Designing the Future

I met an interesting man today — a man who probably changed a few lives without even really knowing it.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 7.12.47 PMHe created a tool, a tool that my students have used in the classroom several times now — a tool that we’ll continue to use to help our students take charge of their environment and create the reality that they encounter every day.

This whole experience started several months ago, when the lead teacher at our site texted me and my teaching partner, telling us of this fascinating material called Gridbeam.  The material itself is simply wood, but it’s the manner in which the wood is used that makes it so remarkable.  Each piece of wood is 1 1/2″ by 1 1/2″, with little holes lining each long side of the pieces of wood.  In each of these holes, children can push through screws and fasten them with an alan wrench, allowing them to piece together various sizes of wood to create virtually anything they’d want in the classroom.


The set of the second puppet show, “The Princess Who Never Smiled.”

“It will totally add a student-driven component to your design project, Paul,” my site lead said to me.

And that it did.

In the fall, the students built simple things like desks, small cabinets, and even a puppet show theater so they could perform for their peers.  And now, as winter awakens into spring, they’re building chairs and lofts to help make our classroom even more unique — to make it into a place they truly feel is theirs.

“You know, people always try to predict the future,” this interesting man told us, describing how in the 1960s, people imagined flying cars and robot maids, only to be disappointed when none of these things actually happened.  And I began to think:  I thought about what we’re trying to do at my school, and what we’re trying to do with education as a whole.  I thought about how we’re trying to make learning interactive and meaningful, and about how we’re trying to change the landscape of the classroom into one where interests drive instruction and interactive lessons help kids to see the relevance in everyday academic tasks.  I even thought about the person who once told me the classroom was “not the forum for changing the world,” implying that change would simply happen if we sat back and watched.  But that’s not how change happens; that’s not how meaningful progress is made.

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Student-created desks — from cardboard iteration to the real deal!

And with this interesting man’s clever anecdote, he sent a powerful and inspiring message, not only to me, but to all of the children that had the privilege of listening to his story today — the story that he began writing almost 40 years ago with his innovative building materials.

You can spend time predicting the future — or you can spend time designing it.




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And last but not least… our new loft!


True Measures of Academic Progress

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While I didn’t manage to get a picture, this is the kind of work my students are now doing to help them solve math problems — and they’re doing it independently.

I always walk around — nervously biting my nails — during our seasonal rounds of standardized testing.  I don’t know why, either.  I work for a school system that truly values the learning process — a school system that trusts me, sees the whole child, and recognizes that a standardized test is just one measure of a child’s progress.

And a rather flawed measure, at that.

But still, my anxiety gets the best of me, and I hope and pray that the tests show at least a glimmer of what I’ve tried to convey to my students over the past months.  Perhaps it’s just a little bit of my pride coming through, and perhaps there’s a small sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing the numbers go up.  But it’s also that I want my kids to be able to show that they’ve succeeded; I want them to get credit for what they’ve done, even if it is on some silly test.

And so I was walking around the other day, filing away at my nails with the corners of my teeth, watching as some of my students clicked through sets and sets of choices, one after the other, arhythmically and asynchronously.  I saw wrong answers get washed away into their tests; I saw correct answers speed them along to even more difficult questions, and with every click my anticipation grew, waiting for the final three-digit score.

I approached one student, in particular, sitting at the end of a long table, a dry erase marker in his hand, using his end of the whiteboard table for scratch-work.  Beneath him, he drew a series of dots in perfect little rows and columns, his brain conceptualizing a rather complex multiplication problem right in front of him.

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A sample from these dot methods being modeled earlier this year!

I stopped in my tracks, and a bright smile came over my face.  I ran to my co-teacher and gestured towards our student.  I gestured towards him because I knew that she’d know why he was drawing the little rectangle of dots — and I knew she’d feel the same way.  He was drawing the little rectangle of dots — not necessarily because he was going to get the question right, and not necessarily because he had mastered multi-digit multiplication.  He was drawing the little rectangle of dots because he’d truly learned something with us.  He learned how to conceptualize math, to draw a picture, to solve a problem — all on his own.  And in that moment, I felt proud, regardless of the answer, because I knew we had made an impact that could not possibly be measured by a multiple-choice test.  We’d changed the way his mind saw math, and that was enough progress for me.

I didn’t even stay to watch if he answered it “correctly” on his computer screen.  I simply walked back to my computer and sat down while he continued to work.

Small Victories

“Can I write a blog post, Paul?”  he asked me.  “I finished my playlist!”

“Sure, buddy!” I replied.  My feet slowly led my body over to his computer. I watched as he opened up his blog.  I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised that he wanted to write in his blog.  When I met this one child, in particular, he seemed allergic to writing.  He struggled with letter formation and a cognitive blocker seemed to prohibit from him from any sort of experimental spelling.

“I’ve only got two posts so far,” he continued, “but I want to do more.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said back.

He reached his blog, and I noticed two entries, mere titles without any sort of text underneath them.  There was a small part of me that was, I’ll admit, disappointed.  I’ve noticed that, every now and again, when I get a new idea for a project or tool in my classroom, I become overzealous and far too ambitious.  I imagine these beautiful products — products that are mostly idealistic and probably unrealistic.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 8.16.23 PM“See?  I’ve got two posts.  I want to make a third.”  His wide brown eyes turned up towards me.

I had to take a step back.  I had to stop and realize what was actually happening here.  Sure, he had absolutely no body to his blog post, and sure, he probably knew that he was supposed to write some in there, but the fact of the matter was that he didn’t.  And the fact of the matter at this point in time was that now he was ready to.

“This is great!” I replied.  “I’m so happy you’re loving writing!  What are you going to write about this time?”

“I’m not sure yet, but I bet I’ll think of something.”

I came back about 15 minutes later, and the boy who could muster up the confidence to compose a sentence in September wrote three — and all on his own.  I beamed inside with pride, knowing that my teaching partner and I had created an environment safe enough for him to work through his insecurity and actually begin to publish writing on his blog.

Ironically, this moment of progress happened just one day after I began my ritualistic freak-out about standardized test scores.  It was a much needed reminder that, while bits and pieces of learning can be captured by numbers, the most heartwarming pieces of learning come in the small victories our children experience each and every day.  Today’s small victory was four sentences.

I’m excited to see what tomorrow’s is.


14 Lessons from Teaching in 2014

Like every other existential twenty-something, the end of another year leaves me reflective and utterly in awe of how much has changed over the course of a year.  But with every year that passes, I become more and more excited for what’s to come.  Here are some of my take-aways from 2014:

1. Age doesn’t matter.

This applies to all who enter a classroom.  It doesn’t matter how old your children are, and it doesn’t matter how old or young you are.  The ability to teach well and the motivation to learn comes through relationship building comes through seeing one another as is.

2. Experience only becomes valuable through humility.  

Playing the “experience” card only reveals your insecurities.  Truly experienced teachers understand that the quality of our experience lies in the number of times we’ve had to synthesize new ideas — not the number of things we’ve created or the amount of children we’ve worked with.  In fact, some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned this year are from those who’ve been in the classroom “less” than me.

photo (40)3. Sometimes you need to turn your philosophy upside-down and inside-out to figure out what’s really important.

The truths and philosophies we construct as teachers are dependent on the experiences that have been laid before us.  For me, it was public school — a good public school, at that, but nonetheless, a public school.  What I believe to be true about teaching is radically different now, having been forced outside of my comfort zone and having to try something new.

4. “Best” practice is dependent on the values of the system in which you find yourself.

Due to the fact that quantitative standardized test scores scale, the public school, and our country, for that matter, value these above all else.  And this value, therefore, impacts the way we teach and the way we gauge mastery.  When test scores are truly viewed as only a small component of child-centered learning, some practices we thought of as “best” truly aren’t “best for kids.”  Instead, I’m seeing what they actually meant were that they were “best for test scores.”

5. Kids need structure.

I came to a new school this year, with no reputation, and with no siblings to tell their little siblings about me.  Instead, I just had to be me: I had to be firm, and I had to provide structure, even when I felt like I was being a “mean” teacher.  Good news is, the kids still like me anyway.  Kids find safety in structure, high expectations, and accountability — and they even respect you for it.

6. Being open to new ideas doesn’t mean throwing your core values away.

Fitzgerald once said that, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  It’s possible to adhere to your values and welcome in the values of others.  Likewise, it’s possible to try something new without compromising what you believe to be true about teaching.

7. Being a good teacher means following your intuition.

Certain parts of teaching cannot be measured or quantified.  Sometimes, when you’re teaching, you just “know,” and a result, you must simply “do.”  The only moments where I’m truly disappointed in myself in the classroom are not when I make a mistake; rather, those moments of disappointment only come when I’ve felt I haven’t been true to myself.

8. Being a teacher means growing a family.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll ever actually need to have kids.  When every year ends — when every chapter concludes — I leave feeling like the relationships I’ll never recreate what I’ve built.  While it’s true that it will never be recreated, every new school year, I’m reminded that teaching gives us countless experiences to grow — not recreate — ourselves and our network of those we care about.  Instead of certain years being “better” or “worse,” each of those years allow us opportunities to fill in pieces of ourselves that weren’t there before.

9. Co-teaching is the best thing that any teacher can do.

Being a bonafide control freak, I knew this was going to be challenging for me this year.  I was used to having my own classroom and being able to make my own decisions all the time.  Co-teaching has forced me to slow down, think more, and consider more alternatives when helping my kids.  A teaching career is incomplete without the opportunity to co-teach.

10. Your students don’t need you to be perfect.

I walked in my classroom in February, dark circles under my eyes, my eyelids red and puffy from a night of little to no sleep.

I turned to my students, “Guys, I’m having a really bad day, and I need all of us to just love reading right now.  Can you do that for me?”

They did.  And we loved reading that day.  We loved reading so much that I forgot about what was bothering me.  It was a small reminder that sometimes we need our students just as much as they need us.

11. It’s impossible to check your personal values at the door.

We enter the classroom biased individuals.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t teach social/emotional learning and we wouldn’t teach social justice.  Subjectivity dominates every word that comes out of our mouths.  That doesn’t mean to stop talking, though; it simply means to be cognizant of how you’re communicating your messages.  Instead of communicating absolutes, communicate logical arguments and constantly be open to discussion — so that kids can constantly be making decisions for themselves.

12. The best kind of teacher is an authentic one.

Kids can sense disingenuousness.  They may not be able to diagnose or name it, but they certainly can tell when you’re being phony.  Give them the true “you,” and they’ll love you for it.

13. Teaching is vulnerability.

Teaching means to constantly give of yourself, and to constantly allow yourself to be changed and modified by your environment.  Without opening yourself up and without letting yourself be seen, you create an environment where others feel like they cannot do the same.  Kids need to be open in order to learn, and they can only learn how to do that if the teacher is doing this first.

14. Teaching is love.

It’s a shame that society has tried to turn teaching into a benign practice.  Teachers fear giving students hugs nowadays, and teachers all over the country are constantly trying to protect themselves by keeping their distance.  But to learn with someone is to love them unconditionally.  It’s to accept them as is, let them in, and give of yourself without stipulation.

And that’s the way it should be.IMG_3496

Nothing Comes from Nothing

I’m not exactly sure how a realization comes about, but it would seem as though it’s an instantaneous occurrence — that one moment we lack realization and not a moment later, we come to a realization.  But this idea that something formed from nothing, that it just spontaneously materialized, really defies the laws of physics, for nothing — neither matter nor energy — can be created or destroyed.  Instead, matter, energy, and therefore, consciousness must follow these laws, as well.  The act of realization must constantly and imperceptibly be occurring as our synapses fire.

The other day, regardless of how or why, I had a realization.

It all just kind of hit me at once. I looked around and saw all of these people, a building, the couch beneath me, the computer in front of me, and faces of all photo (13)these small children who were now under the careful watch of my co-teacher and me.  This reality that I was now a part of was a mere figment of my imagination six months ago: it was an anticipation, a mere hypothetical.  But at that moment it was a reality.  It had become reality.

And it’s tempting to say that it came from nothing — that it just appeared, but that’s not the case.  While it may seem that it was nothing, it can all be infinitely traced backwards to points where it might seem like it began.  But even supposed beginnings have a series of inciting incidents that led to it in the first place.

And I think within that idea lies hope.

If nothing comes from nothing — and if everything comes from something — then there’s always something else we can do or try, there is always a place where we can meet a child, and there is always a glimmer of hope, even when it feels without.

Creation Over Consumption

I sat and watched as my students began to look around at each other, draw lines on their papers, and label certain places on the paper. What I was trying to get them to do was make a two-column chart, in an effort to help them organize data for an experiment we were about to start.

IMG_3630Yes, I could have taken the time to create a chart for them beforehand, placed some cute graphics on it, chosen a scientific font, and made copies so they could pristinely show their work on this consumable piece of paper.  Likewise, I could have simply had them open up a Google Spreadsheet and input their data on a computer and then allow the computer to automatically create a series of graphs and charts.  We certainly have access to the technology to do so, and it certainly would have been more efficient. B ut I chose to have them create the chart with their own two hands. I chose to have them create the chart from nothing, to rely on the simple materials around us, and to use their understanding of the world to organize themselves.  And it was extremely intentional.

There’s a misconception out there that we need lots of “things” to learn, that learning has to be expensive, and that going to a good school means going to a place where pretty products are manufactured daily.

But that’s not the way you work. That’s not the way the world works. And that’s not the way kids should work.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of helping our children make sense of the world. It’s like the building of a suspension bridge, with all of the world’s languages at one end and an individual child’s language at the other. In order to build that bridge, posts must be secured in the ground and then building must happen from both ends. And this means children must have a hand in it.

IMG_3634While the task of having children make their own two-column tables may seem laborious, rather disorganized, and extremely messy, the simple intention of it being student-created is not only easier for me, it’s better for them in countless ways. It allows them to own the task, to construct this language of data organization on their own, and it allows me to listen, so I may help to bridge the gap between their intuition –their language — and the language I’m trying to help them speak, which, in this case, was data organization and display.  It helped them to build spatial awareness, understand partitioning, and interact with two-dimensional planes; not to mention, it built fine-motor skills.

So, in order to help my children make sense of this data and this experiment, I started from the very beginning; I had them build something that technology could have very easily done for them, and as a result, I helped them build their knowledge of data collection through seemingly mundane and time-consuming tasks.  But even more so, I authentically modeled that learning doesn’t have to come from a workbook or computer.

Instead, learning comes through creation — not consumption.

If I Was a Parent

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to send a child — your child — to school each and every day.  I can’t imagine because I am not yet a parent, and it’s very likely that I will not be for quite some time.  And for that reason, this becomes one of the most complex pieces of our job, in my opinion: working with the people who take the risk to trust us with their children every day — the parents.

But why does it have to be so complex?  What makes working with families so delicate?

It’s easy to lose sight of this the longer you are a teacher.  After all, you see students filter into your classroom, day in and day out, and to you, it’s just business as usual.  Kids come in, they fail, they succeed, and, for the most part, they take baby steps towards long-term goals each and every day.  And within those experiences, and only those experience, lies the educator’s perspective — the educator’s truth.

What we forget, however, is that does not lie within parents’ realm of experiences each and every day.  Instead, the parent watches their child — their baby, their little miracle — get on the bus, walk out the front door, or get out of the car each morning and walk into a place over which they have very little control.  That same child comes home every afternoon, and upon being poked and prodded for information about the school day, many parents get an apathetic “I didn’t do anything” or “It was fine” from their children.

Of course, we know our kids aren’t “doing nothing.”  In fact, we know quite the opposite.  We know that our kids are doing a whole lot of something.  But it’s unreasonable to expect parents to simply know and trust this, and it’s wholly unrealistic to expect young children to be able to communicate all of the day’s happenings in a succinct and clear manner.

555487_3739179115224_1910065841_nAnd I can only begin to imagine what this must be like.  

As a bona fide, certified control freak, I pity the poor soul who teaches my child some day, because I know that I will be freaking out with every lesson and every moment that passes by in the classroom, because in my mind, every moment is precious, every moment is a moment of that child’s life that we hold delicately in our hands, and every moment is another moment that a parent is missing out on each day.

We have a unique superpower, as our students’ teachers, and this power we possess allows us to see significant pieces of these children’s lives that the parents don’t get to see.  They, in essence, are loaning their children to us for the better part of a year (or more), trusting that we’ll do good by them, and that we’ll do everything in our power to nurture them just as they, their parents, would.  As a result, it’s just as much our job to make parents feel safe, supported, and seen, as it is to make the children in our rooms feel safe, supported, and seen, as well.

And I think with a little empathy — with a little perspective-taking — teachers can realize that most parents are not trying to judge teachers, and at the end of a week, all parents just want to know their kids are getting the best experience possible.  They want to know their children are seen and heard in the classroom, and they want to know that these little people — the little people into whom they’ve invested so much of their time and energy — are safe and happy.

And I think if I was a parent, I’d want that, too.

So make the phone calls, be proactive, and treat relationships with parents in the same delicate manner you’d treat your relationships with children.  It’s part of the nature of what we do, and it’s what’s going to make our children the most successful.