The 27th Friday: What Is School For?

“Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere; standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results.” 
Seth Godin

I'm sure most of you are familiar with Seth Godin. Godin is the author of 18 books that have become bestsellers around the world. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and most of all, changing everything. Although recognized as one of the foremost marketing experts in the world, Godin also spends an enormous amount of time and energy pontificating on schools, teaching, and education in general. In fact, in 2012, he published a free ebook manifesto on the topic called, Stop Stealing Dreams. The subtitle of his manifesto reminds me of my post topic from two weeks ago, when I reflected on Berger’s idea of “Beautiful Questions.” Why? Because his subtitle is a powerful example of just such a question: What is school for?

This ebook was published in January 2012 and being a Godin fan, I downloaded and read it immediately. It made an impact then, but when I read it again this week after viewing his 16-minute TED Talk on the topic, I was once again impacted by much of what he says and believes. To be honest, I do not agree with all of Seth’s perspectives on education, but I passionately agree with much of what he says and even where we disagree, I respect that he always pushes my thinking and encourages me to consider what actions we should be taking to better fulfill our mission of engaging, inspiring, and empowering all students we serve. 

I hope you will view this video whether for the first time or again if you have already seen it. In it, he clearly states what he sees as wrong with American public education. During his talk, he also strategically shares  5 props to make several key points:

  • A hammer
  • A #2 pencil
  • A textbook
  • Blocks
  • An Arduino

An overall theme of Godin’s is that we spend too much time teaching compliance and memorization  in our schools and not enough time fostering individual exploration, passion, critical thinking, questioning, and building interesting things. Thus, his quote shared above about "standing out" versus "fitting in." He keeps prodding us to ask and answer the question, “What are schools for?” He believes that when we engage in focused, spirited conversations surrounding this beautiful question, eight things are going to happen in our schools that will change everything:

  • Homework during the day; lectures at night
  • Open books, open notes, all the time. Zero value in memorization
  • Access to courses anytime, anywhere
  • Precise, focused education instead of mass-batched education for all
  • No more multiple choice questions
  • Teachers transitioning to "coaching", rather than "teaching", roles
  • Lifelong learning with work happening earlier as part of the process
  • Death of “famous” colleges

Please take time to watch if you can; let me know what you think about these eight predictions/action steps--as well as the rest of his talk. For me, I was particularly struck by three additional observations he made and possible implications for us as educators:

  1. If it’s perceived as work, people will try to figure out how to do less of it. If it’s perceived as art, people will try to figure out how to do more of it.
  2. We are really good at measuring how many dots our kids collect, but we teach nothing about how to connect these dots.
  3. If you care enough about your work to be willing to be criticized for it, then you have done a good day’s work.

What are schools for? What an interesting (and beautiful) question to ponder for passionate educators. Continuously reflecting on our purpose and how we best fulfill it is another way we Teach with Passion!

The 26th Friday: Teaching vs Rocket Science

“Teaching is not rocket science. In fact, it is far more complex and demanding work than rocket science.”
Richard Elmore

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach for a day as a result of our annual “Holiday Presence” tradition, in which all administrators in our district substitute teach for one day for a teacher selected at random. A few weeks ago our superintendent, Dr. Mike Lubelfeld, taught 7th grade math for a day. Last year, I thought my assignment--subbing for Lynn Surico’s advanced classes--was fun, yet grueling. This year, I again found myself feeling both energized and exhausted by the day’s end. At this point, I am pretty sure I agree with Elmore: subbing for a rocket scientist would be a whole lot easier!

This year, I subbed for Brad Greenberg, an amazing teacher in our district; as a result, I found myself teaching PE with Kindergarten and 2nd grade students at Walden School, Kindy and 3rd grade students at Kipling School, and Adaptive PE students at Caruso Middle School. Wow! What a day! By the conclusion of the day, I had certainly gained new insights into just how challenging Brad’s schedule can be and a new appreciation for how awesome he is at thriving in this role. Of course, having taught for 18 years, I am fully aware of just how demanding the job of classroom teacher is, regardless of grade level or content area. At the same time, I was a bit surprised at my level of exhaustion by the time I was finished. Reflecting on the day, I was reminded of many aspects about our noble profession, including these three simple observations:

Teaching is hard work. Honestly, when I looked at the extensive plans that Coach Greenberg left for me, a part of me considered blindfolding myself, tying one hand behind my back, and going at it; this was going to be a piece of cake! 20-minutes of Kindy PE? What could be easier; it would be over before I knew it, right? Wrong. The skill we focused on was jump roping. I had students at both schools who could execute 20 or more consecutive jumps correctly. I had others who could not even swing the rope from behind their bodies to the front of their bodies. I even had one student who could not grasp the rope handles correctly. Differentiation, anyone? All these divergent learners did have one thing in common, however: they each wanted my undivided attention on their individual performance. In Volleyball, I had two students cry, one because of an injury, another in anger after arguing with the opposing team about who had won the point. In adaptive PE, none of the children were fully verbal and several were in wheelchairs and walkers, yet we headed to the fitness room to work on cardio and weights. This was a challenge!

Teaching is fun. Despite the challenges and a few best laid plans that went awry, I had a blast. The joy of kindy kids showing me what they could do is hard to beat. Joining in periodically to participate in volleyball, jump roping, and games like Space Invaders and Sharks and Minnows was fun and the kids seemed to enjoy having me participate alongside them. Consoling a child who was frustrated and another who was hurt made me feel I had accomplished something. Modeling how to do something and then watching a student actually improve their performance after providing feedback was exciting. As a final added benefit, wearing a Bama T-Shirt to work was pretty cool, too! This was a happy day for me!

Teaching is better because of nice colleagues. After 20 minutes of working with Kindy kids on jump roping, I cannot tell you how excited I was to see Rebecca Dushman show up at my door right on time! I appreciated Glenda Lacefield reminding her 2nd graders to say “Thank you” to me for teaching them. In between classes, it was so nice to be able to chat with colleagues like Tom Hoy when I went to the fitness center, Dee Gibson in the hallway at Walden, Marianne Getz, who provided emotional support at Kipling, and a roomful of colleagues who cheered me up in the staff lounge at Caruso. Even Mr. McConnell, the principal at Kipling School, helped me by setting up the volleyball nets. However, the best example of kindness was the amazing team in place at Caruso in the Guided Instructional Classroom (GIC) for students with significant special needs. To be frank, I contributed little, if anything, to the learning during this block of time. Katie Erbach and the entire GIC team carried me completely without complaint. I am sure they will be excited to have Brad back, who actually helps in some way, but I certainly appreciated their patience and kindness in regards to my ineptitude. In our district--as well as schools everywhere--we are fortunate to work with extremely nice and caring colleagues!

So, teaching (as if we did not already know) is hard work. Yet it is also quite fun, and is made even better because of the nice people with whom we work, both students and colleagues. Every morning, shortly after I awaken, I send out the following Tweet, more as a reminder to myself than a suggestion to anyone out there in the Twitterverse who might happen to see it:

"Work Hard...Have Fun...Be Nice...Today!" As I substitute-taught for the day, I was reminded of the importance of these words. I am proud to work with kids and adults in schools who model these three actions each and every day. Doing so is another way we Teach with Passion!

The 25th Friday: Beautiful Questions

“...Here again, as I talked to educators, I found a genuine interest in the subject--many teachers acknowledge it’s critically important that students be able to formulate and ask good questions. Some realize that this skill is apt to be even more important in the future, as complexity increases and change accelerates. Yet, for some reason, questioning isn't taught in most schools--nor is it rewarded (only memorized answers are).” 
Warren Berger

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Slavens School, an amazing school near Denver that reminded me quite a bit of the schools I currently serve in Deerfield, Illinois. At Slavens, we observed 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students learning in their school’s STEM lab built by partnering with Creative Learning Systems (CLS). In our district, we have CLS STEM Labs and Communication Media Arts Labs in both of our middle schools; each time I visit our middle school labs, I am struck by the extent to which our kids are creating, collaborating, communicating, and thinking critically. In Denver, it was quite impressive to see students in grades 3-5 equally engaged, inspired, and empowered by the learning experiences they were collaborating on with their classmates and teacher. However, my purpose in writing this week’s blog post is not to share my reflections on the labs we visited (If you wish to learn more about this visit, including images, please take a look at a post by Kipling School principal Anthony McConnell at The Principal's Blog summarizing the school visits we enjoyed), but a book that caught my eye that was on the STEM teacher’s desk at Slavens School. I asked this teacher if I could look through the book; upon doing so, I immediately bought the Kindle version myself. Although I have only just begun reading the book,  A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas,  I am already hooked and am reminded that its premise is worthy of our consideration as educators.

Berger’s book is organized around questions: he includes forty-four questions within the five chapters that comprise the book and concludes with a “Question Index” at the back of the book. He takes the title of his book from an 
e. e. cummings poem (“Always the beautiful answer/Who asks a more beautiful question.”) and defines “a beautiful question” for the purposes of his book as follows:

“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something--and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

He emphasizes that his focus is not grand, philosophical questions, but questions that can be acted upon, leading to tangible results and change. It has started me thinking (reminded me, actually, as this topic is one I have thought about often, as have so many of you, I suspect) that questioning in the classroom--both the questions we pose to our students as well as the questions we encourage them to pose to us, their classmates, and the world at large in return--is hugely important and something we should dedicate time to planning with intention. Here are just a few questions that Berger, himself, poses in his text:

  • Why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?
  • Why does a 4-year-old girl begin to question less at age 5 or 6? And what are the ramifications of that, for her and the world around her/
  • How can we develop and improve this ability to question?
  • What if I come at my work or art in a whole different way?
  • Why don't they come up with a better snow shovel?
  • How did “master questioners” come to be that way?
  • Can a school be built on questions?

To explore answers to these and other questions, I encourage you to pick up this neat book. Meanwhile, I encourage us all to ponder a question about questions: What are some “beautiful questions” we should pose that might serve as catalysts for continued growth in our schools? Would these qualify as such:

  • Does what we teach matter to our students?
  • How can we make it matter more?
  • Why do we assign homework?
  • What if we created opportunities for our kids to educate, entertain, inspire, or connect with people from all over the globe who might be sincerely influenced by the work they're doing? 

What "beautiful" questions would you add to this list? What are some ambitious, yet actionable questions we can pose and ponder that might serve as catalysts for positive change in our schools? Thank you for considering the questions we pose to our students and the extent to which we encourage thoughtful questioning in return; asking and soliciting “beautiful questions” is another way we Teach with Passion in our classrooms and schools!

The 24th Friday: Getting to "Boston"

“To use an analogy, if the goal is for students to travel from Miami to Boston, the teacher keeps an eye on each student’s daily journey toward the final destination. S/he has no intention of having some students only make it to Atlanta or having others end up in Los Angeles. On the other hand, there are many highways and side roads that lead to Boston, as well as varied modes of transportation and timetables available. In no way does the teacher feel compelled to have every student travel exactly the same distance each day or always use the same mode of transportation.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

My quest to learn more about differentiation by reading Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom continues, as does my desire to share just a bit of my learning. However, this will be my final blog post on the topic, coinciding with a half-day inservice we hosted on the topic in our district last week. I saved the quote above for my final memo because--although it is quite lengthy--I have always felt the analogy stands up well when illustrating, figuratively, the essence of differentiated classrooms: While we can and should design different routes and use different nodes of travel for different kids, they ALL must "Get to Boston" in the end.

As I close my series of musings on this excellent book, I looked back at Chapter 9, “How Do Teachers Make It All Work?” which offers broad guidelines for those interested in thinking about, planning for, and being leaders in differentiated classrooms. She organizes these guidelines into 4 groups:

  1. Getting Started
  2. Settling in for the Long Haul
  3. Some Practical Considerations
  4. Developing a Support System.
Within each of these general headings she shares a slew of solid tips, but space limitations lead me to focus on the “practical considerations” she shares. This section is further broken down into seven such considerations worth noting:

  1. Give Thoughtful Directions
  2. Establish Routines for Getting Help
  3. Stay Aware, Stay Organized
  4. Consider “Home Base” Seats
  5. Establish Start-Up and Wrap-Up Procedures
  6. Teach Students to Work for Quality
  7. Preempt Challenging Behavior
When you scan this list, I wonder if you thought like I did: these are not merely considerations for differentiation; these sound like components of effective teaching in general! If you simply read the six bullet points associated with item #1 above, “Give Thoughtful Directions,” you would surely think that these are just good tips for teaching in general. Indeed, in finishing this book, I realized an overall piece of good news: differentiation is, at its core, simply adhering to established tenets of effective teaching. Yet, a sobering caution: this means we must honestly reflect on what we are doing in our classrooms and consider with professional scrutiny where we may fall short--as well as celebrating our successes in establishing differentiated classrooms.

The reason so many educators around the world struggle with understanding differentiation or “implementing” differentiation is simply because of what it is NOT: it is not an instructional strategy, a collection of strategies, or a teaching model. Instead, it is a way of thinking about teaching and learning, a way that argues for beginning where individual students are rather than a prescribed series of actions that ignore student variance. Breaking the traditional mold of delivering a prescribed set of lessons aimed at the whole class is much more easy to agree with in principle than to actually do in practice. Yet, it is essential that we do so. Our kids are unique learners with unique needs and we must continue to know everything we can about them in order to meet them where they are while never losing sight of the destination to which they must all arrive. If “getting to Boston” is the end goal (although today, suffering through another frigid Chicago day, I would prefer going from Boston to Miami rather than the reverse!), all of our students need to arrive there. How each gets there and how long each spends at stops along the way can vary; that is not only OK; that is actually a good and normal thing. It can be a messy and difficult process, yet most things worth doing are not clean and easy.

Becoming an expert on differentiation is, in itself, a long journey. It is also much more than simply reading a book about it, even when the book is an excellent one, written by our foremost expert on the topic. It is about taking specific actions over time; becoming an expert at differentiation is a career-long goal, not a goal we will meet today by reading a book or by meeting with our colleagues to discuss it for a few hours during an in-service afternoon. Yet, just like we tell our kids when they face an arduous task, one step at a time, we will get there. I am proud of the teachers in our district and those I meet around the country for meeting each student they serve at their individual points of readiness, interest, and learning profile; doing so is another way we Teach with Passion in our schools!

The 23rd Friday: The Art of Bucket Choosing

“There’s nothing inherently good or bad about instructional strategies. They are, in essence, the ‘buckets’ teachers can use to deliver content, process, or products. Yet some buckets are better suited than others to achieve a particular goal. The buckets can be used artfully or clumsily as part of well-connected or poorly conceived lesson plans and delivery.” 
Carol Ann Tomlinson

My quest to learn more about differentiation by reading Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroomcontinues, as does my desire to share just a bit of my learning. The quote above comes from Chapter Six of her book, a chapter in which she begins offering specific strategies for differentiation. Today, I share just three of those herein. Please note that space limits me to simply describing the three strategies, but know that Tomlinson gives detailed explanations and examples of each in her book:


Stations are different spots in the classroom where students work on various tasks simultaneously. They can be used with students of every age and in all subjects. Stations allow different students to work with different tasks and invite flexible grouping since not all students need go to all stations at all times.


An agenda is a personalized list of tasks that a particular student must complete in a specified time. Teachers usually create agendas that last a student two to three weeks but the duration can vary. Agendas can be used during a portion of the day at the elementary level or a certain day of the week at the secondary level. They can also be used as homework rather than class work, for both, or for an anchor activity when students complete assigned classwork.

Orbital Studies:

Orbital studies are independent investigations, generally of three to six weeks. They “orbit” or revolve around some facet of the curriculum. Students select their own topic for orbitals and they work with guidance and coaching from the teacher to develop more expertise on both the topic and on the process of becoming an independent investigator. This allows students to pursue topics that matter to them while seeing how what they learn in class connects with a world beyond the classroom. To some extent, reading about orbital studies reminded me of “Passion Time,” or “Genius Hour” approaches to creative teaching and learning.

Here are a few additional resources relating to choosing the best "bucket" in order to differentiate our instruction: 

As I have mentioned in previous posts about this important topic, differentiation is NOT a set of instructional strategies; instead, it is simply (and as complex) as the way in which teachers anticipate and respond to a variety of student needs in the classroom. Still, having an ever-expanding bucket of instructional and management strategies from which to choose as we differentiate our learning experiences we plan for our kids is certainly a part of the differentiated classroom concept. As Tomlinson states in the quote above, the bucket itself is like almost anything else in education: in and of itself, it is neither "good" or "bad." What makes it one or the other is the purposeful intention a master teacher employs when matching student learning goals to the bucket best suited to achieving such goals--knowing all along that different students may well respond better to different buckets.

I am in awe of teachers who continuously explore new instructional strategies as a way to best meet the needs of their unique learners--and then match these strategies with the goals they have for their students' learning. Focusing on instructional strategies that will benefit the learning of all students and choosing which to use, when, and for whom, is another way we Teach with Passion!

When Is It OK To Break the Rules?

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious,  I break them.” Ro...