Thursday, December 31, 2015

What does structural racism look like?

For years, the United States Government sanctioned the export and sale of drugs in American inner-cities that addicted and devastated entire Black and Brown communities. The illicit profits were used in large part to support an insurgency force in a developing-world country that would unseat the internationally recognized governing power.

At the same time as the government pumped millions, maybe billions, of drugs into racial-/ethnic-minority communities in the USA, it also facilitated the explosion of a private, for-profit prison industry. Blacks were disproportionately incarcerated with stiffer sentencing guidelines than Whites and further restricted upon release from working rights or voting.

Millions of Black families were impacted, and the economies and social ecologies of inner-cities were severely disrupted.... The communities were literally poisoned.

And the President's wife told Black children to "just say no."

(No sh*t, lady....)

And a generation-and-a-half later, inner-city communities, racked with poverty and a prevailing sense of hopelessness, struggle to support their schools - not because they don't love their babies and want the best for them, but because they've been attacked.  (Which would be bad enough if they also weren't neglected.... The USA rebuilds places we destroy around the world but leave American communities dying on the vine).

These inner-city communities generated extraordinarily little wealth to bequeath to its young adults. Crime became a more dramatic presence. Black and Brown communities were further marginalized and subjected to police abuses of power.

With the advent of mobile recording technology, more videos were released  of the murder of Black people by police even further weakening the trust and collaboration of inner-city communities with law enforcement entities. It gave rise to a movement which is demonized by many and freely associated with terrorism.

(And millions of Americans want People of Color to be quiet and stay passive... but I digress.)

THAT is a snapshot of what structural racism looks like.

Friday, December 25, 2015

What I learned about great teaching in 2015....

2015 has been an incredible year for me personally, and I am so grateful for all of the experiences and insights it has yielded.  Among the most salient of emerging understandings is the appreciation I continue to develop for how much vulnerability plays a role in the work of great teaching. I am especially attuned to this because I am afforded the opportunity to spend a lot of time with teachers and kiddos; and I recognize just how much teachers are ostensibly putting themselves on the line in inviting me into their classrooms. I say ostensibly because I, of course, intend no harm when I visit schools – but I know very well how intimate the classroom space is for teachers, and I understand how opening themselves up for criticism and other "feedback" from outsiders can be perceived as hurtful in some scenarios and a waste of time in others.

In many ways, being a great teacher is like being a great Hollywood leading wo/man.  Being a leading wo/man is much more than being a headliner; it's about accepting the responsibilities and all the accompanying pressures of delivering a headlining performance that fulfills the promise of a well-written script and also draws out the best of all the other co-stars and supporting performers.

My most interesting insight this year is that the very pressure to perform ultimately creates the circumstances in which "great teaching" is defined. At their most vulnerable moments, teachers are confronted by a frightening wondering: That is, "What if I don't deliver? What if I reveal myself as not being very good at this teaching thing?"  There isn't a much more terrifying thought than that for a teacher, and I know most (maybe all in some way) of the teachers I've worked with in the last year have been confronted with that very consideration.

The thing is, that's also a defining moment of greatness.... Our business is about discovering the truth of what works for our children. It's an endeavor that resists pre-packaged and easy answers.  In order to discover that truth, greatness requires that we risk a lot... including the humiliation of public (and sometimes not so graceful) failure.  My most profound insight this year is that greatness in teaching (and arguably any domain of human understanding) is getting to the point when you're willing to humiliate yourself to find your most honest truth.  In order to do anything that is bold and worthy of the attention and investment of our students, you have to be willing to get it wrong. Otherwise, all that you produce is safe (i.e., boring), and utterly meaningless for your students who need your highest frequency intellect and energy.

Instead of seeking easy answers, great teachers embrace the extraordinary complexities of our profession. They invest massive amounts of time and energy in considering the many facets of the teaching and learning process(es) and the multitude of influences that add to its richness. It is widely held in educational literature that the teacher is the single most influential factor in student learning (Hattie 2009; Marzano, Pickering & Pollock 2001; Tokuhama-Espinosa 2014). When asked, urban students have described six prevailing characteristics of great teachers: "Good teachers push students, maintain order, [are] willing to help, explain until everyone understands, vary classroom activities and try to understand students" (Corbett & Wilson 2002).  When orchestrated by great teachers, these qualities manifest themselves in an experience for students which confirms that they have powerful agency in their own learning outcomes (Ferguson, Phillips, Rowley & Friedlander 2015).  Despite all that we know about what works in teaching, there is no simple algorithm for this.  This is the profoundly human aspect of what great teaching entails.  This is the spirit of great teaching that builds community and affirms the academic identities of students in such ways that they themselves are willing to be vulnerable in the learning process.

The most sacred moments of teaching are those when we have simultaneously released ourselves into the experience and yet still retain the sight-lines for commenting on the impact of our efforts relative to the needs and interests of our students. The commentary is what we return to; it is what gives us insight into our practice and into ourselves.

I've learned first-hand this year that all great teachers may not (yet) be master teachers, but all great teachers are masterfully vulnerable.  Our vulnerabilities not only give us the space and opportunities to grow, they ultimately define our identities as practitioners.

Here's to another year of risk, of potential humiliation, of brilliant failures – and the beautiful insights they yield. Our children deserve all that and more; and when we think of it that way, our vulnerability is but a small price to pay for the opportunities to be of better service to all our students.


Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London, UK: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001) Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014) Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science. New York, USA: W. W. Norton & Company.

Corbett, D. & Wilson, B. (2002) What Urban Students Say About Good Teaching.
Educational Leadership, v60 n1 p18-22.

Ferguson, R. F., Phillips, S. F., Rowley, J. F. S., & Friedlander, J. W. (2015) The Influence of Teaching Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency. Cambridge, MA: The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Blame is the pornography of school reform....

Blame is the pornography of school reform.

Equity is ultimately achieved when EVERY child has access to high quality education in ABSOLUTE terms. Equity is the light.

In the light of Equity, there is accountability. Pure and authentic accountability is GOOD.

Accountability is NECESSARY for improvement. It means to be responsible for one’s role in the cooperative effort to improve schools.

At the other end of the reform spectrum is darkness

In the darkness there is blame. To blame, to participate in blaming, is the darkness. 

Blaming is the pornography of school reform. Pornography is obscene, it is indecent, it is a guilty, undermining, corruptive pleasure.

Porn is a perversion of something good and essential.

Blame is the perversion of accountability. 

Blame is the porn that interferes with our capacity to be open and honest and supportive in re the improvements we need to see ASAP.

Blame flies in every direction in school reform conversations.  We’re addicted to blame. Many would rather blame than authentically engage.

Blame allows for the redefining, from a limited vantage point, of other perspectives/experiences w/o responsible investment in the problem.

In our national school improvement dialogue, there are far too many who offer no responsible cooperation…

…but they have perfected their language and platform in the interest of a blame agenda.

Many are FAR better at assigning blame than contributing to improvement.

Many feel they prove their competence through creatively assigning blame.  (They know more about blame techniques than the actual problems.)

THE SOLUTION: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Catch yourself being drawn to blame. Reframe it to responsible cooperation.

We must end the peddling of school improvement porn. We must be responsible, cooperative agents of change.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Three questions to ask yourself before calling for discipline support...

The assault by an SRO at Spring Valley High School raises several important questions, but one that perplexes me is why the teacher felt the need to call for outside support to begin with?  What we seem to know now is that the instigating event had to do with the student not complying with a request to give her phone to the teacher. I find this troubling because it doesn't appear that the teacher needed to pursue this with an interruption to the class; rather, this is something that could have been addressed with the support of other staff AFTER the class period had ended.

When behaviors arise, teachers should try to swiftly address and re-direct without losing instructional momentum.  Generally, there are three questions a teacher should ask themselves before making the decision to suspend instructional time in order to address the behavior of a particular student.  These questions are:
  1. Can I still teach?
  2. Can the other students still learn?
  3. Can this student still learn?
Based on what I know so far about the assault at Spring Valley High School, it appears that the answer to all three of these questions is at least a probable "yes."

There are many lessons to be learned from this incident (which, by the way, seems to me to be a criminal offense by the SRO against the child), among them that teachers should be cognizant that not all student behaviors have to be address in the moment of instruction.  Some defiant behaviors that do not interfere with instruction can be effectively dealt with at a later time in ways that do not undermine the authority of the teacher and still address the student's choices constructively.

Teachers, don't let yourself be pulled unnecessarily into a war of wills with a student. You don't need to engage their behavior in that way nor is it likely to yield the results you want.

#WeHaveToDoBetter #AssaultAtSpringValley #WhatIfThatWasYourKid

Ten Questions About the Spring Valley High School Assault #AssaultAtSpringValley

I'm appalled by the image of a grown man slamming a 14 year old girl on the ground in a classroom.  I offer no apologies for his behavior.  There was no threat to him and thus no need for that type of aggression toward anyone. The SRO should be terminated. Immediately. That is inexcusably poor judgement. We need no further explanation from him. (And didn't we just see a similar image of a similar-age boy being wrestled to the ground just a few weeks ago? I'm still angry about that!)

But I still have questions about Spring Valley... because this is anything but an open-and-shut case:
  1. What are the guidelines for how the SRO is supposed to handle the instance of a defiant student refusing to comply with an officer's direct requests?
  2. What is the school policy on technology in the classroom?
  3. What was the nature of the discussion between the student and the teacher before the SRO was called? What did adults say to her? 
  4. Was there consideration of handling the issue with the student after the conclusion of class?  Why such an insistent emphasis on handling the matter to finality right then and there?
  5. What is the nature of the teacher's relationship with the students in that classroom?
  6. What was the officer told before coming into the classroom?
  7. Has the officer had any previous physical encounters in his role as SRO?
  8. How is the SRO incorporated into the community of the school beyond the official capacity as an enforcement officer?
  9. How would the teacher explain his response to the realization that an assault of a student was about to occur in his classroom?
  10. Does the SRO report directly to the school administrator for supervision and evaluation? 
I'm over the grandstanding about what somebody would have/could have done had they been in this classroom. I need this to lead to a productive conversation about the inherently difficult task of disciplining defiant students that DOES NOT result in the assault of young people.  I can't accept that this is an inevitability.

At the very least, this should start school-level conversations about what is expected of the staff in the case of such student defiance.  I am in schools all the time. I hear staff provoke students, and I see young people offer up all kinds of resistance to authority... and yet, this has to be held up as the example of what NOT TO DO in the event that a student refuses the direction of authority.  I've been cursed by kids, and I know what it means to have my buttons pushed by a child - and yet, we have to do better! The context of this assault should be investigated carefully so that we are better able to close the loopholes that offer the illusion of justification for the assault of young people by adults in schools.

#WeHaveToDoBetter #AssaultAtSpringValley #WhatIfThatWasYourKid

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Ten Commandments of Culturally Responsive Classroom Discipline

Discipline is key in creating the kinds of classroom environments and learning experiences in which students can feel fully vested; but many teachers struggle with developing a strong sense of the practices and guidelines that are most effective in modeling and supporting students in appropriate discipline.

It should be kept in mind that there is much about discipline that must be tailored to the personality of the teacher, the needs of the students, and the nature of the content area.  Maintaining an effective discipline environment has everything to do with how teachers develop a strong sense of community among students and a meaningful buy-in to the learning opportunities available to them.

Before I share my ten commandments culturally responsive discipline, I'd like to define exactly what I mean by discipline because the definition frames the manner in which the commandments should be incorporated into the policy and practice environment.  

What is discipline?

The prevailing definition of discipline is something akin to the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

This is, unfortunately, how the word is generally used and understood by teachers who most often ask me for consult with regard to their problems with discipline.

But if we trace the etymology of the word, we find that the current use of the word has taken a departure from its original use.  Quoting directly from the original Latin, discipline is derived from the Latin word disciplina  which means instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge. It is also understood in the original Latin as the object of instruction, knowledge, science, military discipline (which is derived from the Latin word, discipulus).

It's important to trace the origins of the word because I contend that discipline should be thought of as behavioral instruction.  Discipline is the instruction of behaviors that support students' learning in school.  These behaviors are a language of sorts, a way for students to communicate needs and meaning through their choices and actions.  Good instruction should teach these kinds of behaviors explicitly because to not do so is to advantage those students who come to us already fluent in the behavioral codes of school - which is generally owed not to any inherent ability or intellectual advantage but rather to advantages associated with the social and cultural fluencies they inherit from parents and other care-givers.  So the language of behavior that we most value in school is not the only way students can express need and meaning, but it is essential that we provide students these tools and fluencies so that they can have the fairest opportunities to receive the benefits of education.  The key, of course, is we have to pass on these fluencies without dismissing the value of the other fluencies they have accrued because other behaviors may very well be supporting their survival and success in out-of-school social environments.  In this way, community takes on huge significance. We want for students to think highly of their membership in school communities so that we can teach them the language and strategies for success and thus allow them to develop academic identities that will justify the investment of time, energy, and effort necessary for them to fully reap the benefits of their schooling.

At the heart of any culturally responsive discipline practice is the goal of restoring the sense of community that has been harmed. If discipline is conceptualized as a tool to punish or alienate rather than restore and engage, it will further dis-incline vulnerable students from making the investment in their learning and participation in school that others are likely to perceive as evidence of authentic engagement... and this is critical because when students are perceived as authentically engaged, they receive higher quality inputs from teachers.

... In summary, the purpose of discipline is to provide behavioral support for student engagement.

Now on to the commandments....

1. Thou shalt never respond to students in anger.

Teachers who nurture identity-safe spaces that provide rigorous and engaging instructional opportunities know how important it is to motivate students from a position of love and NOT fear.  Many of our most vulnerable students deal with out-of-school circumstances that are beyond any fear that can be instilled in them through a school-based punishment.  Students who struggle with school discipline are generally fluent in the language and behaviors of anger; their capacity for leveraging those inclinations is most often greater than yours. Most anger comes from fear, and responding to students with this same destructive energy puts you as an authority at a disadvantage; plus anger, when combined with anger, does not yield any reliable peace.

When your kiddos are challenging classroom structures or just pushing your buttons, find your love language and use it generously.

2. Thou shalt always address the behavior and not the person. 

All behavior is a form of communication.  That's why we study body language so vigilantly; it tells us so much about people's values and intentions. Teachers who have a high sense of cultural awareness know that every single student behavior is an expression of some unmet need.  The goal when redirecting behaviors is to either teach or to clarify students' understandings of how they can effectively interpret their own needs and express said needs to others in an appropriate manner.  Students grow when they are able to learn their own capacity for understanding and controlling their behaviors.  That can only happen when students are able to identify the effects of their behaviors in a safe environment. One never feels safe when under attack. "Be hard on the behavior, but gentle with the child."  Cultural responsiveness entails naming and isolating the disruptive and unproductive behaviors without attributing the behaviors to any inherent flaws in the student.  Ask yourself, What is this student trying to convey? And resist thinking of the student as a "bad kid."  That view will limit your lens considerably.

3. Thou shalt reward self-directed engagement.

One of the flaws of unproductive classroom discipline practices that do not effectively teach successful behaviors is its abject re-activeness.  Too many teachers think they have a classroom behavior management system when in fact what they really have is a punitive, "gotcha" system that is intended to spot and defeat bad behaviors after they've already manifested.  A rich and culturally responsive discipline model emphasizes identifying the moments when students are engaged and rewarding them for that self-directed investment of energy as a proactive system designed to affirm and encourage students' desired performance.  

Digital Badges are one outstanding tool for rewarding appropriate student behaviors, but any system that is developed to be relevant and responsive to your students' identities will work - as long as it is designed to proactively memorialize those snapshots of students' engagement.  These moments affirm students' developing academic identities by confirming an instance of synergy where the students' investment met with their personal sense of self-control in the context of learning.  Narration, done well and with authenticity, is another excellent manner in which to reinforce students' self-directed engagement; but students have to accrue the confidence through experience in your classroom that their engagement will be acknowledged and is likely to lead to success. 

4. Thou shalt name desired behaviors.

Cultural responsiveness is about recognizing the range of what may be considered appropriate social behaviors given myriad cultural indoctrinations.  Rather than trying to assign blame to what one may perceive as cultural deficits, it's far better to be explicit in naming the behaviors that lead to success in your learning space. 

Most human beings are in some manner multi-cultural in that we have learned to express ourselves according to the norms and expectations in multiple social spaces in which we value our own membership.  The vast majority of students already have a familiarity with their home cultural codes of language, behavior, and expression before they enter their first day of formal schooling. "Home" is an inherently easier place to learn behaviors because it's in these spaces where we develop our home cultural identities - as in, this is who I am when I am in my most native home cultural space.  

As babies, we absorb the rules and meanings of behaviors through observation and experience, but our most vulnerable students in school need to have the behaviors that allow them to be successful in school named explicitly.  The philosophy of cultural responsiveness requires that we build relationships with all of our students and leverage them in social and academic learning. In the classroom, this translates into the practice of being specific with students in naming their behaviors and actions that are the substance of engagement. When giving instructions, the instruction should also be able to expressly articulate the behaviors that will support students' success.

5. Thou shalt have some variation of the four global behavior interventions.

There are four general categories of behavioral interventions that should be introduced one way or another into any teacher's classroom who values cultural responsiveness as a pedagogical approach effective for closing equity gaps:

Check in, check out;
Time out;
Small group; and 

There are many variations for each of these meta models, but they should be implemented with the goals of (1) creating stronger relationships between students and supports available to them in school, (2) supporting students' emerging capacity for reflecting on how their choices and behaviors contribute more or less to their success in school, and (3) arriving at clearer understandings of the root causes of disengaged behaviors.  Students have to see these as a negotiated means for facilitating their improvement in school and not a punishment imposed onto them.  In as much as possible, these interventions should be designed to identify and build on the assets which students bring to bear.

6. Thou shalt persist.

How often is it the case that our most vulnerable students require a great deal of support and corrective feedback on their behaviors?  Because we know this is frequently so, teachers must be willing to follow through on their support strategies with students with deliberate fidelity.  Teachers should look for what shows even the slightest evidence of working with students and then persist mightily.  Students who have not had behavioral success in school have sometimes been rewarded for their inappropriate behaviors with attention (positive or otherwise) for their disengaged behavior.  By persistence, I do not mean stubbornness.  A war of wills with students isn't generally productive.  I do strongly encourage teachers, however, to continually remind students of boundaries for their behaviors and the guidelines which have been established in classroom norms or an intervention plan.  
The key, of course, is to persist with careful attention referred back to the first two commandments of this list.

7. Thou shalt use the two most powerful words in discipline management.

And those two words are: "I'll wait."

Used well, these words are powerful reminders of classroom norms and expectations.  I could include an extra mini-commandment here which would be, "Thou shalt refer back to the classroom rules when students demonstrate off-task or inappropriate behaviors." Before using the magic two words, a responsive teacher is likely to say something like...
I am noticing that several of us are not observing our class norm that we listen to the speaker when they are sharing their thinking, so (and here it comes!)... I'll wait. [BAM! #Awesome!]
 8. Thou shalt reflect on successes.

Students need opportunities to reflect on both their unsuccessful AND successful experiences in school.  When reflecting with students, great care should be taken to find spaces with few distractions so that students can seriously consider how their choices and actions contributed to productive experiences in school.  Edutopia provides great reflection questions for students, but these can also be developed in collaboration with students directly.  Most importantly, no successful experience should be taken for granted for a student who struggles with engagement.  These moments should be celebrated authentically with the opportunities for students to identity their role in their own success.

9. Thou shalt establish a progressive discipline plan (individual and/or group - with warnings, rewards, and levels).

In order to discipline students well, it's important to recognize that discipline is best administered with a positive balance.  That means that students have to know that they start off in the green (or black depending on how you prefer to use the metaphor, but never in the red) before any negative consequences are imposed... and it's critically important that they get a fresh and enthusiastic start every single day.

Level system movements should be administered immediately and points should be granted in the positive more liberally than they are in the negative.  I like it when students are assigned clothes pins and then asked to move their own pins when they make a contribution to the learning or the greater sense of community in the classroom.  When moving students down the level system, it should be done in ways that allow students to maintain their dignity and also with a clear indication (as close to the behavior as possible) for why the student was being downgraded.

Rewards should also be infused in the system that further affirm students' identities as learners and members of the classroom community.  (I'm often surprised at how simple these rewards are and yet how meaningful they are to students.)  Sending postcards home for students reaching the highest status on any given day works remarkably well. Lunches with the teacher are great rewards too; or even the opportunity to lead a line as students walk through the building can have a major effect on a student's outlook toward school.

The most important things are that students get to see first-hand that their engagement is acknowledged, and that kiddos get warnings and multiple opportunities to redeem themselves before they end up at the lowest levels.

I know that many secondary teachers won't be able to use a level system in the same way that K-5 teachers will; and I also recognize the merit of the arguments against participation grades (which can feel thin and arbitrary)... but I do think that if middle- and high school teachers clearly define their expectations and norms for investing in learning, an engagement grade can be an excellent data point to use for reflecting with students about their progress toward consistently successful performances in school.  This can be done many ways including giving students a few minutes at the end of some classes to reflect on their engagement so that teachers can respond with their own observations that can be used to level-set the expectations between the two.

10. Thou shalt plan for engagement.

Though many under-recognize it, discipline is always a function of instruction.  When planning for students' learning experiences (as opposed to planning lessons), the design of instruction should differentiate according to students' engagement needs. The question of what do my highly-, moderately-, and minimally-engaged students need should be factored into the consideration of what strategies will best support their learning.  Pace, momentum, and students' assets should be carefully accounted for in the design of learning experiences; and teachers should be able to articulate clearly what they anticipate students' engagement (behaviorally, affectively, and cognitively) will look like at various points of the learning.  The most effective instructional planning prioritizes the thinking in which students are expected to engage, and then directs students fluidly through the steps necessary for them to own their inquiry and performance.  The unfortunate truth is that a great deal of the difficulties many teachers think of as discipline problems are really much more breakdowns associated with planning.