those who can’t do… teach

they say those who can’t do, teach.

and until recently, i would have told you were entirely wrong.  as a matter of fact, there is a piece of me that would still argue your inaccuracy, if not entirely, at least partially.  it takes a lot of knowledge to be a teacher.  it takes knowledge of pedagogy, knowledge of content, and knowledge of students.  it takes knowledge of self.   but i think the original intent of this cliché was misunderstood.  no one ever meant to say that teachers could not do anything; instead, it meant that we, as people, try the hardest to teach the things that we ourselves once could not — or still cannot — do.

photowhen i first started, i convinced myself i wanted to be a teacher of math.  it had always been a strength of mine, and it had always been something that i felt led me to success.  i told myself i wanted to lead others to that success, too, and within the first few months, i realized that i did not actually love teaching math as much as i thought.

four years later, i find myself loving so many more subjects than math.  i find myself loving to teach about risk-taking, mistake-making, and trusting the process to get us where we need to be.  i love to preach about empathy, vulnerability, and the power of making connections — both personal and abstract.  and i don’t love teaching all of these because i’m good at them, necessarily.


i love teaching these because i have struggled with them –
and still do every day.


i think we all fantasize of having the perfect life — of having a life with no mistake or no error.  we fantasize this way because we think we can learn from the mistakes of others.  we believe we can watch those who came before us and avoid their trials and tribulations, simply by watching them falter, in an effort to better ourselves and better the outcomes of our respective lives.  perhaps, in some capacity, that is possible, but what we don’t realize is that by hyperfocusing our attention on the previous mistakes of others, we very ignorantly make other mistakes — other mistakes that have managed to slip under our predictive consciousness.

those mistakes, then, become the things that we focus on.  they become the things we have to keep learning over and over again.  they become the things that make us struggle on a constant basis.  and as i grow older, i’ve started to realize that these are the things we that we teach.  we teach our these mistakes and try to impart upon our posterity and upon others in our lives to whom we feel loyalty and love.


we teach others lessons,
not necessarily because they’re the “right” thing to know
or because they’re the “best” way to be –

instead, we teach others the lessons we never learned — the lessons we wish we had for ourselves.  

Pumpkin Seeds, Observation, and Documentation

We went to the pumpkin patch today.  It was so adorable that I could hardly stand it.

But of course, my teacher self could not let it be.  I insisted that we incorporate some of our lessons on place value and estimation into this wonderful field trip, intended to celebrate the beautiful fall season.

We arrived back at the classroom, ready to crack open our pumpkins. My co-teacher started carving out the tops, while I prepped our anchor chart for estimation, and within minutes we had the kids gathered around us, ready to build upon our knowledge of estimation.  We started the day before, with a lesson involving candy jars, asking the kids to estimate which candy jar had the most pieces of candy.  The only trick was that all the candy jars were different sizes and that all of the candy jars contained different types of candy.  While this may seem like a rather benign task, it allowed for curiosity, critical thinking, and the evaluation of classmates’ predictions, based on the relative sizes and volumes of the candy pieces as well as the jars.

photo 1In order to add another layer of relevance to our pumpkin field trip, we did a similar activity today.  Students picked their own pumpkins, brought them back to the classroom, and before opening them up, they were required to make an estimate.

Just how many seeds did they think a pumpkin could contain?  

They listed their estimates on their plates, and began getting messy! While we would have loved to get my hands dirty with the kids, my co-teacher and I decided to take a different approach to this experience today.  Instead of getting our hands dirty, and instead of learning along with the kids, we decided to observe, document, and learn from the kids.

While students were getting their hands dirty and pulling out gobs and gobs of goo and seeds, we asked questions and challenged their thinking, forcing them to reevaluate their estimates as they saw just how many seeds were inside.

“I originally thought there were only three hundred seeds inside!” one student said.

“I estimated 29, but then I saw seeds under seeds.  Now I think it’s different,” another noted.

Through this careful process of questioning and documentation, students were able to voice their own change in thinking, as opposed to being corrected by a teacher.  Our role, then?  We simply asked questions, wrote down their thoughts, and documented the learning process that occurred throughout this fun activity!

photo 2“Paul, can I put my information up on the board now?” one of our students asked, referring to the number of seeds she found in her pumpkin.

“Sure thing! I’d love that!” I replied.  “Maybe you can find a good way to organize it!”

Before I knew it, I looked around the room, and our students were constantly evaluating, reevaluating, proving, and disproving their estimates, organizing and displaying data, and very independently and seamlessly applying many of our outcomes from the past few weeks.

Too often, we feel that learning has to come from the teacher, and too often, we feel that we are the sole providers of knowledge and instruction, when a lot of the time, the kids can do a lot of this work for themselves.  Sometimes, the impact we can make simply by listening, questioning, and documenting is beyond humbling.

Not only is it more fun for us… but it’s better for the students, too!


ten commandments for teaching


i. know thyself
before we can truly know and understand someone else–our students–
we need to know ourselves.


ii. make success your number one priority
if students feel successful, they will try anything, regardless of interest.


iii. know when to follow the rules
there’s a lot of great information out there, and you are remiss as an educator if you don’t use it.


iv. know when to break the rules
while there’s a lot of great information, take it with a grain of salt, and follow your gut.


v. remember how powerful you are.
you hold a substantial portion of a child’s life in your hands. use it well.


vi. be humble, and honor the intelligence of those around you.
most importantly, honor the intelligence of your children. it’s impossible for one person to know everything.


vii. be honest.
and not just some of the time; be honest about everything.


viii. provoke more than you preach.
children need to interact with media and with each other more than they need to listen to you.


ix. be flexible, and let go.
you will not know what your children can do until you give them the opportunity to do so.


x. abandon the absolute.
even these “commandments” can be taken at face value. truth lies in our perceptions of reality, and when you have anywhere from ten to thirty perspectives around the table, almost nothing can be verifiably true.


instead, the power of learning lies in the process through which these perspectives and realities collide.

Building Meaning Through Context

Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s in front of us.  

Instead of gaining an understanding by looking closer, we need to look around to truly understand what is right before our eyes.  I first learned this valuable lesson when I traveled to Europe in my sophomore year of college.  For the majority of my life, I knew American culture.  I knew what it meant to grow up in suburbia, where all the houses looked the same, where I was ignorantly and blissfully safe, and where my seemingly prescribed life would land me back in the town where I was born.  In fact, I always dreamed that I would–or maybe I always feared that I wouldn’t–end up in good, old, wholesome Mount Prospect, where “friendliness was a way of life” and where I knew the comfort of home. I didn’t realize what was right in front of me–what that might mean–until I was able to get out.

I specifically remember the moment, riding through the countryside of Spain in a megabus, when my perspective changed.  The red and orange of the dirt startled my eyes, creating a picturesque scene that I never could have imagined or even dreamed of.  This startling moment coupled with my fatigue led me down an existential path of thoughts, opening my eyes to how truly big the world, the universe, and my life could be.  It was the moment I decided I could do something more than live in Mount Prospect, and it was the moment that I decided I would be just who the universe intended me to be.  In fact, it was the moment where I decided I’d come out.  But I truly believe it wouldn’t have happened, had I not something to which I could compare it.

It would not have happened had the context been absent.

So today, my students and I embarked upon a lesson on context, for the power of context lies in what’s outside our periphery.  And I wanted my students to begin to learn this as well.

I started with this provocation, from a painting I saw at the deYoung just a week prior.  You can see the colors mixed effortlessly, a blend of warm and cool colors, stunning to the eye.


Their thoughts were fascinating–the different ideas they pulled from such an obscure mix of color, light, and darkness humbled my own imagination.  Nonetheless, we continued, my pictures providing more context each time.


As we zoomed further out, their thoughts transformed, and suddenly they saw more things forming.  The context was changing their view right before their eyes, and I could very tangibly see my students’ thinking change, almost like I could grasp and mold it in my hands.


And it continued to change even further with each piece of context that I revealed.  They began to see beaches, mountain peaks, waterfalls, and nature.  They began to develop an image that tied to their background knowledge.  They began to make meaning.



The momentum of the lesson moved us forward, as layers of meaning built upon conversation and the images that suspended themselves in their minds. Until I revealed the last picture.



“Oh, it’s a guy fishing!” one of the kids said.

“Totally,” I replied. “Did you think it was going to be that when we started?”

Most replied with “no.”

“And why was that?” I queried.

“Because of the context!” several of them said, having heard me utter the word several times throughout the lesson.

Incredibly enough, not only did my students develop a working definition of context, but hopefully, they saw that they need not a teacher or adult to help them build that meaning.  Instead, they learned that they can use observation skills, they can use context, and they can use themselves to uncover meaning… one layer at a time.

I truly believe that we can’t make children learn–just like no one could have ever made me realize just how big the world is.  Instead, it took a signal experience and the tricky hands of fate to reveal the greater context of the world and the greater context in which I was placed.

But once we recognize the context of our situations or the greater context of the provocation in front of us, it has the power to change our perspective.

It has the power to change our lives.



Personalizing the Impersonal

It goes without saying that I’ve had to get a little creative this year.

On top of having four grade-levels worth of students all packed in one classroom, each of them have very specific learning needs, from regulation challenges to social differences to the issues that many children experience while learning.  But as a teacher, I value the whole-group experience immensely.  It is of utmost importance to me that children interact with each other and have some common experiences.  Within these experiences, we teachers specifically choose media and provocations that will shape learning, and it’s important that our students share some of those experiences to lay a foundation for learning class-wide.

This becomes especially challenging, though, when trying to teach basic skills relating to math and reading.  Yes, it’s easy to create rubrics, lay out the skills, and then provide each of the children with isolated skills that help them to climb the steps to higher levels of proficiency, but that’s only part of a child-centered experience.  Child-centered learning more importantly entails provoking learning in whole-group settings and allowing students to find their respective places within that curriculum. It requires them to see themselves in the midst of the group, and it challenges them to personalize something that has not been personalized for them already.

Or maybe that’s the teacher’s job.

I sometimes fear the use of the word “personalization.”  A lot of times, when described, I suddenly get visions of children working in silos, separate from one another, isolating themselves and their learning from anything contextual, when all along, learning needs to be contextualized, it needs to be social, and it needs to be something through which children can communicate the way they see, feel, and experience the world.  And in order to communicate this, they simply need others.  They need a whole-group experience.

This manifest, though, has not changed the constraints that my classroom has imposed upon me.  I still have four grade levels worth of kids, and I’ve still needed whole-group lessons to create social experiences that allow all children to access the content. What’s a boy to do?

photo 4Interdisciplinary Learning

My teaching partner and I decided to create a yearly theme of communities.  We chose this not only for its ties to social-emotional learning, but we also chose it for its breadth.  By choosing such a broad topic, we have been able to weave most, if not all, disciplines into this theme, helping to make the connections tangible and learning multi-dimensional.

This week’s general math skill related to place value, specifically comparing numbers.  While this looks different at a variety of grade levels, I found it necessary to embed this content within an interdisciplinary provocation.  On the board, I drew three tables, each with two columns.  One column had a series of four-digit numbers, ranging from 1794 to 2010, while the other column had anywhere from one-digit numbers all the way to six-digit numbers.

I told the students nothing.  I simply showed them the organized information and encouraged them to observe, ask questions, and make inferences. Soon enough, though, they figured it out.

photo 2“Hey, it’s like a population!” one of the students exclaimed.

I smiled and asked more questions.

“What makes you think that?” I said.

Of course, the students replied that the series of four-digit numbers looked like years and that the other numbers seemed to resemble various numbers of people at any given time.  Some of them surmised that it was the population of the world, while others thought it was the population of America, and some even thought it was the population of California.

“Wait, no, I know the population of the world is like eight billion!” one student said.

photo 1Through the sharing of background knowledge and the momentum gained through asking questions and making predictions, we eventually centered on the idea that this was the population of San Francisco over time (with a little help from the teacher).  Within this fifteen minutes, children were cognitively challenged, meanwhile allowing me to do a quick review of place value and strategies for comparing numbers.  From there, students were able to participate in activities commensurate with their ability levels in comparing and ordering multi-digit numbers.  For some, comparing to the thousands place was appropriate, for others, comparing to the billions seemed just right, and for a few, comparing decimals was appropriately challenging.

While all of these activities did not use the San Francisco data verbatim, the foundation it set was strong, relevant, and gave a purpose to our learning that day.

photo 3
It’s easy to lose children in a whole-group setting; it’s easy for them to fall through the cracks.  The best whole-group experiences are the ones where everyone is correct, everyone is able to contribute, and everyone is able to see and appreciate themselves, despite the ocean of thoughts, strengths, and people around them.

By giving learning a context, by making it relevant and interdisciplinary, and by starting with the children’s questions and thoughts, we can help all students set a purpose for learning, and we can help all children feel seen.  While it’s tempting to think of “feeling seen” in a conventional way–in the sense that in order to be seen, we need to externalize our self-image and rely on validation from others–feeling seen doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like everyone else agrees with you or that everyone else thinks you are correct.  Sometimes “feeling seen” means knowing that you’ve contributed and knowing that you’ve figured something out.

And through provoking learning in this way, we can help all children feel seen, if not by others, by themselves.

To Be Extraordinary

I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone out there who doesn’t want to be recognized for what they do.  

Perhaps there are those that stray from the spotlight, and perhaps there are those that prefer to avoid being the center of attention, but the idea of validation lies at the heart of all that we do.  Yes, for some, validation stems more from intrapersonal conversations, and for others, it requires too much support from the external.  For some, a healthy balance helps them to feel validated. But regardless, we all need to be seen, we all need to be heard, and we all need to feel important.

photo (40)We all want to feel extraordinary, at least in our own respective ways.  I use the term loosely, and perhaps what I mean is that we all want to have purpose.

We want to know that the years of compounded memories upon which we’ve built our lives have meant something.

We want to be able to look back and invest meaning in our successes and mistakes that embody our present and future.

We want to know those successes and mistakes are worth more than the gray matter they’ve created in our brains.

But perhaps the extent to which we are extraordinary doesn’t have to lie in the validation that comes from recognition; maybe we don’t need the recognition to be extraordinary.  Perhaps it simply comes from being, moving, and adapting with our successes and shortcomings.

Instead of validation, it could be the courage to simply be ourselves–despite the constant push and pull of the world around us–that makes us truly extraordinary.

Why I Like My Messy Classroom

“Just throw it on my desk,” I used to say.  All the time.

And so my desk became the place that people threw things.  It became the place that I threw things.  Weeks and weeks would go by, my desk would sit alone in the corner of the room, untended, with no one to sit beside it; a mere collection of papers, books, and miscellaneous confiscated items.  It got to a point in my third year where I actually hid my desk behind a supply cart, in an effort to shield any visitors from its less-than-attractive facade.

In fact, as those weeks and weeks would pass, I’d notice similar piles of things stack up around the room: student work, remnants of activities and games, even books strewn about across the room.  Was it because I was careless? No. Disorganized? Maybe a little bit. But even that wasn’t the real reason.

photo 1

We’re still chipping away at design!

It was because learning messy; it’s a forced to be reckoned with.

Learning is instinctual, and if you really think about it, it isn’t something that anyone can force us to do.  Instead, learning requires the active participation of the learner.  He or she needs to make a choice to listen, process, and internalize the information or provocation presented before them.  But this complex process is neither linear nor sequential. While it might have a trending progression or series of steps, it is by no means a one-way path, and it can only be found through trial, error, and consistent interaction with the media presented.  What’s even more baffling is that it sometimes can only be tracked retrospectively.

Yesterday, in the midst of a lesson on form and function, my students built structures for various fictional companies, trying to make a building that met the needs of their fictional character.  While the original intent of the lesson was to lay a foundation and draw parallels between real-life structures and text structure, the amount of learning that occurred through trial, error, and rebuilding was rather startling (and not what I originally intended).  Instead of prescribing the content, though, I purposefully provoked learning so that students were able to try out-of-the-box solutions and inquire as to their success or lack thereof.  Likewise, I was able to continuously ask a barrage of questions, getting them to truly think about the intention behind their structures.

photo 2

When we finished, there were toothpicks strewn about the floor, mixed with dirt and sticky marshmallows; the tables were turned, askew to the rectangular shape of our classroom; and the stools were no longer three to a table.

Could they have been more intentional about keeping the space clean?  Of course, they could have.  But the silver lining in their lack of intention was the industry, autonomy, and risk-taking that accompanied their curiosity and engagement.  Keeping the space clean was deprioritized because they were too busy trying, rethinking, and most of all, they were too busy learning.

There’s a certain romanticism that comes with a messy classroom, even when it causes us teachers some anxiety.  It makes a space feel lived in, and it makes a space feel real.  Too often we get caught up in the “cute” of teaching, when that’s actually not what the reason we’re in it .  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good bulletin board or colorful anchor chart, but a classroom should speak the language that the children speak; it should mirror the culture of the room.

And our culture is messy.  Because learning is messy.