A Priority: Changing How We Talk About School

Room 137

The following post first appeared on my Bluegrass Dispatches blog at the Center for Teaching Quality.

Wordle: Thunder words

In 2008, one of my first published articles challenged the dominant discourse in education. I was fed up with the way many of my colleagues and administrators conversed about teaching and learning, believing their words stifled innovation.

I heard grades, standards, depth of knowledge, future, rigor, and test scores all the time. But I wanted to talk about and employ pedagogy relating to community, inspiration, discovery, projects, and the present.

The way we talk about school has shifted a little bit, but it’s still dominated by language relating to content standards and testing, sometimes pushing aside more meaningful ideas and practice.

Our language reflects our philosophy, and I wonder how often we educators blindly accept words set forth before us without examining underlying belief systems behind the lingo. Here are a few phrases or words worth critically challenging:

College and Career Readiness (CCR)

It has a nice ring to it, no?  We all want our students to be prepared to succeed after they stroll across the stage after graduation. I can’t argue with that.  Are students really CCR by solely posting a minimal ACT score? Of course not, but this is way these words have been twisted. I’m bombarded daily with reminders of the need to increase CCR scores, and I’m tired of it.

Being CCR means a lot more than a qualifying test score.  It means being able to communicate using varied mediums and devices. It means being able to ask questions and solve problems. It could mean building student capacity to identify community and school issues, making their world a better place.

Focusing on CCR scores ignores the fact there can be meaningful, varied opportunities right NOW. Not in the future. “You’ll need that (insert content or test score here) years down the road” is simply an excuse for bypassing authentic teaching and learning in the present.

  • Let’s talk about how we define CCR in our schools. Let’s talk about what we can do right now, in order to provide students valuable skills and experiences in the present.

Achievement Gap

Like CCR, this discourse is focused on student deficit, rather than student strength. Sure, we’d love to see groups of students achieve on more equal levels. But by focusing on what students lack and trying to build a bridge to span these gaps, are we missing opportunities to explore student strengths? How are student schedules altered by focusing on student weaknesses? Then there’s the whole issue of how achievement is defined within this discourse, which is in the context of standardized test scores.

  • Let’s talk about what it means to focus on student strength instead of weakness. Let’s talk about different definitions of achievement.


Yes, it’s great to make informed instructional decisions based on what we know, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that teaching and learning is best served by examining quantitative data.  Can meaningful experience in the classroom really be distilled to multiple choice data?

More educators should ask why? when it comes to quantitative data, like Esther Quintero questions in her Answer Sheet column at the Washington Post.  “Excessive faith in data crunching as a tool for making decisions has interfered with the important task of asking the fundamental questions in education, such as whether we are looking for answers in the right places, and not just where it is easy (e.g., standardized test data),” she writes. Quintero is right–we often aren’t collecting the right data or asking the right questions.

  • Let’s talk about why we collect certain types of data.  Let’s talk about embracing qualitative observations as an alternative or supplement to narrowly-defined multiple choice data.

I’ll admit I need to do a better job starting these conversations within my own building, and tomorrow’s inservice day will be a good place to start. How about you? What do you wish was talked about more in schools? Outside of school, what places/organizations use language that seems to distract from worthwhile goals? 

Show Me Respect, Or Else!

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

A few weeks ago, two students showed up for English class a few minutes late–not the first time–and shuffled into their seats, smirking and tossing their backpacks to the floor. While I began to explain the lesson, a hand shot up from the back of the classroom.  “Mr. B, can I go to the bathroom?” He’d been in the room for two, maybe three minutes, and now he had audacity to request leaving.


I glanced back with a scowl, feeling my heart thump a little louder than normal. Are you kidding me? I thought.  The same student just displayed a disregard for the start of class by being tardy. Given that we’d been discussing the idea of respect in the context of the book The Other Wes Moore, I fired back. “You’ll have to wait.  You realize how disrespectful it is to ask me after coming to class late?”

“How is it disrespectful?”  he responded without sarcasm. I took a breath, realizing that he perhaps had no clue why his action was disrespectful to me and our classroom time and space.  It was a teachable moment, and I regret missing the opportunity to have a productive conversation.

Many students have skewed notions of respect, largely fueled by pop culture, fear, and violence. Ask students what respect means, and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers.

Some will tell you it’s about fear and power. Think about the bully who trolls the hallways, puffing out his chest, bumping students with his shoulder, demanding respect. Respect based on fear, violence, and intimidation.

Some will tell you it’s all about making sure you acknowledge their presence, their being, regardless of their behavior. I think about times when I’ve asked challenging students to move seats to minimize their off-task behavior, and they openly state they don’t like being disrespected like that. What?!

Others, mostly our refugee students, will provide a definition of respect based on family status or age. One Cuban girl told me she has to respect all the elders in her family.

Yet few will actually give you a textbook definition of respect: admiring and recognizing people for positive qualities, abilities, or achievements. Or acknowledging the traditions or routines in an environment, not wanting to interfere or harm.

The following passage from the book, a story about two men with the same names and drastically different fates, seemed to have an impact on many students.  In the scene, one of the Wes Moores, now a cadet at a military academy, witnesses a fellow student command attention and deference based on qualities he’d never witnessed before back in his Bronx neighborhood:

“In spite of myself, I was impressed. I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen a man, a peer, demand that much respect from his people. I had seen Shea demand respect in the neighborhood, but this was different. This was real respect, the kind you can’t beat or scare out of people. That’s when I started to understand that I was in a different environment. Not simply because I was in the middle of Pennsylvania instead of the Bronx or Baltimore. It was a different psychological environment, where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns were ostracized.”

Wes Moore, like many students I deal with, need to be deliberately taught different modes of perceiving themselves and the world.  There is perhaps too much emphasis on academics in school, given the social-emotional deficits students bring to the table.  Is it more important to learn the periodic table or learn and practice real tolerance and respect?  How do you think you learned respect?  If you are a teacher or have/work with young people, what are you observations regarding respect?

When Should Students Become Responsible For Their Own Success?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I don’t blame Steffon for his distrust issues; after all, he’s bounced around from foster parent to foster parent.  I don’t blame Sara for her constant angst and depression; after all, she’s just come out of the closet and receives no support from her parents, who now remind her daily that she’s going to hell.  I don’t blame DeAnthony for his shockingly sparse vocabulary; born to a single mom with five other siblings, nobody read to him before he attended school.  And I don’t blame Angela for her emotional outbursts–she witnessed her mother get murdered in their trailer several years ago.

These are all real students I’ve had over the years–names have been changed, of course–and at this point, I can only pray that my attempts at guidance have helped add enough academic and life skills to their arsenal to become happy, productive, citizens.


Advising students who carry massive social, academic, and emotional burdens into our classrooms is, at times, an overwhelming task.  But as a high school teacher, I’ve got students who will be entering the adult world soon.  They need to take responsibility for their own actions.  Somehow, they must put their pasts behind them–a difficult task when such struggles are constantly creeping into their rear-view mirrors–and develop perseverance and grit to find success.

At what point should we educators, and society at large, blame young people for failing to overcome hardships and soul-crushing situations at home?  At what point should we expect, if ever, developing adolescents to confront their harsh realities and make a decision to take steps to overcome behavioral or academic issues?

I’ve been there, when I could care less that Rayvon is pissed off about his deadbeat father.  He had no right to continue disrupting class, seeking attention in all the worst ways.  I’ve been there when I’ve gone out of my way to stay after school for tutoring, providing a safe and productive place for students who’d otherwise be up to no good, only to sit at an empty table watching the second hand cycle around and around until packing up my bag and trudging to the faculty parking lot.  It’s frustrating, but I won’t stop trying.

It’s often individual educators–and not the system–who attempt to build academic and social bridges for our most needy students.  Yet there are other teachers who proclaim that it’s the students job to learn, regardless of background, ignoring situations like those mentioned in my introduction.

Americans love rags to riches stories, and there are enough tales of young people rising up from abusive homes, dilapidated housing projects, and abject poverty to become doctors, lawyers, congressmen, and professional athletes.   The exceptions are hardly, the rule, however–all you have to do is examine statistics about cycles of poverty and educational attainment.  Nonetheless, the rags to riches narrative holds a vice grip on our consciousness and our educational systems.  If he or she can succeed, why can’t you?

Yesterday marked the end of my ninth year teaching public school in and around Louisville, Kentucky.   It has been a tremendous journey thus far, and every year I’m constantly reminded of one concept from my teacher education courses: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Progress towards personal and academic growth is derailed when basic needs aren’t met.  When so many students come to school hungry, angry, stressed out, and overwhelmed, it’s no wonder that little learning takes place.

It’s not fair that some students carry massive burdens as they trudge from class to class, while other students breeze through private schools and tennis lessons, with the only uncertainty being which college or university they will attend.  And right now, many of our schools are not set up to create conditions where most students have a reasonable shot at similar outcomes as their more advantaged peers.  It will take a herculean effort.

Do politicians, and Americans in general, have the political will to reimagine school as places where students’ various backgrounds are addressed through alternative curriculums, more social worker access, and other interventions?  What is your take?  When should students become responsible?  Nature vs. nurture–am I emphasizing nurture–or the lack of it– too much when it comes to student development?

Classrooms Without Borders

Room 137

Imagine a 30 by 30 room, with students sitting silently in rows, ostensibly listening to lectures, text messages covertly being sent inside hoodie pockets, and whispers here and there.  Eventually, completion of multiple choice exams at the end of an instructional unit measures learning.  Sadly, this probably sounds familiar.  While there is a time and place for extended direct instruction and lecturing, the majority of kids do not benefit from this type of instruction, as it does nothing but increase the chance for more disengagement, failed tests, and I don’t care about anything at school uttered from freshman to seniors.


One reason why I teach and enjoy my current position is possibility.  The possibility to redefine what teaching and learning looks, sounds, and feels like.  The possibility to forge community partnerships to give students models of successful adults in various roles.  The possibility to give students chances to unearth passions and shift their perspectives.

At the end of February, I was fortunate to travel to the Navajo Nation with students and teachers Brent Peters and Joe Franzen from Fern Creek Traditional High School.  Today, the collaboration continues as a Navajo delegation arrive in Kentucky.  WFPL’s Devin Katayama produced this story about the exchange, a tribute to possibility and passion in public education.  

The more teachers are allowed to blend personal passions with instructional standards, the better.  Peters, a former chef, and Franzen, an avid urban gardener and sustainability leader in the community.  They are collaborating to teach Food Lit. at Fern Creek, a hybrid junior English course.  Interdisciplinary instruction is endless–when you talk about food, you’re talking about biology, storytelling, ecosystems, the environment, health issues, history.  Students have met with local farmers and chefs, worked in the school greenhouse, explored family traditions, and written editorials about Asian Carp.

Break out of the 30 by 30 box, letting an exchange of people, activities, and ideas permeate the classroom.  On my end, I’ve partnered with WFPL’s Katayama and Kertis Creative, a local media strategy and production company, in my digital storytelling class.  

If you teach science, why not use Skype with biologists or university professors?  If you teach art, why not contact local art associations and galleries to set up student art shows?  If you teach PE, why not invite college athletes and fitness trainers in to design exercise programs and share them with the community?  You get the gist.

If you’re a principal or building leader who shuns innovation, community partnerships, and dynamic uses of technology, you’re short-changing hundreds of students in your school.  I could care less if your test scores increase.  Your school may look effective to some, but what about the students?  Can you look them in the eye and tell them you have done everything you can to prepare them to be productive citizens in society?  Do your students toss their graduation caps in the air, excited to continue pursuing a project or idea learned in school?

We educators–especially those of us at “struggling” schools–are still under immense pressure to increase test scores.  But that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the pursuit of possibilities for redefining and creating successes for our students.

How about you?  Did you have a teacher with a creative approach who embraced possibility?  Should more schools strive to build partnerships with community members and experts?  What was your most powerful learning experience?

Reflections: Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I teach English and I write professionally, but I don’t remember how I learned grammar.  I’ve always been a reader, and my father is an excellent editor who helped me with many high school and college papers.  But as far as former classroom instruction goes, I have zero recollection of effective teachers and teaching methods relating to grammar.  I’m probably not alone with this sentiment. 

Several times a year, our department bemoans the state of student grammar, but we have a hard time coming to consensus about how to teach it.  How often?  What methods, texts, or strategies should we use?  Is it possible to become grammatically proficient without having a strong foundation in reading?  Are high school students who don’t, or haven’t, widely read traditional texts–beyond Tweets and Facebook feeds–relegated to a post-secondary and professional life rife with common grammar mistakes in their memos, e-mails and reports?

Wordle fromlearningaboutmethodology.blogspot.com

Over the course of my almost nine years in the classroom, the strongest student writers in my classes have always been voracious readers.  Their parents didn’t drill them with subject-verb agreement worksheets as soon as they could talk, nor did they receive extra tutoring in complex sentence construction after completing preschool finger painting bonanzas.  They read as youngsters, and continue to read.  I’ve never met a student who has a strong writing voice, shows command of the language in various ways, and aces grammar quizzes while shunning reading for pleasure.

While these observations, and my subsequent efforts to teach non-readers grammar have been frustrating, I’m not about to jettison grammar instruction from my lesson plans–I’m still testing out various methods and resources.

Walt Gardner’s recent piece in Education Week rekindled the ongoing grammar debate, as Gardner reflects on a pedagogical shift in the 1970’s, when English teachers were influenced to deemphasize grammar:

English Department meetings stressed the importance of considering a student’s essay based overwhelmingly on its content. The not so subtle message was to get with the program. So I did. The result was that students were shortchanged. I’m not talking now about circling every grammatical error to the detriment of understanding the thesis. That’s counterproductive. Instead, I’m talking about gross errors in usage and sentence structure that detract from that goal.

This pedagogical shift is still relevant today; I just finished grading some student essays about women serving combat roles, and the required scoring rubric first places emphasis on audience and purpose, idea development, organization, and finally grammar and mechanics.  Gardner’s correct–I simply don’t come across any student writing that is able to effectively develop a thesis, back up claims with evidence, and display sound organization without command of basic and more advanced grammar rules.  Understanding grammar enables us to be creative writers and thinkers, leading to more effective communication.

Gardner’s text inspired plenty of reaction–here are some highlights from the comments section that address the following issues:

How does grammar instruction reinforce power structures?  Is grammar instruction be a friend or foe of creative expression and thinking?

We de-emphasize the importance of the grammar mistakes that the culture of power tend to make but emphasize the mistakes that are the most common in low-income, low-status cultures…But we need to be careful not to do what we did in the past, which is put all of the privileged students with educated parents into one group (called “the smart kids”) and teach them the rules for a language in which they are already very fluent, and put all of the other kids in English classes where they are taught the abstract rules of a language that nobody they know speaks and then “corrected” every time they speak in the version of English that is spoken in their community.

–One of the obstacles is that some minority students don’t hear standard English at home or in their neighborhood. As a result, their ears become accustomed to grammar that is different from what is taught in school.

–I’ve examined the research on this issue. Conclusion: FORM in writing comes largely from reading (consciously learned rules can help you a little bit in the editing stage of the composing process). Writing itself can help you solve problems and make you smarter.

–We learned that there are certain indispensable rules. I never regarded them as obstacles to creativity. On the contrary, I viewed them as allies.

–It’s interesting that learning grammar is disparaged by the same constructivists who favor critical thinking skills over content. Grammar is nothing but critical thinking — you learn what the parts of speech are, you test various ways of putting them together that are in alignment with overall principles, you aim to help the students develop the ability to communicate as powerfully as possible.


Lastly, it seems as if many students don’t understand the need to know grammar beyond those who care to earn a higher grade on an academic task.  After all, the texts they create and consume–mostly digital–aren’t necessarily adhering to traditional language guidelines.  Students need to be shown various models of professional and workplace writing that still demand good grammar, and they need to explore–or be shown–the consequences of poorly written inquiries, resumes, e-mails, and grant requests, among other real world forms.

Do you remember how you learned grammar?  Should schools emphasize grammar, or do our new forms of communication diminish the need to be proficient?  For teachers out there, what do you do to teach grammar–do you have any tips?  Do you have any examples to disprove my claim that you can write well without being a reader?


The Digital Literacy Curriculum Gap

Room 137, Techculture

Are most teenagers inherently wired to seek out and use the internet for good?   Absolutely not.  Would I have harnessed the amazing connectivity and community-building power of the internet, had smart phones and tablets been prevalent while I was in high school in the late 1990s?  Probably not, especially if I didn’t have a teacher or mentor help explain the consequences–both good and bad–of my online activity.

One major flaw of the new Common Core standards is the digital literacy gap.


Most school curriculums, including the new Common Core standards, foolishly ignore the critical conversations and lessons about how and why we use technology.  Today, I conducted a lesson on digital footprints with one of my classes.  We googled names, found easy access to offensive student Twitter accounts full of foul language and racy pictures, and discussed what it means to have incongruent online and offline identities.  Most students hadn’t considered the issue at all.  They were engaged, and some even immediately accessed their social media accounts to change the privacy settings.

I’ve decided that each Monday I will step away from digital storytelling projects in order to challenge students’ notions about crap detection, attention, and participation, among other ideas, which are all tips from Howard Rheingold’s illuminating book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.

If we want students to utilize Twitter to curate information from experts on topics they are interested in, instead of simply trash talking and sharing mundane details of their daily lives, then we have to show them how.  If we want students to utilize Google Drive and other cloud-based services as one strategy to avoid forgetting flash drives and assignments at home, then we have to show them how to sign up and use various accounts.  If we complain about students writing with incorrect grammar, but don’t acknowledge the world of Textspeak and its influence, then we must conduct lessons on code switching.

In the rush to inundate our lives and schools with gadgets and 21st Century Technology, we are lacking the same urgency to teach critical digital media skills, mindsets, and ethical use.  As a result, there are too many students who are currently graduating, becoming embodiments of David Bowden’s words, and it’s not necessarily their fault.

But so often

We use this tool to ignore them

And the rest of those humans

For just as fire can be used for warmth or destruction

We misuse url’s, firewalling off the world with distractions

We search daily, but find nothing

Add friends, but loose community

Look for love but get pornography

Try to discover ourselves, but loose our identity

What do you think of “The Inner Net”?  Do you agree or disagree about the importance of critical discussion about technology in schools?  How would you assess your own use of technology?  Whose job, if anybody’s, should it be to teach critical digital literacy skills?  What do you wish you knew how to do?  What projects inspire, or have inspired you, to try out a new use of digital technology or communication?    

The Myth of the Super Teacher

Room 137

I prepared for my first teaching gig undaunted by my lack of experience.  After all, I had a literature degree from a prestigious liberal arts school, I had been mostly successful at everything I had tried, and I knew the students would appreciate my compassion and creativity.  I’d be a great first-year teacher.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As teacher and writer Roxanna Elden states in this must-watch presentation below, “In the movies, there is a short period of trial and error, and then the teacher figures out the secret to teaching, which is showing kids that you care, and this works really well, because all of the other teachers in the movie, interestingly enough, got into teaching because they don’t care about kids, and they just need this person who is brand new to set them straight.”

I remember feeling so dejected, frustrated, and run-down because I thought that because I cared so much, I’d be successful.

What I needed was more practical, honest advice.  I needed more guidance from veteran teachers.  I needed to know manageable steps to improve the next day.  I needed to detach myself from the myth that NO first-year teacher is good at his or her job.

The Myth of the Super Teacher from EdWriters on Vimeo.

Based on my own experience and observations, it takes at least three years to start becoming a consistently good teacher.  Yet many teachers, like myself, at tough urban schools, never make it through three years. It makes little sense to staff schools filled with the most needy students with young, idealistic teachers, hoping to live up to the Myth of the Super Teacher, but like many policies and status-quos in public education, it’s an entrenched and destructive pattern for all parties involved.  

The Power of Student Voice

Room 137

One of my goals in our Unleashing Digital Storytelling elective course is to help elevate student voice through authentic media creation.  Taking matters into her own hands, Kaylie created this video, highlighting a journaling/discussion activity we do in class and the poignant voices of some of her classmates.  Sadly, what teenagers and other students have to say, experience, and feel plays little part in the discussion of school and curriculum reform.   Much of the most powerful and effective writing that students have produced in my classes is related to their fears, dreams, worries, and interests.   If you enjoy this project, please comment, and I’ll be sure to share your responses with her!

*I did not create the idea of topic journals, as it states in the introduction.  During the Louisville Writing Project summer institute last July–part of the National Writing Project–I learned about the idea from a book by educator Penny Kittle.*

Thoughts On Writing Well

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

“All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.  It may be a problem of where to obtain facts or how to organize the material.  It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style.  Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved.  Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution–or any solution.”

On Writing Well, p. 49

It should be pointed out that I’m sitting comfortably, reclining in a cushioned chair, thoughtfully ruminating on what it means to write rather well and, on the whole, I’m somewhat convinced that this outstanding blog post will pretty much be an undeniable success in exerting massive, world-shattering influence on the blogging world, but I’m really not sure about that.

The previous sentence is purposefully convoluted.  I wrote it because I care about writing, I teach writing, and I need to step back and remind myself about what good writers do.  How they solve the problems and challenges inherent in certain writing forms and styles.  How certain sentences are crafted.  How, according to some writers, adverbs and adjectives often muddle sentences:

I’m still sitting in a cushioned armchair, considering what it means to write well.  I have no pretense that this post will be particularly influential.

That’s better.  But I’m still thinking about the above quote, and how its ideas play out every time I write a blog post.  Should I link to other sources?  Should I shift my tone?  Should I choose a different quote as an epigraph?  Framing writing as problem solving is something I’m going to emphasize with my students in room 137.  

I will tell my students that that is OK to start a sentence with but.  After all, who really believes that however or yet are more effective word choices if you want to make a clear, precise contradictory statement?   I will show them this post, and tell them just how many hundreds of little decisions I’ve made in writing this entry.  I will encourage them to read and imitate writers they admire.

I’ll tell them that since I care about writing, I’ve decided to reread books on writing.  Thanks to Annie Murphy Paul’s praise of William Zinsser’s classic nonfiction writing guide On Writing Well, I’ve begun to reread the book.  I’m playing with the ideas as I continue to sit in the armchair, reminding myself that writing one blog post a week may make me feel like I’m honing my skills, but that clockwork does little to keep me more aware of how I’m writing and blogging. 

I know I’ve got a lot to learn when it comes to the written word, and many bloggers aren’t as concerned as I am with the craft–that’s fine by me.   But isn’t blogging a wonderful way to deliberately write, gather feedback, and share ideas with others interested in Writing Well?

What are some of your favorite texts on writing?  What do you think are the best lessons to teach young writers about blogging and writing? What’s your writing process for your blog posts?