Moving Social Studies Forward

This Wednesday at 7 pm, there’s  a webinar hosted by the Center for Teaching Quality discussing the new national C3 Framework, which I love.  The webinar will feature Kathy Swan, the lead writer of the framework.  If you’re interested in joining the webinar, register here.  Here’s a full description of the webinar:

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards has been developed by CCSSO to guide and enhance the rigor of standards in civic, economics, geography, and history. Though states will be developing their own standards for these subjects, the pedagogical shifts implied by the framework will be felt in social studies classroom across the country. Find out from one of the framework’s authors–a practicing teacher–how you can begin to prepare. Bring your own challenges–we’ll devote part of the webinar to finding solutions together.

More urgently, Monday is the deadline for giving feedback on new New York Social Studies Framework.  My take went up on Chalkbeat NY this week (the re-branded Gotham Schools). There’s also a very thorough and thoughtful news piece on the Frameworkfrom Chalkbeat’s Patrick Wall.

If you’re a stakeholder in New York Education, please take the time this week or weekend to respond.  Before then, please forward this to all Social Studies teachers, administrators, and concerned parents that you know.  Here is the link to read the new Framework and submit feedback:

Here’s my piece: Continue reading Moving Social Studies Forward



I haven’t been quite sure how to write about this, but I’m featured in a new book that came out last month. Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave advocates for a very attainable vision for the teaching profession.  Barnett, Ann, and Alan do a masterful job of capturing the work of seven brilliant and inspirational teachers who are leaders in their school and communities.  I’m thrown in as well. It’s well worth the read, but more importantly, it’s worth sharing with others, be them powers that be or lay people with strong opinions on education.  Here’s a nice little teaser video that captures the main arguments:

Also, I did a little teacherpreneuring of my own last week, traveling down to DC for an Alliance for Excellent Education Project 24 webinar on Data Driven Decision making.  My presentation is about how not to use data to make decisions.  You can watch it here, and click on my name to jump to my presentation.  The questions were interesting and are worth watching.

Video: Teacher Leadership Speech from AERA 2013

I had the pleasure of being part of panel on Teacher Leadership at the AERA conference in San Francisco last weekend.  I presented on a paper I wrote, “Creating Capacity & Space for Teacher Leadership.”  I hope you’ll take the time to watch: 

Slide text:
Creating Capacity & Space for Teacher Leadership

Goal: Transform education from field where expertise and success exists in isolated individual classrooms (or outside of them) to one where expert practitioners augment and influence beyond their classrooms.

– Recognize novice teachers as potential teacher-leaders
– Create space for teacher-leaders to practice and develop
– Recognize and compensate teachers through formal leadership opportunities


Leo Casey, Executive Director of the Shanker Institute, sent me the following feedback on the paper, which I’m adding with his permission. He’s completely correct:

Nice paper on teacher leadership. I think Gramsci would be much more helpful than Althusser is thinking your concepts through. Althusser’s theory of interpellation, like his work generally, is generally considered to have a ‘structuralist’ cast because of his denial of subjectivity – and not just subjectivity in some untethered sense, but even historically grounded subjectivity, a la Marx in the 18th Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Althusser would say that you think you are exercising teacher leadership, but you are just responding to an ideology that defines it for you. Gramsci, and in particular his conception of organic intellectuals and their role in building class unity and the hegemonic role of the class in the larger society, is about historically grounded subjectivity, and about democratic leadership.  

Insightful Social Studies Gaining Momentum

Lots of good things are happening with Insightful Social Studies, and our effort to ensure New York students have the Social Studies curriculum they deserve.

I wrote a piece earlier this week for the Shanker Blog about larger concerns with the Common Core and is lack of attention to Civics, putting this effort in a larger context.  The Washington Post picked it up Wednesday, and Diane Ravitch just blogged about it as well.

We now have open lines of communication with multiple officials at the state level involved in the writing of the curriculum and with the power to ultimately approve it.  We have also established relationships with NYC officials, as well as with people working on larger national efforts.

We hope to have exciting news about next steps in the very near future, but in the meantime, please sign up for our Mailing List so we can communicated directly with you to organize, and so we can let people know just how many people are with us.

We Need a Better Social Studies Curriculum in NY

Dear Readers,

As you may or may not know, the NY State Department of Ed recently released a draft proposal of a new 9-12 Social Studies curriculum.  While there is some stuff in it that pushes Social Studies in a positive new direction, overall, I found the document quite troubling as a teacher, citizen, and historian.  You can read my full explanation here. Along with Andy Snyder, a fellow National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher of fifteen years at School of the Future, we have decided to organize strong feedback and potential resistance to the state by creating the group Insightful Social Studies.  Below, you’ll see our statement of purpose and organization.  We hope you’ll agree and join us, and you can read the growing number of voices expressing their concerns on our blog.

If you share my concerns, you can find the proposed draft, fill out the state’s feedback survey (due Friday night), and sign our petition.  After doing that, we would love to add your voice to the Insightful Social Studies blog (you can send me your piece).  And of course, please forward this email widely. Maybe together we can transform a stumbling block into a stepping stone.

In Solidarity,


Our long term goal as teachers is to better help students learn to make sense of our shared situations in our society via meaningful social studies instruction that focuses on powerful and relevant questions, deep consideration of crucial issues, and authentic civic engagement.

Our current struggle is to spark an effective resistance to the laundry list approach to social studies standards provided by the current draft NYS Social Studies Framework and thereby to build greater support for meaningful social studies.

Our strategy is to mount a small public education campaign that gathers support to begin again on social studies standards in NY state – either via radical revision of the framework, the Regents rejecting the proposed framework, or through the construction of a parallel teacher-led Social Studies standards framework.  We are looking to form a group of teachers and allies who will develop, adopt and hold themselves accountable to an alternative framework should the state fail to improve the current framework.

We want to see three main things in any adopted curricular framework:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for schools and teachers to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.

On the New NY Social Studies Framework

The New York Board of Regents recently released a draft of a new 9-12 Social Studies Framework and will accept feedback on it through March 8.  The new framework reflects two significant shifts.  Whereas the old framework was essentially a series of topics, the new framework focuses on Key Ideas and Understandings, as well as adding the Common Core Literacy Standards and what the State calls “Social Studies Practices,” which reflect the key skills in our discipline.

On the Framework’s opening page, there are a list of objectives that I found refreshing and of which I am very supportive. According to the Framework, the purpose of Social Studies “is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”  Towards that end, the Framework claims to allow “Students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents, and an examination of patterns of events in history,” and teachers “to have increased decision‐making power about how to teach and illustrate conceptual understandings and key ideas to promote student understanding.”  On those three points rests the entirety of the work I do with curriculum, teachers, and students.   Count me in!

A little of the substance that follows this promising introduction does take steps forward towards indicating what students should be able to do in high school social studies courses.  Both the Common Core standards, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and the conception and inclusion of the Social Studies Practices, are significant advancements from previous State guidelines which only focused on content knowledge.

However, the extended list of 59 Key Ideas and the multitude of Understandings serve to completely undermine those efforts.  I have three main concerns, as well as suggestions to address these concerns.

First, a certain interpretation of history is established through the “Key Ideas” which is meant to be transferred to students, as opposed to a series of questions being posted to lead to the inquiry necessary to demonstrate most of the Common Core standards such as argument, (Writing 1), comparing texts with different views (Reading 9), and all the Practices.  This static approach to historical content assumes we know what matters about the past and simply need to transfer it to students, rather than acknowledging that social studies is a contested field of knowledge, in which interpretations of the past are continually questioned and reevaluated.

Second, in grades 9-11, there is no consideration of why this history matters today. As a result, the Framework includes no way for students to achieve the stated goal of Social Studies to “help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

To address these past two concerns, the Framework should be shifted from answers to questions that would demand actual inquiry, thinking, rigor, and decision making.  For example, the current Framework demands that eleventh graders know that “The success of the revolution challenged Americans to establish a system of government that would provide for stability, while beginning to fulfill the promise of the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” This assumes the Constitution provided stability, an idea the Civil War challenges; that it was a step on the road to certain ideals, despite its protection of slavery and the slave trade; and fails to look at the Constitution in the present day.  Instead of starting with the answer, it would be better if  we started with questions: “To what extent did the Constitution succeed in fulfilling its stated goals in the Preamble?  To what extent did the Constitution fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence?  How well does it still work today?  How might it change to work better?”  The Gilder Lehrman Foundation has a much longer list of similarly provocative and essential questions for US History that might serve as a model.

Third, and most importantly, there are too many ideas and understanding to do well in the given courses, and every single one of them is mandated.  It takes time to help “Students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents.”  It takes about six weeks for my students to come to the required understandings of the Constitution, while simultaneous developing core skills and practices.  However, the Key Idea of the Constitution is only one of fourteen.  I would need at least 84 weeks to do this curriculum justice, but I only have 40.  The senior year curriculum is even more daunting, with ten Key Ideas for Government, and fifteen for Economics, while each of these classes are only semester (20 week) courses.  Rather than removing understandings from the list however, I would rather see a model that, as the Framework claims it wants to do, explicitly empowers districts and teachers to make choices.  I would suggest the State consider the International Baccalaureate model.  In that curriculum, there are a small number of prescribed subjects that take up about a third of the course, in combination with a longer menu of options for the rest of the course.  The IB History Exam models how students could be assessed. The IB exam provides a large number of questions and students must choose to answer a few questions on a number of different subjects..

It is my hope that the State hears similar feedback from teachers across the state, and that these changes are implemented before the new curriculum takes effect.  I hope those who agree with my critiques will take the time to share their input in the coming weeks.

If you share my concerns, you can find the proposed draft, fill out the state’s feedback survey (due Friday night), sign a petition, and read more critiques of the curriculum here. Maybe together we can transform a stumbling block into a stepping stone.

I Support Chicago Teachers

The little sister of one of my closest friends from high school is a Chicago teacher. I support her and the other 30,000 teacher on strike, and hope you do too.  Please think about donating or supporting them in other ways.  Below is from the Chicago Teachers Union:

I know you care about education.

I know you believe in justice.

That’s why I’m asking you to join me in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union by visiting to donate.

The CTU is currently on the front lines of a fight to defend public education. On one side the 30,000 members of the CTU have called for a contract that includes fair compensation, meaningful job security for qualified teachers, smaller class sizes and a better school day with Art, Music, World Language and appropriate staffing levels to help our neediest students.

On the other side, the Chicago Board of Education—which is managed by out of town reformers and Broad Foundation hires with little or no Chicago public school experience—has pushed to add two weeks to the school year and 85 minutes to the school day, eliminate pay increases for seniority, evaluate teachers based on student test scores, and slash many other rights.

That’s why I contributed to the Chicago Teachers Union Solidarity Fund. All donations will be used to conduct broad outreach throughout Chicago and nation-wide. Specifically, we plan to print educational materials, to distribute information about our positive agenda, such as the CTU report, The Schools Chicago Students Deserve [ ], and to mobilize massive support for educators in rallies and gatherings throughout the city. Any amount you can give will be a great help.

Visit to help.


Should Program to Reward Teachers Include More Hours and Students?

The Times finally published the second part of my response to the US Department of Education’s Project Respect proposal:

Effective teaching requires time and intimate knowledge of individual students’ minds and capabilities. These are things that a computer cannot do, and teachers cannot do well if they are responsible for too many students….While I can still be an effective teacher in a large class (and I actually had 50 students at once in Virginia at certain points), I cannot be a highly effective teacher of skills, understanding and decency in that environment…

Before we discuss extending school days and years, I would rather examine how to better use the time we have. The law of diminishing returns is very much in play with young people’s time, particularly adolescents. I have seen far too many teachers and schools make the mistake of saying, “we need to do more,” when in reality they need to do less better.

Please read, and comment, on the whole piece.  I’m really happy with how this one turned out.

The Education of Amani A: Education (Calling)

I’ve never asked this before, but please share this piece with as many people as you can. My students’ poem deserves a wide audience.  ~SL

I never lack for reasons why I love my job, but none of them ever supersede the privilege of seeing young women and ment take hold of the views and positions they will carry with them into their adulthood.  In rare cases, I get to bear witness to a student who not only attains a mature and nuanced understanding of a complex issue, but finds her voice to share that position with the larger world.

This past Thursday, Amani A., who I am proud to be able to call my student at the Academy for Young Writers, took 3rd place at the annual Knicks Poetry Slam at a sold out Broadway theater.  I am hardly an aficionado of performance poetry, so I won’t comment on the quality of the poem nor its performance (though I can only assume she was robbed of first place), but I do want to engage with the content of her poem: the education of young men of color. There is much to admire and love in her message.

Amani starts by juxtaposing the media attention given to acts of violence committed by students against teachers with the lack of attention given to the violent results of  abdicating the responsibility for actually educating young men of color.  She notes that a Google search for “students hitting teachers” leads one to read, “A student hitting a teacher is a serious incident that merits a serious response.”  Yet when searching for “teachers miseducating students” all she found relevant was “Lauryn Hill” (an allusion to Hill’s 1998 modern classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill).  It is a powerful and attention grabbing opening.

Amani then goes on to describe the young men she has observed throughout her education, who “think fists are words” and that “they have to play God to make change.”  This is the most powerful and effective stanza of the work.  She rebukes the young men for their reliance on violence as she simultaneously calls to question society’s failed attempts to promote role models in the guise of Great Men (King, Malcolm X, WEB DuBois, Booker T. Washington, etc) who are taught typically as saints, or naturally gifted, or the product of remarkable circumstances, but nonetheless, as people who are far greater than you or I ever could hope to be.

Later in the poem, Amani attacks the classroom culture of criticizing mistakes.  This leads young men to build up “tension in his body” when condescended because of a wrong answer (something I hope I rarely do when it comes to my content, but must plead guilty to the crime when it comes to lack of math skills in my students), or worse, leaving the anger “caught in their throat.” This leads them to “package the silent treatment into their fists/ [to] make sure they’re heard.”  One could easily extrapolate that experience to apply to binary standardized tests that tell students they are wrong or lacking in skills.  Good teachers know that mistakes are wonderful, because they are the most powerful opportunities for learning and growth.  It’s disheartening to see that Amani has witnessed something different throughout her education.

My lone criticism of the poem is that the solution it posits is slightly simplistic; her diagnosis is far more sophisticated than her prescription.  Amani calls her audience to “Call these boys / Call their voice / Tell them its time / Tell them we’re listening.”  Giving students more voice in and outside of classrooms is an important step, but it is only one of the panacea of steps that are necessary to actually improve the four hundred year history of individual and structural racism in this country, let alone the educational component of it.

The full text of the poem is below, which Amani generously shared with me to publish, but this is a poem meant to be seen and heard, so please watch the video, and share with others you know. Continue reading The Education of Amani A: Education (Calling)

Updated: My Blood, My Sweat, My Test Scores

After two years of court battles, it seems that the release of NYC Teacher Data Reports will happen any moment now.  For the life of me, I cannot understand the journalistic justification of publishing individual teachers’ results.  I would like to applaud Gotham School schools for choosing not to do so, and express my disappointment that the New York Times seems prepared to. I would further ask the Times why they are choosing to publish teacher’s scores when they have not published principal’s ratings in the past. I do not expect integrity from the Daily News or the Post.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I serve on an advisory board for Gotham Schools, though was not consulted on this decision.  I also write for the Time’s Schoolbook site.)

I wrote the following piece over a year ago when the DOE first announced they would share the results, and stand by it today.  I would be willing to update results, but I do not have access to my students scores from 2011 (I believe about 60% of my students passed the Global exam. This was extremely disappointing to me, though the results can partially be explained by having to teach the two year Global curriculum in one year).  This past semester, I worked with seniors who had failed one or both of the history exams.  Of the twelve students I worked with on US History, six passed; for Global History, eight out of eight passed.

From October 20, 2010:

As you might know, this week the NYC DOE said it would release 12,000 teachers’ names and their students’ test scores on State ELA and math tests in grades 3-8. I teach high school, so I am not directly affected, but here are my students’ Regents test scores from my four years teaching in NYC, anyway. I put them out there in solidarity with my brothers and sisters who are about to be put under the microscope.

You can have the scores, just please remember they are almost meaningless. They tell you about 5% of what I do. Here’s what they don’t tell you:

  • They don’t tell you that last year I taught 100% of our juniors who are special education students and/or English Language Learners, even though I only taught 50% of our juniors. They also don’t tell you I requested these most challenging students.
  • They don’t tell you that last year I taught our 15 seniors most in danger of not graduating for two periods. In that time, I prepped them for English, Global, and US Regents, as well as helping them earn credits in a wide variety of areas. Continue reading Updated: My Blood, My Sweat, My Test Scores