Monday, December 28, 2015

I Grew Up in the Central Valley and Never Learned about Cesar Chavez

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Anybody who links vineyards with extravagant weekend getaways and splendid wine tasting is not where I am from. Madera isn’t ‘blessed’ with elegant hotels, four star dining options, and yuppie tourists. Madera, the so-called exact center of California, is a farming town. It is not a bucolic tourist trap, but rather a place full of hard working people. You own a farm, work on a farm, work for a farm, or do business for a farm.

Growing up, the miles and miles of grapevines were not romantic. They were excruciatingly normal. You tended to forget they were there. Half the year there was nothing but dirt and pruned branches. The other half there was nothing but rows of sun-baked plants waiting to be harvested.

I am from California’s Central Valley. Beside being the ‘food basket’ of the world, it is a place full of civil rights history. I grew up miles away from the footsteps of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and Larry Itliong. These individuals, along with so many other seemingly ordinary citizens, blazed a trail of activism and civil right’s leadership for exploited workers of color.

I never learned any of this in school. 

I never learned of the grape boycott. I never learned about the United Farm Workers of America. I never learned about the hunger strikes. I never learned about the marches lead by the individuals above.

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As a young individual of Mexican descent, with a family history of farm labor (including myself), I was clueless to the rich multicultural history around me. I couldn’t recite the history of my own locale, my own people, my own culture, but I could certainly tell you who ‘sailed the ocean blue’. I could spit back the inventions of Benjamin Franklin. I could tell you all about the California gold rush and our ‘beautiful’ mission system.

This is shame. 

I never learned the words ‘Viva La Huelga’. Nobody bothered to teach me about the Mexican ‘Repatriation’ of the 1930s. I was never introduced to a single book by a Latina author in all my reading classes. We once or twice sang ‘De Colores’ in Spanish class, but nobody mentioned the rich contexts of the song.

Why does this matter? 

It matters because schools are political institutions. Curriculums reinforce structures of power and oppression. Leaving out key moments of history are not passive oversights. Exclusions are intentional. Students understand this. They internalize their alienation. If we strive for students to be empowered participants of this world, they must be able to step back and interrogate it. It is no easy chore to understand one’s self vis-à-vis the world around us. A veiled curriculum makes it nearly impossible.

Too often, we let our world be created for us. Ignoring the need to critically examine the world, to be intellectually curious, leads one to repeat its most disheartening features. Teachers must help break these cycles. I suspect my teachers could not teach with a multicultural perspective because they were not engaged in the process of becoming a multicultural person. Therefore, they sided with a system that refused to acknowledge a critical, multicultural history. A history that was so near to us.

I often look back with sadness to my early education. I feel like I was robbed of so many opportunities. A large part of me suspects nothing has changed. Another year of mission reports will come and go. Kits will be bought, papers typed. All the while, the vineyards of my town yearn to speak. They have a story to tell, a song to sing. If we don’t listen, all we hear is silence.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My 10 Favorite Quotations from School in Modern Society

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In August 2015, I set forth on my journey as a PhD student in Education Foundations and Inquiry at the University of South Carolina. Here are the quotations that moved me most from one of my courses, School in Modern Society. As with any list, it is an imperfect collection of the myriad words, concepts, ideas, and discussions I encountered over the semester. The 10 represent the passages that resonate with me most at this present time. Who knows how things might change in the future?

I choose not to include my thoughts and reflections on each. My hope is that you will play with these quotes on their own. If you are so moved, read through the original sources. I include a bibliography and citations to that end. To get a better idea of the class, I quote from the goals included in the syllabus.

The class was a joy. The readings meaningful, the conversation stimulating, the take-a-ways compelling and messy. In this way, it was a microcosm of what I find my life is as an educator. I also share these quotations because we (teachers) are spokespeople for the wonderful profession. In my opinion, to share inspiration and insight is beneficial to educators and non-educators alike.

Enjoy! I would love to hear your thoughts on the quotations as well.

Goals (School in Modern Society): School in Modern Society introduces students to three “arenas” of education–the worlds of educator, student, and society–and, in so doing, addresses the dispositions necessary for students to become principled and thoughtful educators as defined by the College of Education’s Professional Educators as Leaders model (Kridel, EDFI 749, Fall 2015).

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“All successful (teacher) applicants demonstrate qualities of resourcefulness, personal balance, open-mindedness, ability to take criticism from ‘inferiors’ as well as ‘superiors’, and a kind of intellectual curiosity and awareness which squeezes meaning out of every experience. One of the poorest criteria would be that an individual has been so happy and secure in a stereotyped learning situation that he wants to go on perpetuating it” (Willis, 2007, p. 208). 

“If we were starting from scratch to build a curriculum, I would suggest organizing it entirely around centers of care: care for self, care for intimate others, care for strangers and distant others, care for nonhuman animals, care for plants and the living environment, care for objects and instruments, and care for ideas” (Noddings, 2005, p. 45). 

“Also, at heart feeling themselves members of a superior breed, they do not want their children to mix too freely with children of the poor or of the less fortunate races. Nor do they want them to accept radical social doctrines or espouse unpopular causes. According to their views, education should deal with life, but with life at a distance or in a highly diluted form. Indeed they would generally maintain that life should be kept at arm’s length, if it should not be handled with a poker. If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must emancipate itself from the influence of this class…” (Counts, 1932, p. 18). 

 “We need to confront our own racism and biases. It is impossible to be a teacher with a multicultural perspective without going through this process. Because we are all products of a society that is racist and stratified by gender, class, and language, we have all internalized some of these messages in one way or another. Sometimes, our racism is unconscious…sometimes, the words we use convey a deep-seated bias, as when a student who does not speak English is characterized as ‘not having language,’ although she may speak her own language fluently” (Nieto, 1992, p. 61). 

“I would like to share with you an example of a student’s ability being misread as a result of a mismatch between the student’s and teacher’s cultural use of language. Second-grader Marti was reading a story she had written that began, ‘Once upon a time, there was an old lady, and this old lady ain’t had no sense.’ The teacher interrupted her, ‘Marti, that sounds like the beginning of a wonderful story, but could you tell me how you would say it in Standard English?’…Marti’s teacher probably did not understand that the child was actually exhibiting a very sophisticated sense of language” (Delpit, 1995, p. 123). 

“What we have seen is the apparent unfairness in the school experience itself…How is track placement likely to influence the life courses of students? To explore these latent consequences of tracking and the issue of meritocracy, it is useful to revisit the ideas of Bowles and Gintis and others whose work has touched on the question of schools as meritocratic sorters. This group of social scientists has suggested that the function of schooling is not to provide a meritocratic avenue to success in adult life. To the contrary, they view schools as serving primarily to reproduce the current inequities of our social, political, and economic systems” (Oakes, 1985, pp. 89, 90). 

“Teaching is intellectual and ethical work; it takes a thoughtful, reflective, and caring person to do it well. It takes a brain and a heart. The first and fundamental challenge for teachers is to embrace students as three-dimensional creatures, as distinct human beings with hearts and minds and skills and dreams and capacities of their own, as people much like ourselves. This embrace is initially an act of faith — we must assume capacity even when it is not immediately apparent or visible…”(Ayers, 2001, p. 69). 

“Critical consciousness of a rare sort is necessary if teachers of young people are not to perpetuate such views. They are interpretations, not reports of demonstrable facts, but few educators have been inclined to think very much about the ways in which they have constructed their realities. Educators, like most other people, have been reared in such a way as to repress their background consciousness, their awareness of their own perspectives on the intersubjective world” (Greene, 1978, p. 144). 

“to be a good teacher one must first of all be a good human being” (Giles, McCutchen, and Zechiel, 1942, p. 213). 

“Teachers need to vote and be politically active. This is not now the case for a shocking proportion of South Carolina teachers. Caring about their students requires teachers to be active citizens who express their views about statewide educational issues that directly impact their students’ opportunities to learn. Teachers know more about their students’ needs than anyone other than the students’ parents, and it is the responsibility of teachers to forcefully and persistently share their insights with policymakers, as well as with the public” (Mizell). 


Ayers, W. (2001). “To Teach,” in Classic Edition Sources: Education, 5th edition, edited by C. Kridel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013, p. 69.

Counts, G. S. (1932). “Dare Progressive Education be Progressive?,” in Classic Edition Sources: Education, 5th edition, edited by C. Kridel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013, p. 18.

Delpit, L. (1995). “Other People’s Children,” in Classic Edition Sources: Education, 5th edition, edited by C. Kridel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013, p. 123.

Giles, H. H., McCutchen, S. P., and A. N. Zechiel (1942). Exploring the Curriculum: The Work of the Thirty Schools from the Viewpoint of Curriculum Consultants. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Greene, M. (1978). “Landscapes of Learning,” in Classic Edition Sources: Education, 5th edition, edited by C. Kridel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013, p. 144.

Mizell, H. 1963–2013: Desegregation — Integration Reflections Advice to Teachers. Retrieved from

Nieto, S. (1992). “Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education,” in Classic Edition Sources: Education, 4th edition, edited by C. Kridel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009, p. 61.

Noddings, N. (2005). “The Challenge to Care in Schools,” in Classic Edition Sources: Education, 5th edition, edited by C. Kridel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013, p. 45.

Oakes, J. (1985). “Keeping Track,” in Classic Edition Sources: Education, 5th edition, edited by C. Kridel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013, pp. 89–90.

Willis vignette: Kridel, C. & Bullough, Jr., R. V. (2007). Stories of the Eight Year Study: Rethinking Schooling in America. Albany: SUNY Press, p. 208.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Or a Teacher...

This is in response to "Keep the Light Shining Brightly"

Dear Stacy Abramson,

Your vision for Bright is exciting, and I am very confident you will continue the great work started by Sarika Bansal. Bright is a consistent source of innovative writing and perspective about education. It has been my pleasure watching it grow while getting the opportunity to contribute a few stories. I enjoy the often broad approach to education. Education doesn’t occur solely in schools, learning happens across infinite contexts and spaces, and Bright understands this by including a variety of voices. This makes for a wonderful conversation of diverse opinions and ideas.

I have a simple request. When running stories or features about the education within schools, or school systems, don’t forget those who live within them. Don’t forget the teachers, the students, the staff, and the administrators who work on the ground each day. They are the experts, the professionals, and the leaders. They get it.

Everyone has an opinion about school because almost everyone attended school. Everyone has their education solution. Everyone is an education expert. While it is enticing, and sometimes illuminating, to hear from in vogue tech founders, politicians, and celebrities, the best spokespeople are the one’s intimately tied to schools. Too often so-called experts create laws, technology, foundations, and ideas that impose a false expertise on the everyday actors in schools — teachers and students. Their voice is elevated above those with the real expertise. The consequences of this aren’t usually great.

We often forget that teachers are extremely qualified individuals with a wealth of education and experience. We neglect to acknowledge that teachers often have multiple degrees paired with years in the classroom. We ignore the voices who sit in our nation’s classrooms. We scoff at the idea the students have a voice. We can’t imagine hearing from those whose work is invisible, custodians, maintenance, nurses, or counselors.

Your past experience makes me excited about the future of Bright. The idea of hearing from students about their lived experience in schools is phenomenal. I look forward to your experiments in storytelling, and your vision to run stories with meaning. Cheers to the next step for Bright. Just don’t forget about those everyday heroes that change the world one lesson, one step at a time.

P.S. — Shawn White and The Synapse are a wonderful example of teacher and student voice.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The “Maker Movement” Shouldn’t Just Be About STEM

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“People are fulfilled to the extent that they create their world (which is a human world)…” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Let’s take a quick tour of some articles about education and the “Maker Movement” shall we? Check out these titles: The Powerful Combination of Making & STEM, The Maker Movement: Inspiring Creativity in the STEM Classroom, White House Adviser Talks STEM and Maker Movement, Maker Movement: Bridging the Gap Between Girls and STEM, and Expanding the Maker Movement with STEM.

I might have cherry-picked a few titles there, but do you see a connection? We know STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is a big deal. We are told STEM education is essential to the future health of the United States’ economy. Perhaps you’ve also heard that the United States is in big trouble. U.S. schools are failing to create an innovative work force, due in part to an inability to get kids interested in STEM. You know because international tests show U.S. students falling behind in the key subject areas of science and math. Watch out! Singapore is coming for us! What are we to do?

Enter the Maker Movement. For those of you who don’t get Make Magazine or have never been to a Maker Faire, the Maker Movement is “a subculture spurred by independent designers, creators and tinkerers focused on a DIY approach towards technology” ( To overgeneralize, and to put it simply, “makers” are people who like 3D printing, circuits, cardboard, code, Rasberry Pi, LEDS, alligator clips and the like. At the heart of the Maker Movement is the joy of tinkering and building. It’s cool stuff and it makes STEM come alive for students. I’ve seen it. “Making” is experiential, hands-on, and creative. Check, check, and check for eduspeak buzz words. The Maker Movement fits nicely into our current STEM craze. After all, who doesn’t want to turn a banana into a keyboard?

So what’s my specific problem with STEM and the Maker Movement? I really don’t have one. I love the Makey-Makey. My students build websites. In the past, students have designed marble run courses. I am fascinated by, and believe in, a constructionist pedagogy.

I believe “making” should not be confined to the hallowed halls of STEM.

“Making” is more than programming apps or playing with cool technology. “Making” is an attitude of empowerment that can extend to all parts of the curriculum. Students need to learn how to “make” ideas, “make” art, “make” poetry, “make” arguments, “make” change. In short, STEM shouldn’t be the only place where students are encouraged to actually create. Yes, there is life beyond STEM, and the Maker Movement should venture outside.

Currently, we live in an era where all education must be of clear monetary value. Education must prove its worth, it must serve the market. If education is seen as a pure economic investment we must get a quantifiable return. So we set up a hierarchy of subjects. Why would you ever get a literature degree? You’ll never make any money. Best to play it safe and produce innovative workers who will get nice jobs in STEM fields. But innovation comes from many sources. Inspiration comes from great books, beautiful music, amazing historical discoveries, humbling cultural exchanges, breath-taking art, and researched critiques.

“Making” is more than technology. It is more than economics. It is more than innovation. It is more than global competition. It is more than STEM. “Making” is about creating the world. Would would happen if we actually let all people have a say in creating their world? That would be disruptive. All of us should have the opportunity to “make”, not just those who get access to a high quality STEM education. When all have the power to “make”, all have the power to be truly human.

Friday, November 6, 2015

My Students Respond to Some Questions

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About a month ago Sarry Zheng contacted me about running a story about a project she is involved in. She asked students from a rural school in China a simple question:

What questions would you ask if you could ask anything?

Sarry’s goal is to work with teachers in village schools to answer some of the most pressing and curious questions asked by rural Chinese students. Sarry’s goal is to collect answers from around the world to share with the students. The answers will be shared in the format of a book with students living in rural areas. You can read more about it here.

Sarry’s story came at a perfect time for my students and I. We had just started a unit on Ancient China. The questions from rural students in China gave us much to think about, and my students responded to them. Here are some answers to children in China from my sixth graders near Columbia, SC.

I. Learning
Does schooling guarantee our success?

  • Well it doesn’t. You could get all A’s in school, but the rest of your life, you might be all great. You might not be able to find a job or a different issue that is similar. (Rachel) 

异国语言难学吗? 怎么学好?
Is it difficult to learn another language? How can we master a language?

  • It is difficult. But there is a way, you can master it by studying, by asking questions, it is never impossible to not master it. (Rachel) 

如果现在不好好学习, 不听任何人的话, 以后能找到一份适合自己的职业吗?还是不可能找到适合⾃己的工作?
If I do not enjoy school, nor listen to anyone, can I still find a suitable career in the future?

  • It will be hard to get a good job with out liking to listen to anyone but you could always be a person who makes their own business. (Jackson) 
  • I think if you don’t listen in class you will not get a good career. If you listen in class you will have success in life. For example if I want to be a doctor I would have to listen in class. (Hampton) 
  • Schooling does guarantee your success by what type of job you get. If you study relentlessly and do not like it try to turn it into something that you do like. (Maddie) 
  • It depends. Schooling will guarantee our success if you listen and try hard. If you don’t pay attention in school and care nothing about it and don’t try hard then you won’t be very successful. (Peyton) 
  • No, but schooling does help a lot. If you don’t go to school you could still end out with a good job and life, but that is not very likely. School is not the only reason you could end out with a good life. In order to have a good life you have to put forward the effort. Only then will you have a good life. Now that does not mean you can just quit school. You are very lucky to have the privilege to go to school. Don’t waste it! (Will) 
  • If you don’t enjoy school thats fine but you still have to learn. But if you don’t listen to anyone thats different it will make it a lot harder to find jobs and to have a successful life. (Ethan) 

My students studied Taoism, Confucianism, and Legalism for a unit on Ancient China. They also responded to questions from students in rural China.    

II. Life 
Is it true that kindness will be reciprocated?

  • Yes. When you are kind to others, people will want to be kind to you. (Logan) 
  • Kindness isn’t always returned but you should be kind to everyone no matter who they are. (Jackson) 

III. Family 
How can I possess filial piety / How do I respect my parents?

  • To give respect to your family you need to listen to what your parents say and do what your parents say. For example, do chores around the house. Do your part! Do not talk to them like they’re your friend on the playground. Talk to them like they’re your rulers. (They kinda are!) Never threaten them with weapons or even words. You need to respect them and even though you might not always agree, never yell at them and tell them they are wrong. You can do that when your older! Just Kidding! (Will) 
  • In my house if you are good and you do your house work and respect your parents and elderly, they will respect you to. Children respect there parents and there parents will respect the children…(Katie) 
  • Here are some of the things that I do in my house hold to me respectful. Having a bad attitude in my house is a bad thing so as long as you have one just stay in your own space like in your room because no one wants to be around someone with a bad attitude. When they tell you to do something say yes ma’am/ sir and don’t talk back to them or be disrespectful. (Anayah) 
  • There are many ways to respect your parents these are some ways we use in America. One way to respect your parents is to use your manners for example; yes ma’am(sir), thank you & your welcome. Another way is to do chores for your parents like on the farm harvest the plants for your parents. The third way is to try to do your best in school like try to get good grades or work your hardest in a project. The last way is if your mom or dad feel upset just do something nice to cheer them up. In America there are many ways to respect your parents but these are just a few. (Ann) 
  • You can respect your parents in many ways. Sometimes respect can be as simple as listening and doing what they say. You can also occasionally do kind deeds such as helping with dinner or helping with the farm. You should also be kind. Don’t use harsh words or say negative things. (Brianne) 
  • It is important to respect your parents and elders because if you respect them, you can earn thanks and praise and you can show your children in the future how to respect you and your parents. (Colton) 
  • Here in South Carolina we show respect to our parents and we don’t whine about things. My parents think it is very good to show eye contact with each other to know they are respected. They also tell us to have good manners at the dinner table and not to chew with our mouth open. Always say yes mam and yes sir. (Renea) 
  • Say yes mama and yes sir and be kind and understanding. Don’t get mad and say something that you don’t mean. You should always be polite and don’t say bad things. Here in south Carolina this is what we do. In my house we have to say yes mama and yes sir or I will get in trouble. If someone asked you a question you don’t say what you say yes or say yes mama or sir. That is how we have to be respectful in my House. (Skylar) 
  • You listen and do everything they tell you like if they say “you need to clean your room” you should do it. You should also also don’t be ungrateful for example, on Christmas if they get you something and you say “I don’t like this. I didn’t ask for this” would be considered rude in South Carolina. Another thing would be to work hard in school and try to help your parents out in the house and not be lazy. (Erin) 
  • In my family we say no ma’am, yes ma’am, no sir, and yes sir. You can also respect them by following their rules. You also have to work hard in school and anything you do. (Logan) 
  • Here in the USA we respect our parents in many different ways. First we say please and thank you for anything they do for us. We also need to get good grades in school and need to be kind to each other. Lastly in my house you need to do your homework. (Jack) 
  • Don’t whine about something or say you want something and when your mom or dad or whoever says no you say yes and keep asking. For one example, when my mom says clean your room and you are playing and don’t want to, you still get up and do It. I also like to care for other people and help people for respect. My mom said if she don’t give respect then I don’t get respect, And if someone is talking you should not talk over them. (Ahnika) 
  • You can respect them by saying I love you. You can respect them by working hard. You can respect them by getting a good schedule. (Thomas) 
  • You can respect your family members by being nice and if they need help then help them. You can come together and celebrate. You can also be there with them when they need it and when they don’t need it. You can respect your elderly by not getting an attitude, helping them, say yes ma’am or yes sir, no ma’am and no sir, don’t whine and don’t talk back. You can respect your parents by having manners, cleaning your room, don’t talk back, communicate so they can help you and you can help them, get good grade but that will also help you to because you can get a prize and a good education. Be nice and help them clean up the house or your house or the area you are in. Do what they ask because it’s most likely helping them. (Amara) 
  • We say, yes sir and ,yes mam ,no mam,no sir,thank you,no thank you. We also say good bye and hello to show more respect. Also people say sorry if you hurt someone. (Dawson) 
  • In America, we respect our elders by saying yes,sir or yes,mam. And by doing well in school and helping your parent’s job of caring for you. Good grades. (Kerry) 

IV. Friendship 
Which one is more important? Personal interests or friendship?

  • I think both are important cause they are both gonna be used in life maybe at the same time because you have to share your personal interest to your friend and see if they can keep it a secret if you want them too and if they do keep it a secret than you know that they are true friends. (Peyton) 

VI. Personal 
Can we travel back in time?

  • No! we can not travel back in space because we do not have any time machines and nobody knows how to make one so no we can not travel back in time. (Tristan) 

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Submit Your Stories!

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If you do not know, I have a little publication on Medium called From a Teacher. It is a modified version of this blog about teaching and learning and has over 1,200 followers. I am humbled that so many people choose to follow my writing.

My busy schedule (teaching, PhD, SlackEDU) has lead to fewer posts, but I want to invite you to submit your own thoughts, ideas, and stories about teaching and learning. I would love to feature other terrific voices beside my my own. Send me a tweet (@Tim_Monreal), tag me in a post, or shoot me an email. I will add you as a writer.

From a Teacher has some terrific readers that can really expand your writing’s audience. I can’t wait to hear from you.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

Do We Only Share The Amazing?

In “No One on the Internet is Living the Life You Think They Are,” Paul Jarvis reminds us that there is more to people than what they share online.

Social media and really anything digital is setup to be a near-constant stream of editorialized data…In seeing this, we assume everyone is smarter, more successful, more interesting and so much happier than we are…
…When I go online and read or see other people’s stuff, I assume they’re different, and somehow, their lives are awesome and interesting all of the time. That’s because all I see are their interesting bits and bytes…

My days typically involve: watering my veggies and herbs, cleaning rat poop, cleaning my house and yard, staring out my window instead of writing or designing, sitting on my couch reading, refreshing social (with my wife sitting beside me, doing the same), and so many other absolutely mundane things that aren’t worth mentioning (except in this specific instance).

So why am I telling you all this?

I just want to illustrate that no one is living a perfect life. I’m not, you’re not, no one is. And that’s totally ok! Everyone’s got their own ups and downs.

That’s a condensed version of the post. I encourage you to stop reading this and read the whole post, right now. It’s a brilliant post and has me questioning the burgeoning world of teacher branding.

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Social media, blogging, and myriad other outlets give teachers a whole new voice. The internet enables and empowers educators to connect, to collaborate, and to learn with other educators from all over the world. A growing handful of educators have used the relatively nascent outlets to become thought leaders and influencers. Some of these new superstar educators write, share, and lead from the classroom. It is exciting to see influence rise from the bottom, from the practitioner. It is inspiring to see wonderful examples of projects, lessons, stories, and social action from my profession colleagues.

Being connected to this ‘movement’ has pushed me in many ways. I’ve learned so much from the thoughts and insights of remarkable educators. I’ve tried Genius Hour. I’ve questioned my ‘discipline’ policies. I’ve jumped into PBL. I’ve reflected on my privileges. I’ve used my voice to elevate social issues.

To a very, very small degree, my own blog and social media accounts have elevated my status within the field. People contact me for advice, I contribute to publications, and I lead a variety of projects. At one glance, I might be one of those superstar teachers. Every day is a overwhelming success. My classroom is a utopia. I have it all figured out.

Image Source: User Jill111,

That couldn’t be farther than the truth. I, like so many others, overwhelmingly share the best, the exciting, the remarkable. In many ways, this is important. Teaching can be a very isolating profession. We need amazing stories of practice and accomplishment to keep us going, to force us to focus on the positive, to keep our field moving forward. But the sensational is only part of the story.

I struggle. I mess up. I make mistakes. My daily routine does not consist of an endless stream of astonishing projects. I have students that dislike my assignments. I have students that distract other students. Students play games on their iPad behind my back. Parents get upset. I forget deadlines. I ask for A LOT of help. Recently, I lectured from a PowerPoint. Just now, I gave a Scantron test to a bunch of sixth graders. I am ashamed of that.

Image Source: User HebiFot,

I am imperfect. I am imperfect because I am human. I am imperfect because systemic issues of education make doing a good job hard. As Theodore Sizer says, “Americans underrate the craft of teaching. We treat it mechanistically.” Teaching is a humane profession, an ethical one, but we are treated like robots. That is another post for another day. Regardless, education is messy. I would argue it is necessarily messy. There is no magic formula. Teaching and learning is an iterative process, one based on growth and improvement. It is also a critical process. One the demands we question our content, our biases, our relationships, our values.

Bill Ayers says, “becoming a wonderful teacher, or a great or awesome teacher, is a lifetime affair. This is because good teaching is forever pursuing better teaching.” This is what I wish to convey with the post. Teaching is a demanding profession. Educators should celebrate and share our insights, our triumphs. We also need to remember that we learn from each others’ struggles, from our mistakes.

I will continue to read about other people’s success in the classroom. I will continue to write and share my own journey. I write to get things off my chest. I write because I am trying to work things out. I write with the hope that my words may help someone else. I write because my voice matters.

I do not write because I am perfect. There is more to me and my practice than the short vignettes I share. To quote Bill Ayers once again, “To teach is to choose a life of challenge.” Our challenge is a real one, a worthy one. With any authentic challenge we are tested. We rise and fall. We work through trials and tribulations. We might not share them all, but they are there. We live with the daily routine of pure joy and utter defeat. This is the real life of a teacher.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Learning Target: I can change the world

I am in a new home, a new city, a new state, a new job, and a new school. There are many other things I can add to the list. It seems like just about everything is new these days.

Change can be hard. It is easy to get frustrated. I am used to things a certain way. I want to step in and immediately be in the flow. I want to be comfortable. I want to make an impact.


Be patient.


Be patient.

Last week, I missed a meeting, filled out the wrong form, and was late to a grad school class. It would be pretty easy to focus on all that stuff. Then again, in the midst of last week’s craziness, I walked into eighth period. During eighth period, I co-teach an experimental class with a phenomenal colleague. I looked up to see the world’s best learning target on the board.

It’s like she knew what I needed.


Be patient.

Be present and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Letter to Parents (From a teacher)

This is what I should have wrote...

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Dear Parents,

Welcome to another school year! Rejoice!

Before I hand you my class guidelines. Before you ask what your child can do for extra credit. Before I stay up for hours at night planning the ‘perfect’ lesson, I want to share a few words with you.

First, thank you. I do not take the privilege of teaching lightly. It is an awesome responsibility to embark on a learning journey with young people. My colleagues and I take this honor seriously. A grand majority of us teachers are really, really good at what we do. We work hard, are extremely educated, and are continuously improving. We believe in your child and will do everything possible to give him/her the education they deserve.

Second, I care for the person your child is. You know your child is more than a test score or a growth metric. So do I. One of my biggest goals is to treat your child with respect and help him/her think critically, create constantly, and dream big. I don’t want this for just your child, I want this for all children. Each child is special and has enormous potential regardless of race, socioeconomic condition, ability, past circumstances, or prior difficulties. I believe that education should empower all children. I believe it is a social justice issue. So while your child is understandably your biggest concern, please realize I must work for all children, not just yours.

Third, please forgive me in advance. I will mess up at some point this year. I will misplace a paper, make a grading mistake, or lose my temper. It happens. I am human. All of us are. So are your children. Remember that. They will not be perfect. Nobody is. Don’t let one mistake overshadow all the great stuff that will go on in the classroom this year.

I look forward to working with you. Some of my ideas will be different than what you are used to. Some of my thoughts might seem contrary to accepted wisdom. You probably won’t walk into a quiet classroom or see your child seated in a row. I hope you view this as a good thing. If not just ask me. I have made education my life. I have a deep affinity for pedagogy, for practice, and for reflection. There is (almost) always a rhyme to my reason.

Enough from me. Stop by and say hi. Sent me an email or leave me a message. Hopefully this year will be as great as I plan.



Friday, August 14, 2015

It's Not Just Creativity, It's The Power to Create

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"People are fulfilled to the extent that they create their world (which is a human world), and create it with their transforming labor" (Freire, 1970, p. 145).

A few months back, I told the story of using 20% time in my classroom. I've written about the topic before, but this time my post was picked up by the Bright Medium publication. It was a neat experience for me. My writing and experience reached an audience much larger than I am used to. Thanks again Sarika!

I am not the only one that has experimented with, or fully committed to, 20% time in the classroom. Many inspiring educators started inquiry based, passion learning years ago. Books have been written. Talks have been delivered. Courses have been created. Creativity and passion learning are now full-fledged buzz words within the progressive education community.

Some would even say things like 20% time are fads. It is the next thing teachers are doing to follow the crowd, to be cool, or to score followers on Twitter. Perhaps there are some educators that take this fleeting attitude and do 20% to create a point on their resumé. However, my guess, and my hope, is that most engage in this type of learning for deep social and pedagogical reasons. This is why I continue to work for opportunities for my students to choose and to create. Students of all backgrounds, especially the oppressed, need to see that they can create the world they live in. I believe this notion is especially relevant today. Antonia Darder (2015) writes, "for how we construct knowledge is directly connected to the sets of values and beliefs we employ to make sense of the world" (p. 20). I don't want the essential foundation of empowerment to be lost in the 'coolness' of 20% time.

Image Source: User Didgeman,

Freire (1970) writes, "Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in the power to make and remake, to create and to recreate, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is a privilege of the elite, but a birthright of all)" (p. 88) The "power to make and remake, to create and recreate" is the true why of 20% time and this is why it is important for all kids, all communities, and even all adults. It's not just about creativity, or 21st century skills, or critical thinking, or STEM, or future employment. It is about giving people, particularly young people, the POWER to create.

Freire stresses the power to create is usually reserved for the elite, for those with privilege. 20% time can help elevate the necessity of the idea that all people create. It can honor oral traditions, cultural art, experience, inventiveness, and resourcefulness because this type of pedagogy makes a space for what the learner brings to his/her education. Students use their lived histories to construct knowledge.

20% time runs counter to traditional notions of 'banking education'. "[In a banking model] students remain objects to be managed, manipulated, and controlled, in ways that may eventually draw of them the prescribed answers" (Darder, 2015, p. 55). Intentional pedagogy that insists upon the power to create builds a conscious individual, one that acts with freedom, one that takes constructive action. Pedagogy that calls one to create builds individuals who look at the world critically, yet optimistically, connecting their knowledge to power. If 20% time is intentional in its pedagogy it becomes part of a larger critical pedagogy.

20% time grants students the power to use their voice in the classroom. Their ideas, interests, and passions become central to the schooling process. Voice and choice not only motivates students, it prepares them for participation in a larger community, our democracy. Students learn to participate in a classroom with a diversity of thoughts and ideas. Students make sense of the world from what they create. Students understand they have the power to create the world they live in. Students are empowered. You see, 20% time is more than creativity, it's about the power to create.

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Saturday, August 8, 2015

What Do You Wish You Would’ve Known Before Becoming A Teacher?

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Tony Davis recently asked me to answer the question on Quora. As a new school year approaches, it was a great exercise to reflect back on my first years teaching as compared to my current experience. Here is my best attempt to list what I wish I knew back then.

1) Teaching is not all about you

Contrary to popular belief, you are not there to save people, or to rescue them, or to fulfill every media inflicted Hollywood stereotype. This feeling usually comes from a position of privilege and power. You are there to build relationships with students, to empower them, and to help them learn (with may include some traditional teaching). Teaching is about the students, the community, the structures, the colleagues, the content, 

2) Teaching is hard, very hard

I was not always the most charming student in school. After my first week teaching, I sent an email to a few of my teachers to apologize and to thank them. Teaching is not sitting at a desk stamping papers. Teaching calls for professionals to juggle instruction, collaboration, assessment, counseling, development, learning, paperwork, and much more from minute to minute. Add long hours, lots of stress, taking work home, long hours, ever-changing demands, relatively low wages, and long hours to this beautiful concoction. Did I mention long hours?

Image Source: User Airunique,

3) Teaching is a profession

This may seem obvious, but few people really know (and appreciate) how much education and practice it takes to be a teacher. In the United States, we have a population that claims to hold teaching as a respected career, but then requires ever more education (which is expensive), standardized tests and evaluations, and constant defamation of inadequate teachers. Perhaps you have heard "Those that can't do, teach". 

Just because everyone attended school at some point, it doesn't make them a professional teacher. Look at the bios of teachers at your local school. See how many have bachelor's degrees from top universities. See how many have master's degrees (sometimes multiple). See how many have doctorate degrees. This does not even take into account the many certificates, professional development days, and continuing education courses teachers take. Most of all it doesn't include the professional experience gained by years in the classroom. Teachers are really good at what they do and have as much right to be called a professional as people who manage our money or pass the bar. Teachers are the experts!

4) Teaching is social

The last thing you want to do as a teacher is stay within the walls of your classroom. I think many beginning teachers believe teaching is an isolated profession. I certainly did. On the contrary, everything about teaching is social. From the social relationships with students and families, to socially created knowledge, to connecting with other educators (both online and offline), teaching is not about a sage on the stage barking out content within four walls. Teaching is about interacting and learning with others. 

5) Teaching is part science, part art

This is related to all the points above. I thought I had a special personality that would instantly engage students and transform their experience. I did not. Instead I taught the way I was taught. Part of being a professional is knowing what types of activities, instructions, and pedagogies actually work. Flying by the seat of your pants and printing worksheets while making students laugh doesn't cut it. The very best teachers constantly search for what works while being passionate, fun, and engaging. Did I mention teaching was hard?

6) Teaching is worth it

It's a great job. Hang in there and stick with it. Failing is okay. Failing to learn from failure is not. 


Teaching is political:
I don't want to belabor the point. Read Freire and others. We teach with our biases, our judgements, our conditioning, our beliefs, even if we claim to be neutral. 

Extrinsic motivation is overrated:
As a society we place way too much emphasis on rewards, punishments, and shinny stickers. Teachers can be some of the biggest offenders in advancing wrong assumptions about motivation and creativity. Read Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

We Don’t Have Any of Those ‘Punk’ Kids

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“I look forward to seeing you. The school is great. I mean, I don’t think it has any of those ‘punk’ kids.”

I overheard an administrator (not mine) say the above statement the other day. The administrator explained how he was excited about his new school. He bragged about the school’s vibe. He felt positive feelings walking around the new joint. He was clearly excited he wouldn’t have to deal with any of those ‘punk’ kids. The fewer ‘punk’ kids, the better the school.

I know it was an innocent statement. The gentlemen made it in passing. It was not callous. I do not know him and don’t want to judge him. Yet, I was troubled by it.

“I don’t think it has any of those ‘punk’ kids.”

What exactly is a ‘punk’ kid?

  • Is it a kid who doesn’t complete his/her work?
  • Is it a kid who looks ‘tough’?
  • Is it a kid who is ‘difficult’?
  • Is it a kid who is loud?
  • Is it a kid who challenges the teacher?
  • Is it a kid who wears baggy pants, or skinny pants, or piercings, or silly t-shirts?
  • Is it a angry kid with an oppressed culture?
  • Is it a kid from a ‘bad’ neighborhood?
  • Is it a kid with ‘bad’ parents?
  • Is it a ‘bad’ kid?

Image Source: User Jedidja.

There are other labels that substitute for ‘punk’. Those kids are lazy. Those kids don’t care. Those kids aren’t motivated. Those kids are disrespectful. Those kids are ‘bad’.

More than anything, I worry about the last one. What happens when educators think a student is a ‘bad’ kid? What happens when we label kids? Are we repeating cultural bias? Are we reflecting social injustice? Are we mirroring society’s prejudices? What dichotomies do we reinforce?

How many of us educators only want the ‘good’ kids. The ones from stable families. The ones with manicured lawns. The ones from good neighborhoods. The ones with straight A’s. The ones that let us teach. The ones that are quiet.

As an educator you will not like every single student. Every relationship will not be perfect. I have struggled with students before. I will struggle with students in the future. I am not perfect. I am not the world’s best teacher. No matter my relationship, I maintain that each student is a ‘good’ kid. Blaming the child for a inherent character defect is an excuse. It is a cop-out. It is not what we should do as educators. Students reflect the attitude we have toward them. Students live up to the labels we place on them.

I challenge all educators, including myself, to fight the urge to call students ‘punks’. I challenge all educators, including myself, to fight the urge to name students at one school better than others. I challenge all educators, including myself, to honor the difference of all schools and communities. I challenge all educators, including myself, to start from a place of empowerment, not deficit. If we start with the attitude that all kids are ‘good’ maybe students they will live up to the respect we give them.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

10 Ways to Increase Parent Support for PBL

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First, I’m going on a tangent because I am super passionate about this. Most parents care. Most parents really care. Most parents really, really, really care (about their child’s education). One of my biggest pet peeves is when well-meaning educators blame lack of parental support for education inequality. This is one of my biggest pet peeves because blaming parents is a class issue. This accusation is usually lobbed at parents from lower socio-economic areas.

There is a brutal lie that goes something like if parents really cared, kids would do better at school. Not all parents are members of the PTO, or check writers, or emailers, or conference attendees, or classroom helpers, or you get the picture. Not all parents have the time, money, or ability to be involved in all the ways traditional school systems define parental support. This doesn’t mean parents want their kids to do bad in school. Nothing could be farther than the truth. All parents want their kids to do well in school. There are other factors to consider. Work hours. Language. Education levels. School culture. Legal status. Bad experiences with the education system.

Image Source: User Hietaparta,

So when I write this piece, I firmly mean this to include ALL parents as project based learning (PBL) partners. I think there are ways to include all parents in discussions of a child’s education. You may need to get creative with how, but I think it is possible. I think it is necessary. Let’s at least start with positive assumptions :)

Project based learning (PBL) is different than traditional pedagogical approaches. PBL calls for learners to inquire, to question, to iterate, and to learn deeply. PBL gives students voice and choice. PBL is flexible, collaborative, and generative. PBL includes many different approaches to assessment. Rarely do multiple choice tests and memorized answers fulfill the demands of a successive project. Instead, students are assessed formatively and given chances to improve and iterate before a project is unveiled to an authentic audience.

In short, PBL may be a radical departure from the norm for students, and by extension, their parents. A crucial step to build support for PBL in your school or classroom is to have parent buy-in and support. Here are a few things you can do to educate, inform, and bring parents in as PBL partners.

1. Share Research

I always like to remind new teachers that our profession is exactly that, a profession. Educators study what works (and what doesn’t) in the classroom. Share your expertise with parents. Most will be impressed with your level of understanding, knowledge, and rationale. People care about the why. Post links to research on a class website, in newsletters, or through messages.

PBL research: Buck Institute, Edutopia, PBL Research Series

2. Ask Parents for Areas of Expertise

PBL is not confined to a textbook. The community plays a vital role as authentic audience members. Use a beginning of the year survey to ask parents what areas of expertise they posses. You can also ask what serious hobbies they have. Invite them into the classroom when a project corresponds with a specialty. You never know what or who someone knows.

Image Source: User GreenStar,

3. Show Past Success

If you’ve been doing PBL for a number of years, show off! Display student work, presentations, or projects to parents. Parents are often amazed with the level of learning that PBL allows. If you are newer to PBL, share examples from the web. Show that other people are doing great work and communicate that you want their children to do the same. Sometimes people need to see to believe.

4. Showcase 21st Century Skills

PBL is a great way to create a 21st century classroom. Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication are crucial to today’s world. Explain how PBL places an emphasis on skills students need both today and tomorrow.

5. Be Transparent and Honest

Many teachers, including myself, use PBL because they are super passionate about its ability to transform school. Don’t be afraid to share this passion with parents. If you blog, tell them. If you attend outside PDs, tell them. If you are on Twitter, tell them. Once they see the amount of work, dedication, and enthusiasm you put into each project (and your craft), they will support you.

6. Remind Parents of Their Own Education

Even if parents are a long way gone from their days as students, it is surprising to hear them recall colorful memories. Most parents share science projects, invention challenges, and hands-on activities as favorite school experiences. It makes a lot of sense that teachers want to provide the same learning opportunities for their children.

Image Source: User Taken,

7. Provide Suggestions for Home Projects

Parents may feel uncomfortable with the technology used in many projects, or the lack of traditional homework and assignments. Provide examples and ideas for things families can work on at home that mirror PBL activities. Design challenges, coding tutorials, and even board games can simulate the type of learning PBL demands in the classroom. John Spencer shares some great alternative homework assignments here.

8. Rethink Field Trips

I once talked to a teacher who explained how she took her students on a field trip to the LaundryMat. She swore by the experience. She said many of her students were fascinated by the economic realities of their community. If you are able to take more frequent, perhaps shorter field trips around the community, parents may be more willing to chaperone, sponsor, or lead.

9. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

This is inherent in many of the ideas above. Communication prevents many problems and misunderstandings from occurring in the first place. Positive phone calls, personalized notes, and early/late meetings are ways to communicate with all parents. If you share the good things going on in your classroom with parents, they will be happy to support your ideas.

10. Remind Them It’s For the Students

When all else fails, remind parents that you both want what’s best for their children. This is the motivation behind all you do as an educator.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Finding 'Value' in Hidden Places

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“The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.” — Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Let’s change a few words shall we…

 “A powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful educators find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about education from first principles instead of formulas.” 

Is this true?

Image Source: User Jarmoluk,

As teachers, we don’t have to look far to find value in unexpected places. Glance at the faces before us. How can we find value, worth, goodness, importance, and deservedness in each and every one of your students?

This summer, I have read countless stories about the need for socially just schools, classrooms, and teachers. Progressive educators and activists are calling for dialogue (and action) on race, inequality, and de facto segregation in our schools. To bring about the systemic change many of us want to see, teachers need to look at their own classrooms and schools.

We, teachers, must take the step of valuing ALL students. Not just the bright students, not just the compliant students, not just the honor roll students, not just the athletic students, not just the white students, not just the gifted students, not just the students who raise their hands.

Not just the students we display power over.

Instead, we can find a fundamental wisdom, goodness, and value from the bully, from the trouble-maker, from the class clown, from the angry, from the suspended, from the marginalized, from the oppressed, from the depressed, from students of color, from those who need a voice, from those who need another chance, from those who are ignored.

Each student can teach us something once we strip away our perceptions and stereotypes to listen, to become equals. I really believe that.

I write this as a reminder to myself. I NEED to be better at recognizing the basic worth and value of ALL students in ALL my words and actions.

It’s a sad thing to admit we might call this value unexpected.


Thank you Ruben Brosbe for your recent piece. It provided an impetus for this post. White Educators: Do You Recognize State Trooper Encinia?


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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Big Questions, Big Understandings, and Big Ideas in the Classroom

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In his book Futurewise, David Perkins (2014) explains the concept of big questions:
Big questions address particular themes about humanity, our world, and our universe. There are also very general big questions that find significance in almost any context. The child's 'why' is prelude to the 'why' of a scientist, artist, or historian. Likewise, the child's 'how' looks toward the engineer or politician or manufacturer. The broadly exploratory question 'what's there' touches everything from the interior of cells to the interiors of black holes. (p. 74)
Big questions can be formed by the teacher, the student, or a combination of both. Big questions result from inquiry, wonder, brainstorm, previous knowledge, and sheer curiosity. Big questions are open by design and rarely have a 'correct' answer. They also provide a wonderful container and context for serious content and learning.

What do big questions look like? Perkins offers numerous examples. Some big questions are applicable across multiple disciplines.

  • "What if not?"
  • "What's the real problem?"
  • "What are the opportunities?"

Some big questions have personal meaning for the learner. Perkins (2014) calls these questions live hypotheses."Live hypotheses are possibilities a person finds genuinely at issue for himself or herself and worth engaging" (p. 83). Although these questions will differ from learner to learner, some examples may include:

  • "Is [] ethical or non-ethical?"
  • "What is really true about []?"
  • "Why does [] matter?"
Image Source: User Geralt,

Other big questions may take the shape of lesson/unit essential questions. Big questions can also be more practical, more solution oriented. Big questions engage students in looking at the world with wonder, curiosity, desire, and passion. Big questions look to intrinsically motivate students to struggle, to question, and to take deep dives into content. Even though big questions seem vague and nebulous, they actually provide a rich context and relevance to learning. Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey share a similar sentiment in Make Learning Personal (2015), "It is about how we help learners develop questions about the information they read or hear, about inquiring minds that wonder, discover, question, and expand their thinking" (p. 53).

Big questions do more than (re)introduce wonder and excitement to students. The ultimate goal of big questions is for learners to develop big ideas, big answers, big understandings, and big learning. Big questions can also serve as a jumping point for further and deeper learning, the rabbit hole. "Such understandings are answers, lifeworthy answers, the largest and the most important answers we have for the lives learners are likely to live, big in insight, action, ethics, and opportunity" (Perkins, 2014, p.92).

Big questions empower teachers to embrace a pedagogy of ideas, and for learners to be empowered by their understanding of big ideas. The love of rich, big ideas is desperately needed in our schools. Seymour Papert (2000) writes, "the most neglected big idea is the very idea of bigness of ideas. I want to argue that the neglect of big ideas—or rather of the bigness of ideas—has become pervasive in the culture of School to the point where it dominates thinking about the content of what schools teach, as well as thinking about how to run them" (p. 720).

Big understandings and ideas can be applied across the curriculum and transferred to multiple disciplines. For example, look closely at Newton's famous Force = (Mass)(Acceleration) equation. For most people, this equation is limited to physics and, possibly, mathematics. Understanding of this concept could be transferred to social studies, natural sciences, and economics. Think of this big question, "Is F=MA (or rewritten as A=F/M) true in any context?" In other words, "Is F = MA a social studies equation, a technology equation, a philosophical question? The big understandings inherent in authentically investigating big questions can lead to student gains in insight, action, ethics, and opportunity (Perkins, 2014, p. 230).

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Big questions appeal to my inner learner. It is the way I love to think about the world. Big questions make life interesting, personal, and fulfilling. They also motivate me to learn, to try new things, and to engage my natural curiosity. As I think about the next school year, I want to leave room (and plenty of it) for my students to engage in big questions. I want my students to wonder, to admire, and to be passionate. Whether it be through discussion, projects, or nestled within lessons, big questions have a place in the classroom. Our students deserve to engage the world in this way. I want to live in a world where any young person can create knowledge and change through big questions, big understandings, and big ideas.

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