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“Under Four Trees:” A passionate principal and an engaged community are enough

October 13, 2014

Under Four Trees is a documentary film about Nkomo Primary School which was started under four trees in a small community in South Africa.  The Principal, Mrs. “Mama” Zikhali, is the inspiration behind the school.  She tells a story in this 3 minutes video that illustrates how learning happens with there is inspired leadership, caring teachers, and eager students.  All the other bells and whistles are nice but not necessary.  I saw the power of her vision and words when she described how under one of the trees is where her administration met and where they stored all their belongings. They clearly didn’t have much to store, but even so they have built a school that has life, energy, and commitment from parents.

For me this piece calls out the need to focus on what really matters in learning–a good, caring teacher and inspired, supportive leaders.  The rest is just icing on the cake.

Drew Charter teachers engage in #PLC learning with Jeanne Spiller

October 13, 2014

Evernote Snapshot 20141013 092617

Jeanne Spiller from Solution Tree is working with 50 Drew Charter teachers from grades 2-10 on learning the PLC framework.

She presented descriptions of four different schools:

  1. We believe that all students can learn, but the extent of their learning is determined by their innate ability or aptitude. This aptitude is relatively fixed and, as teachers, we have little influence over the extent of student learning. It is our job to create multiple programs or tracks that address the different abilities of students, and then guide students to the appropriate program. This ensures that students have access to the proper curriculum and an optimum opportunity to master material appropriate to their ability.
  2. We believe that all students can learn if they elect to put forth the necessary effort. It is our job to provide all students with the opportunity to learn, and we fulfill our responsibility when we attempt to present lessons that are both clear and engaging. In the final analysis, however, while it is our job to teach, it is the student’s job to learn. We should invite students to learn but honor their decision if they elect not to do so.
  3. We believe that all students can learn and that it is our responsibility to help each student demonstrate some growth in a learning environment that is warm and inviting. The extent of the growth will be determined by a combination of the student’s innate ability and effort. It is our job to encourage all students to learn as much as possible, but the extent of their learning is dependent on factors over which we have little control.
  4. We believe that all students can learn and must learn at relatively high levels of achievement. It is our job to create an environment in our classrooms that result in this high level of performance. We are confident that, with our support and help, students can master challenging academic material, and we expect them to do so. We are prepared to work collaboratively with colleagues, students, and parents to achieve this shared educational purpose.

Then she asked the participants to think about four questions:

  • Which school did you attend when you were a student in the grade level where you currently teach?
  • Which school would you want your “most important person” to attend?
  • Which school would students in your school say they attend if you asked them?

The conversation that took place in large and small groups, as well as the stories Drew faculty told about their experiences in school, were really powerful and revealing.  I could see teachers begin to shift their thinking and want to lean more towards the 4th definition.  Wouldn’t we all want school to be more like #4?

Four Strategies That Help Students Successfully Learn

October 12, 2014

Daniel Willingham, a prolific writer and thinker in the field of education, wrote an interesting article in the most recent edition of Educational Leadership.  Strategies That Make Learning Last explores Willingham’s four suggestions that if implemented will help students succeed in their academic studies.  He begins the piece by suggesting that conversation about research-based strategies has jaded our appreciation for a certain clarity that educational research offers into leveraging the classroom to support student learning.  In his article, he shares four research-based strategies that students and teachers can use in their efforts to learn.  What he doesn’t overtly say in the article is that if students are to successfully implement these strategies, teachers will need to incorporate them in their lessons and instruct students on how to use them.

Here are his four strategies:

Elaborative interrogation and Self-Exploration

Distributed Practice

Interleaved Practice

Practice Testing

He points out that the strategies students typically use when they study, read a chapter or book, highlight important statements, studying at the last-minute, and rereading highlighted sections, are not effective strategies according to the research.  At the University of Virginia, when he asks his psychology students if they were taught how to study int their secondary school, 80-90% say they were never instructed on how to study.  How many teachers in K-12 schools actually know the research on optimal study strategies and take the time to teach them to students?  I know I wasn’t trained or aware of what was best practice.  I think we leave it up to students to “figure it out.”  Some do and then some don’t.

In elaborative interrogation and self-exploration, Willingham explains students are taught to “consider the relationship between what you’re reading and what you already know (page 12).”  In self-exploration the student frequently explains to him or herself why ideas they are reading are justified.  The student allocates time to reflecting on the meaning and justification of the material being read.  The student is more deeply interacting with the ideas and concepts rather than “skimming” over them.  The point Willingham makes is that students need to understand the material they are reading before they can connect to its meaning and relevance.

In distributed practice, Willingham explains that distributing study time into short bursts for longer stretches is better than cramming all the time into one block before a test.  Cramming can be OK if all the student and teacher care about is having comprehension in short-term memory for the next day’s test; however, if the teacher and student want the understanding to be more enduring than distributing one’s studying over a longer stretch is more productive.

With interleaved practice, the student focuses on the whole rather than the parts.  The example Willingham uses is studying a vocabulary list.  Instead of focusing on one word at time until the student has mastered it, he or she should focus on the whole list, studying all the words in relationship to one another.  Many math textbooks are written in such a way that a chapter presents one concept with sample problems illustrating the concept followed by dozens of similar problems at the end.  If the student reads the chapter, follows the examples, and successfully completes ten problems at the end of the chapter, he or she has “mastered” the algorithm.  However, the student might be unprepared to reason through a novel problem requiring a different approach or a related but different algorithm.  Interleaved practice suggests a better approach would be to practice different concepts or approaches in the same lesson.  In this way, students’ minds are exercised in a deeper way.  They are being expected to think associatively, drawing connections between different concepts and having to decide when to use one approach versus another when solving a problem.

As I sit in Starbucks writing this post, I am watching a tutor working with a young boy.  She is having him develop a set of index cards on the material so that he can self-test.  Most of us are familiar with this strategy and have used it in our own schooling.  Willingham suggests that practice testing is a great strategy for learning.  He writes:

But rooting around in memory, trying (perhaps struggling) to remember something, is actually a great way to ensure that the memory sticks. (page 14)

He references studies which show that taking brief quizzes, using flash cards, and testing oneself are better strategies to embed concepts into memory than rereading material.  The value of these practice testing strategies is that they give students immediate and corrective feedback that help them learn.  Willingham points out that “it’s trying to remember that drives the practice-testing effect.”

In the final paragraph of the article, Willingham cautions that using any one of these strategies indiscriminately is probably not a good idea.  He advocates teachers using their instincts and personal experience, along with research-based strategies, to help students learn.

One takeaway for me after reading his article is that we have a responsibility to teach these techniques to our students.  It is insufficient for us to teach the material in class, assign homework, and assess them, expecting students will magically have the study skills needed to master the concepts.  Our role and responsibility extends to teaching them the research-based strategies that will help them be successful learners.  It demands that we become curious learners and understand and value these strategies.

@ATLMakerFaire, @Westminsteratl and @DrewCharter Rock the House!

October 5, 2014

Today was the second day of Atlanta’s Maker Faire, held in downtown Decatur.   You can follow Atlanta Maker Faire on Twitter at @atlmakerfaire.  Here is a list (click here) of all the “makers” who participated in the two-day faire.  Two of the participants were represented by students and teachers from Drew Charter School and The Westminster Schools.  Drew’s team was prepared to have lots of excited children and adults make scribble bots (click here).  Drew’s version of a scribble bot allowed for lots of creativity on the part of the maker.  Loved seeing the young children being mentored by Drew students.  The students designed the tent’s activity, ordered the supplies, and taught the exercise to the excitement of onlookers.  Great day for Drew Charter!

The Westminster School team had a building activity centered on their unique design of a wind tunnel.  I over heard a maker talking about another wind tunnel exhibit at the faire.  This person said Westminster’s was far more interesting.  The design thinking teachers at Westminster, along with students, and other Westminster volunteers staffed their tent for the two-day experience.  Lots of participants experimented with designs for the best aerodynamic flying object.  Some of the youngest participants had some of the best and most successful designs.  Lots of fun was had by all.  Great day for The Westminster Schools.  Here is a link to Westminster’s maker faire project (click here).

This was a creative day for parents and children in Atlanta.

As a follow-up to #hope, On Children, by Kahlil Gibran

October 3, 2014

As a follow-up to my post on hope (click here), I could not help but recall and read the poem, On Children, by Kahlil Gibran from his book the Prophet.

On Children
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

There is a part of me that believes the post on hope ties nicely to Gibran’s thoughts about children.  Again, I ask the question, what would school be like if this were our shared vision of how to educate children?  How would our schools have to change to become stewards of Gibran’s vision for children.

Engender #Hope: the vision and mission of K-12 schools

October 2, 2014

What makes a good school?  I have attempted to share thoughts on this question in a February 2013 post entitled, What qualities make for an ideal school or classroom?  One quality that I believe great schools embrace, but did not discuss in the earlier post, is the desire to create an environment in which all students’ thirst for hope is valued, nurtured, and actualized.

Thomas Aquinas has written extensively on the meaning and value of virtues.  His four cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.  In describing the virtue of courage he writes:

….For he will not only have to endure pain and suffering, he must aggressively confront the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving his proper good. His success in confronting those obstacles requires that he exercise a “strength of hope” which arises from a confidence in his own strength, the strength of others, or the promises of God. Such hope enables him to confront threats and challenges without reservation.  (1)

Aquinas sees hope as a path towards action.

What does a school that creates an environment in which all students’ desire for finding “their own strength” to “confront threats and challenges without reservation” look like?  I believe it values and embraces the following practices:

  • it honors the voices of all students.
  • it encourages students to take risks.
  • it builds a system of assessment that does not punish risk-taking.
  • it creates a system in which students adopt full responsibility for their achievement.
  • it rewards effort and a growth mindset.
  • it emphasizes competing with self not with others.
  • it builds a system in which students set goals and are accountable for trying to reach them.

You might want to add to my list.  Here is my thought about why developing and nurturing hope in every child is critical.  The expression of hope can be tied to five important ideas:

  1. hope cements bonds and relationships between people.
  2. hope is tied to a genuine concern for human nature and Earth as our home.
  3. hope strengths our creative energy.
  4. hope keeps the mind open to new ideas and expands the imagination.
  5. hope gives us courage to persevere when challenges arise.

Schools should enter into a pack with their students that when they graduate from 5th, 8th or 12th grade they will have experienced a learning environment that has helped them build hope for their future.  In order to accomplish that task, we (educators) need to fashion our schools to embrace the qualities that support hopefulness not helplessness.


(1) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, (c) courage, 3rd paragraph.

Is there #inspiration in Shining Eyes?

September 28, 2014

Benjamin Zander weaves a wonderful story that illuminates why we need to value every student. In Quaker philosophy there is a saying that a light shines in everyone . This Quaker vision is reflected clearly in the way Benjamin Zander speaks about Shining Eyes. In everyone, there is potential, goodness, or the capability to succeed and grow. How do we nurture the light that shines in everyone so their potential is realized? Watch Zander’s inspirational piece and I have no doubt you will look at a classroom of students through a different lens.


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