Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Letter to Parents (From a teacher)

This is what I should have wrote...

Image Source: User Unsplash,

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?

Image Source: User GreenStar,

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

Image Source: User Alexis,

“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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