of fun!

Teacher 1: thanks!

Differentiating the high school classroom teacher: My own individualized learning plan of sorts

Photo 19This is me giving myself that look: “Really?”

Blogging again when you have two other concrete “actual” things to accomplish in the next 30 minutes?

And like the patient students who had to endure the same slightly perturbed gaze, I heartily reply: “Yeah.” I’ve got some interesting things on my mind. I was on the subway (in Boston) two hours ago realizing how deeply grateful I am for the experiences I have had thus far in my professional career. All of the difficulties I have had as a teacher working in urban schools, experiences that for so long felt like the shackles that held my students, my colleagues, and my own work suspended in the mediocrity endemic to segregated, low-income communities in America, abruptly shifted from chains to cherished blessings. No joke.

Photo 21I was reading a book a friend and colleague, José, introduced to me while we were teaching together last year: Differentiating the high school classroom: Solution strategies for 18 common obstacles. Kathie Nunley, the author, reveals  in the introduction (after listing some of the most common problems teachers face on a daily basis; she starts with 25 but acknowledges there are plenty more) just how creative and intelligent teachers are by virtue of the obstacles we face:

“Teachers are creative people. The tougher the problem, the more creative we must be. When teachers share with me the various difficult situations they are in, I respond, ‘Rejoice–you’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to show your ingenuity and creative genius.’ Struggles build character and intelligence.”

I realized in those moments of processing the sentiment of those words and what I have found to be true this summer and early fall thinking deeply about my practice and about the possible pathways forward just how truly blessed I have been to have encountered so much ridiculosity (I know, not really a word) in my teaching career. All of the blights of the American educational enterprise as we know them and as I in particular have experienced them have made me stronger, smarter, and more direct, agile, creative, and open as both a person and a practitioner. It is in those most confounding of restraints that we create our best work and true, deep learning for ourselves and for those around us. Nunley’s introduction was meant to set the stage for a wonderful, explosively powerful frame for understanding the awesome task of reforming schools, teaching, and learning by understanding the simple yet daunting reality that each learner is unique and that as teachers we must be ready for the spectacular challenge of differentiating instruction for all learners. The work is challenging and it may not call to us all, but damn, for those of us moths drawn to its flame, does it make us intelligent, resourceful, and potent human beings.

When you leave teaching…

City Championship NMHSWhen you leave teaching, beware. You are more powerful, capable, and resourceful than you could have ever imagined possible. Though we endeavor every day as teachers to be the super human beings who sacrifice sleep, sustenance, and hydration, hurtling ourselves at the massive challenges facing our schools and students, we doubt our own efficacy. Suspended in the motion of moments too intense and important to be anything other than 100% present, we accept the mere feat of making it through each day, each year with dignity, poise, and humor as a tremendous accomplishment. Few of us work in schools or districts organized and run effectively, and we know that every day we are fighting a battle against inequity, racism, classism, otherism–a battle that leaves the students and families we love most vulnerable to the whims and fancies of policy makers and the torrents of the global economy. We love our students, and if we are lucky, we love our colleagues and the communities that support and sustain our schools. We trust somehow, somewhere we are making a difference that will be felt more tangibly than we experience each day in schools. Kalvin & Bakari

One of the things I realized when I stopped teaching was that the relationships I had with “these kids”–the ones I left behind in June–would be “my kids”–the ones whose graduations and weddings I attend, the ones who call me when they need help or are alone.

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours calling some of “these kids,” a select group of my kids: my debate team as well as a group of rising 10th graders I recruited for the debate team for the upcoming school year. My phone call was completely out of the blue on their end. For me, it was a scheduled chunk of emotional and physical energy to call and check in on them, make sure they are committed to attending debate camp at the end of the month, and set up a time and place to see them before I leave while introducing them to their new debate coach. I make these type of calls as part of my work as a teacher. No big deal once I actually set myself up to do it and start calling.

Tournament 5 DebateBut I’ve left teaching. Consciously. On purpose. These phone calls are not part of the work of doctoral students, not part of my move to New York, not part of my job and internship search. But these kids are part of my life, and their belief and trust in me a tremendous source of pride and affirmation. Our identity as teachers is wrapped up in persisting despite encouragement, status, or recognition. Even though we believe we are powerful and teaching is valuable, we are barely able to utter or type the words and sentences that claim that power. We catch glimpses of it in our work with students and colleagues, but as teachers we are so engaged in problem-solving and creation that we can’t see ourselves or our work in their entirety.

We are powerful beyond measure and well beyond the glaring shortcomings of our schools and districts. I left teaching because I felt powerless. I am a doctoral student because I want to study power. I want to be more effective at changing our broken educational system. I want to see that my intelligence and my efforts amount to something measurable and substantial. And it took me leaving teaching to see that they already had.Tournament 3 Debate

In my first years of teaching, I knew I was a good person. Over time, I evolved and knew I was a good teacher. This afternoon, I realized that good people evolving into good teachers say the right thing at the right time more often than not. In doing so, they become the most powerful and positive forces of change imaginable. I am in awe of myself and my profession. I am so proud to be a teacher. I may have left teaching for now, but I can’t help myself. I will always be a teacher, and I realized this afternoon that I will always be blessed with the opportunity to say the right thing at the right time to the students I adore.

Funny that we seem to need to step away from things to see them clearly. I’m appreciating profoundly the new closeness and understanding that distance affords.

Turtle Metaphor

I wonder on days like today just how much capacity human beings have. I think we see ourselves, our abilities, and our output as substantially fixed. Afterall, we all have seen our own limits. We need a certain number of hours sleep, companionship, food, the newspaper, some form of media and entertainment to sustain us as we move forward in this life. In our relationships and in our work, we push boundaries, but ultimately we accept that there are boundaries up against which we continue to push.

Consider these human limits and perceived (and tangible) boundaries as the turtle’s shell. The shell confines almost the entirety of the turtle’s body. For the most part, the turtle is defined by this physical shell and by the perceived and tangible dangers outside the shell. This is natural.
This morning as I was passing through Morningside Park on my walk to school, I noticed this turtle sitting triumphantly on this pond rock boldly sunning himself in the middle of the city. All extremities exposed to the world, the turtle confidently and easily sat atop this city rock in this city park. I had to stop and take notice. This was out of the ordinary. In fact I took a picture to capture the moment.
This afternoon during our final sessions in our School Law Institute, I was so emotionally overwhelmed by the words of one of our speakers that I had to leave my seat. In fact I left the building. A complete stranger came up to me on the street and asked if I was alright and was so concerned she was very reluctant to leave me in such a state to return to her life. I was struck by the intensity of a series of moments where a professor who had dedicated his life’s work to the fight for equity in schools fought through the physical tremors of Parkinson’s to communicate to a group of 70 Teachers College students that it was our moment to take up this work. He could no longer continue. He spoke with humor and through a quivering, weak voice that betrayed the wit and sharpness of his intellect and richness of his experience. He struggled there before us, perched on the uncertain and steep decline of the human condition, and he was so utterly present in that moment, in each of 60 moments that he shared his wisdom and wit with us. He struggled with every inch of his body to reach us, and the intensity of that vulnerability and the tenderness of sharing that with 70 strangers reached deep inside of me. In a month of transformation and intense learning, he took this experience to an entirely new depth.
No one in that room left the same. I am sure of this. I am still struggling to understand the capacity of someone so willing and able to live so much in the present moment even as the simplest functions retreat from the brain’s command. How do you persist and persist with grace and good humor and with purpose even as you reach your most vulnerable state of life? I admire the willingness, the presence of mind, the sense of purpose, and the unyielding commitment to actualizing justice and equity for the most marginalized of people living among us. It is the fight for what is right alongside the fight for the simplest functions of life. I would be so lucky to live as much in this life the amount this professor lived in the 60 minutes he spent with us this

afternoon.
As I walked home tonight through Morningside park, I saw the turtle again. He was out on the same rock. He was there in the sun, hundreds of people about in the park: playing ball, sitting on benches, skateboarding, walking, running, walking dogs. He was still out, head and legs and tail all stretched outside the confines of his shell. I couldn’t help but think of Tom, and think about the audacity to live beyond the confines of the human experience. The shell protects, defines, humanizes the turtle, but the insistence on basking in the sun outside that shell speaks to the kind of human being I hope to become. I can only hope to live so fully.

Superintendent? UELP’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Today we met the cohort that is two years ahead of us. They seem so far ahead of us, mostly working as district leaders–some already superintendents and even former superintendents. Perhaps they came in more seasoned than we are now, but perhaps two years from now we will have grown into the leaders they clearly are now.

As I sat in the resource management class (focused on HR this week) our two cohorts are jointly taking at TC this summer, I wondered how much all of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy established by the Organization and Leadership department at TC. To what extent are they district leaders now because the program named them as a cohort ready for the challenges of leadership in urban districts? To what extent will they stay with the work because of the cohort model and because of the training UELP is providing? To what extent do I now (as of 4 hours ago) see the path toward becoming a superintendent as possible and perhaps desirable because of the frame of this program?
I actually realized today that under the right leadership, working in a district could be satisfying work that pushes toward wide scale change. At first, I felt out of place sitting in a classroom where the instructor asked us to frame a vision for how we wanted to manage human resources in our district. This is a level of questioning I have never been exposed to, and I knew at some point in this program, we would begin to shift in this direction. The work we have done in the first two weeks immersing ourselves in the research has felt pleasantly familiar, like an old high school or college buddy you see again after 3 years and realize that you still connect. I’m good at being a graduate student and scholar.
Working alongside more established school leaders this past two weeks has pushed me to feel more comfortable calling myself a leader publicly. I have always seen myself as someone with strong leadership skills, experience, and dispositions, but this is the first time in a while I have actually identified with and embraced the title of leader. When I decided to enter to realm of urban education 13 years ago as an outsider who grew up in a rural homogeneous community, I disassociated with the identity of leader. I knew that I had so much learning to do, so much listening, and so much living. I have been consciously building my practice in a field I care passionately about; I have been pushing myself to become competent and established enough to be on firm ground when I assert that we can and should transform urban systems to be more just and equitable. I finally feel ready to assume a formal leadership role in this field.
I have to trust that I belong with these two cohorts of established principals, executives, district leaders, and superintendents. I remain open to a variety of leadership roles, and today I accepted for the first time that included in the list of possible leadership roles is the title superintendent. Where do I go from here? That’s still up to the NYC job market the opportunities I find through TC. I’m curious to see where this path leads me in the near future. The next two years will likely be largely shaped by UELP’s vision, connections, and requirements, and I look forward to be looking back measuring the likely inevitable exponential growth two years in this program will produce.