Friday, November 18, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

As an elementary school educators, we typically ask our students at Thanksgiving what they are thankful for.

It may seem cliché but we adults should also reflect about what we’re grateful for. 

Over the Thanksgiving Break I always try to find some quiet, private time to think about not only what I’m personally thankful for but also what I’m professionally thankful for.

As I read the article below about a ‘no excuses school’ where learning is intense, pressure packed, devoid of fun, and filled with strict rules and extrinsic incentives, I was exceedingly grateful for Trinity’s child-focused pedagogy and program.

During my career, I have been very fortunate to teach in some great schools—in New York, Oklahoma, Indiana, and now in Georgia. 

All of them shared in varying degrees the following:

Learning was fun and meaningful for the kids (of any age) who were engaged in and excited about learning and school.

Kids had ample opportunities and latitude to find their passion and cultivate their talents—be it in academics, sports, visual or performing arts, etc.

Student success was not narrowly confined to standardized test scores.

Open inquiry and independent--even divergent--thought were encouraged and much learning and growth came from discussion, dialogue, and reflection.

Whether as a teacher, administrator, or head of school, I was trusted and empowered to do the right thing and when I erred, my mistakes were opportunities to learn and grow, not reasons for punitive consequences.

There was deep camaraderie among colleagues—we sincerely enjoyed working and being together.

While there were always a couple of difficult parents, the vast majority were very supportive. 

There were high expectations and a commitment to continual learning for everyone yet the overall school atmosphere was somehow relaxed and informal and eternally optimistic.

If you’re like me, there are times in any school year when you get  frustrated with the tensions and demands inherent in education. For example, what many parents think is best for kids (like more homework) and what research and teachers know is best for kids (like more time to play and to be a kid).

There are many hard days and downtimes in schools: issues with kids, with parents, with colleagues--even with copier machines.

Yet after a really bad day, once I calm down at home (maybe the aid of a three-mile run, a glass of wine, or both), I always come back to how lucky I was (and am) to have been invited to be a part of this extraordinary community and a school that possesses all of the qualities above. 

I feel so fortunate I found a career that has been so fulfilling for me and so many schools that embodied my educational philosophy!

I hope all of you have a wonderful, fun-filled holiday break and that if you reflect about what you’re thankful for, Trinity makes your list.



The very youngest children at the no-excuses charter school at which I taught all start their nine-hour school day in the same way: by reciting the school ‘creed.’

“I am a … scholar!” the children all chant in unison. One child lets out a giggle. He is immediately sent to the Silent Area.

I notice that one of my second-grade students is wearing one neon green sock, in stark defiance of the dress code. I am contractually obligated to order him to take it off or to send him to the dean. I smile and look away.

I turn my attention to the table of kindergartners next to me. They’re my favorite to watch, these tiny children who haven’t yet learned to be predictable.

Most mouth the words obediently: “Today is a step on my path toward success!” On cue, their little fists shoot into the air. But I am giggling. The kindergartner next to me didn’t say “path to success.” He said “path to recess.”

This school is obsessed with success. Its students chant about it daily; its walls are plastered with banner-sized recipes in bold fonts and bright colors. And its proponents claim that, because it has the highest test scores in the state, it has achieved it.

These test scores don’t tell the whole story, of course, but they are also not meaningless. The school’s youngest students— children of color from predominantly low-income families— can do a lot. These 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds who start each day by pumping their fists into the air while chanting about success are articulate in person and on the page; they are perspicacious readers and creative, rational mathematicians. The nine hours a day they spend in classrooms enable them to attain academic milestones earlier than their peers in more traditional school environments, where children spend six-hour school days engaged in less intense direct instruction and more play-based exploration.

If the early attainment of academic skills—coupled with constant, explicit messaging about the necessity of pursuing long-term goals—were a primary determinant of long-term success, it stands to reason that the young children at this “no-excuses” school would continue, unobstructed and ahead of the curve, on their “path to success.” But they don’t.

Once children at this school reach adolescence, many struggle. Their high school entrance exam percentiles are far lower than those of their state standardized tests, and they are not admitted in large numbers to the most selective high schools. At the high schools they do attend, they struggle: in their first semester, 81% of last year’s ninth graders earned below a 3.0 grade point average. These students— who have spent their entire educational careers, from kindergarten onward striving toward big long-term goals like “excellence” and “success” — aren’t graduating from college in large numbers. They aren’t excelling, and the extent to which they are even succeeding is debatable.

So why is this? Why do some children who learn to read earlier than their peers do so poorly in ways that matter later on? Why do children for whom every aspect of their education, from kindergarten onward, is tailored toward graduating from college often struggle to graduate from college?

Reflecting on my experiences teaching both at this school and at more traditional public schools, I find myself wondering if the methodology that enables young children to achieve so much so early actually hinders their long-term prospects. What if the struggles of graduates of “no excuses” schools reveal deficits that are not academic, but rather socio-emotional? What would happen if, instead of spending nine hours a day engaged in academic tasks determined by a teacher, children were to spend a large portion of their day developing “soft skills” that would enable them to overcome the hurdles they will encounter when they’re older? What if, like their suburban counterparts, they spent large portions of their day in rigorous, developmentally appropriate activities: learning to make friends, make art, and make believe, exploring and creating their interests and their identities?

That is, what if a necessary component of improving the long-term prospects of small children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not accelerating through childhood, but purposefully lingering in it?

To some, this approach might seem counter-intuitive: the earlier you board the train, say, the further you’ll go, and sooner.  This type of “sooner, faster, further” thinking goes astray when applied to education, however, because child development is both non-linear and marked by largely immutable landmarks. 

Pushing children to attain academic skills they will attain regardless— while depriving them of other, more developmentally appropriate activities that would enable them to succeed independently when they are older— is short-sighted at best.

Implementing a more developmentally appropriate curriculum for young children might result in lower test scores in the short term, but I suspect that its long-term effects— both in terms of test scores and more relevant measures of success— would compensate. (This solution, however, is admittedly incomplete; I suspect that in order to set children living in poverty on a true “path to success,” communities require resources and support that no school on its own is capable of providing.)

Maybe, though, letting small children linger in childhood would endow them with more of the real skills necessary to STAY FOCUSED ON ACHIEVING EXCELLENCE. Maybe, in the long run, it would better enable them to MAKE SMART CHOICES. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Cultural Competence

This week’s article summary is  How Schools Can Improve Their Students' Cultural Competence

The article resonated for me because it focused on the interrelation of the two most critical aspects of our personality--our sense of self (agency) and our sense of others (communion)—in becoming culturally competence.

Cultural competence is the ability to embrace, understand, and work productively with those who are different from you. 

Cultural competence begins with understanding who we are and then reflecting on how our identity “creates a lens through which we view the world.”

Understanding what shapes us and what we believe and value can help us become better listeners, less judgmental of others, and more open to the pluralism of our country and the world at large.

As we all know, today’s world is much different compared to 10, 20, or 50 years ago, and students today are growing up in a much more multicultural, heterogeneous world, much different from the homogeneity of my childhood in the 1960s. 

This may seem unbelievable in 2016, but I vividly recall as a fifth grader being amazed when a new boy in my class told me he was Jewish and his parents were divorced. This was my first experience with a household that didn’t have a mom and dad and someone who wasn’t at least nominally Christian. That night I’m sure my parents wondered what had gotten into me when I asked them to explain both Judaism and divorce.

My insular, sheltered life was the norm back then as many of us grew up in a neighborhood and attended a school where everyone looked and acted alike. Opportunities to learn about differences, let alone multiculturalism, were quite limited.

Although there is still much neighborhood and school insularity and homogeneity in America (cue to Tuesday’s election), the modern workplace has become much more diverse and multicultural—hence, the importance of becoming culturally competent. (Yes, for many it’s the moral thing to do, but for everyone it’s a essential need for professional success.)

Becoming culturally competent is in some ways very simple yet in others quite daunting. 

It’s more about embracing an inquisitive and non-judgmental mindset than having to follow a set of instructions. 

Yet even with an open attitude, most of us still fret about offending others when exploring difference, are loath to face and work through our explicit and implicit biases, and by nature and habit are more comfortable with and favorable toward those who think, act, and even look like us (cue again to Tuesday’s election results).

Our job as teachers is to help our students not only develop a solid sense of self and others but to embrace and thrive in and to contribute positively to an ever more interconnected, pluralistic, and multicultural world (cue a final time to Tuesday’s election).



We live in an increasingly pluralistic society where people run up against the thoughts and beliefs of others more and more frequently.

Helping children learn to navigate the space between what they believe and what others believe is perhaps one of the best ways we can overcome the hate we see in so many facets of our society today.

Cultural competence isn’t tolerance. It’s not that easy. Cultural competence is not simply ensuring that your school has a rich and varied Black History Month or letting students start a Gay-Straight Alliance -- although those can be powerfully important pieces of a culturally competent school.
Cultural competence means first understanding that we all come to school with our sense of who we are, and that unless we are reflective about our own identity and how it creates a lens through which we view the world, we will not be able to honor the identities of others.

But that is only the beginning of cultural competence. As we go through the process of understanding who we are, we also have to listen deeply to those around us to understand who they are and what their experiences are, so that we can relate to them fully as people, without preconceived notions of what it means to have an identity that is different -- or even the same -- as ours.

And it means subjecting the processes of our schools to what we learn when we listen, always working to ensure that our schools are accessible to all, equitable for all.

There’s no shortcut or checklist to building cultural competence, and it isn’t something you ever really get good at -- you just strive to get better at it. Being aware and responsive and listening in ways that ensure all members of the community feel that who they are -- all facets of their identities -- are welcome and safe is something that requires constant work. But there are questions you can ask yourself that can serve to move you toward a more aware, more just school community.
  • Do I seek out and listen to a diverse group of voices when making decisions?
  • Do I allow myself to be vulnerable in our school community? Do others feel safe letting me know when I make a mistake -- especially when that mistake comes from a lack of cultural competence?
  • Do I work to ensure that there is not one standard of excellence, but rather multiple pathways for students to have academic and social success?
  • Do I intentionally use anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, and explicitly accepting language?

It has become a cliché to cite Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” But that quote is at the heart of cultural competence. It is not enough to be tolerant of the diversity of our school communities. It is not enough to be accepting of the wide range of human experience in our schools. We must embrace it. We must truly love all who inhabit our schools, and we can only do that when we seek to understand every individual and the identities we all bring to school every day.

When we do that -- when we aspire to that ideal and model that aspiration to all in our schools, we can teach students to be as loving and as aware as they can be. And if we do that, maybe we can teach our children that the hatred that would cause someone to use an ethnic slur in our hallways or to reject a student’s right to go to the bathroom of their gender identification is the same hatred behind the slaughter of 50 people at a gay dance club in Orlando.

And maybe we can teach our children that they should never choose hate, only love.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Three Cheers for Elementary School!

Although the article is specific to Great Britain’s hierarchical top down educational system, the message applies to us "across the pond."

The author lauds primary (elementary) schools for having the “purest form” of education:
  • Focusing on the whole child, not just on subjects and their content
  • Extending the natural imagination and curiosity of children
  • Making learning meaningful and relevant to children (the topic of last week’s article summary on sex education in middle and high schools)
As we know, elementary years are crucial in that they develop foundational habits, attitudes, and skills needed for subsequent success and happiness, but the author points out that systemic educational decisions too often are geared towards the needs and wants of high schools and student preparation for college entrance exams. Elementary schools are rarely asked to comment on or to shape educational policy in terms of program and pedagogy.

The author places some of the blame on us. He feels elementary schools devote too much time thinking (and explaining) how they prepare their students for the next level. While to him “all education is preparatory”, other divisions (middle, upper, college, graduate school) are never abashed to advocate the importance of their years not just as preparatory but for the moment.

The author's call to action for elementary schools is to be more vocal on the national stage about how children learn best, to fight to define educational success beyond national exam results, to advocate for more open inquiry and self-discovery/exploration in classrooms, and to make others see these crucial learning years as important as any other division.

And as the author and we elementary educators know, we have a lot to offer about what optimizes student learning and development!



When we consider our nation’s peculiar obsession with hierarchy, and the social stratification of society, it is not surprising that the same malaise of looking at everything from top down affects education as well. 

One consequence of seeing the world this way is that junior schools are often seen as being in thrall of their senior colleagues, relying on them to take the lead in national debates and to make decisions on education matters on behalf of us all.

With their smaller constituencies and profile, it is inevitable that junior schools in both sectors struggle to be heard with anything like the same volume, even though they are the homeland for much of the acquisition of knowledge and skills, attitudes, and values that determine a child’s success in later years. 

These are the years where education resides in its purest form, where foundations are put down, and focus is on the all-round development of the child.

Apart from the fact that it is in the junior years that children learn most of what they know and where children spend the majority of their school years, this is the time when teachers can focus on children and their development, free from national exams that strangle so much initiative and creativity.

This is when children can learn independence, the purpose of education - which is to embed the habit of life-long learning -  how to study and how to acquire proper work habits and attitudes; a time to ask questions, however tangential, before that time when they are told, hush, it’s not on the exam syllabus so it doesn’t matter.

Information, knowledge, advice should go both ways, but primarily from the bottom up. I was never more aware of this than when I moved from teaching in a junior to a senior school. I saw the focus shift from the student to the subject with little inquiry - or interest - in what went before or in the psychology of how children learn.

Junior schools need to be more active in sharing ideas and take a lead in where education is heading.  They need to be proactive, not reactive; leaders rather than followers; innovators, contributing to change, rather than locked in the present.

They need to celebrate their own strengths and the importance of their role, not as ‘preparatory’ to another stage of education - for all education is preparatory - but as the most influential, most important and most dynamic time in a child’s life.

This is the challenge for all junior schools: to project their voice on the issues that affect our children’s future, drawing on their considerable and diverse experience.

The other challenge, more difficult in our hierarchical world, and not so easily solved, is then getting someone to listen.