Monday, May 23, 2016

Mantras and Mottoes

This week’s (and the year’s final) article summary is Mantras and Mottoes.

While this blog (from the Head of Laurel School in Cleveland) was about New Year’s resolutions, it fits for me as the final article summary of the school year as summer is the time when I reflect and make resolutions for the next school year.

As I went right from college to a teaching, I have 'never never had' a summer break.

Even though I come to Trinity most days over the summer, the months of June and July afford me the opportunity to think and reflect. 

If youre like me, my first year of teaching was more about survival. Over the summer after my first year of teaching I thought a lot about what went well and what didn’t and committed to myself to begin my second year trying some different techniques in the classroom.

Every year since, I devote time in the summer to evaluating who I am as a professional (good, bad, and ugly) and what goals I plan to set for myself for the coming school year. 

The blog below highlights some important mantras and mottoes the Head of Laurel School lives by as a professional. Some of the mantras and mottoes she came up with herself, others she borrowed from mentors.

As we get ready to scatter for summer break, try to make some time over the next few months to think of the mantras/mottoes that influence and define you as an educator.

I also want to thank all of you for another wonderful and special year. Your dedication, energy, and creativity are what set Trinity apart from other schools!



Some mantras and mottoes — phrases I come back to over and over to help me remember that which is most important at school. 

Heart, Head, and Hand: D.L. Moody, founder of Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts, believed in heart, head, and hand — encouraging a child’s spirit, intellect, and ability to make meaning through purposeful work.

Put the child at the center and all the adults will do the right thing. This one goes back to my days as a young teacher under the brilliant leadership of Mildred Berendsen at The Chapin School (New York). It’s true. First cousin to this mantra is, “We’re all on the same side, and it’s your child’s side.”

Dare to fail gloriously. This motto is attributed to the legendary acting teacher Michael Chekhov. If you’re going to take a risk, don’t hold back. Be bold. This is a particularly good motto for high-achieving, potentially risk-averse girls.

Whole child, whole time. This one reminds us that we, in schools, are wise to consider a child’s social and emotional well-being all the way through her years at school; that even older girls need to know they are cared for; and that we are interested in every aspect of their social and emotional well-being.

Don’t give away your power. Girls—and boys too--need to grow up knowing they have power. Sometimes they forget that as they seek to please parents, teachers, friends. Not giving away your power remains an important concept to continue to put in front of girls. At Laurel School, we empower girls to claim their voices and change the world. To achieve that lofty goal, it’s vital for them to know that each one of them has personal power to put to use for good.

You’re a Laurel Girl 24 hours a day — in school, out of school, and on the Internet. Our middle and upper school girls know this one by heart. If social media is the Wild West for girls, then it’s particularly important that the school hold the envelope and be clear about what behavior is and is not acceptable. Empathy and kindness are virtues to care about beyond the boundaries of the school day. Actions have consequences. Does the knowledge of this mantra prevent every unkind post or tweet or text? Of course not. However, does it help girls who are trying to respect one another? We think so.

Feel free to blame Laurel for your good behavior. Forging a strong moral compass, an intrinsic understanding of right and wrong, is work all children and young people must do. Ultimately, I want every girl to have the proverbial courage of her convictions, but as she is getting stronger and braver, she may find it helpful to lean on the school’s expectations as an excuse not to choose to participate in particular activities.

It’s not the mistake but how you move forward from the mistake that matters. This is such a sensible, growth-mindset approach. In a school that encourages risk-taking and growth mindset, we know we cannot all be our best selves every minute of every day. Mistakes are powerful teachers; we must let our ambitious, high-powered girls know that we all make mistakes and that we all have the opportunity to learn from them.

If you believe 50 percent of what they say about us, we’ll believe 50 percent of what they say about you From Joyce Evans, who was head of The Town School (New York). I use this phrase at many parents’ gatherings. We all want to trust our children to be faithful reporters, but feelings sometimes color the way in which any of us present the facts.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Educational Changes in China

This week’s article summary is A Shifting Education Model in China.

As we near the end of the school year, this article summary is a reminder of the need for both traditional and progressive teaching to support student learning.

Education in China is renowned for teaching content, most commonly using ‘rote’ teaching methods. But the Chinese government is growing increasingly concerned that its citizens aren’t nimble thinkers and creative problem solvers. (An interesting example of this is that China produces few fiction writers.)

China is gradually making changes to both its educational program (What is taught) and pedagogy (How it’s taught) in order foster more greater creativity, imagination, and independent thinking from its students.

Two specific examples mentioned in the article are project-based learning and an emphasis on a more well-rounded educational experience.

For China the emerging equation is as follow: 

Its educational system that disseminates exemplary knowledge content—facts and concepts—in a nationalized, one-size fits all structure + Some aspects of the Western educational system, particularly more progressive elements, that foster independent creative thinkers and questioners =  A well educated citizen who possesses the knowledge and skills and who can also innovatively respond to the ever changing world.

Maybe Trinity should be an educational consultant to China!



China is pushing to move away from rote instruction, aiming to nurture cognitively nimble and socially committed graduates.

China is reshaping its national exam to focus on a broader range of topics and cognitive skills and, in turn, move away from teacher-dominated lecturing. The new test requires that students employ complex analytical skills, mixed with broader knowledge across various subjects.
Chinese schools aspire to outshine their American counterparts, ironically pulling from the West’s progressive playbook. 

China’s widening education agenda draws from a blend of educational ideals, ranging from those of John Dewey to Mao Zedong.

China’s national exams, known as gaokao, have served as the channel for getting ahead in Chinese society since the 10th century. “Exams may have no use for me,” a 26 year-old graduate stated, “but I cannot realize upward mobility” without doing well. She rose from a tiny rural village by scoring fourth in her county on the national exam and winning a coveted spot in a top Beijing university.
The intense expectations for learning woven into the age-old exams—not to mention a longstanding Confucian faith in literacy that still underlines Chinese culture—continue to produce stereotyped whiz-kids in math and graduates with extremely sharp memories, based on international assessments. 
But it’s increasingly clear that didactic teaching and regimented exams have failed to produce young people who foster technological innovation or design breakthroughs in engineering. China remains far behind in the arts, cultural invention, or academic research. Beyond a handful of fiction writers--many now living in exile--the country has seen few notables emerge in the humanities.

The nation’s bulwark of meritocracy has also begun to crumble, a wake-up call to government leaders. Faced with slim odds of winning a university seat, the count of high-school students sitting for the national exam has declined by more than 10%. A rising share of top scorers dodge what are often arcane Chinese colleges and head overseas, especially children of the growing nouveau riche. China’s ambitious reform of college admissions now sends a clear message to secondary-school students and their teachers that a narrow focus on rote learning is not be enough to ensure entry to higher education.

But whether the remake of testing in China will truly move teachers to shift their emphasis away from drilling on facts to analysis and critical thinking isn’t clear. In certain cases, this type of questioning is exactly what the Chinese government continues to stamp out. “Teachers may talk about the pro-democracy uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989,” a Beijing graduate student said, “but it’s not asked on the national exam, so students don’t take it seriously.” 

And the shrill polemics of some government leaders continue to dampen inventive thinking inside schools. “We must, by no means, allow into our classrooms material that propagates Western values,” China’s Minister of Education recently stated.

A handful of  schools, however, already practice Western-style teaching strategies through what are known as “learning-oriented classrooms.” Students take on projects or tackle neighborhood problems. There are also emerging autonomous schools, which are a bit like charter schools in the U.S. in that they’re government funded yet possess the freedom to determine how to teach their students. These progressive schools require students to engage in complex topics, delve into multicultural literature, and become fluent in English. They attract the offspring of Beijing’s booming bourgeoisie, children of corporate and government elites—kids often bound for college overseas.

While America’s policy malaise now focuses most on what the country’s education system should not do—don’t overtax kids, don’t centralize learning standards, and so on—China’s educators and parents are increasingly asking how to ready their kids for a more open society and nimble economy. And there, the blossoming debate over the core aims of education invokes both material and moral priorities spurred by an obviously fraying social fabric, as vegetable carts dodge sleek BMWs on city streets and children of migrant workers—families that make up one-third of Beijing’s densely packed population—are largely excluded from high-quality public schools.

This prompts calls for Chinese teachers to cultivate stronger character, for students to become well-rounded, rather than being forced to walk the treacherous “one-plank bridge” over to a college seat, based on a single test score. 

And ultimately, despite this broader societal push, it’s difficult for Chinese families to kick back when they’re trying to support their children, especially when both parents must work to make ends meet. Many pay for tutoring, sports activities, and music lessons—seeking a competitive edge for their youngsters. 

Amid this swirl of fresh reforms and novel aspirations for their schools, Chinese leaders talk about exporting a “third model” of education to other societies--how to enliven schools, still fortified by demanding national exams, while moving beyond the West’s self-centered values and the former Soviet Union’s stultifying classrooms. Asked what this unprecedented form of schooling looks like, educational pundits in China respond with “We don’t know yet.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Retrieval Practice

 This week’s article summary is “How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning” (no link available).

If you were like me as a student, learning how to study was a big challenge in school. 

For the most part I was a model student: well-behaved in class, did my homework, appropriately laughed when the teacher made a joke (even an unfunny one), took good notes in class, and diligently highlighted textbooks and novels. 

The challenge for me, though, was developing effective studying strategies in order to remember content knowledge for tests. This was especially needed in college.

As the article below attests, taking class time to have students overtly practice retrieving information from their brain is the best way to ensure that information is stored in long-term memory.

The article points out a number of  important criteria for doing retrieval work in class, e.g.,  don’t grade retrieval practice.

Although the article doesn’t delve into the difference between working and long-term memory, clearly retrieval practice (which is hard work) helps move content from working to long-term memory.

The second half of the article has some practical advice about how to best use “retrieval practice” in the classroom, including metacognitive awareness.



When we think about learning, we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. What if, instead, we focus on getting information out of students’ heads?

More than 100 years of research has shown that “retrieval” – calling information to mind – has the effect of strengthening retention, thus enhancing and boosting learning.

Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge ‘out’ and examine what we know. Often, we think we’ve learned some piece of information, but we come to realize we struggle when we try to recall the answer. It’s precisely this ‘struggle’ or challenge that improves our memory and learning. By trying to recall information, we exercise or strengthen our memory, and we can also identify gaps in our learning.

Retrieval should be used not as a for-grades assessment tool (classroom questions, quizzes, and tests) but as an everyday learning strategy. Research has shown that retrieval is much better for cementing understanding in long-term memory than commonly used strategies like re-reading, highlighting, underlining, note-taking, reading review sheets, watching a video, and listening to a lecture. These strategies may produce short-term gains when cramming for a test, but memory researchers have found that they don’t produce long-term retention.

Retrieval practice makes learning effortful and challenging. Because retrieving information requires mental effort, we often think we are doing poorly if we can’t remember something. We may feel like progress is slow, but that’s when our best learning takes place. The more difficult the retrieval practice, the better it is for long-term learning.

Retrieval also increases understanding and higher-order functions. It improves students’ complex thinking and application skills, organization of knowledge, transfer of knowledge to new concepts.

The process of retrieval also clarifies for students what they don’t know. Their improved metacognitive sense of what they’ve mastered and what they haven’t gives students a more realistic sense of their academic status and leads to better decisions on how to spend study time.

Common questions about retrieval practice:

 For which grade levels, subject areas, and students is it appropriate? Researchers have found that it’s helpful for all grades, students at all achievement levels, and all subject areas.

What are the best classroom strategies? It’s best to use retrieval with the whole class, to use retrieval as a learning strategy rather than an assessment, and to always provide feedback to students on their responses.

What are some potential challenges? There’s no need to change textbooks, since retrieval practice works perfectly with review or chapter questions. Nor is there a need to change one’s teaching style – questions are still asked of students, but the response is more universal. And retrieval doesn’t take more time – it just uses time more effectively, getting more bang for the instructional minute.

How is retrieval practice different from “cold calling”? Retrieval involves calling on all students and getting an immediate sense of how well the entire class is understanding what’s being taught. By engaging every student in retrieval practice, every student reaps the benefits for long-term learning.

 How much retrieval practice is necessary? The more the better but spaced out, which makes retrieval more challenging and effective. In terms of timing, retrieval is best a little after a learning experience – the more the spacing stretch, the more powerful the benefit.

Should retrieval questions be graded? No. Keeping the questions low-stakes helps students feel less pressured and more comfortable making mistakes, which students need to realize will help them learn better. Provide immediate feedback to correct errors, misunderstandings, and misconceptions, rather than grades.

Does retrieval practice increase test anxiety? Quite the contrary. It decreases worries about high-stakes assessments by improving mastery and confidence and embedding information more deeply in students’ memories.

What types of questions are best? Retrieval works equally well for facts, concepts, and higher-order, complex material – ideally mixed together. And it’s a good idea to shift between multiple-choice and open-response questions.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Culturally Responsive Teaching

This week’s article summary is Three Ways to Become a Culturally responsive Teacher. It’s a blog from a high school English teacher in a private-independent school near Philadelphia.

 I like the honesty of his blog. His recommendations (and the classroom experiences he shares) are simple yet provocative and illustrative of the ambiguity we teachers deal with in increasingly more diverse classrooms. I especially like how he embraces this ambiguity and encourages his students to share their thoughts, feelings, opinions within a safe and trusting classroom environment. 

As opposed to being ‘politically correct’, i.e., avoiding controversial issues, the teacher tries to help his students work through ideas they have that are most likely based on limited information, stereotypes, and/or personal perspectives.

While the author is a high school teacher, his ideas apply to elementary school children as well.



As teachers, we want our students to feel safe and empowered inside our classrooms. But most of us know kids in our schools who feel unsupported or invisible. This disparity is troubling, especially in light of the growing diversity at most independent schools. Compared to 20 or even 10 years ago, today our students occupy a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations.

We know that our schools need culturally responsive teachers, but how?

We might think of a culturally responsive teacher as one who understands and celebrates the differences between her students; one who makes every student feel welcome and valuable in class; and one who allows all students to share their experiences, perspectives, and opinions without fear.

What follows are some modest suggestions for ways to train our students and ourselves to become more culturally sensitive.

Seize moments of cultural awareness

Teachable moments related to cultural awareness frequently bubble up in our classrooms. I had one in my 11th grade English classroom at The Haverford School, where I have taught upper school English for four years. Haverford is a small (425 students), all-boys school located in suburban Philadelphia. Like many independent schools, Haverford enrolls many students from affluent families. We also have students from lower-income families. The income gap between our most and least wealthy families occasionally creates tension and anxiety for our kids. Lower-income students have written essays for me in which they describe feeling alienated from our prep school world.  

After reading Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, America’s archetypal rags-to-riches story, I invited my 11th graders to think about socioeconomic mobility today. Perhaps not surprisingly, the room remained silent; one boy finally broke the silence. He insisted, with an unmistakable hint of condescension in his voice, that most poor people are lazy. Another student disagreed immediately. Suffice it to say that the tension in the room mounted as the other students looked first at the two speakers and then at me. I paused my lesson, inviting the group to think carefully about the views both boys expressed. “Can we point to empirical evidence,” I asked the group, “that confirms that people experiencing poverty are always lazy?” Silence ensued. Scanning the room, I sensed that kids were afraid to say the “wrong” thing. So I asked another question: “Why do some people make it in America while others don’t?” This time, several hands shot up in the air. The first person I called on was the boy who had accused poor people of being lazy. I invited him to speak again because I wanted to give him a chance to explain his thinking. Also, I wanted to remind everyone that we must grant others the right to their opinions, even when we vehemently disagree. 

He insisted that success boils down to hard work, citing his father and grandfather as examples of hard workers who built and maintained a lucrative company. The group was split roughly down the middle: Some students agreed with the notion that grit and hard work are all that’s needed to make it in America, while others cited examples from their personal lives and our literature to dispel that idea. These objectors noted that the American Dream is more myth than reality for the majority of middle- and lower-class people. 

When the class finally ended, I encouraged them to keep the debate alive outside of class. Frustrated by our lack of resolution, a few kids rolled their eyes. Looking back, what I recall about that discussion are the collective feelings of frustration and passion. Every boy held tightly to his ideas about social mobility; no one wanted to concede the other one’s point. Yet I consider that day a small victory. 

We take a small step toward becoming culturally responsive teachers when we confront rather than retreat from such situations. Taking direct action is not easy. Admittedly, my first impulse when I heard my student accuse poor people of being lazy was to ignore the storm and simply move ahead with my lesson plan. But by not responding, I would have sent a powerful message to my students about what I stand for as a teacher and a citizen. Also, had I remained silent, I would have missed a chance to raise my students’ (and my own) cultural awareness around an issue that affects all of us in independent schools. I encourage all of us to be mindful of these situations when they arise. 

If you feel unprepared to respond immediately, let your students know that you will not drop the issue and want to return to it later. I might have said, “You know, I’m glad you guys made your points. Let’s talk more about them tomorrow.” A decade of teaching has taught me that these moments can have a profound and lasting impact on students. As educators, we prepare our students when we place cultural awareness at the center of our courses, when we create a safe space for students to explore their ideas with respect to, say, race relations or social class or gender identity. When these thorny topics come up in my class, I remind my students that these subjects are what our course is really about.

Invite kids to share their stories

Students who appear culturally insensitive to us often lack exposure to different people. Some boys at my school rarely venture into the city of Philadelphia. Television, films, and sensational media reports inform their sense of who lives there and what those people’s lives are like. It’s easy for these students — and for young people in general — to assume that everyone’s experience mirrors their own. So I ask my students at the start of the school year to write personal narratives about what matters most to them. Their stories reveal aspects of their hometowns, families, friends, and hobbies. Then they share their stories in a series of in-class writing workshops. 

Our workshop reinforces the fact that their lives are at the heart of our course. It also gives them a glimpse into the experiences of their peers. They see where their lives intersect and diverge from one another. Culturally responsive teachers fill their classrooms with the rich experiences of students’ varied lives. As teachers, we can also share our own personal stories, which help us earn students’ trust and respect. The point is that sharing stories fosters a culture of empathy and respect inside our classrooms.

Recognize that resolution is not guaranteed

Like many teachers, I entered the profession with a desire to positively transform the lives of young people. While that desire hasn’t changed, what has changed is my understanding of the time it takes for our work to pay off. When I first walked into a classroom, I was na├»ve enough to think that I could change students’ hearts and minds in the span of a single class period, marking period, or even a whole school year. Now I see how woefully misguided I was. 

Culturally sensitive teachers ask their students to wrestle with intensely personal, highly complex issues like politics, identity, and moral values. Let’s not forget that these are topics with which many adults struggle. It should come as no surprise that our students often resist wading into such murky waters. But we should not abandon the work, nor should we expect to resolve our society’s most complex problems before lunch. A more realistic approach frames culturally responsive teaching as a “slow burn” process. We build our curriculum to ignite our students’ passions and sympathies. It may take years for the spark to catch fire. 

Teach long enough and you will be gratified by a student who writes a letter or stops by your classroom to tell you that a class discussion, or a time you lent him your ear, changed his life. When difficult moments like the one outlined above come up in my classroom, I reiterate to my students that there are no easy answers. Ultimately, I believe that introducing them to complex cultural problems is the best way I can help them learn.