Category Archives: Thoughts

My Vision of an Ideal School

I recently completed an assignment in which I detailed my vision of an ideal school. If you ever had the opportunity to visit, this is what it would be like.

Click to enlarge and see what my ideal school is all about!

You will find our idyllic school situated among lush, green hills. Behind the gates of our campus, you will enter a unique space established with children, learning, and social and environmental consciousness at the core of everything we do.

At the gate, you will provide your information to the security guard and have your picture taken. After you park your car in the lot (located adjacent to the solar panels that power our school), you will follow a path that leads you to and through our garden. I hope you have time to meander because there are so many delightful sights to behold. On the path, your eyes will be drawn to the stepping stones vividly painted by our students under the tutelage of a local artist. Take time to enjoy them, but also revel in the natural beauty of our award-winning garden. Give our students the credit: when our school first opened, students in our gardening club designed the garden, selected plants and flowers and planted them themselves. They also learned about the engineering and landscaping required to build a garden. Today, students, staff, and parent volunteers continuously maintain the garden. If you time your arrival right, you will see our food services staff collecting ingredients from the garden in order to prepare lunch. Or, you might see students adding scraps to the compost pile. The garden is watered with waste water from our building.

Proceeding through the main entrance of our modern school, you will be inspired by the beauty of our lobby. Not only does it serve as a bright shining beacon in a physical sense, but it showcases to all visitors how amazing our students are. The endless natural light that floods the space through our floor to ceiling windows will awe you. You will be drawn to the mural that spans the entire length of the wall opposite the windows, a product of a partnership between various local artists, our art teachers, and our students. It depicts scenes that highlight our core STARFISH values (see A Focus on What is Learned). You will be fascinated by the student artwork that greets you: sculptures, paintings, and photographs are all there for everyone’s enjoyment and enrichment.

Passing through the halls of this vibrant, engaged community of elementary-aged learners and leaders, it will be obvious to you that there is a fervent love of student-driven learning cultivated in our school.

Our Classrooms

To understand how our students thrive, you must first understand the physical arrangement of our classrooms. What may look like a mishmash is actually designed with students’ personal preferences – and right to choose how they want to learn – in mind. There are single student desks, tables to accommodate multiple students, couches, beanbag chairs, floor space, office chairs, and exercise balls. Rather than seeing traditional completed student work on the walls, you will see work in progress on the walls. Whiteboards cover our wall space and students use them during discussions to collaborate and record ideas. Their to do lists, sketches, and thoughts are as inspirational and stimulating a classroom display as you will ever see.

Our first floor houses all classrooms, the main office, and the cafeteria. Our second floor features our science lab, art studio, auditorium, and gymnasium.

Our Students

Students in every classroom collaborate extensively on micro and macro levels. Within their own classes, they work together on math problems, literary and art analysis, composing music, group presentations, and more. Students work in ways they find comfortable: at desks, standing, lying on the floor, sitting on a couch, using paper and pencil, or on iPads, laptops, and cell phones. As long as students are working productively and not interfering with their peers’ educations, we encourage their comfort in place of outdated ideas of how students “should” work. Our classes are inclusionary. Students with disabilities are students first and foremost. We believe every child has the right to work, play, and be with other children, and here, they are.

Classes on each grade collaborate on multidisciplinary projects such as designing gardens and playgrounds; addressing social issues in the school and communities (local/regional/national/global); highlighted by monthly charity drives; and advancing school-wide awareness of environmental issues. As students prepare to thrive in a global community that is increasingly more closely knit, students in the same grade use safely established, staff-monitored school social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) to communicate and collaborate. Our one-to-one iPad-to-student ratio makes this possible, and the collaborative process extends outside of the school’s walls because students interact outside of school hours. In school, students sit on committees and report the ideas and concerns of their class to the representatives of other classes. These meetings form the basis of how students proceed in their collaborations.

Students take a great deal of responsibility for assessment of themselves and their peers. Our teachers expertly guide students to identify positives in procedure, thought process, and outcomes and to also critically consider weaknesses and how they can be improved. Student-generated rubrics and checklists, always designed collectively by each class and based on state standards, guide these processes.

A Focus on What is Learned, not What is Taught

Rather than through tests, we seek evidence of learning in the actual work students do on an ongoing basis: their projects, presentations, journal entries, conversations, etc. Teachers and students adapt accordingly based on that most critical feedback. However, at the end of every unit in math, reading, writing, science, social studies, and foreign language, students do take “traditional” tests. Importantly, though, their grades are not used in a strictly summative sense. Rather than use these tests as a conclusion to a unit and an opportunity to say a student either “got it” or did not, we use them to guide our next steps. So, students who demonstrate difficulty with concepts are invited to attend early morning programs that focus on their misunderstandings or troublesome concepts. All of our teachers work with groups of four to six students. For morning groups, students are assigned to a teacher based on the teacher’s personal specialty. Groups are flexible from unit to unit. Our goal is not to have students do well on tests. It is, instead, for them to master content. The timeframe in which this is accomplished is of secondary importance.

At this school, our closely vetted, highly qualified teachers act more as guides toward learning than just imparters of knowledge. Teachers are expected to help students learn, and so you will never hear the excuse, “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.” Teachers respond to the needs of their students as they arise and adapt their approach to the curriculum appropriately. This structure reflects our greater overall commitment to safeguarding the emotions and esteem of our students because we aim to make sure every student has the fullest opportunities to do their best. We value cultivating strong relationships that lead to confidence and risk taking.

To that end, we promote an idea called, “Awards for All.” We don’t reward high grades because inevitably only some students will ever win! We like to catch students doing STARFISH things. Our recognition focuses on character rather than achievement, and we celebrate students for being supportive, trying when something seems too difficult, exhibiting a positive, can do attitude, showing respect toward all, providing friendship, displaying integrity, sharing, and being helpful. These are attributes to which all students can aspire, and they give us common language to talk about our students’ development as people.

We’re in this for the Kids

If it seems like there is a lot of talking as you walk through our school, there is. Constituents engage often in productive dialogue about learning and growing. Our students are excited about learning and so are our teachers. Grade level teams have common preparation periods multiple times weekly, allowing time for teachers to mine their collegial resources. A weekly book club meeting over lunch allows teachers to discuss a common text, be it school-wide (in which meetings are conducted simultaneously in smaller groups, with greater collaboration occurring through traditional methods like jigsaws, as well as web-based methods like wikis and blogs) or grade-wide (typically a complex student text read and discussed by grade-level colleagues as a way to consider methods of teaching it to their students). Meetings are structured in a way to promote productivity and limit non-task specific talk. Procedural protocols are established and used at every meeting.

It is the administration’s job to support the fine work of the teachers and the students. Just like students and teachers, the administrators engage in frequent dialogue about best practices and ways to continue improving and promoting the school’s culture. Like students and teachers, administrators are also expected to engage in multiple two-way conversations around meaningful feedback that makes others better. Administrators make every effort to spend as much time as possible everyday in classrooms. Interactions between administrators and teachers are often direct and honest. They are professional and nonthreatening. Everyone knows why they work here as a member of this team: to make our students better. With this always in our minds, conversations are productive. We waste as little time as possible.

When problems arise, stakeholders are asked to come to the table with potential solutions. Various options are considered before any decisions are made. Ultimatums do not exist here because everyone works with the same vision and goals of making sure every one of our children, regardless of perceived inability or difficulties, gets access to the best possible education they can while they are with us.

Students also have responsibilities toward each other. As an example, our experienced fifth graders love being paired with a kindergarten buddy for the year. Think of it as a big brother/big sister mentality. The “bigs” help the kindergarteners in many ways. They help them find important places like the medical office and bathrooms. They help them learn school procedures. Once a week, buddies eat together in the lunchroom, drawing together, playing games, or just talking. Bigs visit the kindergarten classrooms to read and be read to. They help with math. It is a rewarding experience for all children involved.

Our Families

Family members play a significant role in our school community. They are visible throughout the building and perform a variety of roles supporting our students and school. Often, you will find parents and grandparents in classrooms, assisting in everything from paperwork and filing to facilitating conversation between students to working one-on-one in academic content. We encourage parents to bring their unique talents and hobbies to school so that we all can benefit. They collaborate with teachers in afterschool clubs that match their interests. Students who participate in afterschool have a menu of clubs from which they can choose, including: math, science, language, creative writing, drama, environmental, children’s rights, bookmaking, chess, computers, music, gardening, and photography. Family involvement in the building increases family engagement in our children’s educations, which helps promote and foster their accomplishments. We are all very much invested in our school as a conduit for the improvement of everyone in it.

Our families also play a large role in making sure our Fun Fridays happen as smoothly as they do. They assist with organizing and distributing a calendar in September that details the theme of every week’s celebration. They also coordinate reminder efforts to make sure everyone is included in the fun. On Fridays, everyone in the school community dresses based on the theme. Weekly, we have the opportunity to dress based on something students are learning about: fairy tale characters, Revolutionary era loyalists and patriots, presidents, ancient Egyptians, community helpers, scientists, and more. Once a month, we all dress in the color of the charity we are supporting. Everyone looks forward to Fridays because our bonds of community are strengthened.

When you visit our school, we think you will see for yourself what makes it so special. The investment and inquisitiveness of our students, the dedication and professionalism of our staff, the care and involvement of our parents, and the whole culture that permeates our entire organization, combine to make a truly unique school. We hope you will visit us soon and take the opportunity to explore, learn, create, and celebrate with us.

What to Expect When You Have Expectations

One thing I don’t ever want to hear my students say is, “I can’t.” That’s the kind of toxic language that too many students have internalized too many times. Too many hopeful, eager students have been turned sour by disbelieving, uninspiring adults. Too many promising minds have been lost to too many negative mouths.

A little boy in my class came to me from a less restrictive environment a few months ago. The poor kid was floundering, lost in a tide of confusion and self-doubt. He looked – and was – miserable. Distant. Blank.

At first, he started coming to me just for reading. He got a special seat right next to me and, little by little, started coming out of his shell. Though he’d sometimes cry, “I want to go back to my real class,” I remained firm with him about all the reasons he should – no, must –  embrace his new class. One of my most gregarious students took him under his wing, and I made sure to do the same. On more than one occasion, I made it crystal clear to him that in my class, he was expected to conduct himself – socially and academically – in certain ways. That meant trying things that were hard, learning ways to manage them, and eventually, succeeding at them. He needed sensitivity and caring, but he needed to be pushed, too.

It may have been tough love, but he got the message (and learned to take pride in a new way of being). Before long, the boy was leaping out of his chair every time I came to his room to bring him to mine. His dazzling smile spoke words he was unable to: “I’m learning. I’m improving. I’m gaining confidence. I’m capable. I’m smart.”

Soon enough, his family agreed to move him into my classroom full-time. His network of new friends expanded, as did his academic knowledge and his understanding of his own potential. During the first full week in my class, he produced math writing that impressed his classmates, me, and the administration. He proudly took his polished, if not perfect, work to the common bulletin board all classes share on my floor, and hung his paper there himself, an enduring trophy on display to remind him of his ability. Each day when we passed the bulletin board after lunch, his new friends and him would beam just knowing it was there.

Those who believed in him from the start were thrilled with his new zest for school, love of learning, and newfound confidence. “You see? I told you he could do it!” came from one colleague. When I told the principal about the way he races into class announcing to me he’s here and ready to learn, she said, “That gives me goosebumps.” Those of us who believed in him relished in his newfound, humble pride. Those who never took the time to try found no joy in seeing they were wrong all along.

But the proof is there.

On previous math tests, he averaged in the 40s. On his first test in my class, he scored an 80. Today, finishing up the second test, he scored an 88.

This boy, who barely could get a word down on paper at the beginning of the year, now uses outlines to write topic sentences, supporting details, and a conclusion.

This boy, who spent more time looking at his fingers than worrying about books, now listens to complex texts and discusses them with partners.

Don’t tell him what he can’t do. Don’t make him think he’s less than awesome. He deserves better.

This isn’t only about me. Plenty of teachers have high expectations and powerful beliefs in their students’ abilities. But too many don’t give their students a chance. That pisses me off. We are meant to teach the students in front of us: not just the easy ones, not just the ones who retain and understand everything.

Saying a child can’t do something, or promoting that belief with actions toward the child, is poisonous. Poison injures, sickens, and defeats. If you think the kids don’t know they’re being poisoned, just consider the difference my student has enjoyed. Coming from a culture where the bar is set low and students are encouraged to crawl under it, going to a culture where the bar is set high and students are implored to jump over it, he sees it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you will do. And you will do it.

I firmly believe that our students will only rise to the challenges we present to them. If we set a standard of busy work being acceptable, confusion being typical, and belittling being preferable, we will surely lose our kids. Do they deserve that? It makes me angry to think there are people who don’t realize they don’t.

Counter those expectations with challenging work, clarity, and emotional support, and just like the little boy’s smile, all students will have a chance to shine as they were meant to.

It Snows, and We Go it isn't.

Yeahhhhh…no it isn’t.

This will be a brief little rant before, for the third time in 2014, I venture out into what the mayor of New York calls “hazardous” or “treacherous” travel conditions because my job requires it. See, I’m a teacher, and while all indications are generally that New Yorkers should stay indoors and only head out in emergencies, schools are still open because, as the new adage goes, “Kids have to eat.”

They do, of course. And if I’m a new mayor – Bill de Blasio – or schools chancellor – Carmen Fariña – doesn’t it sound great for me to show how much I care about the students’ wellbeing? Sure it does.

I’m not callous or ignorant enough to argue against this. There truly are kids who rely on school for their most complete meals of the day. But, there are other facts that can’t be ignored:

  • The logic behind warning about hazardous and treacherous travel conditions for “all” New Yorkers extends to our littlest ones, too. They’re walking on sidewalks still covered in ice (since no one seems too worried about enforcing the law about property owners shoveling their sidewalks in an appropriate amount of time). They’re riding buses on slick roads when officials are cautioning people to stay off the streets.
  • Many parents think it’s ridiculous to send their kids out into weather-related danger, so they opt to keep them home. Our snowstorms this year have resulted in roughly 65% student attendance across the city. Most teachers with half a brain know that if more than a third of the class is out, you put a hold on any new lessons.
  • Thousands of teachers are being put in harm’s way, too. I have colleagues who travel 20 miles to get to work. Even for me – I’m only five or six miles from my school – it’s an adventure. The main street by my apartment has not been a priority for plowing in any of the storms this year. It’s a mostly downhill trip from my building to the highway, so for about a mile, I’m crawling along (if I’m not skidding along). Furthermore, teachers who drive and work in dense areas, like I do, are contending with deplorable parking conditions on the streets as it is. There are mounds of snow that turned to mounds of ice and on a day like today, with all the new precipitation, getting out of those spots will be even worse.
  • Full-day storms like that one we’re expecting today, actually don’t just impact the morning commute for students and teachers. They affect the afternoon commute, too – you know, when everything’s even worse. No one ever seems to remember that. (This might explain why after-school programs haven’t been canceled, either).

Anyway, it’s getting late. Normally I wouldn’t be up for another 10 minutes. But, I was up at 4:10 today, expecting to hear that cooler heads prevailed in the Ivory Tower – I mean mayor’s office. I don’t know why I ever thought that.

Safe travels, everyone. Especially the kids.

The How and Why of It

Here’s a rundown on my class this year.

  • Kindergarten through second grade reading levels despite being in third grade.
  • For many, minimal, if any, parental support at home.
  • Witnesses to domestic violence.
  • Transient living situations.
  • Crowded living conditions.
  • Habitual lateness or absence.
  • Lack of accountability outside the classroom.
  • Medical conditions, disabilities, medications, and lack of proficiency in the English language.
  • Poverty and poor nutrition.

Take into account everything else that holds influence over school and what we do in my class. I ask:

  • How can my students be expected to pass the upcoming tests?
  • How can they prioritize them?
  • How can they be held to a standard that belittles their truths and realities?
  • How can they be made to feel they’re less than? Worse than? Not as good as? Not as worthy as?

The unfortunate, simple answer to the question, “How can they?” is, “Well, they just can.”

And so, the next question becomes, “Why?”

To that question, I’m still waiting for an acceptable response.

Reality Check

Well, the time has finally come. It’s “see you in September” time. While the kiddies still have one more week of summertime bliss before they strap on their backpacks and skip along to school, we New York City teachers have our alarms set for earlier than we want. My lunch is packed, and when I’m done with this post, I’ll pack my bag, too. Goodbye, summer. Hello, reality.

I admit, I am having great difficulty approaching year six of my career with the usual renegade optimism I’ve always summoned in the past. On the plus side of things, I’m happy to remain in the same room I’ve been for the last two years. I am also tenured now, which could work in my favor. And, I’m predominantly a third grade teacher for the third straight year, so I’m able to continue to hone my skills in teaching that grade’s content.

There are flip sides to all of this, too. I’m glad to be in the same room again, but with precious few hours for me to be in the room to set up before the kids arrive, there is plenty yet to be done. I’m glad to be tenured, but the city’s new evaluation system may make that distinction moot; in the spring, no one had an answer what kind of protections tenure afforded teachers moving forward, and I’m yet to hear anything this year, either. And, while 11 of my students this year are third graders, one is not. How does he get the education he needs and deserves?

Yes, it is difficult for me to find the positives right now. Uncertainty sits like a dark cloud over the back to school proceedings. Perhaps clarity will begin to reveal itself at our meetings tomorrow, but right now, it’s a morass of concern.

All I can say with certainty is that in one week, 12 little darlings are going to arrive in the schoolyard, casting their eyes toward me, excited to be back, scared to be back, indifferent about being back. And it’s on me to harness that excitement, assuage those fears, and overturn that apathy.

Major challenges await. It’s impossible to know the form they’ll take. But, there’s a trend evident in each of my first five years: by the end of the year, magically, everything has fallen into place. It always seems impossible that that will happen. This year is no exception: it seems impossible now, but it will be reality by June.


Nice to Meet You (Face-to-Face)

I had a great thrill this week. I finally got to meet face-to-face one of my favorite people in the online educational community, Pernille Ripp.

Pernille has been a friend and collaborator for two or three years. I don’t remember how we found each other on Twitter, but I remember bonding with her when Wisconsin was devolving into a union-workers’ hellhole. Pernille was down at the Capitol frequently, voicing her opinions and fighting for what she believes in.

That’s how she rolls, and I’ve always admired that about her. She is outspoken, upfront, and committed to her values. We’ve Skyped, e-mailed, and talked on the phone, but it’s a different element in person. Our conversation over dinner was passionate and interesting. Being able to sit with Pernille for a few hours was a wonderful experience.

In the past, Pernille and I had some brief hypothetical conversations about someday working together, maybe opening a school. Let me tell you, our students and colleagues need more people like her. So, Pernille, if that offer still stands, you know where to find me.


Be True to Yourself

Some people are subject to the whims of the winds. They change positions like their underwear. They say one thing when they mean the other. They say they’ll do this and then they do that. They tell you what you want to hear while thinking what they know is what they should be saying. They seem to be more concerned with being popular than being right.

In a school, it can be hard to be principled and grounded, but it’s necessary. When we’re talking about children’s lives, the popular and easy opinion very often does not result in the best situation for them. So it becomes imperative to stick to one’s beliefs and stand one’s ground, regardless of who presents opposition.

Conversations with colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates should always be framed around what’s right, just, and sensical. When we compromise our values, so many stakeholders stand to lose so much.

We have to be able to remember what’s important. It’s not being popular or having an easy path to take. It’s about standing by your beliefs when you know, no matter what others say, that the less popular road less traveled is the one that makes all the difference.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It…If You Make It At All

They’re silent. At least they got that much out of this. You can’t talk during a test, plain and simple. Even the slightest sniffle or throat clearing will be treated with suspicion.

Some of them are looking back to the passages – maybe they’ll pull it out. Sure, I know no one expects good grades on this year’s tests. But maybe, just maybe, these kids will pull off a shocker.

Or…maybe they know “What Good Test Taking Looks Like,” so they’re turning back, putting pencil to chin in a thinking pose, and underlining.

But I see in their faces that nothing here makes sense. The words are too long and too many. The questions are too boring and too many.

But they try. They’re too young to realize that, while the test is hard for many their age, it’s even harder for them.

What are they learning from this experience? You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

But with tests like these determining who’s smart and who’s stupid, how could they ever make it?

What Testing Does to This Teacher

I’ve written previously on the damage I see done to my students when they’re faced with a test on which there’s no way they can possibly do well. With all the hyperbole leading up to the standardized tests they take, and because they are virtually impossible to pass if you have a disability, my students are often left to feel worthless, regardless of what strides they made heading into the tests.

We’re into it now. Around this time, benchmark assessments and practice tests are du rigueur in my third graders’ worlds. And so for me, the cycle begins anew, just as it has since I started teaching special education: Kids make significant progress on their levels and terms -> kids forced to take tests way above their levels and terms -> kids realize there’s something wrong and made to feel worthless -> kids frustrated, disengaged, unmotivated, and upset.


Recently, I’ve sat and watched with my downcast head in my open palm as my poor 8-year olds have been made to sit in their chairs for unnatural lengths of time, like tiny little soldiers whose feet don’t touch the floor, thinking they have a clue about how to answer the questions in front of them, but demonstrating by their blank stares and nonsensical responses that they are lost. Can’t blame them.

Every group of students is different. These third graders are not nearly as talented or interested in math as last year’s class. They also have the added “bonus,” lucky little winners they are, of taking Common Core-aligned tests. Read: lots of multi-step, multi-operation questions, each one seemingly designed, with a little more vitriol than the previous, to invalidate English language learners and students with disabilities.

Bless their stubby pencils and little hearts, they try. They show work (whether it’s appropriate to the task is another story). They wait patiently for their friends to finish so I can read the next problem. They smile when they think they got it right.

And, in their stunted spelling (learning disabilities, you know), they answer a short response question by saying, “I dink dis test is to haid.”

What’s this do to me? It makes me sad. Makes me angry. Makes me mad. Makes me question myself. Makes me worry about unrealistic expectations. Makes me pity the kids.

One colleague had the best advice about how to deal with this: “Don’t look.”

When we’re all jumping off a cliff together, that’s pretty solid advice.




I’m no worker of grand miracles. In fact, when it comes to schools, declarations of grand miracles accomplished are best left for the propagandists, movie makers, and politicians.

So with that logic, you’d likely derive that nothing miraculous happens in my classroom.

And I’d derive that you’re wrong.

It’s a miracle when the light goes on in a student’s head and she says, after doing a math procedure the wrong way 5 times, “Ohhhhh, nowwww I get ittttt!” (And she does).

It’s a miracle when a student stares at an addition question blankly, oblivious to its meaning, clueless to the steps needed to solve it, and comes in the next day willing to try again.

It’s a miracle when, two days later, he gets the procedure down perfectly and answers all his remaining questions correctly.

It’s a miracle when the student who seemed to know no high-frequency words at the beginning of the year seems to know all of them in February.

It’s a miracle when the student who ran around the room, crawled on the floor, stomped his feet, and screamed for no readily apparent reason and seemingly incessantly, drastically reduces the frequency of these behaviors.

It’s a miracle when a student who entered in December and never called anyone by their name suddenly knows the name of the teacher, the para, and everyone at his table.

It’s a miracle when people walk by the classroom and don’t think, “Oh, there’s a self-contained class,” but rather, “What a diligent, hard-working class.”

And it will be a miracle when people with misguided opinions and loud voices finally realize what matters.