What Will They Remember? #Ferguson

Just some memories and questions that were inspired by Rafranz Davis’ post, “When Real Life Happens, the Lesson Plans Change”.

I was in seventh grade in November 1989.  I don’t remember many specifics about what I learned in school that year, nor do I remember what we were studying – or supposed to be studying – in Social Studies that fall.  I do, however, have a very distinct memory of my Social Studies teacher asking our class, “Do you guys even get what is happening right now?  This is history!”  This, of course, was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent events that would ultimately lead to the end of Communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  I can’t pretend to know what her specific thoughts as a teacher were at the time, but I do remember us deviating frequently from our regularly scheduled curriculum that year to discuss in depth not only what was happening, but why it was important and what it could mean for us, as Americans, moving forward.

I was in my second year of teaching in September 2001.  I don’t remember many specifics about what my co-teacher and I were teaching that fall.  I do, however, have a very distinct memory of speaking with him in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when we decided that, as Rafranz says, the lesson plan had to change.  We did our best to discuss current events with our students, helping them to separate fact from speculation as well as anyone could in those days, and we also helped them to learn some background knowledge that we hoped would combat the rapidly emerging Islamophobia (or anything-that-vaguely-resembled-Islam-to-Americans-ophobia), at least in our little corner of the country.  But beyond that, we let the kids talk.  We didn’t have answers to everything; hell, we barely had answers to anything.  But our students knew our classroom was a safe place to ask questions, speak freely (and respectfully), and otherwise do our best to messily hash out the history that was unfolding before us.  Among many, many other topics, we talked extensively about what these events could mean for us, as Americans, moving forward.

In the post linked above, Rafranz says:

Rich discussions are not necessarily born from pre-planned questions. Rich discussions happen when we let go of our personal constraints and just talk. We ask more questions that we don’t have the answers to. We reflect together and maybe we ask more questions. This is how we grow. This is how change happens.

I can’t pretend to know you or your students or the circumstances in which you all work, study, and live.  But I ask you this: what will your students remember when they are bursting with the need to share their fears, their questions, and their stories that resemble those brought to the national consciousness recently by the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, MO?  What will they remember when they want to share this all with their peers and you, who may be one of the few adults – if not the only adult – in their lives to whom they feel they can open up?  What will they remember about that time they wanted to talk about racism and how it has directly impacted their lives and the lives of their loved ones?  What will they remember about that time they wanted to talk about their experiences with law enforcement, even if (especially if) their experiences do not resemble your own?

Will they remember how deftly you returned them to the appropriate place in the pacing guide?  Will they remember the novel chapter or the algebra problem that was much more important in the moment?  Or will they remember the time(s) that everyone got to talk – not as teacher, to students but as human beings, with one another – about institutional racism, or fear of police, or media censorship, and how, even if the teacher didn’t have all the answers, maybe real communication got people to understand each other’s perspectives a little better.  Maybe you’ll learn something from your students.  Maybe your students will learn something from you.  Maybe your students will learn something from each other.  And maybe you will all take a piece of that with you, beyond the classroom and beyond the school year, and maybe that will mean something important to everyone, as Americans, moving forward.


Habits of Mind: Questioning & Prior Knowledge

This post is part of a series on sixteen “Habits of Mind” put forth by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick as being “necessary for success in school, work, and life” (Costa & Kallick, 2010, p. 212).

Questioning and problem posing: How do you know?  Having a questioning attitude; knowing what data are needed and developing questioning strategies to generate information.

I said it several times during the interview process for my new job (I start Monday!), and I stand by it: I will be asking a lot of questions this year.  Not only in terms of getting acquainted with a new professional role, but also (and perhaps more importantly) in working with teachers to solve problems and improve practice (mine as well as theirs).  Having one person who knows all the answers is great, but sometimes knowing what you don’t know and knowing the right questions to ask can be even more beneficial to the learning of everyone involved in the problem-solving process.

Some of the best discussions I’ve ever had with my supervisors did not involve them telling me information, but rather, them asking questions to get me thinking about my professional practice: the choices I make in the classroom or as a psychologist/case manager.  These, more than any other interactions, helped me to grow, or at least become a more reflective practitioner, so I hope to do the same for the teachers with whom I will be working this year.  Conducting interviews for the qualitative research component of my dissertation research helped me to hone the questioning skills I developed as a high school English teacher all those years ago, so I think I have a good base upon which to build.  And speaking of building upon previous practice…

Applying past knowledge to prior situations: Use what you learn!  Accessing prior knowledge; transferring knowledge beyond the situation in which it was learned.

You know what they say about those who don’t study history?  The same applies to those who don’t learn from their own experiences, both positive and negative.  Just like I will be drawing upon a very specific skill set as I described above, I will surely also be able to apply many of the organizational, managerial, and leadership skills I learned as a school psychologist to my new role.  The precise wording escapes me, but I remember learning as a fledgling school psychology grad student that the ability to isolate and identify patterns or commonalities across diverse settings is indicative of advanced problem-solving skills, if not overall intelligence, and that has stuck with me through the years.

Being able to look at situations and say, “Hey, this is kinda like that one time I/we/they…” aids in your ability to act (reactively or proactively) and, when necessary, solve problems more efficiently and, presumably, more effectively.  I’ve never been an administrator before, but I have acted in leadership positions and taught adult learners in both formal and informal settings, so I think I have a nice “toolbox” from which to draw as I look forward to this new chapter in my career.


Costa, A.L. & Kallick, B.  (2010).   It takes some getting used to: rethinking curriculum for the 21st century.  In H. H. Jacobs (Ed.), Curriculum 21: essential education for a changing world (pp. 210-226).  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Edcamp Leadership 2014

This post originally appeared on the Edcamp Leadership blog on 21 July 2014:

Monday, August 4th will see the third annual appearance of Edcamp Leadership, the unconference targeted specifically to educational leaders.  Having been a part of the organizing teams for the first two Edcamp Leadership events, this particular Edcamp series holds a special place in my heart.  It’s even more special to me this year since this is the first year I will be attending while employed in an official leadership position.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about what session I would like to facilitate this year.  After a very well-received session on flipping the faculty meeting in 2012, I had to leave the 2013 event early and so didn’t run one.  Since I can’t imagine I’ll be the only rookie in the house this time, I’m thinking of holding a New Leaders Roundtable, specifically for people in the first few years of their leadership positions.

I will obviously have more questions than answers, given that I haven’t even started the job yet, but my hope is that we can get a group of folks in their first three or four years of their leadership role to sit down and share experiences, problems, solutions, and just contribute whatever else we think is crucial to the general body of knowledge in the room.

My preference is for these discussions to be truly organic and participant-driven, but as the facilitator I do feel it’s my responsibility to come in with some general overarching questions.  Here’s what I’m thinking so far:

  • What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started?
  • What have been your best- (or worst!) received efforts in supporting teachers?
  • How do you balance managerial responsibilities with those of an instructional leader?
  • What are your best strategies for remaining connected to the needs and concerns of the student body as you moved away from your teaching position?
  • How have you built trust and relationships among and with your staff?

In the spirit of collaboration, I’m asking you, dear reader, to add to this list with any suggestions you have, either as a newbie administrator or as a vet who knows better questions to ask.  Tweet them to me at @damian613 and tag them #edcampldr and I’ll be sure to include them in the conversation on August 4.  Of course, while the session will likely be of interest to mostly new/emerging leaders, anyone is welcome to attend and contribute to the aggregate wisdom in the room.

If you’re coming, I hope you’ll consider facilitating a session, especially if it’s your first time at an Edcamp.  As I demonstrated above, you don’t have to walk in with an hour-long Powerpoint (in fact, we don’t want that).  All you need is a topic, some questions, and the willingness to ask, listen, and learn.

Even if you can’t attend the day in person, we hope you’ll follow the proceedings on Twitter via the hashtag #edcampldr.

Don’t Break the Chain

Dissertation work has been going swimmingly, thanks for asking.  If we’re connected on Facebook or Twitter you are probably sick of me posting about the minutiae of my progress each day, and you’ve also seen me hashtag my Tweets #dontbreakthechain.

The idea of “don’t break the chain” comes from an article I’ve seen pop up several times over the last few years but to which I never gave much thought until now.  This 2007 article from Lifehacker outlines Jerry Seinfeld’s clever method of motivating himself to continue writing new material:

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Did Seinfeld actually say this?  Who knows.  The Internet is rife with stories attributing profound ideas or sayings to celebrities that may or may not be true.  The principle behind it, however, is one that I’ve actually used before, although not deliberately, in setting and meeting goals:

  • Whenever I do my 365 Picture-A-Day projects, seeing the daily photos and dates lining up one after the other motivates me to not “break the chain”.
  • The “Archives” list in this blog’s sidebar motivates me to blog at least once per month in order to not “break the chain” of months (if you actually care to look, you’ll see I’ve only missed one month in seven years).
  • I have to lift weights three times per week in order to not “break the chain” of steady progression.

I’m now applying that principle to my dissertation work.  I returned home from vacation on 11 July 2014, so 12 July was my first day on the chain.   Since then, I have made a concerted effort to work on some aspect of my dissertation every day.  Sometimes it’s for 30-45 minutes, sometimes it’s 4 hours.  The point is, as long as I put some work in, I mark the day off.

You can use any kind of calendar, physical or digital, for this task.  I’m using a website called (of course) Don’t Break the Chain; they have a Chrome plugin that allows me to see and update my calendar right from the browser:

dontbreakthechainI’ve only been at it for about two weeks now so it remains to be seen if this will help me maintain productivity in the long run, but I can say that chipping away at this monumental task little by little every day has helped me to stave off the feelings of self-doubt and paralysis I’ve written about previously.  With deadlines fast approaching (I need to have Chapter Four done and submitted by 1 Sept if I have any hope of defending in November), I’ll use any trick and take any advantage I can get.

Nothing To It But To Do It

Between completing years of coursework and conducting the dissertation research project, I think we can all agree that earning a doctorate is hard work.  I wonder, though, if sometimes we (read: I) make it harder than it has to be.

I spent the better part of May & June collecting survey and interview data for my research, and in early July took a much-needed weeklong vacation with my wife and kids.  Unfortunately, instead of relaxing and recharging, I spent the better part of the week stressing about the dissertation work I’d need to do when I got back.  When we got home last Friday I had a stack of papers with means and p-values and standard deviations all over them waiting for me, and I found myself experiencing a paralysis very similar to what I experienced this past December.  Thankfully, I was able to snap myself out of it this evening, and after sitting down with a cup of coffee and background music courtesy of Weezer (on repeat several times), I not only organized a good chunk of the statistical data, I also made a little headway on the organization and interpretation for my Chapter Four.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough to break my funk and get me rolling again.  The looming monster I had built up in my mind over my vacation was vanquished easily enough; all I had to do was just get off my ass and start working.  It wasn’t the work itself that was difficult, it was overcoming the mental block that was intimidating me.  Then again, that’s been the story throughout much of the process.  Thinking about the work is always – ALWAYS – much worse than sitting down and actually doing it.

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, until we decide not to be.