A few recent pieces of writing

Two pieces I wrote were recently published.  One – What Works: Collaboration, humility and audacity  – sums up the first year at Harvest Collegiate:

Over the past year, I have had the honor, privilege, and daunting task to co-found a new public New York City high school, Harvest Collegiate High School. The proposal for the school was set forth by Kate Burch, then an NYC teacher and now our principal; I joined the team last January and helped move us, along with a team of experienced teachers and a social worker, from an idea that existed on a dozen sheets of paper to a fully functioning school with 126 ninth graders when we opened this past September.  As we finished our first year at the end of June, I looked back and realized that without a doubt, this was the best year of my teaching career.  By any measurement — student learning, attendance, student and staff morale, excitement from incoming students and families — things went outstandingly well.

As I think about this incredible past year, I think about the infusion in it of both audacity and humility.  It’s audacious to start a school, but I think we did it with humility for how much we could do well, for the giants whose shoulders on which we stand, and for our place in the larger political/educational world.

The second piece is in my role as a member of the “Team of Experts” for the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Project 24: From Rocks to PowerPoint: Technology is a Tool.  It seeks to remind people that as districts rush to implement new technological platforms, we need to remember that technology is a tool, not an end:

One of the earliest lessons I teach students in my Global History courses is that technology is not something that was newly invented, but rather, it’s anything humans create to help make our lives easier. Language was a good starting place for humans.  A lot of progress has been made from there: parchment, ink, pens, paper, the printing press, telegram, computer, iPhone, etc. Thanks to technology, the communication that defines our humanity became more powerful over time.

Another lesson I teach my students is that we’ve also made pretty big advances in the technology of murder.  For thousands of years, humans used technology like rocks and sticks to kill people.  Humans worked their way up from there as well: slingshot, bow & arrow, sword, rifle, machine gun, nuclear bomb.  Over time, we got a lot better at destroying humanity as well.

I think it’s important to keep these two extremes in mind when thinking about building up a technological infrastructure for schools and districts.  Technology has the power the amplify our humanity, but it also can deaden it. Technology is the tool, but it’s not an end in itself.


National Social Study Framework; Teacher Prep; Using Data to Support Teachers

I’m catching up on sharing a few things I’ve helped produce recently:

First, I wrote a piece for the Shanker Blog this week: Proposed National Civics Framework Shows Great Promise.  Please take the time to read and then take action; I believe the C3 Framework is a huge step forward for our field:

Simply put, the proposed C3 Framework is brilliant. It is exactly what our nation needs to ensure civic life and participation is properly valued, and it is what the Social Studies teaching profession needs to ensure our discipline retains its unique and essential role within our education system. It is brilliant in its conception, its modesty and its usefulness as a document to inform policy and practice. 

Second, I was part of a team put together by the Center for Teaching Quality that wrote what I hope is a very insightful report on teacher preparation, TEACHING 2030: Leveraging teacher preparation 2.0.  As Barnett Berry describes the document:

I encourage you to dive into this report, written by educators who work with students every day. Their insights on “Teacher Prep 2.0” provide a much-needed antidote to the current debate, and their thinking on “Teacher Prep 3.0”—led by Emily Vickery—should lead the next generation of discussions and action around teacher-education reform.TEACHING 2030: Leveraging Teacher Preparation 2.0, penned by 17 classroom experts, transcends the current divide and sets a path for ensuring that every teacher is ready to teach what students need to know, now and in the future.

 Finally, I am a member of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Project 24 Team of Experts.  In that role, I gave a brief webinar presentation on how we use authentic data at Harvest Collegiate to support student and teacher growth.  You can watch it here.


Common Core standards don't prevent creativity

Earlier this week, I posted a piece about my English class that showed “how great classes that focus on students as people can also serve the demands of the Common Core.”  Grant Wiggins made the same argument, far more eloquently, the next day:

Why do people insist on viewing the Standards as inconsistent with teacher creativity and choice? I am baffled by such uncreative thinking. That’s like saying the architect cannot be creative because every house has to meet building code. Indeed, the whole point of mandating standards as opposed to curriculum is to free people up to create innovative curriculum that addresses the standards. 

Facing History Features My Class

Facing History and Ourselves – probably my favorite PD organization – did a nice little piece on the English class I’m teaching on their website today:

The course started with a six-week unit called “You and I” that examined the notion of identity, exploring questions like Who am I? How am I perceived by others? How do both of these perceptions impact my choices? Next up was a six-week unit called “Us and Them,” which looked at issues of difference and incorporated Facing History resources on membership and society. In this unit, the students explored the history of the Weimar Republic as a way to set the stage for reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The course will end this spring with a unit called “The Meaning of Life.” It may be a lofty title for a seven-week unit, but it gets right to the heart of what the students consider – that meaning in life often comes from interacting with others, that each of us has causes and people that are of life and death importance to us, and that other perspectives can offer guidance for our own lives.

While the focus of the piece is Common Core, I think the key is that it captures how great classes that focus on students as people can also serve the demands of the Common Core:

The backbone of the course is a solid syllabus of readings and assignments that have the students writing and reading personal narratives from multiple perspectives, researching, constructing effective arguments, and critically analyzing complex texts across a range of types and disciplines. As a result, the students are meeting the Common Core State Standards through a deep investigation of nonfiction, fiction, and essential questions about human nature.

Gotham Schools Covers Insightful Social Studies

City teachers are waging a campaign against the state’s proposed high school social studies standards, before a Friday deadline to give feedback.

On Tuesday, Harvest Collegiate High School history teacher Stephen Lazar argued in the GothamSchools Community section that the standards undermine their own goals by overwhelming focuses on skills and historical thinking with an immense amount of content.

Throughout the week, other high school social studies teachers have been adding their objections in their own online forum, a website called “Insightful Social Studies.” The teachers are recruiting other educators to join them in constructing an alternate set of standards if the Board of Regents approves the proposed standards without substantial revision.

Read the whole piece with excerpts from some of my colleagues at Gotham Schools.

Teachers are experts

Arthur Goldstein absolutely nails it:

I’m more than a little upset that I, along with tens of thousands of my colleagues, have been deemed unfit to grade tests. It strikes me as unfair stereotyping and just another example of the distrust some people in power feel towards teachers.

But here’s the thing: if I can’t be trusted to design tests and I further can’t be trusted to grade them, I ought not to be teaching. If the state feels that we teachers are so incompetent and untrustworthy it ought to fire us all en masse.

Any professional has to be able to balance emotion with their obligations. Should firefighters be prohibited from fighting fires in their district? Should cops who arrest people take them to another precinct so they’ll be processed fairly? Should Mayor Bloomberg’s PEP be restricted to making decisions about Podunk, Iowa?


Obama's next steps

I was planning on writing a piece about things I hope will change in a second Obama administration, but Sam Chaltain and Jose Vilson pretty much nailed everything I wanted to say.

Jose first:

We thought you would bring fair trials to the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and close it in your first year. The gates remain open.

We thought you would bring about actual peace in the Middle East. You might have killed Osama bin Laden, but you are equally responsible for the drones dropping on innocent civilians there, and the perpetuation of the Green Zone in Baghdad while babies die right outside its gates.

And then, Sam:

When it comes to public education, let’s start by recognizing that Race to the Top was well-intentioned — and ultimately out of step with a truly transformational vision of where American schooling needs to go. Yes, we need better ways to improve teacher quality and capacity; no, we can’t do it by doubling down on what we currently measure. Yes, we need to find a way to ensure equity across all schools; no, we can’t do it by ignoring the ways in which schools are inequitably funded and resourced. And yes, we need to ensure that every young person is prepared to be successful in life by the time they graduate; and no, we can’t do it by continuing to assume that the endgoal of schooling is a discrete set of content knowledge at the same time the new Industrial Revolution is removing all the barriers from knowledge acquisition — and accelerating the need for an essential set of lifeskills and habits.

Both pieces should be read by all, but hopefully first by President Obama.

What we need for real Teacher Leadership

Ariel Sacks (who taught one of my current students last year!) has a really insightful and accurate piece about what’s necessary for teacher leadership to take the next step over at Education Week (free registration required):

Teaching students is the single most important thing that happens in education everyday. That is where teachers make their biggest impact. So a leadership opportunity must provide a compelling reason to step away from the classroom—even for a day—or give up our valuable personal time. It must help teachers use their knowledge to empower their colleagues and school communities rather than present yet one more obstacle for effective teaching and learning.

 Read the whole piece here.  Ariel gives me a shout out towards the end of the piece as well:

When taking on new leadership roles, teachers often need to develop new skill sets. Teacher-blogger Stephen Lazar points out that the skills of a great teacher are usually not the same as those of an effective teacher leader. No matter how successful we are in the classroom, it takes time to grow into new roles, and we need support through that process.

Should character education be necessary in school?

Great stuff, as always, from Grant Wiggins:

I’m not sure, in sum, that those working on character development as a linchpin of better educational outcomes for disadvantaged kids see this connection with how curriculum is written and delivered. Perhaps I’ll understand things differently when I finish Tough’s book and read further on the KIPP approach. But my hunch is that few such educators are facing the brutal fact that poor schools often have terrible curricula and compliance-focused pedagogies, no matter how caring and hard-working the teachers are. And so, to ask kids to persist in the face of boring and isolating work conditions is not only somewhat hypocritical but borders on cruel. It certainly isn’t preparation for a successful life – it’s not enough to be REALLY good at delaying gratification and trusting adults. You have to have a passion and a purpose, and typical schools often work against it.

I’m proud that Harvest is definitely not one of these schools.