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How to fall in love with life!

November 6, 2014

If you want to be humbled, inspired, and mesmerized by a poetic story of love and devotion you must watch Kitra Cahana’sMy father, locked in his body but soaring free.  She is an artist who works in photography, text and video.  As a freelance documentary photographer and videographer, she loves to embed herself into communities to gain empathy with the people she studies.  Look at her work, but more importantly listen to her story about her father.  It set my head spinning about the importance of relationships, devotion, and the creative experience.  Kitra demonstrates the power of what can happen if we don’t give up on those we care for.  In addition, it tells the story of her father who never gave up, even when faced with insurmountable odds.

Here are some of her father’s words while struggling to gain control of his body:

There are many when low, who stop growing.  Last week, I was brought so low, but I felt the hand of my father around me, and my father brought me back.

What I learned from @josebowen, Goucher College President!

November 6, 2014

A recent interview with the new President of Goucher College appeared in Education Life, a section of this Sunday’s New York Times.  Not sure this section is really a game-changer in terms of content.  It is filled mostly with ads and short seemingly irrelevant articles from my perspective.  However, one article that I found interesting was the interview with José Antonio Bowen, Goucher’s President.  He seems like a leader who is looking to forge a new path, one that harkens back to a time when school was about the human relationships between students and teachers.  The title of his recent book gives you some idea of how he thinks about education, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning.  His background as a music educator, jazz musician, and long-standing professor of music provides a fascinating foundation from which to lead an institution of higher education.

Here are a few quotes that illustrate where Dr. Bowen’s focus is being targeted.

So If what faculty do is profess to students, their relative value has diminished. If we’re going to stay in business, we’re going to have to offer something of value that people will pay for, something that no one else does.  The most important thing is that students are actively learning in your class, that they have a reason to go.

Give students something to do before they come to class, and then when they get to class, make that assignment more complex. Teaching is not just getting the facts across to the students, but sharing the context and the complexity of what we know.

What if in addition to talking about the importance of 21st Century skills like the 4-Cs (communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration) we also talked about the importance of the 3 Rs (relationships, resilience, and reflection).

We talk about the three Rs: relationships, resilience and reflection. If you increase those things, students will learn more, and teaching content becomes less important.

I hear many educators talking about the importance of reflection in learning, but we almost never give our students time to reflect on what they are learning.  Reflection is a process for students to consolidate what they have learned.  It involves giving them time to make meaning out of the learning.

I found it particularly interesting in the interview when Dr. Bowen encourages us to think about teachers as “cognitive coaches” not sages on the stage.  He says:

In the old days, your value as a faculty member was that you knew more. Now you need to think of yourself as a cognitive coach, more like the trainer who says, “Get back on the bike, you can do it.”

Finally, in being a leader of innovation at Goucher, Dr. Bowen clearly sees his leadership and role-modeling as an important first step towards changing the cultural landscape.  As a risk-taker, he wants to lead the way for students and faculty to feel OK about failing, learning from one’s mistakes, iterating and continuing the journey towards that goal of continuous learning.  He says:

I think about myself as a curator of risk. I want to encourage more innovation, more risk-taking. We are medieval institutions. I’m talking to the faculty about how we might improve things, and the first thing we’re talking about is freshman grades. They add stress and I don’t think we need them. We need to be willing to try new things, even if they fail, because that’s how we get progress. And I’m willing to fail.

Words of wisdom from an informed risk-taker and learner!

#education and American Dream: Are we failing the test?

October 26, 2014

“It takes a village to raise a child.” African Proverb

Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece for today’s New York Times, The American Dream is Leaving America, that puts into perspective the challenges we face in American education if we intend to provide a bright future for every child.

He writes:

In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb education for elites, but we falter at mass education.

In particular, we fail at early education. Across the O.E.C.D., an average of 70 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in education programs. In the United States, it’s 38 percent.

I wrote a series of posts a few months back about early childhood education in the United States.

In these pieces, I try to make the case that our investment in early childhood education is a game changer.  However, it will take great courage on our part as a country to invest resources into the programs that work, innovate programs that are not making a difference, and create new programs that will help all children discover their potential and follow their dreams.

We have to transform a society that has lost respect for the teaching profession.  We scapegoat teachers for the problems in education and we build elaborate hierarchies that remove the decision-making further and further from educators in the classroom.  Politicians and educational policy makers have never been very good at solving complex problems, like those that exist in our public educate system.  We have to invest more in school leaders and teachers designing solutions to problems.  A model for this work is being implemented in Atlanta K12 Design Challenge.  See a recent post that highlights how design teams of teachers are using design thinking to solve for complex challenges in their schools.  This project is a public-private partnership between Fulton County Schools and private schools in Atlanta (click here).

Kristof lays out the challenge before us when he shares this observation of the data.

In some quarters, there’s a perception that American teachers are lazy. But the O.E.C.D. report indicates that American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad. Yet American teachers earn 68 percent as much as the average American college-educated worker, while the O.E.C.D. average is 88 percent.

Are we going to continue to invest valuable resources and energy into discussing value-added measurements for teacher evaluation, on boarding national high-stakes assessments, or whether charter schools are a good investment.  All of these are issues are mostly politically motivated and not concerned about the quality of learning available to each American child.  Let’s cut out the distractions and get down to the real issues of why our educational system is failing at least 25% of our children (those who don’t graduate from high school).

Again Kristof points to one of those challenges when he writes:

A new Pew survey finds that Americans consider the greatest threat to our country to be the growing gap between the rich and poor. Yet we have constructed an education system, dependent on local property taxes, that provides great schools for the rich kids in the suburbs who need the least help, and broken, dangerous schools for inner-city children who desperately need a helping hand. Too often, America’s education system amplifies not opportunity but inequality.

I for one am tired of our politicians doing little to address the growing gap between rich and poor or the inequity in our education system.  It is a story we have been reading about for the past 20, 30, or 40 years.  When will all of us get tired of this story being told?  I hope soon.  At least Kristof is trying to combat the tide.  Good for him!

At the Center for Teaching, we are trying to build public-private partnerships, like those in AK12DC, so that our schools are sharing best practices, learning from one another, and investing in the teachers’ creative talents.  This is our way of making a difference.

#AK12DC entering Phase II of the project

October 25, 2014

K12_Logo_FINAL copy


This was one of the first posts we shared on Google + to begin Phase I of Atlanta K12 Design Challenge (AK12DC).

We are now beginning Phase II of our project with eleven Atlanta-area schools, five public Fulton County schools and six independent schools.  Each school has assembled a design team of 5-7 faculty members.  Scott Sanchez, a Stanford faculty member, is our global facilitator who oversees a team of four leaders, six mentors, and eleven design team facilitators.

On our website at you will find the stories of each school’s journey to uncover a prototype that addressed their design challenge.  In Phase II, the eleven school’s design teams will continue to use design thinking as a process to gather more empathy and solve for their design challenge.

We have secured funding from local foundations to support our work.  In addition, one of the foundations has hired an evaluator to work with our teams throughout Phase II so we can validate the work and uncover what impact it is having on a school’s ability to innovate its practice using design thinking.

Follow our website as the journey continues.




“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

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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.


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