Clean Slate: Before

To get into the mood for back-to-school time, I thought I’d share what I saw walking into my new classroom for the first time.  Everyone loves a clean slate, even if it is a lot of work.  These will be the “before” photos, which I will supplement with “after” photos when I’m finished making it what I want it to be.  Of course, I will continuously post new photos throughout the year, since a dynamic learning environment never stays the same.

Here’s the view from the back of the room:


And the view from the front door, walking in:


The furniture and the technology are brand new.  This is a 1:1 district, also, so this is going to be an awesome year full of learning (for me), success, and achievement!  I can’t wait!

Notice that there is plenty of room to cut a large, rectangular opening in the ceiling from which I can lower the metal slab after lightning has reanimated my monster! It will be ALIVE!  Because you can’t have a functioning science lab without that. (My dad’s idea.)


No Objectives; No Standards

I’ve been taking a lot of brain trips through lesson planning and trying to visualize what certain things might look like before I start jumping into them next year.  As a simple example, how do I want to introduce myself to my students?  How do I want them to introduce each other?  Just running through the logistics in my head.  You all do that, too, right?

Here’s a tougher example–one that I’ve really been wrestling with this summer.  Follow standards, or follow competencies?  Guide students with objectives, or let them reach their own goals?  It’s so tough because I’ve heard lots of brave teachers and principals discussing project-based learning and authentic assessment, which are (at best) loosely aligned to state standards and are never planned around a specific and thoroughly thought-out objective.  And it hurts a little to deviate from the way that I was brainwa– er, trained to teach.

My best evaluations from administrators came when I had the day’s objective conspicuously posted somewhere in the room and I continuously referred to it throughout the lesson.  I even had a little strip with each standard written on it, so I could post the standards we were learning that day, and they fit right next to the objective.  I would give little informal quizzes at the end of the period to help me gauge mastery and the need for further learning of that objective.  It was all very classic, very textbook, and administration just loved it.

There was one person in the room who didn’t like the way it felt–me!  Sure, the accolades were nice and the pats on the back were reassuring, but my reflections made me feel like I had missed an opportunity.  There are so many times I have cut off a curious child who wanted to dig a little deeper into something; and there are many times when I really wanted to go in that direction.  But then I would look at the objective posted on my wall, which would remind me that we had to get on task.  We had an objective to accomplish!  So I became, at that moment, a cog in the wheel that Line Dalile described in her recent blog post, where she suggests that schools are actively killing curiosity in kids, right?

Now, I look back and I wish I had given all of my students the opportunity to go in a new direction.  I’ve had so many of those moments come up, where I wanted the students to think about something individually, talk about it as a group, and see where it all ends up.  No coaching, just a little bit of guidance to stay in the general field of the discussion.  But then I was stopped and reined back in by the objective on the wall.

Tell me some stories–both supporting and negating the idea of throwing objectives and standards in a desk drawer and letting the students’ competencies and curiosities take over.  Can’t we make the objectives much less specific and see how many different answers come from the same question?  Is there solid research here?  Let’s talk.

Statistics For All!

As a good introduction to this post, watch the following three-minute snippet from TED, featuring Arthur Benjamin.

In that short clip, Dr. Benjamin (yes, he really is a Ph.D., I looked it up this time) suggests that we wouldn’t be in the economic mess we’re in now if more American adults had a basic understanding of statistics.  Then, this article came out recently asking if algebra is necessary, which struck a nerve with many, many people from all walks of life.  One commenter on the article stated something (in an angrier tone than I will) that I agreed with: how can students appreciate statistics without a basic understanding of algebra?  And then, I’ll add a word: linear.

What this is really about is the lack of differentiation we offer to students.  Math is a notoriously cookie-cutter subject, with teachers, parents, and politicians chanting that all students must have calculus by their senior year in high school.  My question is: Why?

To back up a bit, let’s look at a little bit of general history. Keep in mind, the public education system has historically educated our people to the extent of the technological needs. For example, in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only necessary to learn the basic arithmetic that would help a farmer geometrically plan and maintain crops, be able to deduce and predict output from what he planted or grew, and be able to calculate in terms of decimals and money. In other words, the mathematical needs for the average 18th and 19th century citizen were, at most, roughly equivalent to the middle-level math we teach today.

As the Industrial Revolution began transforming our country (and the world), there was an obvious need for a more mathematical society. With the growing technological needs of the nation, the education system found a need to educate its citizens up to a (current) high school level. Engineering and manufacturing proficiencies became the new standards by which to match math education. Therefore, the studies of motion and forces—and therefore algebra and eventually calculus—became the pedagogical goal of the public school systems.



The Cold War boosted this need even further, as America strived to maintain competitiveness within an increasingly technological and scientific rival. It was calculus that got us to the Moon, the planets, and beyond (and created methods for launching fiery death around the globe). Thank goodness for calculus!

But it wasn’t for everyone. Not everyone had a hand in the travels among the stars or the planned annihilation of enemies, and those who didn’t still typically only achieved a 9th or 10th grade math education. In order to be part of an economy based on financial growth for the middle class, the skills needed were vastly differentiated, but they didn’t include calculus for much of the population. Those who did use algebra and calculus became proficient in using prescribed algorithms to reach a desired solution to a problem (or creating new ones for Wall Street hedge funds companies).

Which brings us to the present. We no longer live in a manufacturing or industrial world—to clarify, most citizens will not be working in the manufacturing or industry sectors. Calculus is still widely used in the scientific, engineering, and financial sectors. But most citizens in the 21st century now live in what the researchers call a “knowledge economy,” where a citizen’s worth is based on what that citizen can understand, analyze, predict, and conclude about a problem—and then solve that problem. This set of skills is becoming increasingly reliant on the tools and processes that citizens should learn in their K-12 and postsecondary education.  Included in that skill set, as Dr. Benjamin asserts, is the ability to think digitally.

The digital world runs on data.  Data is analyzed using probability and statistics.  Every citizen should know how this works and, vastly more important, how to make sense of it.  So the culminating event in a typical high school senior’s mathematical career should not be calculus; it should be a deep understanding of statistics.  If a student is on track to enter a STEM field requiring calculus, then by all means, offer that student high school AP courses in calculus.  For the rest of us, it’s essential that we not waste time (or students) on trying to force something that cannot be and should not be forced.

However, I also believe that basic linear algebra is essential.  Understanding how data behaves against a line of regression and calculating changes in that data is important.  If we teach Algebra I (or its equivalent) by 9th grade, then there is no reason our 21st century goals can’t be met.

Can You Teach Anything?

I remember working through my third year of teaching school at New Mexico Highlands University when I encountered a philosophy, which haunts me to this day.  After running a lesson for a middle school math class, with my supervisor and the regular teacher observing, I had a short feedback conference with both.  After our short conversation, the regular math teacher offered her background.  Out of nowhere.

She explained that she was actually qualified in science and computers, but taught math because this class–the one I had just taught–was an extra class that no one else wanted.  She said that even though she wasn’t qualified in math, she strongly believed that “any good teacher can teach any subject, even one that you know nothing about.”

“So you can teach advanced photonics, too?”

A little shaken up, I went to class that evening (I don’t remember which one) and asked my instructor about this.  She said, “Sure, you can teach anything with a textbook, worksheets, some videos…you know what I mean?”  I guessed I did.  It still smelled funny to me, though.  For instance, I hate Shakespeare.  I really do.  I’ve never made it through reading any of his work without falling asleep, and I find it all dreadfully outdated and totally unnecessary*.  Yet, according to the logic put forth that day, I could totally teach a whole semester of Shakespeare!  All I would I need are a bunch of Shakespeare books and to borrow some worksheets and tests from teachers who actually like that stuff.


*Maybe he just needs a little bit of modern flair.

So, anyway, I didn’t buy it.  And as I’ve gone through the school years teaching and learning, I’ve decided that there is a balance that must be met to be successful at making your students successful.  I’m assuming that by “good teacher,” my colleagues actually meant that if you are a “learning specialist,” you can get kids to learn just about anything.  I’m also assuming that they were trying to say that being a “content specialist” is mostly meaningless.  Needless to say, I disagree with what they said.

A couple of years ago, I was chosen from a candidate pool of middle school math teachers that was 83 people strong.  I was the only one chosen for the position because of one thing (and I quote my principal): I “showed great passion for making math accessible and fun and achievable.”  I think you have to be both a learning specialist and a content specialist to be able to accomplish fun, accessible, and achievable lessons.

My interview attire

To be a learning specialist, you have to have more than the materials necessary to learn–you have to understand how your students learn.  If my colleagues believe (and practice) what they said, then they were, by no means, learning specialists.  Middle school students are social animals.  Most of them (but not all) hate sitting alone and learning stuff from an adult (or textbook, worksheet, or video).  Give them the choice to learn from each other, and almost all of them will pick that over loner-learning any day of the week–and it will work, too!  They will learn, and most of the time, they’ll be happy about it!  Textbooks, worksheets, videos, and individual practice don’t work for these kids.  They want to collaborate and they want to do it all the time.

It’s important to be a content specialist, too.  Without the deep knowledge of the subject, how can you possibly tell when your students are reaching their achievement goals?  How can you possibly tell when they’re learning?  Besides, sometimes, it’s just fun to show off how smart you are in front of them.  It’s fun for me and mind-boggling for them.  There’s nothing wrong with showing off once in a while.  I do it to show them that the really hard and confusing stuff is fun for me, and more often than you’d think, they tell me later that they can’t wait to be able to do that stuff.

No, a “good teacher” can’t teach any subject.  In my individually-formed definition, a good teacher is a true learning specialist, who knows how his students learn and use new information, as well as a content specialist, who has deep knowledge and love for the subject.

I’ll never teach a Shakespeare course, because I’m not a content specialist.  Personally, I’d rather undergo an appendectomy a day.  The important thing is to recognize that I could never teach Shakespeare, not because of the pain it would cause me, but because of the pain it would cause my students.

“Friends, countrymen, etc., etc., lend me your ears, for parting is such sweet sorrow. Was that the bell?”

I sincerely hope that the colleges and universities around this nation aren’t spreading this terrible idea anymore.  For the sake of the kids.

You Talk Too Much (A Lesson in Tact)

In the classroom, we tend to take over the pace, the goal, and every little piece of the lesson—we planned it and we want it to go exactly as planned.  Again, that’s how we were trained.  My last school took part in a video pilot program, where we voluntarily collected videos of our lessons and used them to open discussions in PLC meetings.  This is the sort of thing I discuss in the preface of the book I’m writing, which takes an incredible amount of trust and courage—and an immense understanding of the concept of constructive criticism, and a willingness to accept it.

We watched a video of a teacher (who was in the meeting at the time) who had taught a well-planned and well-aligned lesson.  Blocks were about 80 minutes long, so to save time, we watched the lesson launch, the middle portion, and then the wrap-up.  When it was over, she asked for feedback; and she wanted honest feedback only, since she recorded her class in order to better her teaching.  I volunteered some constructive criticism, perhaps too quickly: “The short version is, you talk too much.”

She asked what I meant.


I answered, “There’s too much teacher talking.  I only heard a few kids answer low-level questions,” followed by a smile as charming as I could muster.  She wasn’t amused.  (In her defense, there hadn’t been any trust built into our professional environment. More on that later.)

The point I had made was that the students spent 70 minutes listening to their incredibly smart teacher explain things, let them work in groups, and then take over again, several times.  That’s exactly the way we were taught to do this job in teacher school, remember?  The problem is it’s not working.  Even in the low-quality video, you could see student after student disengaging and finding something more interesting to think or talk about.  You can almost hear the voices in their heads: “Well, she’s got this.  She doesn’t need me anymore.”

I could’ve been more tactful, I suppose.  My sense of humor(?) isn’t always appreciated.

Anyway, I defer to this blog article that says it way better than I can:


Where Do We Put the Middle?

In 1909, the first American junior high schools—grades 7and 8—opened in Columbus, Ohio, with the idea that there needed to exist a transition period between elementary schools and the college-prep years, known as high school.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The junior high model spread rapidly, with the intention of preparing students for the more complex world of high school by offering dedicated core classes, standalone electives, and sports.  By 1950, it was becoming widely accepted that students who were entering 6th grade needed to be removed from the confining curriculum and basic social structure of the elementary school as well and into a more “adult” structure.  In Bay City, Michigan, the first middle school opened and welcomed grades 6 through 8, a model that also spread quickly.  By the 1980s, almost every public middle-level institution was either a junior high school (7-9) or a middle school (6-8).

So, enough of the history lesson; let’s get to the new stuff.  There hasn’t been very much scientific research done on our nation’s schools that leads to data to compare the models.  The research that has been done is snapshot and leads to the assumptions that the 6-8 model is actually not very effective compared to the K-8 or the very few 7-12 modeled schools.  Unfortunately, much of the data from these studies is heavily weighted by standardized test scores, so take that as you may.  What I want to talk about is developmental readiness and where the middle fits in.  The rest is up to the serious discussions that must happen in a community of educators, parents, students, and leaders to determine what’s best.

Proponents of the K-8 model point to behavior as the biggest benefit of their school structures.  It is suggested that the presence of younger children keeps preadolescents “in check” and less likely to engage in inappropriate behavior, since they are basically serving in a role-model capacity.  This is an interesting and hopeful notion, but the evidence to support it is scant.  As any statistician will tell you, correlation doesn’t always mean causation, and not all K-8 schools report these correlations.

Others report that keeping young adolescents in the same building with the same “nurturing” environment keeps them grounded and less likely to become anxious about the big changes that come with starting middle school, which means more independence, more teachers, more homework, and the adjustment of a new system with new rules and expectations.  The evidence to support this argument is certainly anecdotal and, again, spread thin.

Critics of the K-8 model will generally refute the points I’ve listed above, using the arguments I’ve listed above, and I will list a few more reasons I’ve heard in a moment.  The K-8 school inherently teaches and treats these young teenagers as though they are, as Rick Wormelli puts it, “slightly more complex primary students,” which they are not.  The 7-12 model suggests that middle school students are “immature high school students,” where perhaps the upper grades peers will lead them by example (which, in my high school, may not have been a good thing).

What do you think?  Does your school incorporate a non-traditional model that is working (or not working)?  Does the middle school model work the way it is now?

Book Excerpt: Competition vs. Collaboration

By and large, middle schools are currently choked with the expectations of meeting AYP, showing high growth, and reaching arbitrary objectives as prescribed by state boards of education.  Teachers complain about the loss of creativity and fun, principals are closing arts and physical education in order to make room for interventions ordered by corrective action, and students are exhausted and bored.  Our current traditional middle school experience doesn’t lead to achievement; it leads to high-school dropouts and stressed-out adolescents.  That’s right: competition drives ultimate failure for too many of our kids.  It has to.  That’s how the system is defined—a few winners outrunning a majority of losers.  This has nothing to do with “kids these days,” since it’s always been this way, but with lower stakes.  This is a dangerous way to lead America into the global economy, and the powers that be don’t understand why that is or how to change it.

Instead of the “every man for himself” variety of competition, our goal will be leading students to thrive in the “every person for the team” competitive/collaborative model.  We have to start changing our middle schools to prepare students to become the adults they want and need to be.  That looks much different than what many people might think—it certainly looks different than what we’re seeing in classrooms now.

Teaching middle school is a research-based, yet heart-driven practice and it’s getting more complex.   Middle school educators and administrators are stuck in the power play happening between publishing and assessment companies and the politicians who feed them.  These people aren’t specialists and they aren’t (usually) educators.  They are businesspeople who are concerned with making a profit by raising test scores using their products.  This will not prepare students for the future—it will most likely have the opposite effect.

There is, thankfully, a large team of specialists who have the energy, the drive, the ambition, and the experience to reform our schools the way they need to be reformed.  That team should be moving us forward with the know-how that our students need and deserve.  That team is made up of the millions of students and teachers in this country.  It’s time to revisit—and restructure—our middle schools to prepare our students for high school, for college, for work, and for life.  Since we’ve seen that the “top-down” model hasn’t worked and will not work, let’s start from the bottom up. Let’s use our real, collective expertise to make a real difference in the lives of our students.  We got into teaching for this reason; it’s time to stand up, take it all back, and make it count.

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