Teaching at a public school in Philadelphia it feels crucial to design curriculum that allows students to deeply understand, and speak out about, changes that are happening in the School District of Philadelphia. This year my American Government classes began the year with an inquiry into the concept of democracy. This lead to an investigation of the relationship between democracy and education, with a focus on Philadelphia and the manufactured crisis facing our schools.

After two weeks of class research and investigation students created digital stories. (More details on the unit and the assignment can be found here.) The results are insightful, varied, and often poignant. The projects can be seen by clicking on the image below.

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Avoiding the Flop

October 5, 2014

[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

The beginning of the school year arrives with excitement, eagerness, and the potential for new beginnings. It does not take long for this initial surge of energy to wear off as students and teachers find themselves caught up in the actual routine of school. We can avoid this potential shift to monotony by creating and facilitating learning experiences that lead to passion, inspiration, and engagement.

Inquiry and project-based learning (PBL) are tools that help me decentralize my classroom and allow student work, ideas, and creations to take center stage. When I have planned well and can anticipate or intercept problems as they arise, the results can be incredible. I often feel that my students’ finished projects far exceed anything that I was capable of at their ages. At other times, a lesson or an entire project flops.

Similar to all teachers that I know, I have memories of times when I was trapped inside a unit (of my own design) that felt like it would never end. At times, I introduced projects too early in the flow of a unit and watched the students’ product fall far short of my expectations for creativity, content, and/or design. I remember class periods when students accomplished very little thanks to my lack of clear expectations, guidance, or modeling. At other times, I unintentionally rushed students and their workflow by not providing realistic amounts of time for them to complete high quality work.

While PBL and inquiry can transform classrooms into places of creation, meaning, rigor, and excitement, no aspect of teaching is rote. The creative dance of teaching involves constant planning, observation, and reevaluation. Educators I meet regularly ask about which point makes the most sense for introducing a project, or about how to begin inquiry. While at times we all desire specific tips and guidelines, the challenge is to remain connected to the reality of teaching as an art that requires constant adaptation and experimentation. (We should all be wary of anyone who tries to sell a formula for successful teaching!)

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Prioritizing Student Voices

September 10, 2014

[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

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I once taught a student whose self-confidence was so low that often, after submitting assignments, she would send several apology emails. Milly (not her real name) would write that she was sorry for the low quality of her work. (The work Milly submitted was generally excellent.) She was sorry for wasting my time with ideas that weren’t interesting. (Milly’s thinking was complex, and her ideas were regularly impressive.) Lastly, she would write that she was sorry for wasting my time with the previous apology emails.

A particular class period with Milly remains etched in my mind. Before class, I had scanned students’ drafts for a monologue project. Milly’s draft stood out for the depth of the character she had created and the dramatic tension throughout the piece. As students entered the classroom, I stood by the door and asked Milly if she would be willing share her draft with the class. Milly never made eye contact, but from the side of her face I could see the smile as she shrugged assent.

When I called on Milly to read her draft aloud, she left her slumped, seated position, where she normally spent much of her time staring down at the table, and stood to face the class. She kept her focus on the laptop screen in front of her and read in a voice louder and clearer than she had ever used in the classroom. Students applauded the draft and offered affirmations and ideas for revision. Milly’s body language alone made it clear that the process of sharing work and receiving widespread recognition helped shatter a piece of her shell and challenged her to see herself in new, positive ways.

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Over the past several days I’ve been reading over some of the teaching resources and ideas that have been published since the murder of Michael Brown and the militaristic police response to protestors in the weeks that followed. Rethinking Schools and The Morningside Center offer excellent curriculum ideas. My friend and principal Chris Lehmann has a thoughtful post on this and I was happy to see Nicholas Kristof’s recent column about race in the US. 

The reality of this country is that, for many, stories similar to what happened to Michael Brown are not uncommon. Many of my students witness violence in their neighborhoods on a regular basis. Many of my students have had or know others who have had negative experiences with law enforcement. Many have had experiences that lead them to feel that their people do not have a fair and equal place at the table.

It is the responsibility of teachers to design curricula that help students critically read and make sense of tragic, horrifying events in the public consciousness. It is also the responsibility of teachers to ask big questions which lead to inquiry and the development of larger analyses and connections.

We need to teach about race, violence, and oppression because of Ferguson. But these issues should already be an integral part of humanities classrooms. Classrooms need to be places where injustice is regularly acknowledged and examined. Space needs to be created for students to share stories and experiences in order to learn from each other and to understand their own realities more deeply.

The role of educators is to help students more fully understand themselves, their society, and their world. Our classrooms need to be places where justice is pursued, silenced voices are heard, and visions of transformation and change are nurtured.        



Looking Ahead

August 31, 2014


Last week we decided to replace our old dishwasher. After what must have been thousands of loads our trusty friend, who had always been loud, was becoming unruly. Once we turned her (or him?) on the only conversations we could have in the kitchen had to be yelled. Between cycles it (?) would let out a loud screech, similar to a car slamming on the breaks at the last moment. It seemed that he (!) wanted us to know that he was here even if he wasn’t going to be here much longer.

When the new machine arrived I slid it into the opening between the cabinets. My vision of a quick installation faded away when I realized that the electric connection had been cut too short for the new machine. After solving  that problem the first test run revealed a small leak in one of the water connections I had made. Thankfully we now have a working, dry, quiet, new dishwasher.

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