Saturday, February 25, 2017

Back at it and quickly iterating

My follow through hasn't been great. I wanted to write at least three or four times a week once school returned to its regular schedule. That, obviously, hasn't happened. 

However, I suppose the corollary to "don't let perfect be the enemy of the good" is also to not let a temporary setback become a permanent failure. 

With that spirit, a few things that have been bouncing around my head:

* One of the more interesting ed ideas I've heard is from Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools. The theory is to push new ideas is in schools by creating a quick prototype at small scale, gathering feedback, then iterating quickly. 

In the podcast "The Leaders' Table," Matt points out a flaw in the mindset of many folks who work in the high-performing charter schools world. We want to come up with the perfect (and massive plan), then roll out an idea at scale. 

As a veteran of starting new grades six times, I can advise that this never works out. (Something about "the best laid schemes o' mice and men...") Inevitably, iteration happens but the lag time is, at best, weeks. More often, it's school year to school year. 

Matt argues that we'd all better off by getting an idea to the minimum level needed to make it live, then beta testing with a short window and small group of students and/or teachers. 

* In light of this, I've been thinking about the teacher's role in running a class so that students are mentally carrying the weight of the content. Another way of thinking about is moving from seeing teaching as something that is done to students; instead, a teacher works with students.

This, obviously, is not the easiest thing to pull off. The major barriers I face can be distilled to 1) I, as the teacher, have more content knowledge than the students and 2) creating strong enough cultural norms in class so that all students fully own their learning. 

Curating various social studies resources and savvy use of students' Chromebooks has alleviated issues around #1 so that I can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. 

The second concern is more vexing. The students for whom this more self-guided learning functions best also tend to be strong readers and already have great grades. I note that students who are struggling readers and/or struggle with motivation at school can fall further behind compared to their experience in a tightly-run teacher centered class.

As a way to address this, I've been testing the optimal balance of using fluency tools like Quizlet versus games like Kahoot versus direct teaching. 

Here's what I've found so far:

- Mastering the terminology of a unit feels slow at first, then pays off in the last weeks of a unit. I now have students start a unit by spending 3 minutes of class per day in the first week doing Quizlet flashcards individually. 

- In the second week, I start using games like Kahoot. The best questions are at the "stamping the learning level" -- i.e. "What" and "Who" and "How" questions. 

- Direct teaching is best for connecting thematic elements of the unit. As shown by my exit ticket data, students absorb direct teaching better in weeks two and three of a unit. Spending much time on thematic elements in the first few days of a unit seems to be relatively unproductive versus having students build their knowledge base. 

If I were teaching a language, the equivalent would be heavy focus on mastering vocabulary, then moving verb tense and sentence structure only after a base of 100 commonly used words is built. 

The class still feels too teacher-centered. I'd love to figure out a way for students to have higher-quality interactions with the materials earlier. This could look as simple as analytical conversations in a turn-and-talk, then building to a short piece of analytical writing. 

However, I've seen that doing this too early just causes the students to parrot whatever I directly taught or just offer a recitation of various facts they've picked up. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

'Which Side are You On?'

A couple of folks asked me for my opinion on Betsy DeVos as education secretary. 

My response is that anyone who is willing to work for this administration has disqualified herself from being worthy of it.

To wit: if a person is willing to go to work for Trump, he or she doesn't have either 
1) the values to use the ed secretary's bully pulpit to push against the inequality endemic in public education or 
2) the spine to stand up against the bigotry necessary to do so.

The Secretary of Education has some formal power and a lot of informal influence. If DeVos is willing to compromise herself in to order to have the title, she's kneecapped herself in actually exercising the influence. 

That sort of influence comes from moral authority. In saying yes to Trump, you give up your claim to that sort of power. 


Of course, the argument goes, someone's got to be the secretary. It might as well be the best person possible. 

In a normal circumstances, sure. A secretary appointed by a Republican will be on one end of a range of views; a Democratic secretary will be on the other end. Ideally, I'd want someone who is willing to push on holding schools accountable, offer flexibility on licensing, and hold for-profit groups in check, to name a few (of many) things I personally care about. 

I agree with DeVos on a few issues, disagree with many more, and don't know about a lot of stuff because she's mostly been a philanthropist and behind-the-scenes player.

Elections have consequences and I'm OK with leaders who go in very different directions. I'm OK with DeVos's nontraditional résumé for the role. Such is the reality of our democracy. 

In these times, though, values come before before policy. Specifically, who one is willing to work for reveals a lot of about that person's values. 

Trump represents a series of values -- bigotry, cruelty, authoritarianism, irrationality, to name a few -- that run counter to the American idea. When history calls us to account for this era, the refrain will be the same as the labor and civil rights song "Which Side are You On?"

We haven't judged kindly those who took nuanced views on integrating schools, buses, and lunch counters in South. Working for George Wallace or Ross Barnett was a stain that has only looked worse with time. John Lewis took a side against them and the system they represented. 

"All talk, talk, talk - no action or results."
One cannot truly value the idea of our public schools as the door the American dream for all and also be OK with Trump.


There is a time for nuance. There's a time for working with those whom you vehemently disagree. That's a necessary part of making this country work.

There's also a time for just taking a side. 

Everything we know right now about Trump says opposition is the only moral option.

Betsy DeVos's choice reveled where her values really are. The things Donald Trump said and did over many years -- and especially during his campaign -- did not disqualify him, in her eyes, from the presidency. 

Therefore, she is unfit to serve as the figurehead leader of American public education. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Anatomy of a mediocre lesson

Today was probably my worst day of teaching this year. Here's why:

  • I tried to cram too much in one lesson, so it felt disjointed on my end. The students likely didn't retain the most critical information because there was too much of it. This is best illustrated by attempting to slake your thirst by putting 20 oz. of water in a 12 oz. glass.
  • I didn't consider the entire lesson from a student's perspective. Specifically, I didn't fully think through how they would process the information. Therefore, sometimes the students were put in a position of listening for too long a period without a chance to speak and write. This also hindered me knowing what they learned because the questions I did have them write about weren't the most critical to understanding the lesson. In short -- I focused on what would be doing at the expense of being clear regarding what I wanted them to do.
  • I failed to order the information so it was clear which were the foundation pieces of knowledge, then how various pieces connected. The connections that were there were haphazard so it's likely most students' first impression were formed in very different ways. This is similar to having a poor foundation to a house. The only way to really fix is just go back and do it again. 


When these days (inevitably) happen, I think back to early in my career. When a lesson went sideways then, it meant that student behavior would be so off that I'd usually need to call in another teacher or assistant principal. On those days, I would leave school emotionally drained. I'd procrastinate on planning because I'd still be angry. I'd go to bed feeling a pit in my stomach, knowing that I'd set myself up to have the same problems the next day. 

Teaching is better now. My worst day now far surpasses my best day then. 

Now, I'm mostly just annoyed when I don't do that great of a job. I hate it when I see kids who are trying to learn, just not quite getting there, and it's my responsibility.

I understand this is a part of the job -- of any job, really. Just thought it's worth marking the days in the classroom that aren't typically captured in an exemplar teaching clip or make it to YouTube because kids are chucking chairs at each other.

I won't be nominated to be profiled in Teach Like A Champion anytime soon, but you shouldn't see my class on Vine either. (If you do, let me know, so I can confiscate the phone tomorrow)

Onward and upward! 

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Propaganda -- what happens when you fill up on junk food

So I'm furious that the Russians tipped the election to Donald Trump. I can't say I'm surprised by it, though. 

I've read a lot of analyses about how the Russians did it and the various effects on the electorate. I've read critiques of the media for playing into the hands of Russian hackers and WikiLeaks. What I haven't seen much about is why tens of millions of Americans were primed to be played for suckers. 

Why were so many of us ready to buy into a what Internet trolls (some paid by Russian spy agencies) spread around Twitter? Why were John Podesta's emails interpreted as anything other than run-of-the-mill politics? Why were we so inclined to believe the worst about us? Why did we not see propaganda for what it is?


A couple months ago, the NPR podcast Planet Money tracked down a writer who wrote and spread right-wing disinformation via social media so he could cash in on the advertising.
SYDELL: And this brings us to the article we have been tracking this whole time, the one about the FBI agent who was killed after his alleged involvement in leaking Clinton's emails. Jestin did not write it, doesn't know the real name of the contributor who did, but he did publish it, and he says it got 1.6 million views over 10 days.
COLER: You know, the people wanted to hear this, you know? So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional - the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then, you know, had our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums, and, boy, it spread like wildfire.
SMITH: The story was quickly debunked on sites like And the real paper in Denver, The Denver Post. But for lots of Trump supporters, this did not matter.
COLER: They don't care that it was debunked, you know? Snopes is run by George Soros and is a Obama mouthpiece to them. And, you know, the credibility of these kind of sources, I guess, has been just tarnished so much that nobody even listens anymore.
(Emphasis mine)

They asked him why he didn't do the same for an audience of gullible liberals.
SMITH: And Jestin (Coler) says, at least in the beginning, he was an equal opportunity prankster. He tried to peddle fake news for lefties, he says, making up vile things about conservatives.
COLER: It just has never worked. It never takes off. People will always say - you know, you'll get de-bunked, like, within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.

The Russian campaign of hacking, selective leaking, and disinformation in the service of electing Donald Trump was successful because Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and a few hundred wannabes have done awfully similar work for the better part of three decades. 

Yes, it's horrifying that it's being done by a foreign power with malicious intent and it's fair to say this is one of the most successful campaigns carried out by foreign espionage service against the U.S.  

However, we, the voters, laid the groundwork for it to work. A significant chunk of the electorate has been mainlining propaganda that tells them that not only are liberals and Democrats wrong, they're actively and purposefully seeking to destroy America. They are capable of murder.

The boundaries of acceptable political discourse in our country have been decimated to the point that they really don't exist for a lot of us. Put it this way: if you think someone murdered a person for political gain, you can't then argue with that person (or people who support her) about the appropriate size of the federal budget. You chant, "Lock her up!" and equate voting for her with treason.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin didn't destroy our political norms. They just took advantage of that the fact we barely have any left.

We can blame a lot of people and organizations for spreading propaganda. We can call out the gains to be made from doing so -- money, influence. 

We should also call out that many of us eagerly lapped up this stuff and have been doing so for a long time.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Highly paid teaching position available in Nashville!

The Tennessee Titans fired their wide receivers and assistant wide receivers coaches today. 

I find this interesting and not just because I follow the Titans to a degree that would surprise even most people who know me. 

Anyway, NFL position coaches are one of the rare places in high profile sports where the job is mostly about teaching. While most folks don't know who these guys are (sadly and unfairly, most of them are guys), they are likely some of the most highly paid and heavily scrutinized teachers in the country.

(How much of an impact can they have? One of the reasons given for the New England Patriots' successful season is the return of their offensive line coach from retirement. The Patriots offensive line, with pretty much the same players, went from being one of the worst in the league last year to one of the best.) 

Their job is mostly focused on people development. There's an aspect of evaluation, too, though actual decisions about which players make up the team more heavily influenced by the scouting staff and general manager (and head coach in some cases). Unlike college coaches, NFL position coaches don't recruit players to a program. Their job is take the players they have and develop their skill set according to the larger vision of the head coach or coordinator. 

So, they teach. 

This firing raises those questions because the Titans' head coach has been friends with the more senior coach he fired today. The guy actually came out of retirement to coach the wide receivers. It doesn't seem personal. This seems like the head coach had an issue with how he was teaching.

I'm curious as to what actual instruction looks like at an NFL level. How do coaches develop their craft? How do they teach complicated game plans that can change significantly even in-game? How are position coaches evaluated at the end of the year?

I'm pretty sure "Hard Knocks" or any number of "NFL Insider" segments aren't representative of the teaching position coaches do. I would also bet that the people who coach at this level conduct themselves differently from the stereotypical screaming high school football coach. 

A few weeks ago, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich hinted at the approach one takes with adult, professional athletes.

"No Knute Rockne speeches." (Since I read more sports media than is healthy, I take special pleasure when future Hall of Fame coaches knock down sports cliches.)

While I really don't have an idea what teaching looks like at an NFL or NBA level, it's worth noting that U.S. Soccer hired Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov to consult. He's been working high-level coaches across the country to improve how advanced soccer players practice. He reflected in a recent post:
Had a pretty amazing day in Chicago on Wednesday, talking teaching with a group of (mostly) MLS professional soccer coaches who are enrolled in US Soccer’s new Pro License course. The group includes guys who I admire as coaches and who I followed as players. I was a little bit starstruck… but I got over that fast because the conversation was so rich. 
Interestingly, we didn’t watch any footage of soccer training. We watched classroom footage and applied the principles to teaching during training.The closest we got to watching “practice” was an amazing video of music teacher John Burmeister (who I’ve written about before) wokring with an upstate New York youth orchestra. His session is a master class on having a clear and specific goal and breaking the session up into rounds of progressive challenge, each with a single piece of feedback to focus on and execute.

The rest of the post is worth reading for its discussion of how to actually run a highly successful practice. One of the things I appreciate about Lemov is how he's evolved his focus to the intricacies of practice, then looked across disciplines -- teaching, music, soccer -- to apply it. (Hell, he wrote a book about it.)

Great teachers run great practices. I wish I could observe more high-level coaches when they're planning and running practice. I bet I'd find quite a few things to apply in my classroom.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Like Putin's voice from Trump's mouth

Image result for allstate voice actor
Dennis Haysbert - Not to be confused with a woman or Vladimir Putin

You know the Allstate series of commercials where two people are talking, then one person shifts into extolling the benefits of Allstate's insurance coverage? In that instant, the person's voice is dubbed by the semi-famous rich bass of Dennis Haysbert. 

I get the same sense every time I hear Donald Trump or someone on his staff talk about Russia. The style, tone, and word choice is jarring compared to what he says about pretty much every other topic.

This is Trump's most recent statement on Russia's hacking and the Obama administration's response:
I think we ought to get on with our lives,” he said. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind, the security we need.
Here's his tweet from December 15th on the subject:

Compare to his response to the terror attack in Berlin a few weeks ago:

Or his response to the Chinese government taking a US Navy drone:

Seems like every time the subject of Russia or Vladimir Putin comes up, I hear a different person speaking out of the same mouth.

Odd, isn't it? 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Annotating the news: Is there an answer for Obamacare opposition besides 'tribalism'?

From the NYT - "Hospitals in Safety Net Brace for Health Care Law's Repeal"
Before the health law, the hospital had to absorb the cost of caring for many uninsured patients like Mr. Colston. Now, with President-elect Donald J. Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress vowing to dismantle the law, Temple and other hospitals serving the poor are bracing for harsh financial consequences that could have a serious effect on the care they provide.
Hospital financing is a complicated beast but the bottom line is the hospital will be reduced to providing legally required triage care with only rare exceptions, no? Status quo ante Obamacare, so to speak. The upshot is that many more people will suffer and some will die prematurely.
Since the election, hospitals have been among the loudest voices against wholesale repeal of the health law. In a letter to Mr. Trump and congressional leaders this month, the two biggest hospital trade groups warned of “an unprecedented public health crisis” and said hospitals stood to lose $165 billion through 2026 if more than 20 million people lose the insurance they gained under the law. They predicted widespread layoffs, cuts in outpatient care and services for the mentally ill, and even hospital closings.
Twenty million people is a little under the size of the New York City metropolitan area. Imagine what it would be like if that population were limited to emergency room care only for everyone under 65.


Republicans have opposed Obamacare since it was proposed (by Obama, not years before when it borrowed heavily from the conservative Heritage Foundation's plan). I've followed the debate for years and still struggle to understand the logic of opposition beyond 1) Obama 2) government and 3) small tax increase on wealthy.

(Another version 1) tribalism 2) tribalism and 3) greed)

Sure, one can critique Obamacare's flaws from the left (not Medicare for all!) and right (mandate!), but those who are in wholesale opposition confound me. What was supposed to be done with nearly 16% of the population uninsured before Obamacare? Wasn't the increasing numbers of uninsured (and corresponding cost increases for insuring everyone else) going to capsize the market?

I get the politics of it, but don't understand the inhumanity. Again, from the NYT:
Paul Fabian, who received a double lung transplant at Temple last year after getting a subsidized private insurance policy from the Affordable Care Act marketplace, would not have qualified (for state-provided coverage before Obamacare) at all. Mr. Fabian, who suffered from emphysema and chronic lung failure, said he sold his truck to afford his $262 monthly premiums. 
“If you walk into the E.R. they have to help you,” Mr. Fabian, 61, said. “But if you have a condition like I had (chronic lung failure), what’s the hospital’s obligation?”