Experiential learning isn’t a packaged curriculum.

Social and emotional learning isn’t an expensive workshop on managing stress in a classroom.

Ed-tech isn’t meant to do what we already do “better.”

Student voice and choice aren’t concepts sold in the latest book.

There is a worrying array of progressive products that diminish meaningful inquiry. Instead of embracing a radical change that disrupts the status quo, educators turn to relatively easy-to-implement products that take traditional ideas but “make them fun” using relatively forward-thinking ideas.

  • Creating “hooks” that take boring classes and relate them to students.

  • Embracing gamification and masking standardized classes with “level ups.”

  • Providing mindfulness activities so traditional classrooms maintain order.

  • Changing a grade system to not reflect letter grades, but still issuing an equivalency that students quickly figure out (1–4, P/F, M/NM)

  • Using experiential learning as a “nice to have” activity after the “real” assessment (a test.) Usually these are more like arts & crafts.

  • Focusing on equity as a way to improve standardized test score performance, rather than connect to a community.

These neo-progressive ideas aren’t horrible — they’re certainly better than the alternative PowerPoint and quiz. I understand they offer educators a safe play in a stressful occupation, and I’ve used them. Administrators and peers tend to celebrate a “really cool” lesson plan where students pay attention, and many of them truly enjoy it. But the worrying line of thought is that these ideas undermine and ignore the pedagogy of progressive education. We’re not embracing progressive ideas of voice, choice, and student empowerment if we’re utilizing progressive techniques to actively undermine those ideas.

As in, a teacher who attends professional development on project-based learning learns all the elements of experiential learning: solving real problems, engaged in meaningful work, student choice in their outcomes, and using extensive time to solve it. However, instead of seeking out opportunities in the community that would love a school’s connection, the teacher finds ways to pair the project to content standards, restricts student choices (sometimes only allowing them to do that one thing), and ultimately makes something that no one, outside of the student, teacher, and maybe their family, sees or cares about. For some students, this may be the best class they’ve ever taken — but we must push more. After all, students may not realize that school could be done differently.

Again, I’ve made the same mistakes. It’s incredibly difficult to create a purposeful PBL experience — or practice progressive education at all in a public setting. I’ve told kids to stay on task to complete my lessons. I’ve experimented with gamification to get kids to “do the content.” I’ve gotten angry at students for not listening to me. I did all of this without asking my students why they felt this way, or really catering to their interests. And the marketing, rollout, and administrative interest in experiential learning is likely ill-suited to the possibilities it provides. Dewey would turn over in his grave to find teachers brandishing his philosophy to do week-long “projects” to display their knowledge of a specific content standard.

Also worrisome are stakeholders making to “transform” learning through ed. tech. As Mark Barnett wrote recently,

“[Seymour] Papert knew that real transformative learning required new models of teaching, where students had more control of learning, where failure was seen as a tool and where students needed to think critically about information instead of being told what to think.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be better. It’s our strive as educators to be curious learners, just as we want our students to be. These curriculum packages mislead us to thinking that we’re transgressing our practice, but really we’re doing traditional better.

For example, we care about social and emotional well-being. A school may purchase a web-based, video lesson guide on promoting mindfulness. At its core, it’s a decent idea, but no one questions if their practice — the classroom or institution — is the cause of these problems. In addition, is offering every student SEL web courses actually helping them, or does the connection need to be individualized for each learner? Are we attempting to solve problems with surface-level solutions?

Or we care about student choice. We receive professional development that paints choice as choosing between three outcomes for an assignment. It’s better than nothing — but certainly student choice could be choosing to do the lesson at all? Perhaps we should invite students to staff meetings and hear their voice at the school level? Why must they learn this content? Who decides?

It’s not a menu of ideas, it’s a pedagogy. If we put students at the center, they should be at the center. We must embrace the radical idea that a child is a human being who has consent in learning. This involves dramatically changing our classroom approach. It’s not what activities we do, or what buzzword is being embraced, but how we value the learner and their background. Direct instruction, online programs, and gamified options can still exist — if that’s what students choose and desire to have. For some students, that will be the case, for others, not. That’s fine, and we must meet their needs.

Dismantling the authoritarian nature of traditional education won’t be solved by making school interesting. At the end of the day, we’ll still be ranking and sorting kids, dismissing their voice, punishing them for their decisions, providing a ludicrous amount of “content knowledge”, making them compete against each other, and overall — dehumanizing them through the education system.

Traditional teachers, I believe, often don’t do this intentionally. Systemic issues — school boards, curriculum guides, district policy — dictate what teachers can and can’t do. It is the role of the subversive teacher to fight for humanity in their classrooms through calculated risk. They must push the humanization of the classroom to its brink, not stay within the confines of what their district has deemed “progressive.” Most could:

  • Shift to self-assessment, where students are in charge of assigning themselves a grade based off what they’ve learned.

  • Ask students what they want to do, while presenting to students that there are state confines they must work with. Then work with students to make that process as painless as possible.

  • Establish trust with students on a human-level. Don’t yell at them. Don’t make them feel stupid. Value them as people to learn with and treat them with respect. It’s difficult when students have no choice to be there and may not want to be, but we can be an ally.

  • If we have to follow certain curriculum guides, morph them to the needs of our class. If our students truly hate it (provide them an outlet to give feedback that matters), then devise together a way to do similar content.

Find a way to be a little rebellious in a risky, yet not completely maniacal, fashion. After all, the community you’ve built among students and their families — showing them that you care — will rally behind you.

So think twice before accepting that the latest thing in education is “progressive.” There’s a lot of snake oil and masked traditionalism out there. What should we look for?

  • A focus on motivation, curiosity, and interest over test scores and assessment.

  • Enabling students to express themselves for change beyond the little things.

  • Interesting lessons or projects that we propose to our students, but don’t subject them to.

  • Finding ways for children to be more socially/emotionally stable at a systemic level, rather than a canned activity.

  • Concepts that focus on skills, rather than content, with the purpose of building those skills because the learner finds them valuable and desires it.

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Grade

We try. We try all of our days to put our fingers on learning. We try to find and keep what works. We try to avoid and lose what doesn’t. And, through it all, we keep chasing the best ways to foster learning in our classrooms. We give our kids opportunities to show, to demonstrate that they are growing, that they are learning. And then, at some point, the chase has to come to an end, and we have to try to make sense of it all. We have to turn it into a grade. But…

Something there is that doesn’t love a grade.
That finds its fault, that questions its veracity
But at mid-year grading-time we find ourselves there
Seeking a number or letter
We meet there, each to a side 
Partners in the journey, the teacher and learner.
There where it is, we do not need the grade,
But the transcript looms, demanding
So fond of its tradition, so proud of its maxim,
“Good grades means good learning.”
End of term is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could plant a notion in its head,
“But how do good grades mean good learning?”
Isn’t there more to it than a number or letter?
And what of the learner? Does she know more than I?
Something there is that doesn’t love a grade.
I could say fairies, but it’s not fairies exactly
And I’d rather it said it for itself. I see it there
Data dotting graphs.
It lives in darkness it seems to me
And not only of paper and spreadsheets.
It will not go behind tradition’s edict, and 
It likes having spoken it so long. 
It says again, “Good grades means good learning.”

I do not love a grade. I do not find–never have really found–that it captures the essence, the the truth of learning. So, I do different. I seek to get closer to the truth by enlisting, by empowering learners to speak their truth when grading time comes around. For, I believe no one knows the truth of learning better than the learner herself. So I ask her. And I listen. Today, I will listen as I engage in Learning Conferences with my kids through my select-and-support approach to grading.

Here’s the approach.

Final Grades

Final grades will be determined at the end of the semester in a conference between the teacher and student (see below). Here are the final-grade considerations going into the conferences.

  1. To earn credit for the course, students must have attempted all Performances.

  2. To select an A, B, or C grade, students must have demonstrated growth through response to feedback. Basically, if a student only produces the minimum score for all performances, they will not enter into a grading conference. The resulting grade will be a D.

  3. If a student has fulfilled the previous requirements, they will get to select an A, B, or C for a final grade following the process outlined below.

Students will compile evidence from their Performances over the course of the semester. At the end of the semester, students will present their grade selections and evidence (see below) during a conference with their teacher. The students will answer two central questions during the conference.

  1. What evidence do you have that you met the priority standards.

  2. What evidence do you have that you achieved growth with the priority standards?

At the conclusion of the conference, if the teacher feels that the provided evidence sufficiently supports the selected grade, he/she will consent to the grade. If the teacher feels that the selected grade and supporting evidence do not match up, then this will result in continuing the conference until consensus is achieved between the teacher and the student. Our hope is that this is a rare occurrence, for we expect that the process will lead to grades and evidence that clearly connect. Our goal of honoring student ownership remains, but we also have to honor the necessity of providing sufficient evidence for supporting a claim. At the end of the day, it’s really about arriving at a place where both the student and the teacher are comfortable with the outcome.


Our grading approach relies heavily upon evidence that students collect over the term to demonstrate proficiency and growth with the term’s focus standards. Students will maintain an “evidence portfolio” that houses all major assignments and assessments. These documents will be the necessary formal evidence for students to support their selection of grades. However, this is not the only form of evidence that students may use to support their selected grades.

Learning Conferences

Today, we will begin our learning conferences. To prepare, kids were given the three questions below. They will each conduct a 3–5 minute conversation about their learning experience this semester, and we will leave the conversation having arrived at an end, a grade, that we are both comfortable with. Is it the best approach to capturing learning? Probably not. For I believe there’s always a “next better” around the bend. Is it an approach that gets nearer the truth? I believe so. And I think my kids do, too.

Learning Conference Questions

Please consider and answer our Essential Question. How does the human experience connect and divide us? Please provide specific details from class (content and experiences) to support your answer.

What evidence of learning do you have from this semester? Please provide specific examples from your Performances, Journey Journals, and experiences.

What grade best represents your learning from this semester? Why?

Rejecting the Huxley Supposition: Using Technology in the Classroom for Real Transformative Learning

In a 1962 interview with Aldous Huxley, (author of Brave New World) he said that “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” Upon first glance, it almost seems laughably absurd; how could we possibly go backwards with the advances in technology that have helped our society with medical breakthroughs, space travel, and the internet? However, I was recently at an international education technology conference where the who’s-who of technology education vendors were there preaching from podiums about how transformative educational experiences can be enhanced with the latest spherical robot, 3D printer, programmable circuit board or kit of screw-together parts. The worst part was all of the wide-eyed educators and administrators who were just eating it up, all mesmerized by the message that using these tools are how kids should be learning in the 21st Century. It’s an easy sell, because 3D printers, robots and circuit boards certainly look like lots of fun.

In reality, being sold is the same model of rote memorization, do as the teacher does model, that was happening in the 1800’s. We just have fancy new gadgets to do it with; and this is where progress only looks like progress, similar to what Huxley said. It doesn’t have to be this way and there are many educators all over the globe who know this as well. We can use technology to really leverage learning instead of just using it as a chalkboard upgrade.

In the same year that Huxley said technology was taking us backwards, there was hope that technology could be used to transform and progress learning instead of sending us back to the dark ages. This inspiration came from Seymour Papert after studying for many years with Jean Piaget; Papert was developing models of education that used technology to enhance learning where children can use math and computers to construct knowledge models with out the need to for teachers to instruct with traditional methods. Papert said that Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed. Papert knew that real transformative learning required new models of teaching, where students had more control of learning, where failure was seen as a tool and where students needed to think critically about information instead of being told what to think.

As I look across classrooms all over the globe, I see more technology in the classroom, but I still see traditional teaching methods where students are just taught to obey. The students are having more fun and it looks like students are doing really innovative work, but alas, in reality it is just more of the same. To help educators overcome this rut, I have some advice and resources that can help guide your teaching practice towards more constructive and innovative ways of learning.

  1. Encourage students to be critical

Letting students have a voice plays an important role in establishing a culture of trust in the classroom, even if students are being critical about the current lesson and their interest in it. Though, another important form of criticism in my classroom is for students to think critically about the use of the technology that we are currently using and it’s impact on the future. To help aid these discussions, I engage with student in conversations about the 150 Copenhagen Principles in order to guide deeper understanding of how technology could have positive or negative effects on society.

An example of one of the 150 Copenhagen Principles

2. Design lessons that include room for failure

Failure in the education system is typically seen as negative and educators feel the need to stray from it all costs. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I plan opportunities for failure to present in every lesson. Failure usually looks like a problem that needs to be solved, but instead of giving students the answer, I give them time to try on their own. Students learn in these moments of failure that failure isn’t the end, but just the beginning to overcoming an obstacle. One way that I help students practice the art of overcoming failure is by having them fix things that are broken and I often point student towards de-bugging projects in Scratch.

3. Let students play

In every lesson that I design, I always provide time for unstructured play with peers and I find this to be the most effective at the beginning of the lesson and especially when introducing a new technology. Building on the works of Seymour Papert and the Reggio Emila approach, the LEGO Foundation has published many great resources about the power of play in education. I recommend checking out The Future of Play and Learning Through Play. Most educators cite that time for play simply does not exist in a rigorous learning schedule, and it is true that it may be difficult to design time for play, but give it a try and you may find that it is more valuable that any rigorous learning schedule can provide.

Mark Barnett is a Learning Experience Designer, working at The Harbour School in Hong Kong at the school’s makerspace and teaches through Project Based Learning that is focused on play, exploration, solving problems and social responsibility.

Lies on Their Shoulders

In the real world…


She had a panic attack.

He was up at 5:00 AM to do his chores, so he could get to zero-hour band.

She didn’t have breakfast.

He met six different deadlines in six different classes.

She didn’t do her homework because no one was at home to take care of her younger brothers and sisters.

He thought about suicide.

She didn’t tell someone about sexual assault.

He wore the same clothes he had the three days before.

She was bullied on social media.

He lost a wrestling match in front of everyone.

She was medicated. Her anxiety is crippling otherwise.

He binged on the food he had hidden in his room. And then hated himself for it.

She silently endured racism.

He didn’t “come out.”

He did drugs again. He doesn’t know how to stop.

They broke up. They didn’t know how to make it work.

No one talked to her. They never do.

His mom died.

…in the real world.

Whether we think it or say it, when we warn kids with the “real world,” it is an affront to their existence, to their humanity, to their reality. The kids, the humans above attend Anywhere High School in Everywhere, World. And whether it was yesterday, today, or tomorrow their world feels real enough. Ask them. They’ll tell you.

Nothing is more real than now. Yesterday’s gone. Tomorrow’s not here. All we have–young or old–is today. Now. Are there things we can bring to the attention of our young from our own experiences in the world? Of course. But the key here is that they are our experiences, not theirs. And even for us, each of us, that experience was different, so when we say “real world,” whose world, which world are we talking about? We often seem to suggest there is a standardized, formulaic experience that is the real world. Maybe instead of placing some future world on their shoulders, we should just simply help them with the one that lies on their shoulders right now. Otherwise, we might be placing lies on their shoulders.

We have an opportunity to exist with and support kids as they make their ways through their worlds, worlds that are the most real they can be, for they are now. That’s the “real talk” we should be having with them.

This post is also published on Monte’s blog at


What about people who don’t believe you?

I’ve rarely discussed progressive education without this question. Yet the assumption always is that students, parents, and educators reject these ideas. I don’t think this is the case. Instead, it is a lack of understanding.

At first glance, progressive-style classrooms appear like teachers don’t care. Instead of a “well-behaved”, quiet room, students are conversing, moving around, (sometimes) quite messy, and likely taking many breaks. Without the backing of pedagogy, this would be a classic example of “bad teaching.”

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Dr. Susan Engel, a child development psychologist. While teaching an ed. class, she had her student teachers observe “engagement” across multiple rooms in a school. To her amusement — and possibly horror — the student teachers noted engagement as “sitting up straight”, “paying attention”, or “raising their hand to speak.” Conversely, disengagement was “moving around”, “talking to friends”, or “using a cell phone.” Engel reminded her students: you’re not measuring engagement, you’re measuring compliance. What about a student bunkering down on one of their passions? What about students learning for the sake of learning? What about passionate group debates?

But to all stakeholders, this requires knowledge of what we’re trying to do.

A student may believe that the teacher doesn’t care: “The teacher isn’t forcing me to behave, so they must not care about my education.” To a teacher’s horror — this will cause their disengaged students to withdraw further. Then, they’ll double down on the old ways. After all, it “worked.” There’s no risk, it looks like “good teaching.”

We must take a step further. A child needs assurance that the teacher is there for them. They need deprogrammed from the compliance-based system. This takes a lot of one-on-one discussion — but an educator must relay to students why they’re teaching this way. Constantly. “I’m not forcing you to do anything because I don’t believe in it. I want you to desire coming to school, to discover your interests, to showcase the world around you, and we’ll explore them together.”

In the same vein, parents want what’s best for their children. If on a teacher’s syllabus they read, “There are no grades.”, alarm bells may sound. “They’re not going to get my kid into college!” Again, the assumption is that the teacher isn’t doing their job properly. (A “bad teacher” at first glance may have similar ideas of a lack of authoritarianism. The difference, of course, is a progressive educator works with their students and is pushing them to succeed—they’re available, not just sitting there.)

It isn’t the parents’ fault to think this way. Most teachers don’t discover this line of thought until reflecting on their practice, so it would be ridiculous to assume that everyone else should automatically see what we mean. Instead, educators must offer assurance. Alfie Kohn opens his conferences by asking parents, “What do you hope life is like for your child in 20 years?” Responses range from “happy” to “married” to “content.” This is in stark contrast, Kohn explains, to how we focus on success in school: GPA, class rank, number of extracurriculars, AP coursework.

Therefore, teachers should open communication with families. Personally, I send home a lengthy letter explaining all the practices of my classroom, actively encourage contact, and invite families to attend. I reach out and invite questions. In addition, our “parent-teacher conferences” aren’t the traditional “Your child is doing something wrong, and that’s a reflection of you.” narrative. Instead, they’re early-on conferences that essentially explain exactly what Kohn is — “I’m doing this because I care. Let me know how else I can help.”

Changing how school works requires informing well beyond our classroom.

Changing how school works requires informing well beyond our classroom.

Finally, there are other educators. Rarely have I encountered a student or parent who isn’t convinced to this shift, however, there are certainly teachers rooted in traditional or “knowledge-backed” practice. For those who have doubled down this way, there’s not much advice I can give — it’s very difficult to change someone’s entire view. But anecdotally, the majority of educators have no idea what progressive education even is. They were never exposed to any books on the matter. They need space, time, and encouragement by administrators and peers to develop their pedagogy. In the same way as parents and students, they need assurance that this way isn’t “bad teaching.”

It’s more difficult for us — because we were brought up in environments that have framed a classroom in a very particular way. To reach beyond that doesn’t always feel right. I’ve questioned, plenty of times, whether what I’m doing is right — especially when a handful of students do close to nothing I ask of them. That being said, a quick reflection will note that similar situations happen in all classrooms — students just “appear” to be compliant. (And at the end of the day, if even one or two more students become motivated learners in my room, it’s a giant, impactful victory.)

Assurance is our first step to bringing others into the fold. Progressive education can’t and shouldn’t happen in a bubble. Luckily, we tend to develop quick alliances after we explain. (If you’d like a starting point, grab one of our free “Why Sheets” for parents/students on our website.)

Wait, 20 is the perfect amount for a classroom?

Modern policy makers point to similar claims: around 20 students is the target of a classroom. I’m perplexed by that number. Since I became a teacher, there is no denying that smaller classes are easier. If I had the option, I would never take 20 students over 15, or 25 over 20. The smallest class I ever had, 8, was by-far one of the best learning communities I developed — which consisted of at-risk students who flourished in a small-scale environment and one-on-one instruction. Outside of the obvious logistic and financial reasoning for larger classrooms, I just couldn’t wrap my head around why we would ever want 20 students as a “great number.”

Education in the United States faces an interesting conundrum: each student per class generates additional income and reduces the number of teachers — increasing the operating budget and allowing for potential better programming options. But what is the cost? The average American classroom has 24 students. Is that too many? Too little? After all, Japan and Korea are well-regarded as high achieving, at least on testing, and their average is a whopping 31 to a room (Snyder, 1993).

A Look Back

In the 1800s, class sizes varied dramatically depending on where one lived. Perhaps you went to a 10 student one room schoolhouse in the West? Or a 33 student classroom in one of the new public schools on the Eastern seaboard? Regardless, as the Industrial Revolution and compulsory schooling took hold, classroom sizes increased as would make sense. Between 1900 and 1930, enrollment of 5 to 19 year olds increased from 52 to 72% of the population, and school boards were concerned at the burgeoning costs of hiring more teachers and building new facilities without any change in funding (Rockoff, n.d.). Early classrooms of the late 1800s and early 1900s had an average of 34 to 37 students to a teacher (Snyder, 1993).

This data was commissioned because school administrators faced the same fears we have today: would increasing the size of classrooms cause reduced achievement? At the time, the answer was a resounding “No.” Research Dora Smith in 1931 concluded,

“‘Experiments following each other in rapid succession from 1920 to the present time have proved to us that, so far as the average measurable achievement of our pupils is concerned, our fears for their progress in large classes are unfounded.’”

And as a result in 1932, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools — which had provided accreditation for educational facilities across many states — decided that the former limit of 20 students to a room was no longer needed. There was no longer any stipulation on class size (Rockoff, n.d.).

Of course, these giant classes weren’t without critics. As educators bore witness to an onslaught of new students, they questioned how research was gathered. Sure enough, similar to the researchers of today, their definition of achievement was solely standardized test performance — which continues to ignore many principles of what it means to be educated. This debate didn’t amount to much though, as the 1920s and Great Depression saw a drastic decrease in birth rates.

However, the Baby Boom generation was coming — and class sizes rose again, being barred at between 20 and 30 students, seemingly without much data to support these sizes (Rockoff, n.d.). This seems to be the norm since the 1960s. Slight fluctuations have occurred, but average class sizes in the United States have consistently hovered around that number.

Examining the Research

This is not just for class size, but really all educational research: we have to be very careful of how we gauge achievement. If our goal is increased — or at least sustained — standardized test scores, our data is going to be much different than if our goal is increased comfort in the classroom, or increased creative risk or curiosity. The vast majority of research pertains to academic test scores in a bubble and that matters a whole lot. If you go on our website, almost every research article we’ve chosen is not based on test scores — because if our measure of success is doing well on something that ultimately doesn’t matter and isn’t a good gauge of learning anyways — then our research isn’t based in something scientific. It’s an overarching problem that’s pushing a traditional system in all aspects of education and something we must look for whenever people present grand claims on what works and what doesn’t. That being said, much of the research on class size surrounds standardized testing and without better options, this is what we’re left with — so take everything with a grain of salt.

Anyways, here are some of the landmark studies surrounding class size:


By far the most commonly brought up study is the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, which was performed in Tennessee in the 1980s. Students were assigned to either a 15 person or 22 person class, and were measured via testing for students in smaller classrooms to have a 3 month gain in academic knowledge over their peers in a 4 year window. Similar work was done in Texas, California, Florida, Connecticut, and other countries with moderate, mixed, and “no effect” results (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2011.)

These studies are a mixed bag for a variety of reasons: perhaps the style of teaching didn’t change when class sizes were reduced. If I keep my class dead silent, individualized, and have students respond to book prompts, there really isn’t a drastic shift in results — but what if I’m the type of teachers who values interaction and constantly builds rapport? The results would definitelyshift. There’s also factors of where the school is and what grade is studied: younger students benefited more obviously from smaller class size, as well as those from less advantaged backgrounds (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2011.)
In addition, classroom size studies are hard to interpret. In wealthier areas, there tend to be more employed teachers leading to smaller class sizes — and we have to be sure that better student outcomes are specifically a result of class size, or maybe it’s due to other privileged factors. However, specifically in the STAR study, students were placed in classrooms at random within a district with an attempt of solving this issue.

And there were studies that built off the ideas of this program. One was a data analysis by Alan Krueger in 1999 that looked at 11,600 students. He found that in one year, those in smaller classrooms (which was marked as 13–17 students) achieved 4% on standardized testing and continued to improve compared to their peers at 1% per year. Notably, teacher aides or specific practices by teachers in these rooms seemed to have no noticed effect — as in, no matter how a teacher managed their room or even if another adult was present, class size mattered. In addition, minority students and those on free and reduced lunch had even greater gains than their peers (Krueger, 1999.)

Raj Chetty and Lifelong Implications of STAR

In another, and likely one of the most interesting I’ve seen, study in 2010 — Raj Chetty and colleagues examined the lifelong implications — such as earnings, college attendance, and home ownership — of those involved in the STAR program. Essentially they sought an answer to the question: “Do small classrooms sizes change life outcomes?” Remember, the STAR program was randomized so this isn’t really a question of background and privilege. They found that children from small classrooms were more likely to attend college, own homes, be married, and have greater retirement funds. In addition, those with smaller class sizes and an experienced teacher, defined by 10 years in practice, earned higher salaries.

Another tidbit from this study was that researchers were confused on why only elementary students performed better on standardized tests with small classes, yet into adulthood these students were still performing better on their achievement measures than their peers. They noted that “higher quality kindergarten classrooms may build non-cognitive skills that have returns on the labor market but do not improve performance on standardized tests.” Do note that this data isn’t conclusive, but it is worthwhile to consider that structuring our classrooms for the success of our students beyond standardized testing is implied to actually make student lives better — which makes a lot of sense and it’s nice to note there is some data here (Chetty et. al., 2011).

Reducing Class Size Without Preparation

Another study resulted from a legislative push in 1996 in California to reduce class sizes from 30 to 20 students maximum. Researchers Christopher Jepsen and Steven Rivkin examined what happened from this shift. In this study, they found that students in small classrooms had greater math and reading scores as a whole, but some students struggled more. You see — in response to adding more classrooms, California needed a lot of new teachers, so they hired people without any formal training or even certification. Students placed in these classrooms had extreme difficulty, especially at-risk students. This is a concerning practice to consider when we talk about reducing classroom size, especially for the implications it has for programs like Teach for America, which are situationally good ideas, but often lead to misqualified people with our children (Jepsen & Rivkin, 1996.)

As a quick aside, there is an obvious financial issue to maintain small class sizes. If every classroom in the United States had one fewer student, it would cost the United States $12 billion, and the reverse is true as well (Harris, 2009.) I try to stay clear of multifaceted political leanings, but to be clear, by cutting the US military budget by $120 billion (18%), we would have an average classroom size of 14. In my opinion, that shift would be an incredible sight to behold.

So what?

It is difficult to prescribe anything in education without tackling multiple issues at once. We can’t simply fund schools more, lower class sizes, and expect a transformative change. Although there would be better learning outcomes, according to research as well as anecdotal evidence from most teachers I’ve worked with, it wouldn’t be as substantial as lower class sizes with new opportunities. And we must be sure to train well-prepared educators, experts in their field, to meet these demands. But imagine an individualized, project-centered classroom — a small learning community where students had the resources, time, energy, and guidance to find out what matters to them. A place where a teacher had the time to seriously get to know a small group of students and push them to succeed. Imagine if higher education rejected the use of 100+ attendee lecture halls in return for individualized research opportunities?

In the same regard, we must be careful of how research results are determined and shared. It is easy for any of us to come to a simple conclusion that fits our narrative, and these findings are one in the same. However, that does not conclude that class sizes are irrelevant — as is shared by traditionalists. As shown above, our way of measurement is often misleading.

I wonder if the populous desire of Americans will lead to greater organization and pushback for our schools. In an era desperate for anti-corruption, sustainable policies that reflect the lives of average people — when teachers are organizing for better pay and respect — will our inevitable next step be fighting for our children’s futures? Professional educators continue to bolster their progressive claims with data and their students earnest respect for their classes. But Internet fame and book sales aren’t enough for radical change. In the vein of Paulo Freire, it makes sense for us to reach out to coworkers — envision a better tomorrow for our classrooms — and fight to make that happen. Without a barricade of respectable teachers on the frontlines, policies which damage education will always creep their way into the forefront. It’s up to us to make a difference and use our knowledge to change the world.

The Naughty List: Stop the Madness

While perusing social media, I came across a rather interesting claim: progressive educators (Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, Pam Moran, etc.) are making untrue claims about the nature of schools. Critics outcry that “rote-based memorization”, “facts and dates”, and prison-like environments aren’t commonplace, and the average school is a vibrant place of learning. I was puzzled. I thought — surely all this work I’ve done preaching progressive education was for a real problem.

So I went and explored. In a non-scientific fashion, I Googled “teacher websites” and looked at syllabi, course assignments, materials, and outlines. And to my relief (and dismay), progressive education is still definitely needed. *In fact, I’ve been working on this for quite some time. Honestly, I had to stop at many points out of pure frustration at the practices I saw.

Below, I’ve established the “naughty list” of poor educational practice. The majority of classrooms I found (I viewed 129 websites) had some semblance of the following. I believe this is fair and just criticism. I’m tired of teachers hiding behind a veil of respect for our profession. As I’m sure most have stated to their classrooms: respect is earned, not given. If we wish to place teachers in the same dialogue as doctors and lawyers, it only makes sense that we call out outright poor decisions. A standard must be set and we must be held accountable. A profession can’t have it both ways.

That being said, that does not mean that all of these are the fault of the teacher (although, a few definitely are.) Administrative policy, the culture of a building, normative training, and more will result in poor teaching.

The Naughty List

Disrespect, Elitism, and “Expectations”

Frankly, this is the one that caught me off-guard; it was most common theme and the most preventable. Teachers talking to kids with a power-hungry, detrimental tone. It wasn’t hard to find these. Any teacher who placed “expectations” on their website would predictably fall into this line of thought. Such as:

  • It would be AWESOME if we could all pretend to be adults…

  • This is the place to gather information…[when you] are bored of looking at Facebook, ran out of music on your iPod, already texted everyone you know five times, were wondering what your teacher’s name was, figured you might want to catch up since some of you might think grades are important…

  • You are here to learn. Don’t waste your time doing something else.

  • If it becomes clear that you are rereading in order to avoid work, I will require that you read a new book.

  • There will be homework almost every night (moan, groan). Yes, there is homework on Fridays!

  • The expectation is you’ll do what you’re told. Administrative action will be given to those who think otherwise.

  • After I greet you, SILENTLY go directly to your seat and immediately copy the homework in your tracker, then do the bell work. AFTER bell workyou can turn in absent/late work, ask me other questions, get a drink of water…

Although everything else on this “naughty list” can be attributed to other negative factors facing a teacher’s career — sometimes out of their control — this is just flat-out bad practice. It’s clear that these teachers don’t trust or respect children. I remember this exact behavior from when I was in school: teachers acting like your life isn’t important; the things you do for fun are a waste of time; and only their class will prepare you for the future. Of course, this isn’t true and anyone will seethe at being treated this way. I couldn’t imagine talking to an adult in this fashion without retaliation.

These statements, which reflect the overall mindset of a teacher, gives a window into their classroom. Their assumptions on students will be reflected by disdain. That may sound charged, but it’s the reality: if one is spending their time speaking of children in a deficit, their actions toward them will be deficit-minded. This is enforced by literal prison policies: do as your told or stay longer in punishment. And these will be the same people who decry that kids don’t want to be at school!

Students consistently subjected to this will hate school. That should be obvious — and even some of the most thoughtful teachers I had made me feel disrespected in the classroom. Providing a space for children to learn requires treating them like human beings — with respect and compassion.

Preparing Students for Jobs in an Amazon Warehouse

When we say, “Prepare students for the 21st century.”, I didn’t realize that meant wage-slave working conditions. The majority of educators I found enforce:

  • Bathroom policies with a punch card-style strike system. Most offered 4 or less allowances per year. Some offered extra credit solely for not using the restroom. Nothing says future-prepared like holding your bladder.

  • Checking in a cell phone at a designated location before the start of each class. Not having access to one’s phone even during breaks or between classes. Of course, I recognize a teacher doesn’t want students on their phone for the entirety of class, but promoting this behavior assumes that students won’t pay attention to the lesson. I would venture in classes like these, most would opt for their phones (see almost any teacher behavior at a PD featuring a PowerPoint.)

  • Late homework held to “high expectations” by ensuring more work and little to no grade for the effort. Although deadlines are important, if we assign 30 minutes per class (and nearly all 7 classes a day do this) — we’re assuming that the average teenager should work 210 minutes — 3 1/2 hours — each night. A ~7:30AM — 6PM work day for no pay and often, irrelevant learning. Teachers usually defend this by saying, “I used to do all my homework at school!” Except, teachers tend to have high academically-performing histories. After all, they decided to work in this environment. Just imagine if someone didn’t understand information at school and was subject to this amount of work, then demonized for not finishing. Of course they’d stop doing homework and fall further behind.

Facts, Dates, and “Rigor”

I really don’t understand how anyone could make a claim that this is not the modern function of today’s classrooms. Of the 129 teacher websites I viewed (all from 2016 onward), only two had an assessment based on extensive project work. Every other classroom featured at least one of the following:

  • Grammar/math/homework/review packets.

  • Guided charts and notes.

  • Posted discussion questions to complete.

  • Reading logs (multiple classrooms required twenty or more books a year to be read.)

  • “Pre-AP” review materials. This was something I was not familiar with, but there are a scary amount of “Pre-AP” 5th-8th grade classes that prepare students for PowerPoints, weekly quizzes, and AP testing. *In my nightmare scenario, “college-preparatory” elementary schools are propping up everywhere.

  • 50% or more of a total grade being based on tests or quizzes. Many were well above 50%.

This isn’t to say that a teacher should never use any of these, but when a class is solely based on providing guided notes, PowerPoints, and taking quizzes, it can automatically be deemed useless. Case-in-point, have any teacher take a final exam in any class they took in this fashion and see if they remember anything. I’d venture they don’t — because nothing was applied. There was no purpose or experience to their learning. Of course, it isn’t entirely their fault. Teachers are modeling this way to prepare for state standardized assessment.

Also, a special shout-out to AP classes — which because of the absurd amount of AP standards and judgment of AP testing — were the most traditional and banal. Almost all of these classes featured multiple day examinations with nauseating amount of fact-based multiple choice tests and extensive memorization “critical thinking” essays.

Social Studies Coaches

Perhaps because I’m a social studies teacher, I knew that this subject would be the worst case scenario. Every social studies instructor I had in school was a coach. And this is nothing against coaches — they often provide excellent outlets (although, not always) — however, these classes were always formatted the same way. PowerPoint posted online. Guided notes. Quiz on Fridays. Teachers like this were paid to be athletic trainers, not educators. They performed as a robot would in the classroom. Some of my teachers would even grab all their materials from Facebook or TeachersPayTeachers and simply read them aloud.

Again, it’s not that all of the following are poor choices — it’s when they’re solely the output of a class:

  • Crash Course videos on every single lesson plan

  • One and done templated “fun activities” for kids (e.g. Enlightenment Facebook accounts, Snapchat stories)

  • A curriculum focused on wars with little (and often, no) emphasis on racism, sexism, and other crucial facets of social studies

  • Answering the questions on the state standardized test or at the back of an online textbook.

  • Current events for 5 minutes of class, followed by lecture and notes. Emphasis on the notes. In fact, most teachers wrote extensively on taking notes in a journal. This was the reason I hated history class in school. Despite teaching the subject, I was reminded of this while shadowing a student while student teaching — no matter how interesting history is to me, a textbook lecture is never engaging.

Destroying a Love of Reading

Only 1 of 43 English classrooms allowed students to choose their own books to read. Almost all required daily reading logs with an expectation of 20 or more minutes per night. We should definitely want our students to be readers, but nothing will kill any joy in literature faster than forcing someone to do something nights-on-end. I would venture that forcing a student to play video games an hour a day, write a report on it, and present it to the class would turn kids to reading Shakespeare.

With statements like:

“Can I read a magazine? No. Read a book. Magazines and newspapers don’t offer the extended chunks of prose you need to develop fluency. More important, they won’t help you discover who you are as a reader of books.”


“If any book is not permitted to be read, at the request of your parents, an alternative text will be provided for you.

It’s not surprising that most adults hate reading, yet most kindergartners love reading. It’s not the level of the text or time commitment, it’s the destruction of purpose-driven reading that happens throughout school. Personally, as well as anecdotally through my pro-reading friends, we all had to “redevelop” a love of reading well after school.

The Nice List

There were teachers doing great work that deserve their practice recognized. Here’s what we all should strive for:

  • A class devoted to running the school’s newspaper where, outside of some key terms, students operated and worked together to meet publishing deadlines. The teacher was constantly critiquing and praising their work.

  • A teacher designing large-scale science projects that were individualized to every learner, checking in weekly to see if they’re on the right track. One grade was recorded for completion of the project.

  • An AP teacher who stated that although the test forced them to memorize a lot of information, their grade on the test is not indicative of their intelligence or where they’ll end up.

  • A syllabus that emphasized the importance of questioning authority, respecting everyone, and developing empathy for people different than oneself. Classroom “expectations” were all agreements written by students.

  • A classroom that completely removed grades and switched to a portfolio system that was self-graded and conferenced upon with the instructor.

Escaping the Bubble

This may come across as a narcissistic complaint of what teachers do. And to an extent it is, but I want it to be about doing better. Social media users live in a bubble and some have come to believe that the average teacher is doing relevant, amazing work — and it’s just not true. I believe wholeheartedly the average classroom is well, average. It’s about standardized, boring curriculum and it’s taught in a relatively boring way. The teacher may be kind, generous, and make connections with kids — but I know from my experience in school that this was not the norm — and most of my teachers are still around.

When 1 or 2 of 7 periods in a day is doing amazing, experiential-driven work with critical thought, creativity, and collaboration coming into play (which are often the same classrooms celebrated on Twitter and Instagram), that is not enough.

We can’t stop pushing or disillusion ourselves that these problems don’t exist. It requires all those pushing at the edges to double-down on doing what’s best for children according to child development experts, educational researchers, and sheer common sense of one’s school experience. Until the average 18 year old praises school publicly for the awesome experiences they had, when it’s weird that children want to stay home from school, when students recognize the purpose of what they’re doing — we cannot assume that teachers are always doing the right thing.

I hope that these words don’t come across as disrespectful or belligerent. But I’m dissatisfied with the status quo, and you should be too.

HRP’s Books of the Month — January, This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.

This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson heralds a personal, provocative story of doing what’s best for children. Vilson presents a narrative of his school experience and how that has impacted his teaching, allowing a deep viewpoint into his perspective and helping us reflect on our practice. We dissect the education system — seeing it for all its successes and faults — and find concrete examples of what a difference a great teacher makes, the importance of diverse viewpoints in schools, and what next steps need to be taken.

I find it refreshing that Vilson incorporates a broad range of stories to emphasize his viewpoint. This isn’t a prescriptive list of things one must do at school, but a collection of ideas to contemplate. For example, Vilson writes,

Individually, the way teachers remember their years in school is often indicative of how they view ‘good’ education, even if it didn’t really work for everyone. It always starts off the same: ‘When I was a student, teachers used to ______, and we’d learn because _____, and that’s why I do it that way.’…:

Teacher A: ‘When I was a student, my teacher used to draw lettuce next to the most important points of her notes and that worked because I could identify with lettuce and it would get us all hungry so we’d want to work harder for that lettuce!’

What did she just say?

Teacher B: ‘I’m with you! I had one teacher who put on a clown face whenever we discussed books like Of Mice and Men and Flowers for Algernon. I really understood the book then, and the rest of the class enjoyed it too!’

José, if you just smirk, it’ll all go away.

Teacher C: ‘Well, my original language is French, and based on what my teacher said, he speaks the best French and there really is no other French that makes sense to me. And when I learned it, I knew it was the best because people would tell me how great it is, so there I go.’

Oh hell no.

A dangerous practice that many teachers engage in is groupthink — believing that their experiences reflect good teaching and therefore, all students benefit. Vilson leads us through a series of dialogues and stories, demonstrating a serious problem: if teachers were all well-supported, well-behaving, and stellar academic students, is their teaching style reflective of only serving students who behave this way? I’d argue that for most, this is the case, and Vilson’s persuasive (and often humorous) account helps to build reflective moments.

And of course, it is often difficult to reflect on teaching. One must be open to acknowledging that what they’re doing isn’t necessarily benefiting their classroom (even if it worked well for them in school.) As Vilson reflects on his own experience, he notes,

Most students take on a passive-aggressive route to defy their teachers, which really works to teachers’ advantage because it doesn’t require them to consider what in their pedagogy might have incited such a reaction.

In order to truly connect with our students, we have to understand them — their culture. Much of this work is a call to action: get to know your students and promote discourse, dialogue, and action that empowers diverse students to achieve (and hopefully educate the next generation.) Vilson explains,

Do I still teach math ‘property’? It depends on the context and audience, largely. Classrooms require teachers to get to know their students before trying to teach them anything else, and this is no less true where the students are hardest to teach. In no way do I suggest buying a Lil Wayne record and incorporating his slang into the classroom, but our students have a culture that’s both authentic and unique to them…As educators, what we could say is, ‘My teacher taught this way and it worked for me and a few of my friends, so that’s why I’m teaching this way.’ We could also take it a step further and say, ‘I’m open to other, possibly more effective ways of teaching the material based on real research and improving my pedagogy to most children possible.’ We can own up to the idea that the people attending those meetings usually were the ‘good’ kids in their elementary-school classes.

If we’re going to ensure that underrepresented students are emboldened in our classrooms, it only makes sense that we must meet them halfway. We can’t teach solely to a fraction of the class (the ones that likely go without complaint in the teacher workroom) and expect that by pure happenstance, everyone turns around and becomes a compliant, quiet, and academically sound achiever.

Vilson offers his important, and often unheard, perspective as a diverse educator,

Children of color have had a different, unjust education, even before this current education reform — public, private, or otherwise — and this is how many of our children choose to respond…I did well academically, but I was still antisocial and a misfit; even my teachers probably found this brown know-it-all-who-probably-just-needed-some-guidance a bit obnoxious. I knew of hip-hop the way we know of expensive clothes behind pristine glass windows. When I sneaked in listening sessions of hip-hop radio station Hot 97 in my bedroom, I felt it in my bones — not because I ever dealt drugs or shot a man with a .38 pistol, but because I lived in a neighborhood where I saw and heard it all myself far too often. I felt the underlying anger of these young men…

Vilson makes many notes of the experiences he had in school, how that affected his upbringing, and how it relates to his teaching experience. This is considerable given how, sadly, rare teachers of color are (18%), let alone male teachers of color (2%) (UNCF, 2016.) Vilson reminiscences,

When we discussed poetry or contemporary music in class, kids would say things like, ‘José, can you rap some Ma$e for us?’ Boys will always rib each other, but prompting the Black kid to rap didn’t sit well with me. Even if I did have the 1997–1999 Bad Boy Records catalogue memorized, I didn’t see myself as anyone’s urban jukebox. In everyone else’s eyes it looked innocent, as with many microaggressions, I left it alone.

Microaggressions — those little, ostensibly innocent actions that highlight a person’s privilege or lack thereof — are a concept I wish I’d had at my disposal back then. We are taught to think of racism as looking like pointy white hoods, but microaggressions are much more common and complex.

Vilson highlights how many teachers embraced him for who was was — especially his choir teacher who literally and figuratively recognized and gave him a voice (and conversely, how racist educators, either through outright changing grades or simply ignoring those disengaged in the class, did so much harm.) These small actions add up rapidly, and we are reminded through these narratives how much we can make a difference. We cannot give up on our students, and even the little things matter.

And it helps to embolden our profession. Here’s an extensive quote by Vilson that states these concepts perfectly:

Because more than 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are women, our society also views teaching as ‘women’s work’ — a category that often leads to demeaning and obtuse ways of dismissing teachers’ contributions. This dynamic compounds the already existing problem of society talking down to educators in our schools. Too many people don’t see the need to pay teachers well or to ensure they have proper working conditions because they see us as caretakers, not professionals. Where male-dominated professions like computer science or medicine get respect, the teaching profession still has to combat patriarchy.

…out of the fifty or so teachers I’ve had in my lifetime, only two or three of them were men of Black or Latino descent. For someone who was born and raised in New York City, that’s staggering.

You’re allowed to wonder why that’s so important. After all, teachers of all races, backgrounds, sexes, and ages have proven effective educators of urban youth.

I love that so many white people care about the plight of Black and Latino students that they’re open to working in the neighborhoods they’re in. Many of my white teachers were excellent. I get that there needs to be a diversity of experiences; our students have to survive in the same world as everyone else. A small part of me also thinks: Who better to teach urban youth the tools needed to survive in the predominately white country than…white people?

But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disturbed by the lack of representation of Black or Latino males as teachers.

This lack of representation is thoroughly explained. Pointedly, it makes sense that if teachers are failing to connect with students who come from a different background than themselves, those students are less inclined to focus on education in their future. In addition, historical factors such as desegregation leading to African American educators being pushed out of the system are at fault. We must do a better job at promoting diverse voices and hiring people of color in the education system. As Vilson explains, it isn’t that there aren’t great educators from any background, but it matters that children see their culture — their experience — in an adult. He states,

The Black/Latino male students respond more readily to me.

The girls in my class are more willing to share their experiences with me and often look to me as a role model or father figure.

The people in my class may act like they hate me temporarily after I’ve scolded them about something, but they know I have their best interests at heart.

They ask me about what it was like when I was growing up, because they know my experiences mirror theirs.

Some of them have considered becoming teachers because of me.

Many teachers of color have seen firsthand what might happen if their children don’t get a good teacher.

…We don’t take ‘Yo, what up, teacher?’ or ‘Hey, miss!’ to be a sign of illiteracy, but a sign that they want to connect with us as human beings. Our importance as teachers of color stems from this dire need for kids of all races and backgrounds to see people of color as multidimensional and intelligent people, different in culture but the same in capability and humanity.

This work is worthwhile as its unique — not enough is written on the issue of diversity in education, especially not from the perspective of someone actively engaged in this issue. We recommend This Is Not a Test for all educators to employ new perspectives, ideas, and ultimately grow as better people.

Taking the Plunge

“M” practically ran into my room with her phone in her hand. It was our short passing period, but she was bubbling with excitement and had something she just had to show me right. now.

M is a nationally competitive diver with global ambitions. For her Economic Engagement Project M wanted to know about what it takes, from an economic perspective, to be an Olympic athlete and research the financial impact of the Olympic games:

What are the economic benefits of the Olympics?

How do athletes pay for training and travel?

Do they pay for their own equipment?

Is it like a job or something they do on the side?

How do they get “paid” for their athletic work?

So she just reached out and asked one of her heroes

…waited for a response

…and her hero responded back.

Excerpt from E-mail Response

Excerpt from E-mail Response

A semester in the making, this changed everything about M’s project. She had originally wanted a wider audience with a published video to YouTube, but after she received the reply, she immediately asked to present her research to the class so we could all share in her passion, ask questions, and respond and react in real time. Which we did, of course, and her knowledge and enthusiasm was as infectious as she had predicted.

We ended the class period not only with a greater understanding of the economic consequences of the Olympics and the financial implications of athletic participation — her intended goal — but everyone within range of M’s voice was impacted by the chain of influence from her role model into our classroom.

To quote M to the class:  “I was so hyped about this!”

To quote M to the class: “I was so hyped about this!”

Outline from M’s Presentation

Outline from M’s Presentation

This is the kind of learning that is possible if we unencumber our classrooms from complicated instructional strategies — often meant to impress a false sense of urgency or keep students too busy to misbehave — and make room, give time, and provide support for students to engage in the most fundamental and natural processes of learning:

What do you want to do?” was followed by “How are you going to do it?” and “With whom?” which was then followed by “For whom?”, “What will the impact be?”, “What tools or resources will you need?”, and “How will you know when you’ve gotten there?” — My Pragmatic Journey…”, 8/16/2018

We should be asking ourselves critical questions if a curriculum— however standardized or standards-based — fails to make room for these immeasurably valuable experiences:

  • How does this fit into a narrow range of content standards, and what standard work is worth giving up to make room for this kind of student inquiry?

  • If I had started with standards, would M have ever gotten to this outcome or would she have altered her own learning and outcome to fit the standards?

Further, we should be careful that our guiding documents — designed to structure our limited time with students and build a path to a particular and often predetermined outcome — don’t also impose unnecessary ceilings and walls that prevent them from exploring and discovering what lies beyond.

How can the depth, the complexity, and the personal and iterative nature of this learning process possibly be captured and faithfully reflected in a letter grade, who would even want that? — “What Matters?”, 12/5/2018

  • What does a rubric for authentic, student-generated work even look like, and how would M’s learning fit in? Would we want to alter her learning to make it more easy to quantify and measure?

  • How do you even begin to measure the impact of this interaction with her hero on a grading scale? Her life is changed and we are changed because she is changed. Does that “exceed”? Is that an A?

There is a certain hollowness to a curriculum filled with endless standards to be mastered, the ensuing litany of assessments, and the rubrics against which to measure them if this kind of classroom learning and sharing isn’t possible for students — or if it happens only within a narrow range of acceptable content. What question on a common assessment could any of us have asked that would have accomplished the same level of engagement, affirmation, joy, and depth of personal connectivity as the questions M asked and answered for herself? What question do you think she will ask and answer next? And after that?

Up today is a presentation about “A Renewable Future”, in which a student reached out to green energy organizations in our state and interviewed a professor from Iowa State University’s College of Engineering. We continue to take the plunge and the chain of influence and connectivity grows.

Thanks to  Burton Hable .

Thanks to Burton Hable.

The Way of Things

“No bad. Just where you are until we find our way, okay?”

Somewhere along the way we got our wires crossed. What I expected and what she thought I wanted were two different things, and, consequently, it affected her performance.

I said as much in my written feedback at the top of her paper, giving her the benefit of the doubt and taking some responsibility that I may have explained it inadequately. Even so, our conference began yesterday with her uttering, “I did bad.”

But she didn’t do “bad.” She just needed clarification, for as we went through the performance (assessment), it was clear that she understood the “what;” she had just gotten mixed up on the “how.” And that’s partly on me, yes?

Once upon a classroom, the conversation would have gone far differently. So differently, in fact, that I struggle to recognize the teacher I once was. Then, I would have simply said that she didn’t follow directions. I said them. I wrote them. And most every other kid followed them. So, it was not my fault. It was hers. And there are consequences for not following instructions. It’s the way things are. And she would have earned her “F.”

Who does that? Well, clearly, I. But as I did, too many still do. But it doesn’t have to be. I will never go back to that place, a place no longer imaginable. But even as I run away from that place where I once dwelt and dealt, I cannot deny that when I was there, I thought I was right. I knew I was right. You know nothing, Monte Syrie.

Even now, in a place far better, I know less than more. I have not the answers. I have not arrived at the magical land of ED upon a yellow brick road. I have no illusions that there isn’t simply a man behind the curtain. But. But I no longer only look behind the curtain for answers, I look out into the room, the space and there I find who knows as well or better than I. The kids.

Oh, there in that place I still have a role. Always will. Somebody has to make it okay. No bad. Just learning. I can do that, and though I will no doubt look back someday and find fault in this space, too, I have to believe–I want to believe–I won’t cringe knowing that I helped a kid find her way, instead of hiding behind the “way of things.”

And so, that’s what I did. I helped her find her way. No wicked witches. No wizardry. Just two humans working together as we seek our way.

This post is also published at, where Monte daily shares his classroom journey.