Supporting Students Dealing with Grief

Larry Ferlazzo’s always wonderful advice column has a particularly resonant question this week: How can we best respond to student grief after losing a loved one?  My response is one of many featured.  I also participated in a brief podcast on the issue, which you can listen to here.



Semester 1 Reflection: Looking for an Argument

One of the many unique features of my new school, Harvest Collegiate, is that our humanities courses are one-semester theme-based courses that, for the most part, are electives.  This means I completely wrapped up courses last month, and started a new term with a new course and students a couple weeks ago.

Last semester, I taught two courses.  I wrote about my Build Your Own Civilization class a few weeks ago.  My other class, which I co-taught with a brilliant and promising novice co-teacher, was Looking for an Argument, and it might be the best class I’ve ever taught, and undoubtedly yielded the most student growth I have seen.

The class was created by Avram Barlowe and Herb Mack of Urban Academy, and you can buy a book about it here.  At Harvest, Looking for an Argument gives a government credit, and all 9th graders take it during the year.  The structure is relatively simple.  Each week focuses on a different controversial issue.  Ours’ ranged from the NYC Soda Tax to the presidential election to Stop and Frisk.  The week starts with two teachers debating the issue. The students choose who has which side, establishing that the class is not about being right, but rather about constructing the best possible argument.  Students then join in to debate and discuss the issue for the rest of the period, all the while taking notes.  Each week ends with the students writing a timed argumentative essay on the topic.  In between, student read from a packet on the topic, composed of a variety of news and blog articles, as well as critiquing students notes, highlighting, and essays from the pervious week.  And that’s it.

Part of the genius of the course is its simplicity.  While provocative topics keep the students engaged week to week, students are practicing only four core academic skills — note-taking, reading with annotation, self-reflection, and timed argumentative writing — over and over again.  While students do gain a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world through a variety of topics, that knowledge is never assessed; it’s all about the skills.

My class was tremendously successful in improving these skills.  Harvest has a Common Core aligned six-point writing rubric we use in all classes.  A 1 on the rubric corresponds to a middle school level performance, a 3 on the rubric means a student has met the Common Core standards for 9-10 grades and a 5 means the students has met the Common Core standards for 11-12 grades. Each point is then roughly one year of growth.  We focused on measuring students’ improvement in Perspective (developing claims and counterclaims) and Evidence (supporting those claims with a variety of the strongest possible evidence).

In my class, students averaged a gain of .82 in Perspective, and 1.25 in evidence.  In other words, students averaged a full year gain in skills from only a semester.  At the start of the class, 5 students were meeting the 9-10 Common Core standard in Perspective, and none were in Evidence.  By the end of the one semester class 9th grade class, 16 of 26 students were meeting or exceeded the standard in Perspective,

Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

Among the many unique features of my new school, Harvest Collegiate, is that our humanities courses are one-semester theme-based courses that, for the most part, are electives.  This means I completely wrapped up courses last week, and start a new term with a new course and students next week.

This past semester, I taught two courses.  The first, Looking for an Argument, was probably the best I ever taught.  The structure was creating by Avram Barlowe and Herb Mack of Urban Academy, and you can read more about it here, and buy it here.  I hope to write more on that soon. My second class was an interdisciplinary English and Global history course which I dubbed Build Your Own Civilization.  The global focused on ancient and golden aged civilizations, while the English focused on post-apocalyptic or “kids on a deserted island” scenarios.  In addition, the first 30 minutes of every class was devoted to independent reading of books of the students’ choice.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to what I’ve learned about independent reading to East Side Community High School’s very well established program, my former colleagues Steve and Chris at Bronx Lab, and my department mate Kiran, who generously gave me all her independent reading materials.

I want to start with my students’ reflections.  I borrowed heavily from Paul Blogush’s evaluation, and was quite please with the info I got.

First, I asked my students to choose one words to describe myself, and one word to describe the class.  Here are the results:

I’m not sure I could be happier about helpful and challenging being the most common words to describe me, and am quite pleased they found the course interesting.  The one student who described me as “awesome” but the course as “less awesome” actually points towards my feelings about the class. Continue reading Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

Reflection on Questions for the School Year #1

Instead of writing about my goals on a bimonthly basis this year, I decided to track how my thinking about three different questions shifts as the year goes on.  I previously addressed these questions in my Hopes and Fears post.  This is my first check in.

How will I need to change the stance towards students and pedagogical practices I’ve developed the past years teaching upper classmen to be successful in teaching freshmen?

To the best of my knowledge, I think I made two significant changes to my pedagogy for teaching freshmen.  First, I grade way more often.  With Juniors and Seniors, I only gave formal written feedback on the projects and writings that culminated major units.  Now, I am giving  formal formative feedback multiple times each week, and focusing that feedback on smaller aspects of students’ practice.  For example, in my Looking for an Argument Government class, students write an essay every week.  My feedback for that class generally only focuses on one aspect of the essay, say Organization, which is the focus of instruction for the following week.  On the other hand, in my interdisciplinary English/History class, Build Your Own Civilization, students are spending much more of their time on smaller pieces of writing as opposed to full essays with specific attention to grammar and structure.

Second, I rarely plan activities that last longer than 15 minutes.  Freshmen have yet to build up their focus stamina, so I try to plan my class in smaller blocks of time, and have transitions that involve movement as much as possible.

How can I better focus on students’ thinking as opposed to the products of that thinking?

I’m glad I asked myself this question, as I need to get refocused on this.  The bottom line is I haven’t focused on this as much as I would like.  For Build Your Own Civilization, I need to re-browse Making Thinking Visible before planning my next unit to work in a couple of thinking routines.

In Looking for an Argument, we’ve talked a lot about writing structure as thinking structure, and have worked to break students free of the tyranny of the five paragraph essay to allow their writing to better reflect their thinking about complex arguments.  Most students have adopted a “Some people say this, others say that, but I say…” structure for their essays.  It’s now time to really push their thinking within their essays, particularly around how they differentiate between their overall claim, their reasons for holding that claim, and the specific evidence they have to support their reasoning.

How will I shift from not just developing teachers, but developing teacher-leaders for the future of our school?

Given the small nature of our staff right now with only ten teachers, I’m not sure I can write about this publicly in any meaningful way, so I’m going to hold off on answering for now.

Questions for the 2012-2013 School Year

Each of the past two years, I wrote a bunch of goals and reflected on them every two months in this space.  I often found that as the year went on, I didn’t really care about the goals and reflected on them just because I said I would. I’m taking a different approach this year and writing myself a series of reflective questions I will return to every couple months.  This will be my own personal inquiry project.

  1. How will I need to change the stance towards students and pedagogical practices I’ve developed the past years teaching upper classmen to be successful in teaching freshmen?
  2. How can I better focus on students’ thinking as opposed to the products of that thinking?
  3. How will I shift from not just developing teachers, but developing teacher-leaders for the future of our school?

Hopes and Fears for the 2012-13 School Year

I think this may be my favorite piece to write each year, but I can’t imagine I will ever be less able to capture my hopes and fears in words than I can now.  Not since my first year teaching, and maybe not even then, have I started a year with such overwhelming feelings of excitement, apprehension, nervousness, anticipation, and helplessness.

Harvest is Now Real

Eight months ago I sat down for coffee with Kate and Atash, the principal and social worker of what was then “The Harvest School,” something that only existed in their dreams and on some paper.  That evening, I became the first teacher to join the planning team.  Paul, our science teacher, joined a few days later.

For eight months, the hopes and dreams have gotten bigger and bigger.  Our team of dreamers has expanded slowly as more teachers joined, and we began to share dreams with our future students and their families.  Tomorrow morning, when 120 or so 9th graders walk in, Harvest Collegiate High School will be real.

Eight months ago the school was a newly-approved proposal.  Tomorrow, our students will walk into a fully conceived institution.  To the best of my knowledge, we are ready in every which way a school can be (with the exception that a lot of supplies still haven’t arrived).  I have worked with amazing teams in the past, but none like this.  I have no doubt we have the strongest ninth grade teaching team in the city.  I am proud that we are not only ready for year one, but have also made all major decisions and have concrete plans for each year until we reach our full capacity in the 2015-16 school year.  Our curricular and assessment structures, where I have done the most work, are set.  Ninth grade courses are designed to help students take the first step towards the graduation Capstone Projects student will complete in their senior year.   My greatest hope is that we have great plans we think we do.  My biggest fear is that we won’t find the right balance between evolving as the school changes and staying true to our mission and vision.


I’m only teaching two courses this semester: a section of Looking for an Argument, a brilliant government/current events class we’re stealing from Urban Academy, and Build Your Own Civilization, an integrated history and English class that combines the study of ancient civilizations with post-apocalyptic literature where teenagers, for better and worse, create new civilizations.  I am hopeful that I can bring every lesson I’ve learned teaching the past nine years to these courses, so that I am just as successful as I’ve been the past two years.  I am fearful that I will not adjust quickly enough to teaching 9th graders for the first time since ’04-’05.


In addition, I’m excited and ready to return to holding formal teacher-leader roles in my school. As “Assessment and Organization Guru,” I’m coordinating the school’s assessment structures and ensuring our program matches our big picture curricular goals under the title. I’m also coordinating our January Term, our relationship with the Coalition of Essential Schools and New York’s Consortium for Performance Assessment, mentoring a second year teacher, serving as Tech Guy (for one year only) and, if elected, our Union Chapter Leader. I will serve on our Vision & Strategic Planning Committee and co-chair our Progress Monitoring team.  My hope is that the I’ve learned much from many around me and previous mistakes to effectively fill these positions.  My fear is that with so much to do (and everyone in the new school has this much to do), I will do too much myself and not allow others to grow and develop as teacher leaders.

Other Education Stuff

The past couple years I have done much out of school as a teacher-leader, and have been able to make things like writing, running professional development, working on Union committees, co-founding the NYC Social Studies Critical Friends Group, and serving on a reader advisory board for Gotham Schools, a priority.  All these things will have to go on the back burner for now.  I hope I can still prioritize some of these things, especially my CFG and on the DOE/UFT task force to create new assessments for teacher evaluation, while maintaining at least casual relationships with the rest.  My fear is that I will have to give much of it up with the added commitments to my new school.


Last but not least, I am excited and hopeful for how much I will have to write this year.  I hope it will help bring more people into our excitement at Harvest, and provide lessons and examples for others to take.  I am fearful I won’t have much time to do it, and if I do, that I won’t be able to find the proper balance between the honest reflection and critique I have been able to do in the past with the responsibilities I have for protecting and developing Harvest’s public image.

Previous Hopes and Fears

Back in the Saddle

When I started blogging again over two years ago, I promised myself to never again write a “meta-blog” about why I am or am not writing.  I’ll forgive myself this one.

I simply lost rhythm over the summer.  It’s a good reminder that, for me at least, blogging is a good habit.  Like so many good habits (exercise, healthy eating, maintaining relationships) it takes work to keep up, but is easy to break.  Here’s hoping just forcing myself to sit and write was the hardest step, and I’ll be back in rhythm soon.

There’s a lot of stuff I meant to write about over the summer but never did, so in the interest of giving myself a clean slate to start the year with, I’m just going to share some small notes here.

  • I had two wonderful PD experiences this summer.  I learned a ton at the “Constitution 3.0” Gilder Lehrman seminar with Jeff Rosen in DC, and left with a lot of ideas I’ll use in my classroom this fall.  I then immediately went to Swarthmore for another long weekend on Teacher Leadership with CETE.  The group of 18 teachers feels like home now, and I’m thrilled that one of them moved from Philly to be one of Harvest’s founding English teacher.  It was another nourishing and replenishing experience.
  • I’m about 800 pages into Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, on Robert Moses (the bad one).  A friend and I pledged to finish it by this weekend at the beginning of the summer, but we’re now aiming for October.  It’s an incredible book that has lots of lessons for those of us in public service.  Highly recommended, and I hope to write more when I finish.
  • I never finished writing about all the education books I read last spring.  I still hope I will, but just in case, two huge overwhelming recommendations: Making Learning Whole by David Perkins and Making Thinking Visible out of Harvard’s Project Zero.  Both will greatly inform my teaching this year.
  • For the first time in my life, I took a two-week vacation, traveling with different friends and my wife to Berlin, Paris, and London.  I have never felt the weight of history so much as I did in Berlin, but not how I expected to.  The weight of the Wall and separation weighed far more heavily on my experience there than the Holocaust.  The highlight of the trip though, was definitely my first Premiere League game in London.  Much fun!
  • Obviously, the most absent writing here was about starting the new school.  I actually have written a ton about it, but haven’t decided what to do with the writing yet.  It will be public at some point, in some form.  We just finished two weeks with the entire staff, and we’re ready for our first class of students to arrive for Orientation tomorrow, and the first day of Harvest Collegiate on Thursday.  Our school has been blessed with an abundance of riches, most importantly being the incredible staff of educators and professionals I’ll get to work with this year.  It’s a truly remarkable group.
  • One of my goals for the year is to be easier on myself and those around me.  Partly related to that, I’m not setting concrete goals for myself, including writing weekly.  The work of a new school is too unpredictable for that, so I know I’ll need to put many things I’ve done the past few years related to education on the back burner if I’m going to maintain any semblance of work/life balance.  Thanks to everyone who reads and comments, and I’ll do my best to share what is certain to be a year filled with plenty to write about.

The Difference a Year Makes

Just about a year ago this time, I was on a train from DC to Philadelphia.  I find myself taking that same train again.  This is somewhat bizarre, as I generally avoid DC, but here I am.  Last year, I was here for the SOS March, this year for a Gilder Lehrman seminar with Jeff Rosen called Constitution 3.0 (more on that wonderful experience to come).  Both years, I’m on my way to meet with a group of wonderful teacher-leaders who have joined me over the past 12 months in participating in ongoing support and development in the panacea of roles we fill. Five professors from the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education, who generously decided they wanted to continue to support former students, brought us together.

Leaving DC last year I was tired. I was tired of fighting, both in and out of school.  We were fresh off Wisconsin and Cathy Black.  On top of that, I had just left Bronx Lab, a school I had been part of since its second year, and to a large extent, I felt like I was just getting out of an abusive relationship (we had some great times together, and a huge part of me still loves her, but she was no good for me any more).

My experiences in Philadelphia last year rejuvenated me, and set me on the course towards many wonderful parts of my past year.  I had the idea for my Critical Friends Group there, and was really pushed to seek wider audiences for my writing.

With that said, even leaving Philadelphia last year, I was fried as a teacher-leader in schools.  I could not have imagined last year that I would be co-founding a school twelve months later.

I can do that now because between CETE, a wonderful year at Young Writers, and continuing relationships with wonderful organizations like the Center for Teaching Quality and the Center for Inspired Teaching, I can now answer the question I asked myself a year ago, “which side am I on?”:

In the past couple of years, I’ve had increasing opportunities to act outside of my school in three different realms of teacher leadership: activism/advocacy, curricular and assessment development, and mentoring/professional development. There are strong parts of me drawn to all three realms, but I am beginning to feel like a house and writer divided. While to some extent all three realms of leadership are interconnected, I am wondering if it might be time to focus on one realm over the other two.

I’m now clear I’m on the side of making sure what happens in classrooms is worthwhile and effective.  This involves looking at students, teachers, and the relationship each has with curriculum. That means that I have a clear focus on curriculum & assessment and ensuring that teachers are ready to design and implement both effectively.  But it also means  engaging with activism and advocacy to make sure conditions are right to allow that to happen.  I think I can help make this happen in a school, and I hope I will be able to continue exert some influence beyond my school through writing, working with teachers, and working with the UFT, CTQ, and other coalitions to better the conditions for teaching and learning.

Sitting on the train last year, I didn’t know where I was going.  It’s nice to not only have a clear destination this year, but also the tools I hope will help me get there.


Using Standards Based Grading in Social Studies (Portfolio #8)

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

Other than two angry reactionary pieces that got picked up by the press (why is that the case?), the most read piece I’ve written was Implementing Standards-Based Grading (SBG) in My Social Studies, Finally a year ago.  I’m updating that post here.  

Last year, I went 100% SBG in my senior Social Studies course, which combines government and economics.  All my courses at my new school will also using SBG.


I wrote a whole series (scroll down to the bottom) on my plan to do a form of Standards Based Grading in my history class two years ago, and updated my plan last year.  Before this year, I had three major problems, two of which I knew going in, one which I realized very quickly:

  1. In a survey history course that ends in a high-stakes, content-based exam, it is necessary to track how students do with all content, and one is never going to be able to write standards for, let alone reassess, 200 different pieces of content.
  2. As I wrote two years ago, the history skill standards that I was aware of at the time are not written with performance in mind, and were very difficult to assess.
  3. The problem that emerged immediately was that I hadn’t planned my course with SBG in mind, so the standards I planned on using were not really useful for assessment.  They were also the wrong standards/enduring understandings for what I ended up teaching, because I never went back and made sure the Stage 1 stuff from UbD aligned with the Stage 3 stuff (see this post on that issue)

Changes Made for Last Year

I went in better prepared.  I had a clear list of historical skills standards from the brilliant Daisy Martin, who does the Reading Like a Historian work out of Stanford, which gave me a ton of clarity on what historical skill standards should look like so they can be used to assess student performance.  Two other teachers at Young Writers were also doing SBG, allowing me to plan using SBG from day 1.

For everyone in the pilot, there were three categories of standards: Unit Goals, Essential Skills, and Citizenship.  Somewhat arbitrarily, the units will made up 45% of the grade, Essential Skills were 45%, and Citizenship the remaining 10%. Here is one example of a standard for the year:

LG A: Argument – I can create effective written or oral arguments

SWBAT construct arguments that integrate and evaluate multiple perspectives, explanations, or causations, including counterclaims

SWBAT develop controlling ideas that clearly address prompts or fulfill assignments

SWBAT support their ideas using explanation of evidence

At the start of the year, I had 4-7 Unit Goals for each unit, 12 Essential Skills for the year, and 3 Citizenship Goals.

Unit Goals included skills or content, depending on the unit. For the most part, they were content heavy goals.  For example, the learning goals for my final unit on Financial Planning & Investing were: “Financial Planning: I can make a successful long term financial plan for myself” and “Economic Decision Making: I can analyze economic decisions in terms of risk/reward over short/long terms.”  However, my Project Citizen unit focused on research, with students working on a wide variety of content.  The goals for that unit were: “Governmental Decision Making: I can explain the short and long term effects of governmental decisions,” “Research: I can find reliable and useful information” and “Citing: I can cite information properly.”

The Citizenship Goals remained the same the entire year (Timeliness, Growth, Supportiveness).  I wrote the following last year, and stand by it even stronger now:

I know there are a lot of people using SBG who do not feel these aspects should be part of students’ grades, but I feel like most of these people teach in more privileged communities where most students know how to and are able to do these things.  It is very important for my students to get explicit feedback on these aspects of their performance so they can improve them.  With that said, no one will fail the course because they turn things in late.

I taught seniors last year, and 10% was an appropriate amount for this part of their grade.  In teaching 9th graders next year, I plan to increase it.

Certain large assignments were designated “Must Complete” assignments.  It didn’t matter what students have demonstrated from other assignments, they will not be eligible for credit without completing the large projects for the course.

It’s NYC policy that every student receives a number grade at the end of each semester.  Students received these grades using some form of a Bump & Space grading system.

Changes Made During the Year

I did not make any significant changes to the structure as the year went on, but I learned a very important lesson: you can only really teach to a small handful of skill based performance standards.  Yes, you can assess students for twelve different key skills during the year.  However, the main power of SBG is that it gives both teachers AND students clarity on how they are doing, which informs instruction and opportunities for practice within the class.  Here is the most important lesson I learned this year:


For example, nearly every assignment students did involved creating an argument of some form.  Creating an argument was a foundation of my class, and therefore, it was a good standard. On the other hand, “Oral Communication” while important and something students were doing regularly, was not something I was frequently teaching students how to do, nor assessing, and therefore was not a good standard to have.  This does not mean I should not have had students work to improve their oral communication, it just meant it did not need to be part of the formal feedback I gave students through grades.

I started the year with twelve key skills I planned on assessing throughout the year.  I finished the year using only six (Argument, Using Evidence, Sourcing, Content, Written Organization & Clarity, Complexity, and Audience).

Similarly, my first unit had five learning goals.  All subsequent units had 2-3.

For Next Year

I am in the unique position of creating a school, and the school has certain structures that will enable SBG (we have yet to decide if SBG will be mandatory for all teachers, or just strongly encouraged).

To this end, the school has four Habits of Mind that will be explicitly assessed in every course in the school: Evidence, Connections, Perspective, & Voice.

Each department crafted a list of transfer goals.  For each semester, teachers will focus on 1-3 of these goals.  For the Social Studies department, are goals are:

  1. (a) Students will be able to develop questions that help them understand problems in the world, and (b) be able to find and evaluate sources of information that allow them to answer the question
  2. Students can critically evaluate events, claims, decisions, and issues in their moment based on their knowledge of the past and present
  3. Students will have the tools to participate actively and effectively as informed citizens of a representative democracy.

Therefor, there will be 5-7 Essential Skills for each semester (4 Habits + 1-3 Transfer Goals), which will be relatively uniform within each department.  Each course will then have 2-4 additional goals for each major unit, where appropriate.

Why This Can Work for Me, but Might Not for You

I wrote the following last year:

The most important reason this can work is because there is very limited specific content I worry about my students learning this year.  I am focusing on depth over breath.  While I think SBG could work in a survey history course, I’m not sure there’s  reason for it, given the need for 200-400 learning goals.  The same would be true for a traditional government or economics course.  I am probably doing half of the content that one normally would in these courses, but doing so in much more depth so that my students can really develop the skills they will need as citizens and in order to be successful in college.  I am willing to have my students not be able to explain the entire process for how a bill becomes a law in exchange for them knowing how to research a policy, and to take action based on that research.

I stand by that, and am lucky to create a school where we will not need to worry about it.  With that said, I think the value of SBG for students outweighs the challenges a survey course presents.  The next time I teach a survey course, I will add “Content Knowledge” to the categories of Essential Skills, Unit Goals, and Citizenship.  This category will use more traditional grading, and will count for 20-40% of a students’ grade.

Portfolio Entry #7: Reflection on Teacher-Leadership / Outside of School

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

At this time last year, I was really looking forward to being “just” a teacher within my school, and thanks to Young Writers being a well-run school with established leadership, I was able to do just that.  This enabled me to do more out of school.  I want to use this entry to reflect on some of that work.

Professional Development:   Continue reading Portfolio Entry #7: Reflection on Teacher-Leadership / Outside of School