How do we move from a set of data to an action step in a classroom? (Student Writing as Data)

I believe it is very important for teachers to be regarded as intellectuals who can assess their students and respond to students’ needs effectively. I am passionate about teaching writing, and I want my students to appreciate the craft of writing and the liberation it provides to express oneself. To that end, one important source of formative assessment data is student writing.

Let me provide two examples of how I have used student writing as formative assessment data to inform classroom practice:

1) Responding to writing skills:

As an English teacher, reviewing student writing provides insights into their strengths and weaknesses with written expression. A recurring weakness that I have assessed with many students has been with the quality of body paragraphs when writing essays. Students often struggle with selecting relevant evidence to support their thesis, contextualizing the evidence properly, and analyzing the evidence in deep and meaningful ways. To address this, over the past couple of years, I have consulted with mentors, reviewed literature on the teaching of writing (especially Teaching for Joy and Justice), and continually reflected on my instruction. This process has led to the following exercise that I now work on with my students:

Making Your Writing Meaningful - Direct Quote Analysis

By practicing this process with students, we learn to how to access deep thoughts that all the students are capable of producing. Body paragraphs become more robust, and our problem becomes crafting and carefully selecting the best out of how much they have to say rather than not having much to say at all.

2) Responding to writing content:

An equally powerful way to use student writing as data to inform class instruction is by reading what they have to say about the course and the curriculum. In a critically engaged classroom, topics we cover can be controversial, and students need chances to express their thoughts on the content and have their perspectives heard. Towards the end of a unit, creating space for students to simply respond to the following prompts can elicit valuable data about how to adapt the curriculum moving forward:
  • What part of the previous unit resonated with you the most? Why?
  • What would you want to explain to others who have not had this course?
  • What questions do you still have?
Recently, I asked these questions to my seniors in our Gender and Literature course. We had just spent the previous month discussing perspectives on gender around femininity, masculinity, and other gender identities. Any one of these topics could have merited an entire course. Nevertheless, introductions to these topics accompanied with selected Ted Talks provided a meaningful foundation for students to enhance their “Critical Gender Lens” when reading literature. (A “Critical Gender Lens” asks the question, “In what ways does this story reinforce, critique, or challenge existing definitions of masculinity, femininity, or androgyny?)

The responses I received from students revealed a variety of questions, anxieties, inspirations, and perspectives that are important for me to understand and navigate as we continue the course. I read the perspectives of deeply religious students who have a strict adherence to gender as binary; I read the perspectives of transgender students who wanted to learn more about gender ambiguous identities; I read perspectives of young women who saw the importance of men being part of the feminist movement; I read perspectives of young men who realized ways in which their emotional identities have been stunted.

All of this is invaluable information for me to continue the curriculum and manage the relationships in the classroom. To respond to their writing, a strategy I often use from the Philadelphia Writing Project is to select one sentence from each reflection to write out into a paragraph. I will present this paragraph to the students for them all to see the variety of perspectives in the classroom. I know that each student gets excited to hear their sentence when we read it aloud, and it lets them know that I value their voices in the classroom. Going forward, I know the types of topics and questions that would be highly engaging for the students to design lessons around, and I am looking into inviting experts on gender into the classroom to interact with the students.

How do we "Humanize" Data (An Eagles Super Bowl Reflection)

To "humanize" data, we must remember that in schools, we are ultimately working for humans: our students. As we organize our classrooms and schools to serve them, we know that our students carry all of the complexities, emotions, and backgrounds that life has to offer. Therefore, to understand how to support our students and help them grow, they must be more than a collection of literacy and a math scores. Of course, we all want them to be literate and numerate, and we do not need to separate that from their humanity and emotional health. In schools, all students need to feel valued, appreciated, and recognized as members of a community. When they feel valued as a member of the school community, they are more likely to work with us to perform at their best.

To draw a comparison with football in honor of the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, I’d like to compare head coach Doug Pederson to the previous coach, Chip Kelly. Chip Kelly was known as a data-driven coach guided by “sports science.” He had players track the amount of sleep they had at night and submit urine samples, which ultimately led to personalized smoothies corresponding to this data input. All of this was for the players to perform better.

Now, all of this “personalized smoothie” business may in fact be beneficial. However, when the process of sports science (or any “data driven” initiative) overshadows the humanity of the players, performance will not advance. Chip was notorious for being detached and aloof. He did not have a positive relationship with his team.

In contrast, when Doug Pederson entered as head coach, he prioritized relationships and the building of a positive culture in the locker room. He created a team that wanted to play for each other and for him. Many players referenced the fact that he had been a journeyman player in the NFL and therefore knew what they go through as men in the league. He understood the pressure to perform and the many distractions players face. To that end, he would frequently treat the players to ice cream after film sessions. If you don’t believe me, just watch:

Now, I am not trying to suggest that Doug Pederson was somehow “anti-data.” As a coach, he was still deeply focused on data to develop game plans and offensive strategy. However, he balanced all of the attention to data, strategy, and hard work that is involved with coaching a team with his relationships with the players to promote a sense of community that was critical to the team’s success. He never lost sight of his team as a group of humans...who probably enjoy ice cream.

As teachers and administrators, the humanity of our students and the sense of community in our schools should never be displaced because of standardized testing data. It is important to note that this is not an “either-or” problem. We can strategically address the student achievement of our schools while we build community and validate our students’ humanity...perhaps, with some ice cream.


Philosophy and Purpose

I told my students this week that I am excited to teach this year because of the philosophy and purpose that I am bringing to the classroom. This philosophy and purpose is the result of new learning and reflecting that I did this summer and my years of experience as a teacher. I shared this philosophy and purpose with my students and collected their responses. I took a sentence from each student's response and rewrote them in one paragraph in no particular order. Underneath each paragraph are six word stories that groups wrote in response to an image of freedom. Students also created a group tableau to complement their story. I'll be sharing these responses with students this week. I hope we can live up to these expectations!

Student Responses to English Class Philosophy and Purpose

To educate and be educated by and with one another to liberate minds, find peace, and participate in the validation, humanization, and freedom of each other and all people.

This motivated me to take partners and sources I have to work with into my hands as a gift and not to waste it. Everybody will get a chance to use their mind and share their opinion. You didn’t answer simple questions that you stated in the paper, which makes me curious. I think it might take some getting used to, but it will work most likely. Give another person a new way to think, and give them another path to open and explore. I like listening to other people’s answers or questions. When I do, I get a better answer or deeper understanding. This philosophy basically mean to respect, support, and think about yourself and others. This shows that all people can have freedom for each other and can fight for it. As a teacher, do you assume that we’re not at peace? Because as a student, I can tell you, I am not at peace. Be FREE. LOVE YOURSELF. Why are we here? No matter who you are or how you look, you should still be treated respectfully and get the same amount of education. I’m not sure how finding peace fits in with everything else. Approved and Disapproved by society. To liberate minds inspired me along with finding peace. To work together and help each other. The philosophy is similar to the one I use when I want to learn. Finding peace can be difficult for people. I think it gives us the right to use our voice, share our opinions, and share who we are to others. PEACE.

These chains won’t hold me back.
Freedom, let us have a voice.
Faith’s attempting to leap to freedom.
We are all in invisible cages.
Freedom can give you many different emotions.
Be free and don’t be stopped.

FREE. The cup of freedom, love, and peace is English class. Teach me too. The philosophy motivates me to speak my mind and respect other opinions. How could this course free or liberate us when our opinions vary? What motivates me is the freedom of all people and each other. I love peace and being nice to people. I’m curious because I never had a teacher that can learn something from the students. I’m curious about how to want to learn from us. “The Passing of Knowledge.” One thing that motivates me is that we aren’t just learning reading concepts; we are reading to serve a higher purpose in the world. FIND PEACE. I’m curious about what may be going on. I wish to change the paradigms that society has on me. The liberation of my mind motivates me to be more socially and academically involved in everything around me. I connect to teaching the teacher and liberating minds. At SLA, the students get a lot more freedom. Everyone is still learning, and as a society we should teach one another and set an example. I feel that everyone should be free.This philosophy is something that motivates me because it motivates me to do more. I believe everyone has the right to be treated equally and fairly. Some people have freedom, but in some ways they do not. You can feel free to speak your mind without anyone judging you. You have the right to speak your mind. Everybody needs FREEDOM.

Freedom is the right to soar.
He will never truly be free.
He escaped to the promised land.
Finally free, but something’s left behind.
You sovereign yourself, others will not.
The fish is jumping for independence.

Sand pit of misrepresentation, inaccuracy, misinformation. Learning from other people is learning a new way of thinking, and is something that really captivates my attention. To me, it means that we will be doing a lot of critical thinking and not just on a specific topic but multiple. I think muslims and people of color, black people especially, need to be humanized and freed. I connect with the idea of learning from others about their view of race and the whole thing going on with the police. If everyone was to follow this philosophy, I think everyone would do great in English. We, as human beings, have to learn from each other, in order to evolve into a better people as a whole. I would like to create freedom within my own mind so I can be proud of my education and everything possible with it. I am not motivated and excited to do more work like this. I think it will be a great learning experience for the entire classroom. This motivated me to stop being so judgemental and see people for who they truly are. It gives me a vision of human society working together in order to have a life full of education and freedom. No one is perfect or knows everything, so when I hear what they have to say, I se back and reflect. I connect to the deep thought and questioning part of this philosophy. It’s important to be open to learning new ideas and being open minded in general. It can be related to a range of topics: racism, sexism, feminism, immigration, stereotypes, and many more. We also need more peace and less fights because it’s just making the earth worse. Finding peace inspires and motivates me because I feel as though that is something everyone needs to work on. To me that quote was very powerful and it really makes you think. This brings me to the idea that this course is the course that would effectively turn us into real life people. The ones who are responsible for their actions. I think finding peace has a lot of meanings, which helps me get excited about that. That even motivates me to keep thinking, to not give up on me thoughts until I get a good idea of what the picture really means. You’re human. I have noticed the intellect and chemistry we have as a class. This could help people understand that life itself has a purpose to who we choose to be.

Man feels overjoyed when finally liberated.
To be free you must fly.
Everyone should have the same rights.
Freedom is a way of life.
I escaped one problem to another.
It’s the time to break free.
There’s nothing better than having wings.

Images we responded to:







Picture of one of the group tableaus complementing their six word story, which was inspired by one of the images:


Participants in the Classroom and Learning to be a Mentor

Today was the first day I handed over the reigns of my classroom to a student teacher. I was excited and anxious, but also very confident in her ability in the classroom. This is my sixth year of teaching, and while I am still learning and growing, it was the first time I felt confident enough to help develop and train another teacher. Fortunately for both of us, I have been receiving some mentorship of my own this year from a retired school district teacher, whom I had met during my master's program. We maintained the mentoring relationship because every time he visits, I take away new insights and become more intellectually engaged in my work. He is also just a great guy.

This mentorship has been fortunate for my student teacher and I because he modeled for me how I could mentor and work with my student teacher. My student teacher was even present last week when he visited two of my lessons and reflected with me over lunch.

What stands out about the insights that he shares about my teaching is the deep recognition of just how complex a classroom and a lesson is. He takes the ideas that I had for assignments or project steps two or three steps further than I initially imagine. He is able to see through what I now recognize as "classroom tasks and busywork" to identify the essence of my lesson and what should be focused on and addressed with class time. Initially, I thought this was some kind of magic power he possessed, but he assured me that it would get easier.

I have come to realize that he is able to see these things because his mind is completely present during the lesson and his attention is focused on the meaning that is being constructed between myself and the students in that room at that time. In every classroom, everyday, meaning is inevitably being constructed. However, the meaning that the students are constructing and the goals or objectives of the lesson are often at odds with each other because the students are not robots, and we cannot just insert the curriculum into their brains. Learning is a social process and the meaning and knowledge that exists in every classroom is dynamic. It takes a lot of patience and presence of mind to truly be with your students during each lesson and to be a participant in constructing meaning with them. We are guiding them through a process of inquiring, inferring, and reflecting, and we play an important role as these guides, but we cannot predetermine what is going to happen. While there is a lot we can anticipate and plan for, we still have to be patient participants in the construction of knowledge during each lesson.

I am so glad to have been engaged with this classroom perspective because I feel much more confident with how to mentor my student teacher. As I watched her teach, I took notes and observations about what was happening. Much of this was objective. I took note of student behaviors, comments made in class, the teacher's directions, even her tone of voice. I was able to "see through" the lesson to take note of what was really happening with the concepts that she had presented.

These notes led to a wonderful reflection after the lesson. We spent time discussing what happened and sought to understand what was happening during the different moments of the lesson, especially during the more challenging and confusing ones. We thought about what could be changed or done differently. Why did certain things happen? What meaning was actually being constructed? It was a refreshing and uplifting reflection for both of us. What was refreshing about it was that at no time were we discussing how to control, manage, or discipline students. It was completely around how to engage them in a process of inquiry with us.

This is the type of professional development that is uplifting as a teacher. It makes my classroom a more interesting space to be in each day, and I see my students as brilliant kids who want to learn if I can provide the space and the modeling for them to do so.

I hope to continue down this path with my student teacher. I feel as if I'll be learning as much as she is.


Reflection on the First Day of Teaching of 2015: Learning is Fun :)

This is my sixth year teaching. Each year, one of the most difficult days to wake up has been the day we return from winter break.

This year was no different.

After a week of sleeping in, indulging during the holidays on fun with friends and family and delicious cookies, it is difficult to rouse from bed to meet the cold, dark January morning.

While it was hard for me to get up and back into my morning routine, I was able to have a really positive first day back to start 2015. In the past, the journey from January to March has occasionally felt like drudgery, and if that is how I was feeling, I can only imagine what my students were experiencing. Therefore, I made a conscious effort to return to the classroom today with a positive attitude with what  made me passionate about teaching from the outset of my career: that learning is fun.

During the course of the school year, especially with all of the various pressures we experience as teachers in the current education climate, it can be difficult to maintain the idealism that I believe brought most teachers to the profession: their passion for learning and the opportunity to share that learning with others. We all find when we enter our careers and begin teaching several classes a day for 180 days is that it is difficult to "hit it out of the park" on a daily basis. The world is bigger than our classrooms, and we, along with our students, lead complex lives. Nevertheless, I made a conscious effort to be excited about my lesson today. I called upon the passion I have for discussing literature and the essential connections it makes to our lives and the joy of sharing that those connections with my students. Because of this attitude, I had fun today, and I think my students did too.

As a new teacher, I had access to this plenty of this idealistic energy. Unfortunately, we all face the reality of a system of education that rarely supports or develops idealistic learning efforts, which is one of the reasons why we have such a high burn out rate among teachers.

Therefore, as I continue to refine and develop my skills as an educator, I plan on continuing to tap into the intellectual curiosity that brought me to teaching. I can't ever lose sight of this. Whenever I plan a unit and a lesson, am I excited to teach it and learn with the students? If not, I need to go back to the drawing board.


Reframing the "Civil Rights Issue of Our Time": A Brief Reflection of WE Annual Convention

On Saturday, November 8, 2014, the Caucus of Working Educators of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers hosted their first annual convention. I attended the opening plenary and the first workshop. It was a positive atmosphere consisting of various stakeholders of public education who wanted to think critically about what is going on in schools in America.

The opening plenary by keynote speaker Dr. Yohuru Williams of Howard University was insightful and energetic. The central message of his speech significantly reframed how I think about education reform today. I will try to summarize some of the key points that contributed to this reframing:

He explained that education is identified by many today to be the "civil rights issue of our time." While it is true that education is a complex and contentious issue, and while it is true that too many children in America are not receiving a a fair or adequate education, it is imprecise to say that "education is the civil rights issue of our time."

It would be more precise to say that "Poverty is the civil rights issue of our time, and poor education is a symptom of this critical civil rights issue."

Education is a hugely important issue that all stakeholders, which is everyone in society, should be invested in trying to make better. Neverthless, when we look at education as the civil rights issue, and we try to solve the ills of our education system from this vantage point, then we are looking at the issue with too narrow a lens. The solutions that derive from this perspective will be incomplete and generally incoherent: like using a band-aid to cure a broken arm. If we do not find ways to solve poverty in our country, whereby poor communities are increasingly concentrated and segregated from the rest of society, then we will not find the "magic lesson plan" to make all our schools better. In addition, within our American context, we cannot forget that there are many children who are being phenomenally well educated in our country.

By reframing the narrative of struggling schools within the appropriate context of an often unequal and unjust society, it will be possible to think more clearly about how all stakeholders in communities play roles in collaborating in the development of better schools and better communities for all students and families. While I believe it is important to take this broader approach to the analysis of struggling schools, this is not meant to fuel ideological bigotry and finger pointing; I simply think it is the appropriate way to approach creative thinking for real solutions to the education problems we face as a nation.


Confucianism and the Purpose of Education

The Analects, Book III
What timeless and universal values exist in Confucianism that can inform teaching and learning in my life and classroom?

Book III of the Analects is believed by some scholars to be among the oldest stratum of all of the books of the Analects (p. 21). As I reread these analects of book III, the motif of good moral character and integrity continued to be emphasized. For example, it was important to know the correct process and methodology for performing ritual acts, but that knowledge only took you so far. What was just as important, was that ritual acts be carried out with proper reverence and sincerity. In book III, analect 12, it states, "Of the saying, 'the word "sacrifice" is like the word "present"; one should sacrifice to a spirit as though that spirit was present,' the Master said, If I am not present at the sacrifice, it is as though there were no sacrifice."

The "presence" mentioned here is the reverent and sincere presence of the soul of the one doing the sacrifice. The same applies to mourning rituals. It is essential that the individual in the process of mourning is in the right attitude and spirit. 

The emphasis on character has renewed an inquiry of mine around the purpose of education in schools. Today, the purpose of schools is to have students meet certain standards that have been agreed upon by the state or country. Students must know how to make inferences from various texts, use equations to solve problems, write essays, understand science, etc. But what do these standards really yield?

What would Confucius say if he saw the standards used to guide and assess the practice in our schools?

He might say, "Yes! Of course these standards and skills you have outlined here are good and useful. I agree that young people can and should learn some of these skills in the process of their upbringing, but they are not the purpose of an education! The purpose of an education is to raise moral men and women of integrity with knowledge of their past to understand and face their present and future."

I am left thinking, "What are the causes and experiences that someone has to become a learned person?" Like any institution or company, how that company defines itself and its purpose for existence has a great effect upon what that institution or company produces, and our defined purpose for our schools does not seem to make much sense. How else could we define the purpose for the existence of schools instead of a list of decontextualized standards?

This makes me think of my time student-teaching in Sweden. In Sweden, I actually experienced a very pragmatic and objective culture, and the education system reflected these traits. Their schooling "made sense" in the sense that each stage of a person's education led to something pretty concrete. At around 16, students made decisions about what kind of school they would enter to progress towards an actual job to participate in society. I saw schools for hair stylists, construction workers, plumbers, and dancers. By 16, students were very much engaged in an education that would have a very concrete impact on their life, and they were engaged

Right now, as a high school teacher, I am told to work with students to achieve standards that will make them prepared for college and career readiness. This is how the purpose of my job is defined. What does that mean, "college and career ready"? What kind of college? What kind of career? What would it mean to prepare them for such a broad and undefined future?

What it then seems like I am asked to do is to equip students with a set of discrete skills that they might use someday. Does that mission really make sense? Can't we be doing more with our students right now that could be useful and meaningful to them and to society?

I think what many good teachers come to realize is that the practice of teaching and learning has so much more to do than this transfer of skills and knowledge, as if that is even possible. Authentic teaching and learning deals with the student as a real human being, not a robot. It is our mission to raise and develop students of good moral character and integrity, who can actually do and produce things that make and change our world.  

What would happen if we redefined the way we conceptualize the current paradigm of schools? It takes an ability to step back from the bickering around education policy and consider what really matters and what is actually happening in our schools and society.


Reflection of Teachers Lead Philly Summer Institute

The past three days, I attended an institute with Teachers Lead Philly. We asked ourselves what it meant to be a teacher leader, while positing that teachers are indispensable agents in developing the policy and practice that affects education in our schools. It was a phenomenal opportunity to connect with teachers who believe in Philadelphia education and have the energy and passion to do right by our students, despite our trying times. Each time I have taken opportunities like this one to reflect and develop my professional practice with other teachers, I have been refreshed and re-energized to enter back into my school and my classroom.  Here is a reflection of some of the things I learned about teacher leadership:

We began the institute with the following questions: "What is teacher leadership? What does it look like to be a teacher leader?" We began to unpack and understand this concept in order to frame our work together.

From our shared experiences, we decided that a teacher leader is a lifelong learner who seeks to develop his or her own professional practice while being open to share, collaborate, and learn from others. Teacher leaders never see their professional development as finished because education evolves with our culture. We see the classroom as a complex context, and our relationships with students as incredibly important. Inquiry and reflection are seen as essential elements of our practice because they make growth possible. As teacher leaders, we seek to connect with other teachers in our schools, our district, our nation, and our world.

At the heart of teacher leadership is the development of our own philosophy of education through which we can confidently engage in our practice. Through our own philosophy of education, we are able to think for ourselves and develop out own curriculum rather than being told how to teach and interact with students. Teacher leaders must be intellectuals in their practice, and a goal for us as teacher leaders is to extend this intellectualism, leadership, and belief to all teachers. Every teacher should see him or herself as a leader in their classroom and as a knowledgeable practitioner.

Good leaders everywhere are people who enhance the capacity of leadership and decision making among all of those with whom they work. We developed the concept of "lifting while we climb," so while we make our own journeys of inquiry, reflection, and growth, we model this behavior and invite our colleagues to join us.

As teacher leaders, we make the future of education in our classrooms and schools. We are not passive practitioners along for the ride of policy makers and pundits. Therefore, another important theme of the institute was the hope that this constructive professional agency gave us. While it is a challenging time to be a teacher in Philadelphia, we gave each other hope because we know that our practice, our relationships, and our integrity in our schools do matter to each other and most importantly, our students.

Thank you, Teachers Lead Philly, for this opportunity.


The Barnes Arboretum and Educational Interconnectivity

I recently took a tour of the Barnes Arboretum at the original Merion campus of The Barnes Foundation. I admire Dr. Barnes as an education philosopher even though he is not normally credited with that title. However, he had a lasting relationship with John Dewey, and they often refer to each other as sources of inspiration for their theories on art and education.

The Barnes Arboretum was directed by Mrs. Barnes, and it is clear that she was also influenced by her husband as she developed the land on their twelve acre estate. The Arboretum is beautiful, and follows the educational mission of The Barnes Foundation to promote creativity, objective and critical thinking guided by scientific inquiry, and the importance of relationships. Our guide for the tour took us to plants and trees that were often grouped together by their shared genus. She explained that she liked to refer to these groupings of trees as Mrs. Barnes' ensembles. If you are familiar with the art of the Barnes collection, you know that the art is assembled not in any linear fashion as a traditional museum would have it, but in a collection of paintings, metalwork, and even furniture, which are referred to as ensembles. These ensembles ask the viewers to see the relationship between the art on a given wall, in a given room. In a similar way, the Arboretum invites the same kind of inquiry to explore how and why certain plants and trees are arranged together.

Mrs. Barnes believed that any plant could flourish if it was given the proper conditions to grow. This required research and planning to make the planting decisions that she made. Through this process, she planted trees from all over the world that have prospered on her Pennsylvania estate. She enjoyed every part of her plants and trees to the point that she even payed close attention to their bark. The bark of many trees have unique traits that I had not noticed or appreciated before.

As we were taken around the property, our guide also pointed out the artistic principles of line, light, color, and space that Mrs. Barnes used while designing her gardens that are the same principles used by artists when painting. In the same way an artist paints, a gardener can use these principles to construct the arrangement of his or her plants for an aesthetic effect.

I enjoyed learning about the purposeful approach to designing this arboretum that was guided by educational ideas to create a special place. The theme of relationships arose several times during our tour, and it reinforced the essential understanding of the interconnectivity of everything in our world, which I believe was a central educational insight that Mrs. Barnes, Dr. Barnes, and John Dewey wanted their students to accomplish. In fact, I believe this insterconnectivity is a central concept for sound educational practice in general.

Example of a Barnes Ensemble

This "Monkey Puzzle" Tree was awesome.


Remembering Walter Dean Myers: Strategy for Writing Fiction

Walter Dean Myers passed away this week, and I heard this past interview with him on Here and Now.   He generated tons of writing that connected to his own urban upbringing and was influential as an author and speaker. What stood out to me was the following writing process he goes through constantly to generate stories (you can listen to it at the 2:58 mark):

6-Box Model for Fiction:
  1. Establish an interesting character + Establish an interesting problem.
  2. Try the obvious things for the character to solve his or her problem.
  3. He or she must rethink the problem "because now the character is getting deeper into the problem and as the character rethinks, then the reader rethinks."
  4. Growth: You want to see growth within the character. You want to see the character grow in such a way that you could also grow.
  5. Have a final attempt in which the character is either successful or not successful, but this final attempt, nevertheless should reflect the growth.
  6. Wrapping up loose ends.

He explains that when he takes the time to do all of these things, he is much more likely to finish the book. This model is important for educators to be able to show how writing is a process. It is rare for authors to just sit back and write out an entire novel without thinking about it beforehand. On napkins, on scrap paper, on notebooks with scriibbled ideas that come to us at 3 a.m., these are the ways in which many writers develop their ideas that become the books and literature that we read. 


Confucianism and Modern Education (Part 3): Book II and Filial Piety within the Context of Confucian Governance and Leadership

The Analects of Confucius, Book II
What timeless and universal values exist in Confucianism that can inform teaching and learning in my life and classroom?

Book II of the Analects brought me back to my time living and teaching in South Korea. Confucianism is embedded in the culture there. In Korea, many adults explained to me that while many Koreans may identify as being Buddhist, Christian, or Agnostic, nearly everyone considers themselves to follow Confucianism. As I wrote in an earlier post, this Confucianism should not be considered a religious practice; instead, it can stand for cultural principles, beliefs, and practices that should be honored and practiced in order to maintain harmony in relationships and society.

In Book II, the following themes stood out to me: Governance and Leadership, Lifelong Learning, Filial Piety, and Integrity. Here is a breakdown of where I interpreted these themes:

Governance and Leadership: 1, 3, 10, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21
Lifelong Learning: 4, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, 21
Integrity: 9, 10, 13, 16, 17, 18, 22, 24
Filial Piety: 5, 6, 7, 8, 20, 24

Analysis of Filial Piety within the Context of Governance and Leadership:

I began this post by pointing out the connection of Korean culture to Confucianism. Four analects in a row (5-8), are direct questions posed to Confucius about the proper treatment of parents. Each of these analects emphasize a deep respect of your parents from deep inside your heart. The treatment of parents cannot just reside in outward practice and deference to them; it must be part of your intrinsic demeanor. For example, II:7 states:

"Tzu-yu asked about the treatment of parents. The Master said, 'Filial sons' nowadays are people who see to it that their parents get enough to eat. But even dogs and horses are cared for to that extent. If there is no feeling of respect, wherein lies the difference?"

 Therefore, adults in a community that are deeply entrenched in Confucianism expect this respect and deference from those who are younger and less experienced than them. The family, to Confucius, is a microcosm for wider society, which is why so much emphasis is placed upon the harmonious practices of a well-functioning family. To illustrate this, I return to I:2:

"Master Yu said, Those who in private life behave well towards their parents and elder brothers, in public life seldom show a disposition to resist the authority of their superiors. And as for such men starting a revolution, no instance of it has ever occurred. It is upon the trunk that a gentleman works. When that is firmly set up, the Way grows. And surely proper behavior towards parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness?"

"The trunk" refers to that which is fundamental, as opposed to the twigs, which would be considered smaller tasks in society. Therefore, from this analect, we can see how the cultivation of good moral citizenship begins at home for Confucius. However, in order to fully understand filial piety within this Confucianist context, it is important to also pay close attention to the Master's statements on governance and leadership. If it is so crucial for the younger generation to be pious in respect of their elders, then the elders and leaders of this society must be worthy of this respect. For those in positions of leadership and governance (and I feel strongly that these values and directions can be extended to parents and teachers), they must know how to lead from their foundation of integrity and morality rather than fear and chastisement, as II:3 explains:

"The Master said, Govern the people by regulations, keep order among them by chastisement, and they will flee from you, and lose all self-respect. Govern them by moral force, keep order among them by ritual and they will keep their self respect and come to you of their own accord."

Likewise, in II:20:

"Chi K'ang-tzu asked whether there were any forms of encouragement by which he could induce the common people to be respectful and loyal. The Master said, Approach them with dignity, and they will respect you. Show piety towards your parents and kindness toward your children, and they will be loyal to you. Promote those who are worthy, train those who are incompetent; that is the best form of encouragement."

Confucius has an extremely high standard for adults and leaders to not abuse the respect that is afforded to them from the virtues of filial piety. He disdains those who do not have the values and moral foundation upon which Confucianism is dependent upon. In II:22, it is written:

"The Master said, I do not see what use a man can be put to, whose word cannot be trusted. How can a wagon be made to go if it has no yoke-bar or a carriage, if it has no collar bar?"

As a teacher, there are innumerable potential connections to how I cultivate relationships with my students and run my classroom. A quote from Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach is fundamentally, "We teach who we are." Regardless of what subject and content we teach in the classroom, our values and moral character shine through in how we balance our responsibilities and treat the children who we teach.


Confucianism and Modern Education (Part 2): Book I and Personal Integrity, Honesty, and Honor

I read through Book I of the Analects, and I am continuing to ask the following question:
What timeless and universal educational values exist within Confucianism that can inform teaching and learning in my life and in my classroom?

As I read and re-read Book I (it only consists of 16 analects or "selected sayings"), I marked which themes I recognized in each analect. Here are the themes* that I recognized and the analects that I felt expressed each theme:

Personal Integrity, Honesty, Honor: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16
Modesty, Humility: 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 11, 14, 16
Filial Piety: 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13
**Learning and Education: 1, 6, 7, 8, 14, 15
Maintenance of Harmony, Tradition, or Ritual: 4, 7, 11, 12, 13, 15
Friendship: 1, 4, 6, 8, 14
Reflection: 1, 4, 14, 15
Focusing on the "Trunk": 1, 6, 15
Punctuality: 5, 14
Affection and Benevolence: 5

*There is clearly much overlap between the different themes and different interpretations possible; therefore, they are not mutually exclusive. However, this process may still be helpful in identifying trending themes and ideas.
**I believe that "Learning and Education" is omnipresent since the purpose of these analects is for learning. However, I noted in which analects learning and education was directly referenced.

Analysis of Personal Integrity, Honesty, Honor:
(To identify which analect I am referring to, I will write I:2, which would refer to Book I, Analect 2.)

In Book I, personal integrity, honesty, and honor, while possibly being the broadest theme, was certainly the most identifiable. Nearly every analect reflected the importance of integrity, honesty, or honor. These values were crucial for all social relationships, including family and friends, business relationships and transactions, and for governing and leadership positions. These values represent the foundation upon which good character and behavior must be built. For example, I:4 states:

"Master Tseng said, Every day I examine myself on these three points: in acting on behalf of others, have I always been loyal to their interests? In intercourse with my friends, have I always been true to my word? Have I failed to repeat the precepts that have been handed down to me?"

Likewise in I:5:

"The Master said, A country of a thousand war-chariots cannot be administered unless the ruler attends strictly to business, punctually observes his promises, is economical in expenditure, shows affection towards his subjects in general, and uses the labor of the peasantry only at the proper times of the year."

  • In contrast, a "bad ruler" would be listening to music or hunting when they should be attending to business, and the ruler would use the peasantry to build vain and ostentatious monuments or buildings.
Finally, in I:8:

"The Master said, If a gentleman is frivolous, he will lose the respect of his inferiors and lack firm ground upon which to build up his education. First and foremost, he must learn to be faithful to his superiors, to keep promises, to refuse the friendship of all who are not like him. And if he finds that he has made a mistake, then he must not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending his ways."

(pp. 84-85)

These three analects in particular express the emphasis on the superior and even enlightened character expected for those taking this "Way" to be a true gentleman or lady. These analects describe traits that ask us to be fully considerate, honorable, and responsible in our social relationships and dealings with other people. In order to live up to these standards, it's important to be diligent, alert, and hard working to continually attend to our business and friendships. In addition, we should never take improper advantage of a situation or a position of power in which we find ourselves. 

As a teacher within the system of modern education, I am not sure how often these values are taught or considered in classrooms. There is an emphasis on learning discrete skills, but it seems equally important for us to be considering the "type" of people we are attempting to equip these skills with. What values and standards of character do they have? These types of discussions do occur in my English class when we discuss literature that we read collectively but perhaps there ought to be more space and time devoted for the more direct inquiry into integrity, honesty, and honor in our family, social, and business relationships as timeless and universal values. When we only set standards for academic skills, are we considering the types of human beings we are cultivating? Shouldn't that matter in our society?


Confucianism and Modern Education (Part 1)

In an earlier post, I wrote about Confucius and the influence he has had on my teaching and learning. I have returned to The Analects of Confucius by Arthur Waley to delve a bit deeper into why Confucius is renowned as a great teacher and learner. The question I have brought to my reading is:
What timeless and universal educational values exist within Confucianism that can inform teaching and learning in my life and in my classroom?
First off, I would point out that from my reading, it seems appropriate to reference Confucianism rather than directly referencing Confucius since he was most likely not even around when these Analects took written form. Confucius can certainly be credited with inspiring a tradition of educational and cultural philosophy, which many disciples and followers have taken up to ultimately create these Analects. (Arthur Waley warns, however, that a couple of the books in the Analects have been, in his opinion, carelessly assembled within this text, but they do not represent authentic Confucius thought. Therefore, I will be paying most attention to the books within the Analects that are suggested to be the most Confucian.)

With those caveats, I'll turn back to my question. I believe that there are timeless and universal values within education practice that do not need to be lost in a world of constant reform and innovation.

Confucius' philosophy is directed at teaching the proper "Way" for which noble gentlemen and ladies should follow to be superior in character and behavior (p. 34-35). (I am taking the liberty of modernizing his philosophy to be inclusive of women.) Therefore, it is important from the outset to recognize that a primary (if not the) "instructional goal" of Confucianism was in the development of moral character his students to have the integrity, work ethic, and sincerity that ancient rulers have mastered before them. To achieve a harmonious society, this cultural legacy must be honored. Those who can honor and live by the "Way" can contribute to a more harmonious society; those who do not would be considered a small or common person. While Confucius most likely educated wealthy noblemen during his era, his philosophy is not limited to any one class. Anyone who would follow his teachings would merit the identification of the "chun-tzu" as opposed to a common person (p. 34).

The "Chun-Tzu" is a term for noble gentleman or lady who maintains superior character and behavior in his or her life. As far as I can understand from this point of my reading, the purpose of the Analects and the education associated with it is to develop this "Chun-Tzu" cultural identity within those who study it.

This point is interesting to me because in modern schools, I am not aware of many explicit standards or educational expectations that students be taught values of integrity or good moral character. They are penalized if they do not have it, but we do not have standards to teach and explain integrity in the same way as I have standards to teach and explain how to write an essay. In addition, we live in a post-modern society with so many different views on what is and is not "moral" that this may be more difficult to do today. When I think of where my students learn their moral character, it seems to only explicitly come from their parents or their religion if they have one. Moral development in my classroom comes implicitly through the process of learning together in a shared space. Despite our post-modern society and moral relativism, I believe that it may still be possible to inquire into these values that Confucius wants us to consider. As far as I know, integrity, respect, and kindness in social interaction seem universal enough to at least explore and inquire into more explicitly in a classroom setting.

Next, I will be diving into the actual Analects themselves to expound on how they could inform education practice both in and out of the classroom.


Video Killed the Radio Star and "The Medium is the Message"

I happened to turn on AXS TV during halftime of a World Cup game, and they had program featuring the creative exploits of Duran Duran. A lead singer of the band immediately made statement that connected with literacy and the constant inquiry educators often have around new mediums for expression, especially in this age of constant technological advancement. He said of about music videos (and I'm paraphrasing):
"There was a new medium available, and you had to get involved or else you ended up being left behind."
As new mediums for expression develop, it's crucial for literacy specialists in particular and educators in general to consider ways in which it can be used to express ideas and communicate, while maintaining a balance of these new mediums with traditional mediums and skills that students should know. For example, I would like to do more to explore twitter, instagram, and the vine as means for expression, but I also want my students to be able to write academic essays with thesis statements and organized support. When it comes to language capabilities, I always try to emphasize dynamism and complexity with my students. I believe they can and should be able to master multiple forms of communication. New mediums, however, tend to be a lot of fun and a way for more students to access a more sophisticated understanding of literacy, since that is where many of them are already expressing themselves.

This seems like an appropriate place to mention Marshall McLuhan and his famous thesis, "The medium is the message."


Why Write?

On Studio 360 Tuesday night, I listened to author Neil Gaiman talk about his success as a writer. Towards the end of his interview, he spoke about writing in a way that intrigued me and resonated with me. He said of writing:
"That is my sane place. That is the stuff that fixes me. That when I feel broken and tired, when I'm hurt, when I'm upset, going away and writing is my way of putting the world in order." 
Writing plays a similar role in my own life. Through writing, I discover, I clarify, I sort through stuff. I am able to explore ideas and decisions that I have and need to make. I'll write on anything available, which may be a scrap of paper or an old envelope.

As a writing teacher, I'm often thinking about writing for what purpose? There are so many academic standards to meet and academic writing goals to accomplish, but what about writing for self and sanity? What about writing to simply explore our thoughts? What about writing to construct worlds and characters?

I found comfort in Gaiman's explanation of this particular purpose of writing in his life. It's what I do, and I was reassured by the fact that other people have discovered this important purpose for writing. Hopefully, I can find more ways to model these writing purposes with my students.


Teaching Writing in a Project-Based Environment

Designing curriculum around project-based assessment while figuring out how to teach literacy skills (or any academic skills) is challenging. As I reflect on the units and projects that I developed and taught this year, I realize that in many cases the writing was something that was attached to projects, instead of the writing being an authentic and essential part of the project itself. For example, the students would be asked to create a piece of art or an artifact in response to some text, and then they would need to write about what they have created. What I would like to do moving forward is to design projects where the writing involved is an essential part of the generation of the product. In this way, I wouldn't always be teaching the formal academic writing skills from introduction, evidence paragraphs, and conclusion, but I would still be teaching the crucial understanding of writing as a purposeful endeavor within a particular context. I still recognize how important it is for students to learn and build their skills with formal academic writing assignments, and when I assign them, I would like to focus my instruction on that writing as a project. I believe these writing assignments, when taught appropriately, can be considered projects. You can see evidence of this through the depth of good writing instruction in many sources, and I would recommend Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christensen. By focusing the teaching and learning of my classroom towards specific projects, instead of different assignments layered on top of each other, I believe we all learn more.


The Need to Express

Everyone needs to find a way to express themselves. Whether it is through music, sport, art, singing, or some other medium, it is crucial. Through whatever medium we find, we access a way of expressing ourselves, naming our world, and in this process, constructing a sense of self. Through any form of expression that we become passionate about, it is possible to learn and reflect upon life lessons. It is important and useful for anyone to learn "academic and professional" mainstream means to express ourselves, but it must be at least equally as important to find our unique voices that allow us to name our worlds and construct our identities.


Art of Stepping In and Out

"I cannot control others. I can only control myself." I have that posted on a post-it note next to my desk.  This is a crucial reminder for me as a teacher trying to educate my students everyday because, in reality, I cannot control them or what they are thinking and valuing in my classroom. The best I can do is to set up the conditions, environment, and experiences in which they can learn for themselves. Today, I set up two dialogue circles with about 15 students in each circle. I prompted them to talk about several key questions that arise in 1984. It was difficult to distinguish the moments when my input and direction was needed and when it was better to step out. However, it seemed that the more I stepped out, the more opportunity there was for them to learn, but there were also moments when I needed to prop up a disoriented conversation. I believe that this is part of the art of teaching: knowing when, how, and if to add insight to a learning process to stimulate further learning, perhaps with a question or some slight guidance.


Confucius: Inquiry, Reflection, and Joy

Within the theme of life-long learning as June teaching begins, I cannot resist quoting Confucius' first Analect. He asks:

"The Master said, To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learned, is that not after all a pleasure?"

I have also heard it translated: 

"To learn and to regularly review what one has learned, isn't that after all a great pleasure?"

When I heard this translation of his first Analect, I knew I liked Confucius. His teaching is grounded in inquiry, reflection, and joy. He recognizes the value and the privilege to learn and reflect upon what we have learned. How do we invite this type of wonder and joy in the learning process into our classrooms? How do we maintain this love of learning within ourselves? Why do so many people fall into periods of ennui when there is so much to learn in this world? These questions remind me of Thoreau's famous line, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." The world is too amazing for this to happen, and yet it does.


Sunday Evening Teacher Anxiety

I don't think I am alone in feeling anxiety before a week of teaching begins. Teaching requires all of your intellectual, emotional, and even physical energy to do well, and it can seem daunting that you are about to engage in another week of this work. I've found that in the face of this anxiety, one of the best things to do is to find a way to be productive in preparation for the week. I can put myself in a position to be excited for the week rather than anxious about the week if I plan well. Here is what I came up with as a clear explanation of my final benchmark project that I will be leading with this week. The planning relates to this earlier post about clear expectations for projects.