Friday, May 6, 2016

What do we mean by gaps?

To start a session this week with a district team, I asked the group to define what we mean by the term "Achievement Gap." For more than a decade now, Gloria-Ladson Billings and others have encouraged us to engage the term with a more critical lens so that patterns of social, political, economic, and also educational marginalization are considered in our interpretations of performance trends.

Our group this week determined that the term "Achievement Gap" is insufficient in that it does not highlight gaps in opportunities.  Further, we discussed how, in fact, the most meaningful gap is what we called the "Potential Gap." That is, what are the gaps we experience between what kiddos are capable of and how they are actually performing?  Granted, it is unlikely that any human being has ever fully reached their potential; and yet, some kiddos have more opportunities in school to get closer to their potential apices than others.

The notion of the "Achievement Gap" lacks rigor in the sense that it ostensibly quantifies what we are told to think of as performance and ability differences amongst America's students based on an unchallenged normative measure of achievement. Even more problematic, the notion of the "Achievement Gap" assumes equality. It assumes that all students start in similar places and have access to similar opportunities -- in and out of school.  As we know well, that isn't the case.
Noah Geisel, 2013 ACTFL National Teacher of the Year, tweeted out recently that "Some people have better worst-case access than others." Robert Putnam refers to this as "social air bags, the advantages provided by affluence and access that exacerbate inequities.  It would be impossible to honestly and credibly measure an "Achievement Gap" without a deliberate consideration of how "worst-case" access and social air bags enhance students' capacity for school success.  Anything else is more accurately a study of privilege and not anything that could be considered a metric of individual ability.

Our group, in referring to our primary interest of concern as a "Potential Gap" brings to bear what I believe is an essential task in any equity agenda.  Before we can speak with any reliable conviction about how well our kiddos are performing or what they need to perform better, we must be sure to give them baseline learning experiences that are rich, rigorous, and engaging EVERY single day.  It's why my emphasis with teachers is always on the quality of planning in the design of learning experiences... because while one may be aware of the risk factors any one or group of students face, if a well-considered, carefully-aligned lesson isn't offered, one has no way of knowing specifically what students need in order to reach higher performance levels.
I saw this great tweet just yesterday when following the #whatisschool Twitter chat. While I love what this teacher is doing with these children, it struck a chord with me because I want to see more of this kind of innovative pedagogical thinking in high-impact schools with students who are perceived as being on the wrong end of the "Achievement Gap."  In that short video, I see (and feel) an investment from the students in the learning of Spanish that must have been profoundly facilitated by a teacher unwilling to allow any scripted pathway to learning to interfere with his interpretation and application of pedagogy that he believes will allow his students to take greater ownership of their learning.  This is just good teaching! And I'm comfortable calling it good teaching because it feels apparent to me that these students have a more meaningful opportunity to fulfill their own personal potential in this learning experience than in more traditional methods that I have too often seen (over-)emphasized in schools where their students are implicitly perceived as less capable and less invested.

To be clear, I am not ignoring the impact of socio-economic structures beyond the classroom.  We know of the consistent and strong correlation between social segregation and poverty and school performance. We must make the commitment to interrupt societal inequities that contribute powerfully to the predictability of performance patterns in schools.  In the meantime, teachers are challenged to do all they can for their students today! Teachers don't have the luxury of waiting for society to commit and then do the work of opportunity reform (even though teachers unduly receive so much of the blame for the problems social inequities incur on children).  The teachers I most appreciate and respect are committed daily to figuring out what their students need in order to reach their full potential.

The language of "Opportunity Gap" and "Potential Gap" should evoke a greater sense of awareness that teachers and the designs they create for powerful learning experiences are a baseline, protective factor for students.  These protective factors -- innovative, rich, and rigorous learning experiences with a focus on student engagement -- are absolutely essential as a starting point for us to develop a clearer sense of how well our students are performing relative to their potential and further, what they need in order to close the gap between how they perform today and what their highest possible performance looks like.

Until and unless we make this critical pivot in our thinking, we will fail to recognize the opportunities we have to create more meaningful gap-closing experiences for our students, and our debt to under-served communities will remain unfulfilled.  Anything short of a profound re-conceptualization of the "Achievement Gap" will leave unchallenged the notion that, in effect, our most vulnerable students should be more like the children of privilege and affluence in order for them to achieve in ways that are most valued in school.  That it not the mindset needed to redress the unacceptable patterns we experience now.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

From the What Works Clearinghouse, "Preventing and Addressing Behavior Problems"

See the article with links to evidence-based strategies HERE:

An interesting team exercise might be to download the reports on the interventions studied and unpack the core elements in order to project how a similar strategy might be employed with your most vulnerable learners.  That kind of thinking can help to clarify a team's thinking about the nature of risk and options for protective factors.  At the very least, it should help build greater context around the team's beliefs in re student behaviors.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Jason Pryce Memorial Fund

Please consider making a donation to the Jason Pryce Memorial Fund established to support deserving students going to college. This fund was set up by my friend and former student in loving memory of his childhood friend, Jason Pryce (1984 to 2012) who left us too young after a valiant battle against cancer. No donation is too small.

Learn more about how the fund and make a donation HERE:

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The paradigm for data use in instructional rounds...

As children, many of us had our first lessons in writing numbers and letters by being directed to trace over the outlines of other more experienced writers’ numbers and letters.  It’s an appropriate strategy for introducing young writers to the nuanced curves and angles of the tools of language.  We take our first steps in the extended learning associated with being a writer by mimicking the actions of more advanced writers; but those lessons of mimicry don’t give us any sense of voice or even the true purpose of writing.  We don’t yet know anything of the inspiration that underscores great writing….  We are merely copying the creative gestures of others.

In some ways, we try to prepare teachers according to a similar paradigm.  We ask them to trace over the outlines of more experienced teachers’ nuanced designs for learning experiences in order to imitate a skill.  The theory being that the imitation of this skill can be developed into a capacity for its own uniquely inspired creative output. 

There is a problem with this mindset for teacher development, however.  The creativity and innovation that inheres in effective teaching can't be outlined.  It can only be created; and to create brilliantly, one must become skilled in the language (tools) and nature of inspiration.

When we prepare teachers for working with students by exclusively focusing our support and direction on the observable strategies and actions inhering in effective instruction, we are essentially asking them to trace the creations of others.  That amounts to a disingenuous effort at quantifying the skill(s) of effective teaching.  We seek formulas that are fool-proof and universally transferable – an unlikely proposition considering the complexities of the tasks of teaching.

Teaching is a skill-set that is developed throughout one's full career – from the very first day until the very last – and while there is no single, infallible method for developing efficacy, a powerfully constructive way to learn the craft is through careful observation, discussion, and reflection of authentic teacher practice.  The deliberate and intentional contemplation of practice allows for individuals (and teams) to improve the design, impact, and output of teaching in ways that can richly deepen the capacity for thinking about what students need in support of their engagement and, further, what that requires of teachers. 

I use this image of two people admiring Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein to illustrate the sense of reverence necessary for learning from the observations of the engagement of students in a learning experience. The portrait of Gertude Stein was a commissioned piece which is currently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is said that when Ms. Stein, the benefactor, first saw the piece, she expressed profound disappointment in the product telling Picasso that the painting looked nothing like her.  Picasso’s response was that it would look very much like her… in 20 years.

While that could not be considered an even remotely flattering thing to say to one who has commissioned a portrait of themselves, it does allow for tremendous insight into the inspiration of the artist.  Picasso was not attempting to produce an image of what Ms. Stein perceived as her own appearance.  Rather, he was creating a piece that reflected what he was inspired to show.  His mastery and artistic vision was channeled through that inspiration which in turn produced a portrait that has been admired for the better part of a century by audiences on multiple continents.

The wrong way to view any work of art is to take Gertrude Stein’s approach – which is to assume that the artist shares her same sense of inspiration for a product.  To view art is to try on the skin of the artist rather than to compare how one might themselves have attempted to represent the subject.  That kind of comparison is an act of judgment.  That is, to compare is to say, “I wouldn’t have created that way.  I would have created another way.”  The true appreciation of art, however, assumes a different position.  The true appreciation of art requires that we ask, “What is the artist’s intent?  What is the artist trying to do with this piece?”  To understand the master artist’s intent can be hugely instructive for the novice artist because it then can be followed with thoughtful consideration of how the tools of choice contribute to the effect which is the feeling one gets through viewing.  In this way, we are able, as viewers, to experience the artist’s inspiration for ourselves; but not so that we can replicate that same inspiration but rather so that we can be more inclined to find authentic inspiration for ourselves.


Teaching is an artistic endeavor based on scientific principles.  Masterful teaching, like the output of masterful artists, is driven by both inspiration and the skill for employing certain tools and devices in order to evoke an effect.

I think of the inspiration of effective teachers as being embodied in the sense of (1) what it is they want their students to feel in the context of a learning experience and (2) what they want their students to understand.  To understand the choices of effective teachers (and never doubt that teaching is a function of countless choices both in the design and implementation of lessons), the viewer must be aware of the teacher’s inspiration(s).  To view the teaching of another should not be thought of as an effort to trace the observed teacher’s promising practices but rather to achieve a clearer view of one’s own authentic inspiration.  To watch an effective teacher in practice should not be thought of as merely an opportunity to mimic the use of certain tools and devices in instruction.  It should be thought of as an opportunity to reflect on how similar (or dis-similar) tools and devices can be used to support the creative acts of teaching on the viewer’s own teaching canvas.

Tracing the actions of others doesn’t nurture the necessary dispositions that give rise to the thoughtful creativity seen in effective teaching.  Tracing is essentially the attempt to quantify inspiration. Though often well-intentioned, the attempt to quantify inspiration is insufficient on one level; but it is dangerously dishonest on another.  It undermines the capacity for creation by negating the influence of inspiration.  It doesn’t encourage authenticity.

What is sacred?

Every opportunity to engage students in a meaningful learning experience is sacred.  It is sacred because it is an invitation for students to be changed with the introduction of newly emerging understandings.  We are all defined by our ideas and anytime one’s ideas are changed in any way, we become in essence a different person.  Our identities are shifted in ways that change our understandings of who we are and what the world around us means.  As teachers, we must observe these moments with reverence because in them we can learn much about both our craft and our own capacity for creation.

I think of engagement as the essential output of the artistry of teaching.  Engagement alone does not meet all the goals of instruction, but it facilitates pathways for powerful learning.  Engagement is the empowerment of learners to grow into increasingly more thoughtful and capable versions of themselves. Students are empowered to be fully present in the process of learning, growing, expanding their perceptions of the world, and enlarging their own frames of reference for who (and what) they are.

Reverence for this essential task of teaching is only enough to allow us to value (and hopefully) recognize the sacred. One must be able to identify the opportunities to facilitate engagement in order to begin to consider which tools and devices may be most appropriate for use in that moment.  We must then become skilled enough to maximize the engagement of these sacred moments (both for ourselves and our students) through the implementation of those tools.  If, in our own teaching, we seek to maximize the engagement (output) without sufficient reverence for the sacredness of the opportunities to engage, we attempt to create the Portrait of Gertrude Stein without an authentic inspiration that is all our own.

Without reverence for engagement, teaching becomes a lifeless and uninspired task which we seek to understand not through its capacity for magnificent creation but rather as some sort of trace-over-the-letters logic.

Without reverence for engagement, teaching becomes a misunderstood and under-appreciated endeavor that can be outsourced or callously marketed without consideration of the consequences for the most vulnerable learners who are so profoundly reliant on effective teaching as an instrument of equity.

An attitude of reverence is essential in order to understand authentic engagement.  Without it, our perception of teaching is muted by the flawed sense of teaching and learning as a purely mechanical and random exercise in the indelicate control of students.  An attitude of reverence is essential to enlarge our frame of reference for the possibilities of our work.

What is pedagogical ethos?

I define pedagogical ethos as the beliefs and values that inform how a teaching and learning community imagines and assigns meaning to “good teaching.”  Pedagogical ethos gives direction for the members of teaching communities by providing the space and boundaries within which good practice is understood.  The pedagogical ethos of a particular school does more than tell us what good practice should accomplish, it tells us why it is members of that community think of good teaching in that way.

Professional development (PD) should be an exercise in the clarifying of pedagogical ethos, and a refinement of the understanding of how tools work toward the sacred goals of instruction.  As such, PD should be an honored space which assists in the enlightenment of its congregants.

The paradigm for data use in the instructional rounds model....

Instructional rounds are a disciplined, professional-development exercise in the reverence of engagement. The practice of instructional rounds looks for insights and not errors.  As such, we prioritize our own engagement in an intensely deliberate process for designing effective learning experiences; and further, we look for evidence of student engagement in the instructional rounds so that we can learn from even the slightest indicators of their investment in the learning process. Our goal is to share moments of awe and inspiration... so that we can draw from them the inspiration for both creation and deeper understanding of effective design.

Teachers assume researcher identities in the instructional rounds.  Researchers in any field always ask two critical questions in any "study."  The first is, What constitutes data? Or, what is it that I should be efforting to see?  The second question is, What should we do with the data? Or, How should the data be interpreted?

In the instructional rounds, data is the evidence of students’ engagement.  After being pre-briefed on the design of the lesson and the expectations for rigor and  students’ engagement, the observers enter the classroom space to record any and all indicators of what students are doing and saying that may be considered as evidence of their investment in the learning experience.

After the observation, the group enters into a debrief where the initial focus of reflection is on the display of evidence, followed by a thoughtful extrapolation of themes and insights.  The group considers what the data means, but these assumptions are framed against corroborative criteria.  As corroboration, the observers are challenged to uncover any biases or assumptions that may contribute to misleading or flawed insights.  It is through this iterative process that meaning is clarified and the tenets of pedagogical ethos are unpacked.

Four guidelines to avoid missing the point of an instructional rounds experience….

Growth that results from professional development in any form (and instructional rounds in particular) isn’t a process with which any teacher can be forced to comply.  Only the willing are productive learners in this model – and even they must follow certain guidelines in order to maximize the potential professional growth opportunities for themselves.  Here, I present four guidelines which must be personal and ongoing for participants in an instructional rounds experience in order for it to have the desired impact for all:

1. Be fully present. 

To be in the presence of effective teaching is a magnificent opportunity to learn from and appreciate the experience of engagement… but it also comes with some personal costs.  To effectively engage ourselves in the ways that will advance our professional growth, we must make the conscious effort to suspend our own self-doubts and insecurities.  In the observation of another’s practice, painful realizations about our own teaching may surface.  As such, it takes a tremendous sense of personal courage and calm to be able to discover and sustain the necessary reverence; but the insights that matter most for teaching are available exclusively through this lens. 

We must make every effort to avoid anything that diverts our full presence in the process. Without it, one may still be able to notice the brilliance of great teaching (just as one may notice the genius of great artists through distracted observations at the Met...), but unless fully present, it is much less likely to be able to marshal that inspiration in service of one's own genius.  The muses will escape one's perception, and the learning opportunity will be compromised.

2. Beware of judgmentalism. 

To judge is a sharp departure from reverence.  It is harmful in the sense that it tends to cultivate feelings of mistrust that can defeat the professional comradery necessary in support of a strong and positive pedagogical ethos. 

Reverence should not be conflated with respect.  Respect is neither integral to nor a pre-requisite for reverence.  Respect is itself a judgmental and cultural construct.  (We are more likely to respect that for which we have the cultural context which gives us guidelines for assigning value.)  Judgment includes equally the disempowering energy of self-doubt AND also the inclination to assess in ways one may perceive as positive.   Respect assigns value based on personal preferences, and these can be confounding in myriad ways.  Respect is a response to the perception of qualities and outcomes that we ourselves admire, or have been taught to admire.  Reverence, in contrast, is a perception and an appreciation of process in pursuit of the highest goals for practice.

3. Attempt to see the familiar in unfamiliar ways.  

This is really the genius of the artist.  Seeing the familiar in unfamiliar ways is mostly about creating the head and heart space for inspiration because the artist knows that inspiration is always available to us. Though it isn't necessary for the individual observer to be able to explain in full detail the specifics of an experience in order to feel moved emotionally, the discussion of what is seen facilitates the shared understanding of the values and beliefs that inhere in great teaching.  In order to clarify the aspirations of any given teaching and learning community’s pedagogical ethos, the discussants must agree to attempt to see common practices and occurrences as spectacularly uncommon.  They must agree to (re)discover what is essential and impactful to make further growth possible.

This means observers must bring to bear their experience without becoming beholden to it.  The most powerful learning for any given participant in instructional rounds is often the insight derived from watching a practice they themselves have employed countless times and the recognition that follows for precisely how it does (or has the potential to) engage students in significant ways.

4. Decide to grow in your practice. 

Ultimately, the growth that matters most in our professional development is grounded in insights and new understandings that we create for ourselves.  Often, these can happen in powerful ways in spaces designed for reflection (like instructional rounds); but no professional development is so powerful that it can move the person who has decided (consciously or nonconsciously) to be unmoved.  Those who decide to be unmoved will be unavailable to inspiration until they choose otherwise.  This is a decision that every participant must make on an individual basis.

Teaching is a profoundly humbling profession in that our students don’t tend to care much about our preceding kudos.  We must be willing to put in the effort to make connections with learners of all sorts, and this requires that we bring a beginner’s mind to our work every single day.


Great teachers, much like great artists, create engaging experiences for students. These creations are a function of inspiration.  For every great work of art, there is a muse, an inspiration which is often the artist's sense for what the audience is intended to experience.  The same is true for teachers. Great teaching employs feelings and emotions that engage and affect both the head and heart of students. Art moves us because it stirs an emotional response, and in the context of those stirrings, deep understandings are available to us.

Reverence is an elemental component of instructional rounds.  The practice of instructional rounds without reverence is not only likely to be unproductive in terms of insights that can yield further clarity of a school’s pedagogical ethos, but it can also corrupt the learning experience in such a way as to create distrust and disconnectedness amongst the school staff.  How we position ourselves in the learning and discuss the nature and purpose of practice reflects directly our intentions for growth both as individuals and as part of a collective unit.