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? 

“I like knowledge, but I don’t like school,” says a student.

No Stone Unturned

The following post first appeared on my Bluegrass Dispatches blog for Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) on September 25th, 2013.  The blog focuses on questions, issues, and solutions surrounding the Common Core State Standards and School Redesign.  CTQ has an impressive array of teacher leaders and voices at the site–check it out!

I’ve cringed when I’ve heard students in the past make discouraging remarks about other classes, and if you’ve spent any time in the classroom, you’ve inevitably heard both positive and negative reviews of your colleagues. These informal reviews are often spot-on, a contention Amanda Ripley argues in The Atlantic, as strong evidence exists suggesting students are the best evaluators of teaching effectiveness.

But what about student voice regarding general school reform?  Is it possible student insight should be considered more as we redesign schools, classrooms, curriculums, and policy?  

Obviously, students don’t have master’s degrees in Education Leadership. Students generally don’t study pedagogy, read Education Week, or converse online about education-related debates. But they do know what is most engaging, impactful, and inspiring in schools. After all, they’re the subjects of countless lab experiments, so to speak, all with wildly different results.

I asked some of my students from Fern Creek High School in Louisville to discuss what changes they believe would be beneficial to schools. All of the students have, at some point, been frustrated with a “sit and get” model of education, and they didn’t prepare their responses.  

Listen by clicking here.  

What strikes you most about their words? For me, what’s alarming is their perception of a lack of student choice in course selection, in addition to a dearth of creative opportunities.  

As we plow ahead with implementing the Common Core Standards, it’s imperative that we design instruction to allow for discovery, creation, and action.

At Fern Creek, Brent Peters and Joe Franzen have designed a dynamic English III course centered around food, with students beginning each instructional unit facing a big question leading to critical inquiry, intensive writing, and hands-on learning: What is good food?Is food sacred?, and Is school lunch saving our generation? are among the questions students tackle. The class is a hit with the kids.

As for me, I’ve attempted to exploit the open-ended language of the CCSS to allow for student discovery, creation, and action as well, designing a digital media course titled Unleashing Digital Storytelling.

Can you imagine a school system that listens more to students?  What are some pros and cons to this approach?

Nothing Compares to Being a First-Year Teacher

Classroom Tales from the Archives

“A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway.  On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window.  A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss.  I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game.  No consequences.”

When I reread the following essay I wrote over eight years ago about my first-year teaching in 2004-2005, I’m still shocked.

I’m shocked I stayed in the teaching profession after resigning from this job.  I’m shocked that somebody thought it’d be reasonable for a first-year teacher to endure and persist working in an absurdly stressful and, at times, dangerous environment.  I’m shocked–even angry–that there are schools like this across the country, where populations of highly troubled and needy students are corralled into schools staffed with mostly inexperienced teachers.  Right now, we don’t have the political will to treat certain groups of students differently in order to give them reasonable hope for adult and career success. 

Regardless of where you teach, the first-year on the job will inevitably be one of the toughest undertakings of your life.


Standing in front of the 8th grade class, my heart palpitated to near panic-attack speed as I watched the molasses-slow second hand of the clock.  Please bell—ring early, I prayed.  It was my second day of teaching middle school, and the boys were putting me to the test. 

In the span of three minutes, the boys had gone from contained to out of control.  Two students were shooting dice in the back of the room, and while I told them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shiny new basketball shoes.  They began tossing them around like ill-shaped footballs.  Before I could react, one boy successfully broke into my supply closet.  He snatched handfuls of No. 2 pencils and yellow highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

The bell soon bailed me out, and I survived the last periods of the school day—somehow—and eventually staggered out a back entrance and across the faculty parking lot to my car.  I fumbled for my keys, started the Honda up, and headed toward the freeway to return to my sparsely furnished apartment.  I should have screamed in frustration or cried tears of self-pity while on the expressway.  But I did neither—I suspect I was too numb from the day to have any emotional response.

Just three months prior, I had been enjoying a care-free senior spring of college in the bucolic hills of Vermont, taking advantage of local swimming holes, hiking trails, and barbecue opportunities with friends.  To say I was content would be an understatement.  Life was wonderful.  Plans were set to move to Kentucky and teach middle school for at least two years.  I was eager to face the challenges of urban public education.

By the beginning of summer, I had resettled in Louisville and was enrolled in an alternative teacher certification program.  I had roughly two months to prepare to teach 8th grade boys’ language arts.  While I was well-versed content wise, I had no experience with classroom management.

Things got slightly better for a while after I toiled through the opening days.  I gained the respect of some students, learning on the fly that conventional means of educating wouldn’t work with this group of belligerent kids.  Operating within a school culture that tolerated extreme student misconduct, I had to battle fire with fire.  At one point, I challenged a student to fight me in front of the class. 

If I had to be unethical to reach the point where I could actually teach, I’d do it—let the ends justify the means, I told myself repeatedly.  I wanted to “leave no child behind,” and was determined to overcome a nearly impossible situation.  I stepped outside myself one morning to shatter a wooden paddle across a desk, sending splinters flying everywhere, then delivered a passionate 20-minute tirade to my most unruly class.  Controlled explosions didn’t become routine, but they were one of many reluctant strategies I employed to try to get the job done.  I started to make some progress, but was often derailed from potentially engaging lessons by a number of frustrations.

When I did gain control of the classroom, external forces almost always seeped into my room, seriously disrupting student learning.  Roaming students might barge in unannounced to taunt boys in my class.  Students would daily come to my room after spending two hours with a substitute teacher, hardly in a good frame of mind to sit down and focus.  Some days, I was hardly teaching but 25% of the time; I was babysitting, containing mini-riots, and policing.  A steady occurrence of shocking behavior further inhibited my ability to instruct. 

A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway.  On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window.  A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss.  I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game.  No consequences.

Not one horrific event got me thinking about resigning, but after about three months the reality of the situation started to take a significant mental and physical toll.  I felt constantly in a daze, and my neck and shoulders were knotted up with immense stress.  I was at a crossroads—do I stay, or move on to something more manageable?  It had come to the point where, even if I was able to make measurable progress in the classroom, the little gains came at too great a cost to my mental and physical well-being.

What ensued was the two absolute toughest weeks of my life.  I endured some near-sleepless nights and a constant preoccupation in my brain—I just couldn’t tune out the question of resignation.  I consulted family, friends, and colleagues, letting them know how I was feeling and seeking out advice.  What I needed to do soon became clear.  I resigned the day before Thanksgiving.   

Making the decision to leave the job was the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make, but I know it was the right one.  Not succeeding wasn’t my fault, and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort.  I had been tossed around by negative forces way out of my control.

Substantial systemic change is necessary if we, as a nation, are truly committed to providing quality education for those who need it most.  I haven’t given up the commitment to help others, but am unsure if I will resurface in urban public education.  What I do know is that if I teach again, I hope I won’t feel like every child is being left behind.