Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Check Out My Latest Post on Leadership & Implicit Bias in Schools at the ATLIS Blog

This year the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools is hosting a series of seminars based on 4 essential books that all educational leaders should read. I'm hosting the first seminar on Mahzarin Banaji's and Anthony Greenwald's Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

The book explores how implicit bias shapes the perspectives and behaviors of all people, even those with the best intentions. It was written by the same people who developed the Implicit-Association Test at Harvard University. If you haven't taken one of the IATs, I strongly urge you to do so (they have tests on all sorts of topics, ranging from race and gender to things as innocuous as our biases towards insects).

Go here to read my blog post about the book, and if you're an ATLIS member, join us September 26 for a live webinar discussion of the book.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Reflections on Part Three of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 127-183 (Post #4) - A Guest Post by Lauren Carfa

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Lauren Carfa, 3rd grade ELA Instructor, volunteered to post the fourth reflection, which I've provided below.

Must It Be All or Nothing?

I have, embarrassingly, severely held up the progress of this blog! While life has truly been a big factor in this, I’ve come to realize some personal avoidance as well. I have really struggled through this book because I find myself often frustrated either with what Warner is suggesting, or with what I feel is a lack of completion. What I mean by that is I feel he keeps saying what is wrong, what not to do, and why, but that is it. I’m left wondering what he suggests as a better method.

I’ve tried to be very reflective as I read this text. I wrote at the beginning of my notes for this section that I am a product of the system that he is writing against. I was taught how to write for the purpose of taking and passing a standardized test and then moving to the next level and I wholeheartedly agree that, while I have some strong and helpful skills in writing, my education was narrow and lacking. Sadly, I didn’t find college to be any different at any of the institutions I took classes from. This personal experience lends me to feel supportive of many of Warner’s arguments about what students need. I wish my educational experience had been more about encouraging thought and creativity rather than teaching me to meet specific measures that may or may not bear fruit for me in life.

On page 129, Warner says “If you believe school is properly viewed as something like ancient Sparta...much of what I have to say...will sound like the rantings of a soft-hearted dreamer entirely divorced from the real world.” I keep coming back to this statement because I do think so much of what he says isn’t realistic. I don’t see how to merge his desires and aspirations for education with the reality of people. However, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere near the other option he offers. To me, this further illustrates what I keep feeling about so much of his opinion - there is no middle ground, just either or, us or them.

Further illustrating my struggle to sift through the reading, I know that all of the above isn’t fully reflective of my section that I am to represent, but rather my feelings on the book as whole.

In my section, Warner talks about the need for students to be fed and come to school well-rested, and also says, “...but can we agree that enhancing the intellectual, social, and emotional capacities of students is likely to lead to these [preparing children for higher education and careers] outcomes?” Perhaps this will be the conclusion of Warner as well, but the piece I often find to be missing in the field of education is relationship. I really believe relationship is what sets educators into the categories of someone who leads, produces, or brings up students who are successful, confident and capable, verses the educator that holds a place, or worse, stifles the love of learning. Warner keeps referring to the “tyranny of grades” and compliance. I think of tyranny of grades as nit-picking for mistakes, rather than looking at the whole picture of what the goal of the learning was. Regardless, he is right - grades and compliance can lead to defeated, apathetic children. I think that type of educator is one that lacks relationship. I believe that grades and compliance, inside relationship, can be healthy, beneficial, and provides a platform for success and growth. This also applies to writing. Grade, or don’t, but if you don’t have a relationship with your students they won’t grow and develop as a result of your efforts either way. In my opinion, this point is exemplified on page 141 when Warner lists five things that should be our goals. Goals 4 and 5 state:

4. We will end the tyranny of grades and replace them with self-assessment and reflection.

5. We will give teachers sufficient time, freedom, and resources to teach effectively. In return, they will be required to embrace the same ethos of self-assessment and reflection expected of students.

My question is, how do we then determine this standard is met? If there is not a relationship and there is no grade or requirement to demonstrate the expectation is being met, I envision a huge range of “success”. Don’t misunderstand, I do not think that everyone should turn out the same or have identical goals. I want to celebrate the individual. I mean in terms of teachers certain they are impacting students when students feel lost and uncertain, or students certain they are top of their class when they haven’t mastered basic skills. Self reflection is not a strength for everyone.

Finally, on page 153 Warner talks about the circumstances in which writers thrive and advocates giving students experiences and opportunities to make choice and build a practice and love for writing. This, I can get excited about. This, I can get behind. I just don’t understand why it must be completely separated from grades and structure. I see a classroom where both can hold space.

I chose to include the following pictures to demonstrate why I still hold value to giving children structure to work first within, and then out of. This first picture is of a writing piece done with little to no structure. The requirements were very broad and focused on minor things such as how to turn it in, to make sure you have your name, etc. The children had a choice of topic, including one that was free choice. There was no grade attached and no structure given to follow.

This next picture is of the same student's writing, during even the same week. This picture is a portion of their final copy pages for a project in which they had choice over the topic, but they had to follow a structure and use various tools practiced in class as part of their grade.

My expertise is not in English, though I am an “English Teacher”. My expertise is in children. I believe children need guidance and structure that comes from a loving person they respect. That is the place they grow from.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Reflections on Part Two of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 87-123 (Post #3) - A Guest Post by Claire Reddig

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Claire Reddig, MS English Instructor & Writing Specialist, volunteered to post the third reflection, which I've provided below.

My blog post is organized around quotations that I hope capture key issues discussed and provide room for debate and discussion

“In fact, contact between faculty and between students may be the most meaningful part of education” (90).

At Oakridge, we often hear about the importance of relationships and for good reason. This quotation caught my attention not because it is radical, but because I wonder how our writing instruction and feedback would be different if building relationships was our top priority. For me, I’d definitely make more room for writing conferences (I think I’d call them writing conversations) and I’d see my students’ writing as a chance to learn more about them as people and as writers. I’d probably be less critical if building a relationship was my primary goal and I’d give my students more room for creativity and autonomy. What about you?

“We should not be surprised that a school day could be alienating when it’s dominated by interacting with a screen and a computer running software specifically designed to highlight your deficiencies” (93).

This quotation caught my attention because we use a computer program called iXL in Middle School to teach grammar skills. The upside to iXL is it is personalized and it (in theory) teaches the students how to avoid mistakes. We began using iXL a few years ago when the grammar pendulum began swinging away from direct grammar instruction and we were searching for a middle ground. We also found that our students were at very different places when it came to grammar knowledge, so iXL allowed us personalize grammar instruction and free up more class time for reading comprehension and writing practice. As you can imagine, students are not fans of iXL and see it as a chore. I still see iXL as having a role in our MS classrooms but I would love to hear about other options...

“They have rarely been required to distill or synthesize an argument to its essence, a higher order task than mere comprehension. They are comfortable repeating what they’ve heard/​ read but less experienced in articulating what a text ‘means’” (99).

I think this quotation gets at the heart of so many issues in our classroom. I think we are giving our students less opportunities to push themselves as creative and critical thinkers in a safe and stress free environment, whether it is in writing or in conversations. If we want to see our students use complex analysis, they have to practice these skills in an arena that values trial and error. And we need to value and highlight this critical thinking when we see it in our students’ writing (even if the arguments contain grammar and spelling errors!)

“But the far more important part of the work is my trying to figure out why the error has been made so I can offer something to the student that allows them to return to their writing process in order to do better next time. Often, this is only achieved in consultation with the students themselves” (101).

I think this quotation goes back to my thinking about how my feedback about student writing would be different if relationships were my key goal. I think I would see myself as a teammate who is offering feedback in a non-threatening way and is instead offering suggestions and things to ponder rather than requirements.

“Those who hold on to the notion that students must learn the ‘basics’ of grammar before allowing writers to move on to the more difficult work of expressing ideas are denying those students access to experiences that make use want to learn to write. It is the equivalent of music students being confined to the study of sheet music, without ever being allowed to play an actual instrument” (108).

I have to admit, this quotation got me a little hot before I read the following quotation several pages later…

“This is not a declaration that anything goes or that students do not need to be instructed on writing good sentences, but from their earliest attempts at writing we must allow students to see that ‘proper’ expression is dependent on audience and occasion, and this means they must make informed decisions” (110).

For me, the key to successful writing and grammar instruction is to find a happy medium. We don’t “confine” our young writers to worksheets and practice in isolation, but we also don’t deprive them of direct instruction and feedback about grammar concepts in a stress free (read grade free) environment. I also really appreciate the reminder that purpose, audience, and format always matter when it come to writing.

“Unfortunately, we make many sacrifices on the altar of correctness, a practice that is surely exacerbated by testing and accountability systems that promulgate the illusion that there are right and wrong answers in the realm of reading and writing” (109).

This quotation brings me back to conversations Lauren and I have had on numerous occasions about what type of writing is “worthy” of public consumption. Do we need to make sure our students’ writing is free of all grammar and spelling errors before posting it in the hall or posting it to a blog or sharing it with an authentic audience?

“There are reasons why we don’t keep score and everyone gets in the game when children first start playing a sport” (109).

I’ll choose this quotation as my final one because one of the enduring points for me from this book so far is the need to grade less and give more freedom and grace to our student writers.

P.S. - I didn’t feel the need to reinforce the message on pages 113-123. It seems like I would be “preaching to the choir.” Feel free to share your favorite quotations from that section!

Monday, April 8, 2019

Reflections on Part Two of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 35-123 (Post #2) - A Guest Post by Stephen Hebert

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Stephen Hebert, AP Lang & American Lit. Instructor, volunteered to post the second reflection, which I've provided below.

A Recent Lesson in Atmospheric Conditions

This past week, I witnessed a disappointing phenomenon in my classes.

After spending the first three quarters of the school year figuring out my new school, I decided to dedicate this final quarter to a series of pedagogical experiments. My first experiment was to find a new approach to the most difficult text we read all year: The Scarlet Letter. I turned the book into a role-playing game in which students had to complete a series of “quests” in order to escape 17th century Boston and make their way back to the present. For the first two weeks, students seemed quite excited. We had weekly goals for how much they needed to read, but otherwise, their progress in the game was left up to them. They could choose which quests to complete and which to ignore.

Something changed, however, this past week. In the Upper School, we have progress reports, and I had to somehow convert students’ performance in the game to a letter grade for these reports. I put students into groups and asked them to devise systems for turning game performance into a letter grade. After listening to a dozen different proposals spread out over five class periods, I took the most popular ideas, combined them, and then put them on the board. Very quickly, the energy that we’d built up in class over the previous two weeks died out.


When I asked students about it, the theme was quite clear: “Grades are the worst.” For me, this is just a variation of what John Warner suggests in the opening chapter of this section: “School sucks.”

In “The Problem of Atmosphere,” Warner begins with a social experiment that leads him to a startling claim: “Students are not coddled or entitled. They are defeated” (38).

I tend to agree.

The System and the Culture

As a teacher and a chaplain at three different independent schools, I have spent many hours over the last ten years counseling students who have been defeated by grades and test scores, who feel so beaten down that the opportunity for growth is no longer possible for them until they can get some distance from the system that made them feel that way.

What are the characteristics of that system?

As an Upper School teacher, I’d argue that the specter of college admissions plays a large role. More specifically, the misguided belief that all students need to go to college to be “successful” and that only certain colleges count. The highly competitive nature of college admissions, coupled with the belief that a blown test or quiz will end their chances at getting into University X, creates a culture of compliance rather than creativity, a culture that values grades over learning, a culture that sees school as a transactional, quid pro quo arrangement, rather than a journey of (self-)discovery.

Our students fear failure.

They look at a 100-point scale and they see 70 ways to fail (0–69) and less than half as many ways to succeed (70–100). Even worse, many of them believe that anything less than an A- is a failure. As we prepare them for college and life, where the economy is more and more based on gigs which require creativity and soft-skills, this narrative of "success" has put our students in a bind that doesn’t allow them to experiment, to make a mistake, to skin their knees. Thus, we make our contribution to the anxiety epidemic. If I believed that my future hinged on a particular quiz or test, then I’d probably be anxious too. 

Writing as Antidote?

What does this have to do with writing?

As Warner says to his students, “writing is an ‘extended exercise in failure’” (41). As teachers of writing, we have an opportunity to provide students with an alternative to the do-or-die culture that they find themselves mired in. Why? Because we can teach them how to fail. We have to.

In her response to Jared’s post, I deeply appreciated Lauren’s extended bicycle analogy in which she approached teaching writing in the third grade as a way of building skills by laying down fundamentals. You have to know the basic rules of bike riding in order to ride a bike: how do the pedals work? where are the brakes? what's up (or down) with gravity? 

Lauren Carfa's comment from the Oakridge English department's private blog

It reminds me of one of my son's first bike riding lessons. His grandmother bought him a balance bike for his fourth birthday. He loved that thing! He would zoom all over the driveway and sidewalks on it. One day, he decided, against my advice, to brave the very steep hill just beyond our driveway. I watched out of our kitchen window as his little blue helmet disappeared from view down the hill. I ran outside to see him speed downhill and steer intentionally into a hedge on the side of the road a few hundred feet away. I ran down after him, disentangled his little body from the bushes, cleaned him up, and wiped the tears from his cheeks. When I asked him why he steered into the bushes, he told me, “I didn’t know how to stop.” (Incidentally, this is how he stops on ice skates too...)

As it turns out, steering into the bushes is an effective way to stop your bike, but it may not be the best way. It’s reckless.

Likewise, in coaching golf and baseball, I’ve watched kids get hung up on the details. Recently, I was working with a nine-year-old pitcher. I was trying to get him to move his hips in a certain way so that he could really push off the rubber and toward home plate; hopefully, he’d generate a little more speed and accuracy. I took him through a drill to give him the right feel for what his body should be doing, but when he got up on the mound to try it out, he was so focused on what his lower body was doing that he literally forgot to release the ball. Instead of throwing it toward the catcher, he spiked it into the mound several times before I told him to just forget everything and throw a strike.

Sometimes, when we are faced with a glut of rules and regulations, we find ourselves stymied, unable to even complete the simplest tasks.

In writing, there must be some middle ground, some sweet spot where we can avoid being totally reckless while also avoiding stultification. We must be able to create an atmosphere in our classrooms that foster the kind of creativity that we long for in our students.

But how?

The key might be in taking seriously what Warner tells his students: “[E]very piece [of writing] is a custom job, created by a unique intelligence (the writer), in the service of the needs (purpose) of a specific audience” (72).

Questions to Consider

This leads us to a series of questions to reflect on and explore in our own practice and in our own institution:
  • What are we doing to create an atmosphere that encourages students to take risks and learn from their failures?
  • What systems in our classrooms, in our department, in our divisions, and in our school should we re-examine?
  • How does our grading and assessment of writing reflect our values as educators?
  • How are we creating writing assignments that help students to see each piece of writing as “a custom job”?
Or, perhaps you disagree with John Warner (and me). Maybe you’ve got an alternative way of understanding the atmosphere, the systems, and the fads that Warner calls out in this section. Maybe you’ve got a passionate argument for why the system isn’t broken. Spell it out below!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Reflections on Part One of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 1-31 (Post #1)

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. I volunteered to post the first reflection, which I've provided below. 

Last week, we read Shirley Jackson’s terrifying short story, “The Lottery,” and discussed its significance as a class. There was consensus among the group that the story was asking us to reflect critically on the idea of “tradition.” We analyzed its most important symbol – the black box from which the characters draw slips of paper for the gruesome ritual of the lottery. We learn from the story that the black box is older than anyone there and therefore possesses a kind of sacred quality for the residents. However, the narrator notes that “the black box grew shabbier each year” and “much of the ritual [that related to the box’s purpose] had been forgotten or discarded” (5). Later we discover that the box they’re using isn’t even the original one, and towards the ending of the tale, the narrator chillingly states, “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (9). My classes agreed that the black box symbolizes certain “traditions” – not tradition in a generic sense – but specific cultural practices whose origins are largely forgotten but the impact of the practice remains strong. The scary question posed by Shirley Jackson is one which asks us to think about traditions we still practice that not only lack purpose but may be harmful to certain individuals in our community. Every society has its black boxes, and John Warner wants us to interrogate the culture of writing instruction to expose the shabbier practices we still hold on to.

Black Box Traditions Are a Way to Control the Variables

For instance, take the five paragraph essay. Does anyone know where it came from? Why does it settle for five units instead of four? Why emphasize the limits of form as opposed to the infinite possibilities involved in a process? The 5 paragraph construct, according to Warner, can be traced back to Harvard’s entrance exams in the late 19th century!! Last I checked, the skills demanded by 21st century universities and employers are drastically different than what was needed in the 1800s. Warner writes, “The five-paragraph essay is an artificial construct, a way to contain and control variables and keep students from wandering too far off track. All they need are the ideas to fill in the blanks. It is very rare to see a five-paragraph essay in the wild; one finds them only in the captivity of the classroom” (29). The five-paragraph essay gives us a manageable set of variables as instructors and (perhaps more importantly) as graders. Warner makes clear, though, that often “we overestimate our own past proficiency at writing” – meaning it’s important we examine the costs of this traditional construct before casting the first stone when grading students’ ability to correctly adhere to the form.

Students Already Demonstrate the Skills to Write

In the section “Johnny Could Never Write,” Warner observes that “…[S]tudents freely and effectively communicate in other mediums, often using the skills we claim to desire and develop in academic writing. When students turn to school-related tasks, though, those skills seem to disappear” (16). Students already have the skills, meaning the real challenge for us as instructors is shifting attitudes and beliefs that students hold about their writing. However, certain “black boxes” of writing instruction are getting in the way of this. In the opening section, Warner employs the analogy of training wheels to diagnose what’s wrong with traditional approaches to writing instruction. Just as training wheels actually keep the learner from practicing the most important skill for riding a bike, in this case balance, the five-paragraph essay prevents students from developing the writer’s most important skill, which he identifies as choice (such as choice of audience, topic, tone, form, etc.). In other words, the 5 paragraph essay limits students’ opportunities to make the choices that matter as a writer. But I want to take Warner’s analogy further; it’s not just the training wheels when it comes to how we teach writing. If we taught bike riding the way we teach composition, students would read about the rules of bike riding; they would answer worksheets that test their comprehension of those rules. We might even watch videos of the greatest bike riders in history, and occasionally, we would ride bikes ourselves (but with training wheels, of course). And we wonder why students don’t like to write. One thing’s for sure: this approach is not helping us overcome the challenge of transforming students’ attitudes about the practice. We act like the risks of letting them crash or get off course are as physically dangerous as those related to actual bike riding when in reality our classrooms have the potential to be the safest places for students to crash, fail, and try again. As Warner states, “Prohibitions may prevent disaster, but they also may close off the possibility of great discovery”(31).

Human-focused Design Over Function-focused Design

The Council of Writing Program Administrators compiled a list of qualities they think to be most important for every developing writer: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and meta-cognition (25). Warner’s claim is that black boxes like the five-paragraph essay or the tendency to isolate grammar instruction have the result of taking writing out of an authentic context thereby making it less motivating for students to engage creatively and persistently in the process itself. In fact emphasis on traditional modes of assessment “has left our practices largely divorced from the kinds of experiences that help students develop their writing practices” (28). My claim is that we need to focus a little less on outcomes (which tend to take writing out of its contexts) and start worrying more about the outset: Do students already believe in themselves as writers from day one? Is there an authentic context, purpose, and/or audience that beckons them to write? This means moving away from a function-focused approach (function prioritizes efficiency, manageability, conformity, etc.) to design our writing instruction using a more human-focused framework (which prioritizes choice, purpose, ownership, and creativity). Otherwise we risk casting stones at something we should be nurturing – namely, every student’s “deep need to represent their experience through writing” (Lucy Calkin The Art of Teaching Writing). To do that, we have to take the risk of riding without training wheels. 

Questions for reflection:

What are the black boxes of writing instruction (or instruction in general)?

What instructional practices do you want to change in your classroom and what prevents you from doing so?

What instructional practices have you changed in recent years? How are you doing it differently?

What classroom traditions do you want to change? Which ones do you think still hold value and why?

Some resources for extra reading:

Colley, Jared. “Why I’m Done with Paper Prompts: An Imagined Conversation with Jacques Ranciere and Lucy McCormick Calkins.” What Should We Do with Our Classrooms? 2 June 2018.

Council of Writing Program Administrators. “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.” National Council for Teachers of English & National Writing Project, January 2011.

Hidden Brain Podcast. “The Carpenter Versus the Gardener: Two Models of Modern Parenting.” NPR, 28 May 2018.

Nazerian, Tina. “Is the Five-Paragraph Essay Dead?” EdSurge, 18 October 2017.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why Collaboration Matters: A Call to Action (Reflections on the 6 Cs - Part Two)

Last September, OESIS launched its XP Pathways initiative to help educators apply ideas from OESIS network resources to their classrooms. OESIS Network Leaders are continuing to work on curating content by selecting videos & resources that can aid the OESIS user in learning more about specific competencies, such as Critical Thinking, or in this case, Collaboration. With this in mind, I wanted to share a blog post I published on the OESIS website about the value of collaboration. What follows is a Call to Collaborate (if you don't have time to read, at least skip to the bottom for the call to action).

Why Collaboration in Schools is so Important​

1. Knowledge is a collaborative enterprise
Descartes once offered the analogy of the architect to make the case that an individualist enterprise yields better results than working on a project collectively (Discourse on Method, Part Two). It was a radical notion that made perfect sense in a world where few were educated, but I wonder if today’s scientists would agree, considering that most advancements are the result of a community of engaged thinkers and learners working together (which is probably true of contemporary architecture as well). Although we could characterize the last century of education as a Cartesian one (Individualism over Collectivism; Reason over Emotion; Mind over Body), perhaps we’ve come full circle on how we value collaborative enterprises. We know we need to prepare learners for a world that is connected, where experts are abundant and have much to share with each other, and students need the skills and experiences necessary to thrive in such collaborative environments, and this is true for teachers as well.

2. Collaboration inspires lifelong learning
I entered my first classroom as an independent school instructor 14 years ago. Fresh out of graduate school, my eagerness was obvious: I couldn’t wait to spread my love for literature, and surely my passion would be contagious, right? With a sense of Cartesian heroism, I selected my reading lists, prepared lectures & frameworks for class discussions (based on years of training in my content area), and proceeded to teach in the likeness of my graduate professors who helped shape in me a sense of individual competency and expertise. What was I thinking? As if secondary education is about the transmission of knowledge from expert to amateur (hint: it’s about so much more!). You might be able to guess what happened next: to put it mildly, my spirits were crestfallen. Why weren’t my students as fascinated as I was by this undeniably valuable content? Why were they so disinterested and passive? The content was fantastic, by the way, but my pedagogy was limited, to say the least.

Frankenstein Student Conference, 2017
Fast forward a few years, I started to understand more about student centered learning, realizing the importance of designing curriculum where skills were at the forefront. I attended a conference and heard Pat Bassett, NAIS President at the time, speak about the importance of the 6 Cs, and by this time, I had made a resolution: I was going to focus on the idea of making learning more collaborative in my classes. That was the ‘C’ I was going to focus on. My idea, however, was still a traditional one: I was going to host a paper conference for high school students from various campuses, which was less of an ongoing collaborative practice and more of an event that would serve as a wonderful memory for all involved. The real turning point for me was an email I received while preparing for this upcoming project. Joel Garza, Upper School English Chair at Greenhill School, suggested we have our students start collaborating right then (the conference was months away). The email startled me: How would we collaborate? I’m not very savvy with all this digital technology. But I realized something. My demands for students to collaborate meant they had to get out of their comfort zones, and that’s what Joel was demanding of me, meaning I had no choice. I had to say yes. Our classes blogged together and visited each other’s campuses. Students traded podcasts and answered each other’s inquiries, and they began to do so for reasons well beyond a single grade. It was transformative, but it only worked as well as it did because we as teachers were transparent about our collaborative efforts as well. Since then I have grown exponentially as a teacher, in ways beyond the single competency of collaboration. However, it was “the first C” that started it all. The call to collaborate got me out of my comfort zone, which was frightening, but because of this, I discovered the joys of being stretched by others to accomplish something that could never have been done by a single person. 

The inter-institutional paper conference was a huge success, by the way. In fact, it's become a tradition of sorts in the DFW area. This year marks our 7th iteration as The Hockaday School prepares to host students from around the area for the 2019 Sandra Cisneros Colloquium, this Wednesday, February 13th.

3. Modeling: Collaborative teaching leads to collaborative learning
When I first encouraged students to embrace the idea of collaborative group work, I usually concluded such endeavors feeling frustrated. Students always found a way to “divide the labor” and simply complete the minimum tasks required for his or her portion of the project. It wasn’t authentic, but more importantly, I wasn’t appreciating what they had to go through. When reflecting on our collaborative experiences, Joel Garza offered an insight that sometimes we gloss over too quickly when encouraging people to put themselves out there: “Standing in the way of successful collaboration, in my experience, is a tremendous amount of ungrounded fear and anxiety that we don’t even want to name” (“A Tale of Three Classrooms” K12 Online Conference 2014). It’s so true, and it’s what makes things so challenging. Teachers, like everyone else, fear the idea of failing publicly as well as the idea of not being in control. Collaboration, however, requires us to embrace these possible outcomes. When I began to model for students successful collaborative practices, not only did they begin to collaborate more authentically, I too became a more empathetic teacher. I knew what was being demanded of them, but more importantly I felt it as well.

Teaching methods model for students the kinds of behaviors and habits we want to see them practice. What does Cartesian individualism, for instance, model for students as a method for teaching, lesson preparation, etc.? One might suggest that it inspires students to be confident individuals as well. I would caution, however, that it could serve the opposite end, namely communicating to them that there is an individual expert in the room, thereby encouraging the learner to be a passive recipient of the expert’s construction of the content. This is the same passivity I confronted in my early years of teaching. To me such modeling runs contrary to the kind of skills we want to cultivate in students to prepare them as leaders in the collaborative communities of their future careers. Students need to see us collaborate with peers so that they understand we don’t have all the answers, so they realize that to be successful one must network with others and participate in a community of lifelong learners. This is how we make space for them to become individuals in our classrooms. I would argue that it is only by way of collaboration that we discover our confidence as individuals. The binaries are not exclusive.


For those who might be interested, I'm looking for teachers and students who want to collaborate with my classes. Currently, I teach 4 sections of 10th grade literature. From Feb. 20th to Mar. 8th, we'll be reading 4 dystopian short stories that confront the question of technology (either directly or more subtly):

1. E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (Feb. 20th-26th)
2. Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" (Feb. 25th-28th)
3. Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report" (Feb. 27th-Mar. 4th)
4. Ken Liu's "The Perfect Match." (Mar. 4th-8th)

Go here to read more details about the unit, but the basic idea is to get students from different campuses to read the 4 stories collaboratively using - a platform that lets readers annotate collectively any text that can be found online.

If interested, leave a comment or reach out to me via Twitter (@jcolley8) or email (, and I'll send you a link to our reading group. I'd love to evolve this idea more, so I'm also open to suggestions. After all, for students to collaborate effectively and successfully, they need to see teachers do it as well, so email me and help me make this project even better.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Beautiful Risk of Making Creativity Visible in Every Classroom (Reflections on the 6 Cs - Part One)

“Education itself is a creative act… Education as an act of creation, that is, as an act of bringing something new into the world, something that did not exist before” (Gert J. J. Biesta The Beautiful Risk of Education 11).


In Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, authors Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman write, “Other animals show signs of creativity, but humans are the standout performers. What makes us so? As we’ve seen, our brains interpose more neurons in areas between sensory input and motor output allowing for more abstract concepts and more pathways through circuitry. What’s more, our exceptional sociability compels humans to constantly interact and share ideas” (51). What a counter-intuitive starting point for us as educators – namely, the idea that creativity is something which all students are already capable of. Sure, we may agree with this in feeling, but examine our daily practices at schools. Creativity, more often than not, is a skill whose practice remains at the periphery of most students’ core curricular experience. It’s something we do when practicing the arts, but it’s not clear how it fits into other “core academic” classes, at least on a daily basis.

However, the quote above reminds us that, because of our neuronal networks, we naturally excel at creativity when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. But what’s more interesting is how our sociability gives us an edge over other forms of intelligence, such as computers. “To achieve a creative artificial intelligence,” writes Brandt and Eagleman, “we would need to build a society of exploratory computers, all striving to surprise and impress each other. That social aspect of computers is totally missing and this is part of what makes computer intelligence so mechanical” (31). Computers are not creative, period. And that’s because they’re not social, but do you know what computers are really good at? Accurately storing and recalling information. Humans, however, "are terrible at retaining precise, detailed information, but we have just the right design to create alternative worlds” (50). Think about that. We’re facing a future where much of the work force could be eliminated by the onslaught of more machines, yet we have something that computers don’t have, which is why creativity matters. It’s a human skill - a natural extension of who we uniquely are. It’s part of our past, present, and future legacy as a species, but school often relegates it to the periphery of a kid’s core experience. Why?


Let’s apply all this to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Shouldn’t creativity be at the foundation of Bloom’s pyramid since it’s something all students are naturally able to do well? Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison in Making Thinking Visible stress the following point: “Although Bloom’s categories capture types of mental activity and thus are useful as a starting point for thinking about thinking, the idea that thinking is sequential or hierarchical is problematic” (6). More thoughtful applications of Bloom’s framework operate under this wisdom, for sure, but think about our cultures of assessment on our campuses. We seem to assume in school that recall/remembering (namely, what computers are much better at) is the basic starting point for human learning. All core classes engage students in the mental activity of remembering and recalling, but few academic experiences put creativity at the center. Without a doubt, this is true of standardized testing as well.


How might we make creativity a foundational element of every students’ learning experience? Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman offer a conceptual framework for teaching and assessing more transparently the practice of creativity in the classroom. They suggest the threefold framework of bending, breaking, and blending as the “primary means by which all ideas evolve” (47). The three concepts are “a way of capturing the brain operations that underlie innovative thinking” (49). They go on to say, “We bend, break, and blend everything we observe, and these tools allow us to extrapolate far from reality around us” (50). In other words, this is how we as humans create new things – not by some omnipotent act of creating something out of nothing but by taking the materials around us and “calling things to life.”  As Gert J. J. Biesta puts it, “creation is ‘not a movement from non-being to being, but from being to the good’” (The Beautiful Risk of Education 14). Humans do it all the time, but schools assume we need to double down on recall and computational intelligence instead. Why might this be the case? Misreading Bloom’s pyramid has something to do with it, for sure, but it’s also because “creating is a risky business, and one has to be prepared for a lot of noise, dissent, resistance, and a general disturbance of the peace if one is of a mind to engage in [it]” (Biesta 15). Since remembering is Bloom’s baseline, we tend to assume that basic recall is the most equitable thing to test people on. What makes dispelling this notion all the more challenging is the fact that it’s a lot less risky for educators to test student recall (it’s also easier to grade). But as Biesta might say, cultivating creativity in the classroom is a beautiful risk that we simply can’t afford not to take, or else we risk something much greater: making ourselves obsolete in a world run by robots.

One place to start is by introducing students to Brandt’s and Eagleman’s framework of bending, breaking , and blending. Instead of asking students to study, memorize, and store certain content for a given course, invite students to manipulate or play with the content by turning it into something new. Warning: results will be unpredictable.

Works Cited

Biesta, Gert J. J. The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers, 2013.

Brandt, Anthony and David Eagleman. Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Catapult Publishing, 2017.

Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Jossey-Bass, 2011.