The Learning Curve is a Circle

In my short career as a full-time teacher, I have discovered that the idea of learning the curriculum and settling down to teach is a fantasy of a by-gone era.  This is true for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I have yet to “settle down” myself into one grade level. That, I hope, is going to change and I can at least know where I will live at school for a while.

With that being said, what we are defining as curriculum has changed. In the No Child Left Behind years it was “I know what the reading, math, science and social studies TEs want me to do and the pace the district wants me to teach these subjects. I have developed activities and projects to go along with it. Done and done. Send forth the students.” Right? You could develop a master plan and play on repeat for years with little tweaks here and there.  After a few years in one grade level, you were a master.

Then something happened. Universities and Corporate America were irritated that our top-scoring students and the workforce had no idea how to think critically, to create innovative products, to work collaboratively with their collagues or to communicate effectively with their cohort and/or global partners. The “best and brightest” students and the workforce wanted to be told exactly what to do and how to do it. The problem was that the world changed while no one was watching, and the we were not equipped with the skills the world needed. When that happened, all eyes turned on teachers with an accusatory glare.  As if.

So here we are, in the 21st Century, with newly defined learning goals that have reading, writing, math, science and social studies embedded within them, but are not defined by them. We have a new definition of literacy that includes coding and effective use of social media. We have students who live in the fast-changing world, not just neighborhood and are so used to getting their needs met instantly that rigor and failure are not something that come to school with having muscles for.

What does that mean to me, as 21st Century teacher? It means that there is no “learning curve” to becoming a master teacher. It is a circle. My primary teaching tools are not textbooks and pacing guides because they will not provide my students with the skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration or communication.  My role has changed from dispenser of information to guide, and the people “on my tour” constantly change as does the landscape out the window.  The tools I have at my disposal for guiding seem to be innumermable with varied levels of efficacy – more and more being “sold” to teachers all the time. It is exciting and confounding trying to make sure that the tools are more substance than flash, that they are learning and expression tools and not just gimmicks.

The biggest challenge, I believe, is to help students quiet down the inner noise and discover the great questions – the questions that they wanted answered incessesantly when they were three years old: “Why? What if?”  Our textbook, memorize and repeat system has “schooled” the very skills our students arrive with and need to succeed in our modern economy right out of them. It sure was easier, in many respects, to teach students how to work in the widget factory than to teach them for unforeseen the jobs of the future.  And as long as the world keeps up its pace of changing, I will have to keep up with it. The learning curve is without end. That is exciting, friends.


Letting Go

May is getting ready to close it’s doors, so if I don’t move fast I may get my fingers slammed in the hinges.  By now we’ve been learning, growing, creating, loving, coping, flipping, dabbing and figeting together for nearing on 180 days.  We have had nine students move on from us and seven find their way into our classroom family. We are tired and ready for a break but not really ready to let go.

I know this is true because all the tell-tale signs are there: anxiety is up, hugs are constant, new “behaviors” have popped up, and some students have flat-out asked to be held back so they can stay with me.  Change is hard.  I try to remind them how scared they were to come to fourth grade and leave their favorite teacher. “But now YOU are my favorite teacher!” they argue.  Here’s a secret I tell them, “You will find your favorite teacher every year.”

I think they have figured out that I don’t relish letting them go. Hugs are longer and tighter, and the “pep talks” are given with more gravity and misty eyes.  I have to trust I did everything I could for them this year academically and social-emotionally, that their tool box is packed.  I hope that no matter where they end up, back on our campus or on a new adventure, they look back on fourth grade as a great year and their teacher as someone who loved them and always wanted the best for them.

Four more days of memories to make, then I have to let them go.

Miles to Go Before We Sleep

This year could have been the death nell of my career.  The academic, social and emotional needs of my students overwhelmed me.  Throughout the year, I found myself reciting the final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Perhaps that is why my sleep tracker tells me that I average about 3.5 hours of sleep per night! If only it would track the miles we have gone.  They were uphill, meandering and often felt as though they were being travelled in knee-deep snow.  For most of the miles, next to my footprints you will see a trough, the rut caused as I drug one of my students alongside me against his will. So many times I wanted to stop and leave him behind, my energy zapped and my heart broken.
The places the rut disappears and changes to foot prints are the times he was working on his Genius Hour project, reading a book on Epic!, coding, making a book trailer , on a VR adventure or doing a STEM challenge. Those were the times that he could forget how he defined himself as a student: incapable. Any mention of “Yet”, “Growth Mindset”, “personal learning goals”, would shut him down completely.  He wanted none of it. He said to me “Not listening to you and not trying to learn is easier than trying and failing.”
Reading through his files, I could see how he arrived there. His educational journey had been fraught with struggle in every way. There are Individual Learning Plans, Behavior Contracts, and report cards which illustrate that neither the former nor latter had any effect on improving his outcomes.  Arriving in fourth grade without many tools in his belt, a habit of not working and no self-esteem created a blizzard that he wanted to immediately take shelter from. It was understandable but not acceptable. Somehow I had to find a lifeline to tether house to barn and convince him to reach out and grab it.
Building trust and reducing risk while simultaneously doing “school” is not a job for the meek. He cried – a lot. I cried on my drive home – a lot. We held meetings. A lot of meetings. His parents refused counseling, tutoring, testing, mentoring.  They demanded accounability through brute force. “None of that soft stuff.” They believed that making him clean toilets at school would be the trick to getting him to invest in school. No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
As the year was winding down, progress was being made academically, but there were holes I couldn’t seem to fill. He was still entrenched in “I’m just stupid” and “I hate school”. State testing nearly killed us both. It was brutally demoralizing, like hand had come down to unravel our tenuous rope.
But something happened.  I don’t know what. Maybe he had shored up enough success. Last Tuesday, after crying and saying “I can’t and won’t”, he let me work with him instead of shutting him out.  He listened and tried and succeeded. The next day, after too quickly finishing yet another mandated test, he came to me and asked if he could sit with me and practice what he learned and “maybe I could help him with something else he didn’t understand”. Before long I had a small group, eager to figure out or practice some math concepts.
Now here we are, fourteen days left, and miles to go before we sleep.  But now it feels like a race agaisnt the clock. It took about 165 days to get this child to trust me enough and himself enough to try. We will walk together for a bit, two sets of footprints in the snow side by side. And then I have to let him go and trust that his new guide will ensure the tether does not come undone until the storm has fully passed into Spring.

Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

“I choose love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This quote hangs in my classroom, among others. It needs to be our mantra as a divided country. I will not let the world change me. I will stand up and not by. I will look hate in the face and say, “NO!” to those who attempt to use fear to make me less than who I was created to be or to demoralize my brothers and sisters. There is no color of skin, religion or sexual orientation that can strip away the humanity of our fellow global citizens. It is only man’s weaknesses that can do that – and only if we allow it. Happy birthday, Dr. King. I will do my best to love, knowing it won’t always be easy. Your legacy of peace is more important than ever.

Report Cards. SMH

I don’t know what goes on in my brain while I am sleeping. Strange stuff, though, I am sure.  I wonder if perhaps I follow Alice through the looking glass, because when I wake up I have the most random ideas floating through my psyche. This morning I was pondering if my students could understand the difference between a defining moment and a pivotal moment.

I sent home report cards, and I hated it.  I knew that no matter what I said, they would wear those letters like labels, ala Hester Prinn – some for better, some for worse.  Would they read the comments and see that I am tracking their growth? Could they understand in the confines of limited space that I am so proud of them? Could they see grades that were low as a chance for a pivot instead of a definition?

I ask them to have a growth mindset. We use the words persevere and iteration. So I feel a sense of betrayal grading them based on a standards system.  I would rather have them work on their digital portfolios of work and reflect on their learning.  That would be a lot of work, a huge paradigm shift and a loss of accountability as our culture knows it – and would be outside of the mandate, of course.

Someone out there has made the shift. I am certain of it.  Is it you? What did you change, and how did you make it happen?


I was thinking about the word “Professors” yesterday. To profess means to proclaim, announce, state.  It speaks to the notion that teachers are the bearers of knowledge and our students are the consumers. That is not the model for the 21st century classroom, so my next thought was that teachers are no longer professors, so to speak.

We are still in the position of transmitting knowledge, but I think we have moved from the role of lecturer to that more closely resembling a docent at a museum. Upon investigating this chain of thought, I came to understand is that a docent in the university versus the museum setting, is a step BELOW the professor, merely a guide who is qualified to teach.  Well, then, I think I am living in some parallel universe because Guide is my dream role.

The thrill of teaching does not come in that moment when you have said something enough times for your students to be able to repeat it back to you.  The reward comes in the moment when a student begins to ask deeper questions, connects the answers she has discovered and comes to a conclusion – which dawns more questions.  You can see it in his eyes as it all unfolds – that sparkle of excitement. When you watch the student apply that discovery to a novel situation, well that is just gold! That requires guidance, not a lecture.

Direct instruction is still needed. Some skills and foundations of knowledge need the scaffolding of direct instruction. But I argue that the skills and factual knowledge are not the end-goal anymore. What I profess to you is that when we have students who can apply their skills to an unfamiliar task or setting, who are flexible in their thinking and continue to ask, “What if . . .?” long after they have left our corridors, we will have guided our students to a life unbounded.

Persevere With Joy


When you know better, you do better – right? I wish it was as simple as that. Change is hard. Being on the front end of change is even harder.  We are in the midst of a gigantic pendulum swing in education, and in the process redefining our entire pedagogy. And if that weren’t a challenge enough, we are constantly being reminded that this new educational system is to prepare our students to be successful in a world we cannot envision.

So it is easy to understand why teachers would want to opt out of this swing.  It is thrill-ride level to be certain.  I want to say I am “all in” because in my heart and mind I AM. That is the easy part.  The rough part is living it on the daily, trusting the process, being open to mistakes and risking failure.  There is so much at stake here.  I teach in a high poverty school. Most of my students are already 2-3 years behind.  If I blow this, it is unforgivable, unfixable. On the other hand, that is the very reason I MUST proceed with Project Based Learning, Genius Hour, STEAM challenges, individualized learning.

Now the first semester is over, so it is reflection time – that “Come to Jesus” moment when grades (d0n’t get me started) have to be assigned. How are we doing? Where are we at? CAN THEY READ? The answer is that we are all making progress, and I am trying to provide “standards-based” grades to reflect that.  There is definitely frustration in the process.  They haven’t done “standardized assignments”.  I am still trying to figure out how to walk on both sides of this fence.  It is hard to create the neat data tables that governing entities want to see.

My students and their caregivers need to see growth beyond grades, however.  That is the true measure. That is what I want my students to focus on, because they have worked so hard.  They need to know what their challenges are but also their successes so they can persevere with joy.