Thursday, July 2, 2015

Life Will Teach Them

I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (PBJs). As a child I was always in fear of missing out on the outside going ons of my neighborhood I would rush in the house, slap together a PBJ and then rush out of the house, sandwich in hand....apparently without tightening up the bread bag.

My parents were always making such a big deal about leaving the bag open. I would get  ear beating after ear beating about the stupid bread.

"Now the bread is stale! Now I have to run out to the store for more bread. Who wants to eat stale bread? I should make you eat the stale bread (that would have been fine, young me wouldn't have cared much). Breads not free you know." The lectures went on and on. I would mostly stare slack jawed and mutter "sorry" during lecture intermissions.

I would also hear something about jelly stained counters and peanut butter spackled knives being in the sink, but that was just an aside lecture. The main course lecture was the open bread bag.

My PBJ love continued through my childhood (and still to this day). I never did get a good routine of securing that bag while I lived at home. I had some good runs. I would get "I saw you made a PBJ today and secured the bag, thank you" type of positive reinforcements when remembered, but overall I had a huge losing record when it came to closing the bread bag.

Then I moved out on my own and times were lean. My bachelor days consisted of PBJ's for breakfast lunch and dinner. I came to appreciate good soft fresh bread and I also came to truly understand that indeed, good soft fresh bread was not free. To this day, I never leave the bread bag open. Why?, you may ask.  Did my don't leave the bag open lectures finally sink in? No, of course not. I buy the bread now and fresh bread is important to me. So I am now careful to secure the bread.

However, I frequently look at the first floor ceiling and scream at it: "WHO LEFT THE BREAD BAG OPEN?" One of my kids will typically respond "sorry dad."

Friday, May 22, 2015

Going to the Dip

I was hosting a get together one wintry Saturday afternoon. My brothers, sisters, their spouses , a few neighborhood friends and I were sitting and standing around the kitchen table, and through the course of small talk, the topic of education came up.

I and a couple other educators smiled while answering the typical questions: "No, the students are great, don't believe everything you read in the paper. Yes, they can be difficult but they are kids, Yes, it is true we don't teach cursive, I don't know how they will sign their checks. No, we don't exactly have spelling tests anymore. You got that right we can't paddle."

As the non-educators and educators alike started complaining about what we do and do not teach, how kids today don't talk to each other and they just stare at their phones, and how kids are handed everything, I couldn't take it anymore and I started leaking my frustration all over the room.

I began saying some of the things that I think concerning how public education needs to change to fit the kids instead of the kids changing to fit the school. I begged them to reflect on the last time they had to memorize a set of words in their job. I mentioned how I am not a great speller but "thank God for spell check.' I went into what adults actually do when they want to learn something (I am going to guess you don't sign up for a 6 week college course).

I was on a roll. I couldn't stop plus I am so accustomed to keeping all of my thoughts in that once I started talking it just seeped out of me. I brought out the big guns to combat the cliche "kids these days" rhetoric.

I asked the other educators if they had ever actually read what Dewey thought about how kids learn. I brought up Ivan Illich, Paulo Freier, Jean Lave, and John holt, stressing the point that these were some of the greatest philosophers of education. That most people have never read. I even quoted Tolstoy and went on a diatribe of how he ran a school and wrote quite a bit on how children learn. I started painting the picture that what all of these great minds believe to be the best way humans learn is the opposite of what we do in school. I mentioned how I am amazed that no one I know in education reads about the philosophies behind the profession they have devoted their lives to. I asked "how can we blame kids for this when...."

I stopped talking mid sentence, I noticed something- my brother and sister were dipping chips into the dip. . My other sister was yelling to her husband to make sure he fed the baby, and my sister in law was digging in her purse. Neighbor three houses down was looking at the game on the television and also enjoying some dip. I had stopped talking mid-sentence and no one.....even.... noticed, because they retreated to the dip to escape the craziness I was spewing.

Everyone went to school. It is one of the things that we all have in common. A shared schooling experience. Suggesting that the way we do school is not the best way kids learn just doesn't compute with people. I may as well have been talking about Bigfoot sightings or moon landing conspiracies. Forget the fact that some of the best minds who have ever studied how humans children learn, all come up with about the same conclusion. Forget that our system was built for the sake of efficiency and to produce compliant workers, not to produce critical thinkers and innovators. None of that matters. It is what we have all always done. It is what we know.

The tax payers can't imagine students not entering a building and then entering a small classroom, sitting in their assigned seats, be given information (that they have on their phones), hearing a bell, packing up, moving to another classroom, and repeating that process seven times a school day.

Mom and dad did those things and they turned out fine. Forget that they don't really remember the factoids from school. They got a decent job, they got a pretty house with a white picket fence, a dog named Spot and they had their 2.3 children... they did it- how can we tell them that today's children don't need to sit through the same type of schooling that got them where they are today? How can we get them to understand that the skill set today's kids need are totally different than the skill set of the past?  We need thinkers, creators, innovators. We don't need to make people that simply follow a set of commands.

We need teachers to be facilitators of thinking and resources to help kids solve real problems. We no longer need teachers to be the holders of secrets (information). Schools are no longer the buildings that hold the knowledge. We need to transform into an entity that helps students use the knowledge. We have to stop thinking cursive is important because that is how you used to write important letters for your boss. We... what? Yes it is french onion dip, I made it from a recipe I found on-line, thank you, I am glad you like it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of the Science Teacher

I thought it would be interesting to keep the few people that read my last blog up to date with the journey the Science teacher is taking (read my last blog for context). Here is all that I've communicated (via text messaging) with him this past week.

Through text messaging, I directed the Science teacher to my blog post from last week saying "does this blog post sound familiar?"  This was his text reply:

"I think I know a guy just like that. That's a pretty accurate depiction and seeing it described like that does make me feel a lot better (thank you). 

The biggest challenge is in helping the students (who have very little experience with power) learn how to use their power productively in my classroom. Its rocky at times, and smooth at others. But its never perfect (100% of students engaged 100% of the time). 

My biggest fear is that other adults use those really rocky times to validate their cynicism. I see how important it is to persist when we've had a bad day, or too much off task behavior. I want to model that persistence for my students and I don't mind if they see me struggle at times. Its a work in am I are my students. 

So some days it falls short of my vision and sometimes the other adults shake their heads and roll their eyes. But I'm very confident that my students are meeting the learning goals dictated by the curriculum and many are taking opportunities to go beyond those goals. Its definitely worth the trouble and angst." 

(I then swore him to secrecy about my blog handle etc...etc...)

In another text from this Science teacher he states:

"Project based learning is where its at. Damn these common assessments though. During the 'acquisition' phase when the kids learn all the facts for the test, overall engagement is much lower than during the project phase. I really wish I could throw out all the tests and do projects every day."

I responded with a simple "Yes!" Then I sent him a link to a blog post that says so eloquently things I haven't been able to communicate well.

He responded several days later:

"Read some of the Rivers article. Its long. Ill finish it later. One of my students told me that my classroom is like Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. I never saw the movie but Ill take that as a compliment. Also, a seventh grader who comes to my room for Scioly (Science Olympiad Club) wrote on my board "Welcome to Mr. ____'s classroom where dreams come true."

Hahaha! This all has very little with what I do. It has more to do with what I REFUSE to do. It is really strange to me that students compare the little bit of power and freedom I give them to magic and dreams.

I know they are being hyperbolic but I think they mean to be sincere. Does the rest of their day suck so much that the 43 minutes absence of sucking makes them happy?"

I replied, "Does the rest of their day suck so much that the 43 minutes absence of sucking makes them happy?" ...Yes!

A few days later I told him that I have been getting to know one of the 7th grade teachers better. I said:

 "I've mostly been talking about sports (he coaches one of my kids) but I've been dipping my toe in about education. I think I am going to start working on him. Perhaps give him a peek into the rabbit hole."

The Science teacher responded:

"He'll be a tough one to win over, it will be a good challenge for you. I might be wrong though. He might be more open minded than I give him credit. My impression is that he doesn't think about school when he is not at school. I could be wrong."

I said:

"He is open minded about some basic stuff like using devices in school and that sort of thing, but he is big on being the BOSS!"

The Science teacher replied:

"What was I like four years ago when you started working on me?"

I said:

"You liked kids but you were the boss, but you were open to anti-conformist type ideas."

He replied:

"Yep. I went through a 'boss' phase and I was very typical for my first ten years. But I did conform to the adult expectations. And I was very resistant to you at first. I liked the feeling of thinking I knew what I was doing and that was really hard to let go of."

Have a great week everybody and GO EAGLES!!!!!


Saturday, November 8, 2014


I know a science teacher who loves working with kids so much that he becomes depressed every June knowing that his current group of 8th graders are going to be leaving the middle school. This Science teacher has more high school kids come back to visit him than the rest of the staff combined.

Whats so special about this science teacher? He treats the kids like people. He talks with them like they are equals. He sits with them at lunch. He removes the authority boundaries in his classroom. He gives them freedom, as much as the system allows, during class.

This Science teacher stays after school with anywhere from 10 to 30 students four days a week so that the students can work on science projects for various regional and state science competitions. "If you really want to do science you have to stay after school," the teacher often says to me with a grin.

When you walk by this science teachers class it is messy. Kids are in the hall throwing balsa wood airplanes, testing mousetrap cars, or working on the computer to learn the mandated "content." Inside the room kids are everywhere. They are in the corners measuring levers, gluing, cutting, revising and testing. It is loud. It is chaotic and many traditional teachers in the building hate it and suggest that the "inmates are running the asylum" (real quote).

I visit often. I talk with him often. I try to relieve his angst often.
What does he have angst about? Two things usually.
The lesser of the two is the few judgmental adults. The adults that make comments. The adults that judge him passively and not so passively. The adults that remind him that their job is a bit harder because they have "rules" that need to be enforced in their rooms and its difficult "when they come from your room."

Forget the fact that we have more regional science winners than ever before. Forget the fact that our kids are truly believing again (like they believed when they were much younger) that they like science.
None of that matters. What matters to these few angst causing adults is that the kids are harder to control due to the Science teacher giving the kids some control.

The main area where this teacher has angst is in figuring out how to engage the students. How to create an environment where all of them are in a totally absorbed state of mind without even realizing it. How does he get the kids looking and acting like a group of kids enthralled in a video game....while at the same time meeting the expectations of the institution?

How does he convince the kids to learn for the sake of learning while at the same time saying "clear your desks for the test?" How can he best keep the flow of the learning going while also making sure they know the vocab words that are on the common assessments and state tests?

I walk in this classroom nearly everyday, but when I walked in towards the end of one of his classes this past Wednesday the teacher was sitting down with the students and asking them, imploring them to help him figure out how he can engage ALL of them.
"When you think about learning, when you think back to the times that you were really motivated, what types of things were you doing?" He asked them.

A student answered, "friendly competitions." Many other students perked up at this answer and chimed in "Yeah, like jeopardy type games, where we collaborate for the answer and stuff."

"Or like when  we made those Rube Goldberg machines and we were trying to beat the other groups."

The bell rang and I stayed to debrief with the teacher about the conversation he just elicited.
He told me, "before you came in I was telling the students I really needed them to stop worrying about grades, and they told me "we have been taught since kindergarten that the most important thing is to get an A."

"Yep," I said. "getting the right answer and the importance of an A is pounded into them at school and at home."

I continued, "what I realized, as the students were talking with you, was that they didn't even comprehend what you were asking them. They can't separate learning from a test. So when you ask them how can they be engaged they simply think about ways they are motivated to learn for the test.
Kids want the answer to "why are we doing this." For some the motivator is simply for the grade. For others the motivator is, "to win the game," or, "so I don't get in trouble," There are some that jump right in just for the sake of learning something new....but I don't think there are a lot of those kids."

Of course, saying this to the Science teacher caused him more angst. "I don't know what I'm doing." He responds. "I don't know how much longer I can do this. School keeps getting in my way."

"That means you're doing it right," I replied. "Its the people that have it all figured out that I worry about. The kids love you, and they respect you because they know you respect them. Plus, they love science again."

"Yeah, but next year when they visit they are going to tell me how they are getting their teeth kicked in because Science is so hard. Am I doing them a disservice by not preparing them for that?"

"We don't need to prepare kids to deal with things that suck. They had many classes that required them to sit, study, and regurgitate before they ever had your class. You are showing them what Science in school can be...and we never know which of your students may grow to be teachers themselves. Perhaps they will model your class."

"Thanks bud." He said, "But, I don't know what I'm doing."


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Find Your Own Way

As I struggle to get to know myself better. As I continue to spin on the same topic year after year, I realize, looking back, that I have grown tremendously. When I first came down with this disease called "education angst," I was so angry. I took to blogging but I stopped because my words were venomous. I was judging in the wrong places. I was name calling, and I was confused. I needed to figure me out. I needed to step back and watch me. Watch my triggers. Watch my responses. Why was I mad at teachers? Why was I mad at parents? Why was I mad at principals and superintendents? Why was I mad at myself.

It was so much easier when I thought what everybody else thought. It was so much easier when I was in the Matrix (as I like to call it).

I am no longer mad at people. I understand people better now, but I still get really frustrated.  I know why all the aforementioned continue to work in this system of contradictions. Tradition, indoctrination, group think and, (the one I have trouble with the most) they continue because they simply think its the right thing to do.

Friends, fellow twits, colleagues, and family members have been dealing with my constant education dialogue for over five years now. Some of these people smile and nod, others continue to listen and help me with my thinking, and others challenge my thinking. Yet many still say "so, do something about it, put up or shut up! stop complaining and make something happen." Comments like these always struck a nerve. I wasn't quite sure why it struck a nerve. My "Psyche 101 self," thought it struck a nerve because those people were right. "Complaining is easy Sis, fix it."

We adults have a tremendous need to shut up and do something about it. Anything, so we can wipe our hands and say , "there, I fixed it...whats next?" Dissonance doesn't feel good. When it presents itself we want to put it away in a box as quickly as possible. The best way to deal with dissonance is to create a solution. Any motion is better than no motion.

We do that with kids all the time. We create "plans" for kids that are struggling in school. The underlying problem isn't fixed but we did something. We created a behavior plan, we put up anti-bully posters, we gave a detention. Problem presented, action taken. Done.

What I have come to realize is that I am doing something. This is what I am doing. I am talking about it. I am spreading my views to others. I am pointing out what I see and each of you who has received my thoughts does something also. Some of you change a little piece of your class. Some of you have changed huge parts of your class. Others have investigated Democratic schools. Some have muted me, blocked me, and bad mouthed me. I know all of this to be true. I have made an impact.

A few people have told me what I need to do. "You should quit!"

"You should work at a charter school or a democratic school," other people have said.

"You need to do what I am doing, and exactly as I am doing it," one person has told me while also harshly judging me for not taking her advice.

"You should come to peace within the system and do what you can within it," a close friend suggested.

Others desperately want to know what they should do. They want to do the right thing. They got into education because they like to serve people and suggesting that they are contributing to doing children a disservice creates great dissonance.

"Ok, they say in frustration," I get it!, but what should I do? What should we do?"

This question always stumps me. Until today. On my mountain bike ride.

Why do I need to tell them what to do? Why? There is no one right answer. Each of you do what you can do. Why do many of us just want to be told what to do? "Whats the right thing? Whats the best thing? Tell me. Please tell me."

No! I can't tell you, and you can't tell me. Because if I told you then I took your brain away. I took your unique contribution away.

You must find your own way, and I must find my own way. Good luck to us both... we need it.


Monday, August 19, 2013


When a teacher gives an assignment it really doesn't matter if the teacher finds value in the assignment, it only matters if the student finds value in it.
When a person is given an assignment. That person usually knows already if they are going to do the task well, good enough, or not do it at all.
If they really want to do the assignment and the assignment has intrinsic value, then the assignment will be done well and with passion.
If the person doesn't want to do the assignment but their is an extrinsic reward that is important to them, or a punishment that dreadfully wants to be avoided, then the person will do it and it may or may not be done well. It may just be get it done.
If the person doesn't mind doing it and the extrinsic rewards are also so-so- then the person may do it and it may be done well or so so
If the person doesn't care about the assignment and the extrinsic motivators are irrelevant- then the assignment won't be done.

If you are a person that defines themselves as someone who always does things well, If part of your personal narrative is "I am awesome at everything that I do", then all of your assignments are probably done well regardless of the assignment's value to you.

IN the same category as the "I do everyting awesome" is the "people pleaser." If you are a people-pleaser, then you will do any and all assignments well to once again feel that you are worthy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Content is Irrelevant

"Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they fill stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy."
Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451
I fear the above quote is happening. Ray Bradbury wrote this in 1953, and it would appear that the future he predicted is metaphorically becoming true.

We still focus on teaching content. We still give students dates to remember, names to memorize, and statistics to write down on a fill in the blank test. The fact is it is easier to give information than the alternative. Feeding kids facts, procedures, laws, dates, names of states and countries, is easier than having kids think. Having kids wonder about a certain concept, idea, law, human emotion and debate, explain analyze and reanalyze. When kids have to think, when kids are engaged in a dissonance filled debate, the teachers don't know how to grade that. The kids didn’t produce anything. How do we put their thought process to a rubric (oh, we try) how do we put an artifact in a portfolio when we end up with no artifacts at the end of the class? How can we make a test that could be graded right or wrong? How do we, as the teacher, validate our jobs? The public wants what the public wants. No matter how stupid. The majority of parents want to know if their kid learned about the civil war faster than the other kid. Did little johnny properly label the time line of WW1? Is my kid able to graph an inequality, whatever that is, better or at least as well as the other kids? They equate it all to a football game (or soccer if you’d prefer). How is my kid competing? Because this is the mindset of society, because we can’t get away from the accumulation of facts as a measurement of schooling success. That is the reason we continue to struggle.

My daughter recently got a low score on map assignment. She was given an outline of North America and told to copy all the information from page 12 of her text onto the outline. Color everything as presented on page 12 and transfer all icons of landmarks etc... She missed some landmarks and she forgot to add some icons- thus the low score. She was to be able to draw this no later than Tuesday the 13th. That was the most important part of the assignment. Can you complete this task by Tuesday?

Why do we do this? Is it just plain easier for a teacher to do? Can we, as teachers, really not think of a more meaningful way to teach Geography? What is the purpose of turning kids into office copying machines?

Are we so driven by the state's standardized tests that we try to shovel as much "non-combustible data" into their heads in hopes that they will perform well and then we can also safely say..."we did our jobs?"

It doesn't make sense to me. Does it make sense to you? Are you using old stand by answers? "Your daughter needs to be more detail oriented. She is learning to take her time and be diligent. We have due dates in real life, she is learning the importance of completing tasks on time." I am not buying those stand by answers at all and I view them as rationalizations to a lazy and easy assignment.
I know people in real life. I know how due dates get pushed back. I know how missed details get pointed out and then they go back and add in the missed detail. The vast majority of things in life can be “retested,” re-submitted and improved upon. Why do we have this black and white type of grading? Type of expectation? Because it is easier?

The truth is....

The content we teach is really irrelevant. I don't think it becomes relevant until a person decides on a career they wish to pursue. A marine biologist needs to know the content in his/her field, I want my doctor to deeply understand and to know his content area, and I am going to guess (and Democratic schools can validate), that once a person decides on "what they want to be," the content will be easily absorbed due to the inherent motivation.

However, when we are dealing with young curious minds, our goal should be to engage students through questions. Allow students to explore ideas, question the status- quo, debate philosophies, and delve into sociology and to understand the human condition. The human condition can be explored through literature, history, science and math. The content will be there but it will be as an aside. It will not be the main dish.

Different sets of content can be used, manipulated, and discussed as part of a process while students are wrestling with a problem. A student found, led and solved (or never solved) problem will have much more meaning and significance then a teacher demanded problem. The content the students use while struggling with it and diving deeply into it...does not matter. Like life, the substance will be in the journey, the lessons learned will be through the struggle, and the content learned will be a byproduct of the entire process.
If we truly think that we as adults know what future information the kids “must” know then we can use that content as the fodder for debate. We can use that content as what they wrestle with? However, we don’t need to test it. We don’t need to concentrate on the content its self as proof of learning. Do we all really not realize that the vast majority of the tests we took in school we would now fail? Do we really not think back and ask ourselves why we had to learn that stuff? It didn’t matter and it still doesn’t matter.
I watch my kid debate with friends over some (what I consider) stupid stuff. The pros and cons of the newest video game. The reason behind Batmans angst. Why it is not cool to be a hipster or why it is cool to be a hipster. In watching their discussions I am more worried about how they go about the debate. Are they putting valid facts behind their reasoning? Are they hearing the other person’s argument or are they just shouting over the other person? Do they have eloquence in their explanation? Is their passion behind their words vs. condescension? Are they willing to be wrong? Are they politely disagreeing? Those are important skills in the real world. Those are the things businesses want an employee to be able to do. I am quite sure the business does not simply want someone who has the ability to memorize procedures, protocols and facts. Who can’t do that?

Why don’t we have phone booths anymore? We don’t have phone booths because we now have phones in our pockets, which means we don’t need phone booths anymore. What else is on our phones? All the content you could ever want to know about is on our phones. Then why do we still go to school as if that is where the content is? When are we going to start going to a place that helps us use that seeminlgly infinite amount of content? When are we going to stop thinking the goal is learning content and realize that the goal is using content effectively? Remember, what we focus on we focus on and right now we focus on the tests and the tests focus on the content.

We adults have to let go of our expertise. The Internet is a greater content expert then any one teacher we have. We must stop thinking ourselves so important, and stop taking our subject content so seriously. We must instead adapt to the role of guide, facilitator and fellow learner.

We adults need to place our passion in the wondering aspect of our subject matter. How does our subject matter connect to the human condition? What is the bigger question that students can relate to, and how can the teacher guide the students through growth and understanding?

Brilliance isn't determined by the amount of information stuffed into a person's head. Brilliance is found in the person who has found ways to deal with information in  productive, useful and creative ways.

How are we going to help make Ray Bradbury just a good story teller instead of the prophet he seems to have become? How do we cause people to actually move instead of just giving them "the sense of motion?"