Friday, July 17, 2015

A Curious Teacher - Part One

Not so long ago, I was given a copy of A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life written by Brian Grazer. Now, admittedly this book was not written for educators or with the intent of being considered an education text. However, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but see so many parallels to teaching as well as potential implications for the way we work with children. The very premise of the book is the role curiosity plays in our lives and how simply acknowledging it as an important element of one’s self can lead to a richer and more full life. Specifically, I think Grazer makes a few points in which I think can influence the work of educators. I wish to delve into these ideas here as well as in what I anticipate will be future posts on the topic of curiosity in schools. 

Through Grazer’s life he found curiosity to be a key competent to success and happiness. He describes it in many ways and recognizes it can look different from individual to individual. However, he used his own curiosity to find ways to have what he called curiosity conversations with many people throughout his life. From Fidel Castro and Ron Howard to 50 Cent and Howard Zinn, Grazer has sat down and talked with some of the most influential, powerful, successful and interesting people in the world. His curiosity drove him to seek these individuals out to see what made them “tick” but also to gain insight into the role curiosity plays in our world and how it can manifest in many different ways. 

Again, A Curious Mind is not an education text nor do I think Grazer’s attempt was to influence educators specifically. However, he does take a direct shot at the lack of curiosity in our schools when he shares the following thoughts:

“The classroom should be a vineyard of questions, a place to cultivate them, to learn both how to ask them and how to chase down the answers. Some classrooms are. But in fact, curiosity is often treated with the same regard in school as it was in the Garden of Eden. Especially with the recent proliferation of standardized testing, questions can derail the lockstep framework of the day’s lesson plan; sometimes teachers don’t know the answers themselves. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would hope, but authentic curiosity in a typical seventh-grade classroom isn’t cultivated - because it’s inconvenient and disruptive to the orderly running of the class” (Grazer, 2015).

I reread this section many times and reflected on my experience as both a teacher and a parent. How many times did I push a kid’s question aside because I needed to “get through” the content or the lesson of the day? What have I done to discourage questions born out of curiosity because I didn’t have the time or the knowledge to answer them? Worse still is how my classroom has at times been a place that discourages questions due to the environment or instructional pacing. My own children have come home full of questions that have gone unanswered in their own classrooms. While I don’t blame their teachers, I do wonder if rigid curriculum maps and testing prep regimens are pushing curiosity out and further standardization in. 

There is certainly movement to get kids to use curiosity and guide their learning utilizing that curiosity. This has come in the form of Innovation Days and Genius Hours. Yet, are those enough? Can we say that a child can only be a genius or innovative during one day or one set period of time a week? Maybe we don’t want innovators or geniuses but rather children and adults who are curious and constantly asking questions to make sense of the world around them. Children at young ages are incessantly curious and yet something happens and that feeling erodes over time. Maybe it’s maturity or maybe it is something unintentionally or intentionally done in our schools. How can we foster curiosity in our students so they seek knowledge and understanding rather than simply grades and scores?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thank You Mr. Smith

This post was originally shared a while back. However, as the end of the school year rolls around I wanted to take time to share again as much of what Mr. Smith does is hugely impactful at the end of the school year.

As a teacher you are lucky if you find yourself teaching in a building with inspirational and influential people. In this area, I feel incredibly fortunate due to the high number of people that would fit this description in my building. However, there is one teacher that stands above the rest for me personally. He has inspired me to write this post that I hope to serve as a thank you to him as well as a learning opportunity for others. I will not use his real name for both personal and professional reasons.

This particular teacher, Mr. Smith, teaches the kids that many others don’t want to, or simply can’t handle. These students are difficult, to put it mildly, and make up the so called “E-D” population which are students with a host of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. His caseload ranges from year to year and fluctuates in both numbers and intensity of needs and he has been at it for 25+ years. Many of the students that walk through his classroom doors have witnessed and experienced things that most people will never see in a lifetime. Without going into great details, Mr. Smith’s students often are known by the local police departments, hospitals, social workers, and armies of therapists. In any given year his students will come and go due to hospitalizations at treatment centers or problems with the “law”.

Press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection

What amazes me most about Mr. Smith is that he is like a prize fighter that gets his bell rung nearly every single day and yet keeps getting right back up. I have witnessed kids screaming at him and cussing him out while throwing classroom furniture. Yet, within minutes of these altercations, he is there rebuilding the relationship and providing the love and support these kids so desperately need. It is often a thankless job that largely goes unnoticed by other students and staff, who routinely try to avoid his room for fear of what is happening down in “Room 13”.

I have spoken and written often about my belief in relationships being the key to a successful teacher-student relationship. Much of my feelings and beliefs have come from the dreaded Room 13. When Mr. Smith’s often hair trigger students are having a bad day, he will dance and sing a “Grumpercism” which is one of his many creations to help his students crack a smile and relieve the tension. He will literally do anything for his students who are those that struggle the most with authority and the general institution that is public school. It is very easy to talk about relationship building and supporting kids in a so called “normal” class. However, teachers like Mr. Smith prove it can be done in the most difficult of spaces and takes away any excuses the rest of us might have.

What are you doing to build relationships with your students? Do you connect with the kids that are difficult and often pushed to the side? What about the kids that scream, yell, and throw furniture? Do you build relationships with them as well? What about the students in your building that are in “room 13”, do you take the time to know them, understand them, and have empathy for them?

Lots of educational talking heads keep saying we are “Waiting for Superman”. I am not. I work two doors down from him every day and I along with many other teachers in my building are better because of it. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Summer Slide

Inevitably conversations will begin to arise in teacher’s lounges across the country about how to avoid the summer slide. Brochures for summer school will be handed out and in some cases summer homework will be assigned. Teachers and parents alike will be worried about their children and students losing their hard earned progress from the soon to be ending school year. The summer slide will be on everyone’s mind and yet our focus may be on the wrong type of summer slide. 

As I walk the halls of school, I am already hearing the whispers and giggles about plans being made for a summer of camps and s'mores or vacations and parties. Kids are counting down the days to freedom and fun with their friends and family. I myself am looking forward to my annual road trip with just me and my sons. It is a time of bonding, fun and memory making that I cherish greatly. Yet, there are many students who are not taking part in these conversations and excitement about the end of the school year approaching. For them, the summer means something completely different. 

Rather than attending camps, some students will be at home caring for younger siblings because their parents are working or absent for other unknown reasons. Others will be forgoing any vacations because their parent(s) are barely able to survive paycheck to paycheck. Still others will be left to their own devices and roam the streets because there are no adults or family members around to care for them. Some of the students in our classes will go home to abusive or unloving homes with no joy or happiness. Even worse are those who don’t have a home at all to go home to. 

For these students, and many others, the countdown to the end of the school year is filled with fear and anxiety. For them, school is the best part of their day and often the bright spot in their life. They cherish every moment they are with their peers and caring teachers. The thought of taking  break from that is heart wrenching for some which often leads to misbehavior and acting out in the final days. 

With this in mind, don’t count down the last days of school. Instead, seek out those kids who you can see struggling to let go and fearing the unknown of summer. Support them and encourage them in anyway you can. Make plans to connect over the summer if even through an email or a postcard. For them the summer slide is not about a dip in reading scores but a drop in access to safety, security and love. 

Take a few minutes this summer and send that postcard or email to let them know you care and are looking forward to seeing them again in the fall. It may just be the thing to get them through their summer slide. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Teacher Appreciation

Teacher appreciation week is a great week to be a teacher. Lounges are filled with the smell of bagels and donuts supplied by thoughtful parents. Lunches are catered in and appreciative administrators pick up the tab. Students bring in treats and notes of thanks that never fail to bring smiles to teacher’s faces. Family members fill their social media walls with cute posters about how much they love teachers and support their work. It really is a great week and one I always look forward to. Yet, I wonder if there might be a better way to show appreciation for teachers in our country.

Instead of bringing in treats that add to our waistline, how about sending a letter to your state representatives asking for full funding for our schools? While sharing those cute posters about how much you love teachers on Facebook is nice, how about sharing something to raise aware about the absurdity of standardized testing? While I love the Starbucks gift cards as much as the next teacher, I would rather see that money used to fund a project for students on Donors Choose. Instead of the luncheons how about administrators do something to truly show their staff how appreciated they are?

While I love teacher appreciation week, I wonder if we as parents and community members can be doing more. This is not to say teachers are incapable of doing things themselves but they/we need help. Nor are they ungrateful for the gifts and nice comments and notes. Teachers work tirelessly to provide the best possible education for our students but it takes a village. We all need help with moving the needle of change in education to ensure our schools are the best possible learning environments they can be.  

I love my children’s teachers and my gratitude for the work they do will likely never be fully realized by them. Yes, my wife and I sent in treats and gifts. However, I also sent yet another letter to our state representatives asking for our schools to be fully funded and share content to raise awareness about school issues. I am donating to a Donor’s Choose project I believe will impact children in a deserving school. What will you do to show your children’s teachers how much you appreciate them and their work?

Thursday, April 30, 2015


Recently in my Language Arts class we watched a TED talk by a young man who was talking about hacked education. At the beginning of his TED talk he was discussing the question kid are always asked which is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Naturally kids will say things such as lawyer, doctor, fireman, policeman or some other occupation. Yet this young man said that the answer to that question should be pretty simple. When asked what you want to be when you grow up the answer should be, “happy”. I find this very interesting and refreshing that this young man answered the question in that way. I would hope anyone regardless of his or her age would have the same answer.

It then got me thinking about the work we do in schools and if we focus too much on college and career readiness and not enough on joy and happiness. We all know the crazy that we are in with testing and standards and all the other nonsense that we deal with as teachers. If I have one more meeting where we discuss the importance of data driven decisions, I just might toss the cookies. As any teacher knows, we don’t have control over much of what policy makers and local administrators demand we do. Many things we just have to get through and deal with as part of the job.

With that being said, we can take the approach of complaining about those things we can’t control or take advantage of those things we can. For starters, we have tremendous control over the activities we do in our class on a daily basis.  We also have nearly complete control over the environment of our class and how kids feel while they are with us. Most importantly, it is within our control how we interact and build relationships with students. With this in mind we truly can help a kid be happy or at least make a significant impact.

I try to think about my own children and how happy and joyful they are when they are at home. When my youngest entered first grade, his teacher asked what our goals for him were for the school year. My wife wanted to put something down about improving his reading and math skills. I convinced her to write on that sheet that our goal for our son was that he left first grade as happy and as excited about school as he was when he entered it. A teacher or a school should never extinguish kids’ joy and happiness about learning and life. Lighting and protecting that spark of joy and happiness should be every teacher’s goal for every student.

I wonder if we do enough to make kids happy or allow them to pursue learning that makes them happy. I am an advocate for choice, autonomy and passion driven learning and yet I am often a slave to the curriculum and the standards. There is only so much a teacher can do and yet many of the small things can help spread that joy and bring happiness to a child. For more kids than we willingly admit, school is the best part of their life. There is often little joy and happiness in their home lives. Yet, while they are with us at school we can do everything in our power to ensure it is a positive and joyful experience.

What are you doing to bring joy and happiness to the students in your school? Seriously…leave a comment and share as we can all use some joyful and happy stories.