Friday, December 11, 2015

Taming the Chaos Within

(originally published at 

“How can you make a world for people to live in until you’ve first put order in yourself?”

Thornton Wilder, The Skin of our Teeth


Early in my teaching career, my headmaster called a faculty meeting and had us watch a documentary about learning disabilities. Most of the students in our small school struggled with a disability of some kind, from mild dyslexia to almost total aphasia. Some of their parents were caring and concerned; many were frustrated and exhausted. The video, called “How Difficult can This Be?” showed us a workshop during which a facilitator conducted a variety of activities to make participants feel as though they had all sorts of learning challenges. He gave them mangled text to read or fuzzy pictures to look at and then barked at them to “look harder” at things they could not possibly see, no matter how “hard” they looked (whatever that meant). 

Even without participating directly in the workshop, we learned a great deal about what it felt like to be our students—students who had spent a lifetime being told to sit still when they were already sitting as still as they could. How heartbreaking it had to be, to be yelled at for not being able to control a twitching hand or a tapping foot. How enraging it had to be, especially by the teen years, to be scolded for not reading things that were physically unreadable. No wonder our students had been in and out of every school in town.

To many teachers, the idea of “differentiated instruction” is a ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky idea dreamed up by out-of-touch authors or professors who don’t understand how difficult it is to plan and execute a single lesson, much less several options per class. But to many students, differentiated instruction is the difference between success and failure in school. For many students, instruction that isn’t adapted to meet their needs is instruction to which they simply have no access.

Identification of learning disabilities and a well-implemented IEP or 504 plan can make all the difference for these students. But what about students whose problems do not fall into the establish categories of problems that will lead to legally-mandated accommodations? What about students for whom years of poverty, neglect, or trauma have so stressed the neural circuitry that they have not developed levels of executive function at the same pace as their peers?  When they don’t have a medical label to explain away their problems, they simply get labeled Bad and are punished rather than helped. And yet, their experience of school may be no different that the experience of students with identifiable disabilities: it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit, they don’t know why, and they get yelled at for it.

This is tragic for all sorts of reasons—not least of which is the fact that, in the words of author, Eric Jensen, “Brains can change.” Neuroplasticity, the ability of a brain to adapt and change over time, even beyond childhood, means that a student’s past doesn’t have to be his future—that with careful and planful work on the part of the school, even a student with severe behavior issues can learn to control himself and succeed in the classroom.

But what does “careful and planful” mean for such students? It doesn’t mean medicating them into a stupor, and it certainly doesn’t mean threatening them with suspension if they take a wrong step. For students who can’t control their impulses or their aggression, it means providing a safe and orderly environment where they can actually, finally, learn to control their impulses and their aggression—where they can regularly practice a menu of self-control strategies and demonstrate increasing levels of self-control. At Philadelphia’s Anthony Wayne Academy, one of our SESI schools, I have seen how even the most behaviorally-challenged students can take control of their behavior and earn increasing levels of autonomy and authority. I’ve seen students who were once sent away from their schools becoming leaders: running meetings, modeling correct behavior, and acting as role models for younger or newer students. They learn how to tame the chaos within themselves, whatever the cause of that chaos may have been, and gain enough self-control to return to their schools, earn their diplomas, and pursue their dreams.

That shouldn’t have to be seen as a miracle, or even a gift. It’s simply what those students need. Yes, they need Algebra. Sure, they need World history. But if they can’t tame that inner chaos and take control of their lives, what meaning or use can Algebra or World History ever have?

No student in our country should be denied the opportunity to succeed simply because he doesn’t fit into the box we call “school.”  The school should accommodate itself to meet the needs of students, not the other way around. I believed this, way back in the 20th century, when it felt a little bit radical and strange. In this century, it should be a commonplace. Customization and personalization are simply what we expect—and demand—in most areas of our lives. In fact, I can’t think of any other area of life where we still think it’s acceptable to take a random group of 20 or 30 people (who share nothing but a birth year) and give them all exactly the same thing, delivered exactly the same way, regardless of what they might need or want.

Our democracy is built on the assumption that people can govern themselves and manage their own affairs—that we are not forever children, searching for a strong parent to obey. But not everyone is ready and able to take control of their lives—even at age 18. And a person who is unable to manage himself is a person who will eventually be managed by someone else—often the police or some other mechanism of the state.  That is not exactly a gateway to the “pursuit of happiness” that was meant to be our birthright as Americans.

We are supposed to be giving our students the tools they need to succeed in life beyond the schoolroom.  But if we can’t see the world through their eyes, how can we possibly know what tools they need?





Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Connecting the Dots: The Essential Relationship between a School’s Mission Statement and Its Day-to-Day

(originally published at

At one of Catapult Learning’s recent regional leadership conferences, I spent some time with principals and teacher-leaders from our partner schools. We talked about the importance of connecting the dots from the school’s vision and mission to its values, and then all the way down to the daily tasks that each member of the school family engages in. It’s surprising how disconnected the mission and the day-to-day can be from each other. We write beautiful mission statements and hang signs and banners up on the walls, and somehow we expect the pretty words to exert a kind of magic over us, pulling us into their orbit. Sadly, it takes a lot more work than that.

The “big picture” is made up of a thousand connected details. Little children know this, but it’s an easy thing for adults to forget. Our grown-up connect-the-dots puzzles are less obvious, and they aren’t laid out for us to solve, step by step. We choose our own dots and often don’t know what picture we’re forming when we start connecting them. We may think we’re aiming at our mission or vision statement, but our day-to-day routines may add up to a very different picture.

So, during our workshop, I asked the principals and teacher-leaders to start with the vision and mission of the school and work their way down, to see if they could connect the lofty words with the more mundane tasks that make up our days.

One of our partner schools had, as part of its mission statement, the growth of students into responsible citizens. It was a lovely sentiment, but when I asked the school team what values the adults in the school held in order to make that mission real, they were a little stymied by the question. It’s easy to say, “We believe citizenship is important,” but what does that actually mean, in practice?

At first, there was simply repetition of the words from the mission statement, but eventually, the team came up with this statement of values: “School leadership and staff respect and honor the student voice and promote student autonomy.” That’s a clear statement of a value that can, if widely held, help students understand what democratic citizenship means.

The next step is even more crucial: day to day, what does it actually mean to hold that value? What does it mean for the English teacher? What does it mean for the gym teacher? What does it mean for the bus driver? If we say we respect the student voice and want to give students real autonomy, how does each adult, in his or her own particular role, make that come to life?

One team member said, “Well, we have a student government.” I asked if the student government got to make decisions that affected the way the school was run, or if it just concerned itself with the theme of the spring dance. The question was met with some uncomfortable laughter, but it mattered. How can you promote democratic citizenship if students can’t actually cast a vote that means something?

I pushed the idea a little further: what about the cafeteria staff? Are they involved in these core values? Do students have a say in what gets served at lunch? There was more rueful laughter, but no one responded. “Are we afraid that they’d make terrible choices?” I asked, “That you’d have pizza and doughnuts every day?” People nodded and laughed. “But isn’t it our job to help them become informed voters?” I asked. “Isn’t that an important part of responsible citizenship?” Thomas Jefferson was pretty clear that a democracy required an educated and informed citizenry. So why not provide opportunities for students to learn about healthy diets—not just abstractly in their health class, but as part of their role in helping plan the lunch menu? Wouldn’t that be one real expression of how the school embodies its core value and promotes its mission?

Every aspect of a school’s mission statement should have a corresponding value that requires particular behaviors and real commitment on the part of the school staff. Every one of those core values can be expressed, somehow, in the particular day-to-day tasks of each adult working in the school—even the bus driver; even the janitor. Connecting those dots from the ground floor all the way up to the clouds is rigorous and time-consuming work, but it’s worthy and important work. It’s work that pays off, in the long run.

It’s very difficult to manage a mission or a vision. They’re abstract and amorphous and often dreamy. At the same time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the day-to-day needs of the school and feel like you’re on a treadmill of drudgery. But if you’ve taken the time to ensure that the day-to-day tasks connect, in real and meaningful ways, to the mission and purpose of the school, then you won’t have to worry about that mission anymore, and you won’t have to worry that the details are trivial. Make the small details work, and the big picture will take care of itself.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Preparing the Ground for Learning Something New: Part II

“Behold, a sower went forth to sow…” (Matthew 13:3)

A couple of months ago, I talked about the parable of the sower and the seeds. You remember the story: a man sows seeds; some of them grow, some of them don’t. The seeds that fall on stone have no topsoil to accept the roots. The seeds that fall in the weeds are choked before they can reach the sun. The seeds that fall on fertile ground grow tall and strong.

I used the parable to talk about schools. I talked about the “garden” as the larger school community, with the adults as the “seeds” who have potential for growth and change within that community (personal, cultural, organizational)—growth that can be encouraged or stifled. The question I raised was: whose responsibility is it to make sure those seeds grow? Whose fault is it if growth and change do not happen? Is it the ground’s fault for not being hospitable, is it the seed’s fault for falling in the wrong place, or is it the sower’s fault for not tending the garden properly?

This time around, I’d like to change the focus. After all, the garden we’re talking about wasn’t built for our benefit, was it? We have an important role to play, and we need to feel inspired and fulfilled. School reform, improvement, and change depend on the work we do, every day. But those things aren’t important because of their effects on us. Schools exist so that our students can learn and grow. The garden was built for them—and in some sense, every grade we teach is a “kindergarten.”

Whose Garden Is It?

So here we are, back at our parable: this time, the students are the seeds. Some seeds fall on rocks, some fall in the weeds, and some fall on fertile soil. Some students never really “click” in school; some students start strong, but see their progress choked and strangled along the way; some students thrive. We love to say in our mission statements that “all students can learn,” but we know, sadly, that not all students do learn. Not with equal success, at any rate. Perhaps our parable can help us see some of the challenges in a different light.

Let’s start at the top. Not all of the seeds land in fertile soil. Whose responsibility is it to make sure that doesn’t happen? Is it all right for a teacher to say, “Look, I taught the lesson; if they didn’t learn it, that’s their fault?” People do say such things, especially at the college level, as this open letter to college freshmen demonstrates. And there are plenty of high school teachers who feel the same way. Maybe there are even some elementary and middle school teachers who would agree. We do our best. We bring our A-Game. We give them the good stuff. If they don’t care, or they’re too distracted, or they simply don’t have the good manners to sit still and behave, well…that’s their fault, or their parents’ fault, but it’s not ours.

It’s an easy thing to say, and it probably feels good to say it. But is it fair? Blaming the students strikes me as being unrealistic, at the very least--especially in high-poverty schools where we know many students are coming in without having had a decent meal to start the day, or a quiet place to do their homework. There are students stranded on the rocks or lost in the weeds long before we meet them to begin our work. To blame them for the life circumstances they didn’t choose is more than a little bit unfair. We have to do the best we can, with each of them, regardless of where they have fallen.

This isn’t just pretty poetry. There are real weeds growing out there, choking the life out of the seeds we try to plant. Deprivation and stress have actual, physical, neurological effects on the development of young brains. They’re not irrevocable effects, but while they’re working on the brains of young people, they can be profound. To what extent can students living with those kinds of stressors be asked to “take ownership of their learning?” We may not be able to remove the stressors from their lives, but we have to do what we can to mitigate the effects. Eric Jensen speaks extensively of this in his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, providing an array of strategies to help develop and strengthen things like executive functioning and short-term memory.
What about students who have enough to eat at home, but eat a ton of sugary garbage and either act out or pass out in our classroom? Should they be expected to own their behavior? If not, who is responsible?

What about students who live in homes of economic advantage, but who suffer from anorexia, or bulimia, or bullying, or simply some level of social awkwardness? What about the affluent student I once had, who lived at home with a maid while both of his parents traveled for work? Any of those things can get in the way of learning—and at a certain point in life, you do have to take ownership of the challenges you face, even if other people have been the causes of those challenges. Where is that dividing line—that point after which it’s no longer other people’s responsibility to “fix” you, if that’s even possible? As the letter from the college professor seems to hint, that line is getting pushed deeper and deeper into young adulthood. Should we expect middle school students, regardless of their background, to understand what healthy eating and sleeping habits are, and start developing them? What about high school students? What if we explicitly teach those habits? Are students responsible for adopting them then? What aspects of their lives should we expect them to own, and by what point? If the parents, the teachers, and the students themselves all come to the school building with different expectations, it’s going to be a pretty chaotic garden.

Designing the Garden for Growth

This is why I think it’s more important than ever to ensure that the “soil” we provide is as healthy as it can be. If we can’t predict or control where our students come from, we have to pay extra attention to one thing our students share: the culture and the environment of the school. We have to make sure that every aspect of the school supports and communicates a culture where every kids feels known as an individual, liked for who he is, and valued as a learner--a culture where learning is paramount, and where questions are more than simply tolerated. Those things have to be real and present, from the moment a student walks in the door of the building to the moment he sits in his seat in a classroom.

Environment can have a powerful effect on people. Human beings respond and react instinctively, reflexively, to their physical surroundings. I remember visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Institute, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and being amazed at the strong, visceral feelings his architecture evoked as I moved from room to room. He knew exactly how he wanted me to feel in each room, and in the transition from room to room--and everything about the structure and the furnishings was designed to create those feelings in me.

How carefully and thoughtfully do we design our classroom environments? A classroom can focus children’s attention on things that support instruction, or it can fragment and shatter their attention with too many dazzling, pretty things that are fun to look at, but can sometimes be overwhelming and headache-inducing. The walls of the room should do more than entertain and please; they should teach.

And what about the larger geography of the room? What does the layout of the classroom communicate to students? Does it tell them that learning is a formal and isolated experience, that their relationship with the teacher is meant to be one of quiet attention and obedience (they sit here, looking at you; you stand there, talking to them), and that they are meant to have no relationship at all with their peers (eyes on their own papers; no passing notes, etc.)? The room can tell them all of that, without the teacher having to say a word. Which is fine, if the main thing the teacher is after is obedience. Rooms designed like that are why students are shocked to see teachers out in the world, and aren’t quite sure how to interact with them; it’s a sign that the formal, me-here-you-there dynamic has never been altered for them.

If we want, at least some of the time, an environment that can support collaboration and exploration, discussion and reflection, the traditional rows of seats facing the teacher’s desk are probably not helping us. Can we change them? Shift them around to create different dynamics and a different energy in the classroom? I’m not saying one arrangement is 100% better than the other; teachers who arrange desks in conversational groups can get stuck in a rut, too, forgetting that one arrangement won’t serve all of their needs, all the time.

And let’s not forget that subtle changes in the outside environment can trigger changes in behavior and attitude, as well. I might feel happier in the bright, cheerful art room than I feel in the dark and dreary science lab, just because of the surroundings—and forever after, I’ll think positively about art and negatively about science. Or, conversely, I might perform much better in a calm, dimly lit room than in a room with bright, fluorescent lights. I might do poorly on a particular math test, just because it was raining that day. Or I might do better on the math test because of the rain—because usually, I get distracted by the birds in the trees and the kids playing out in the playground.

Yes, it’s complicated. One size, one approach, can’t fit every student perfectly. It can’t even fit one student perfectly, day after day. Yesterday’s “best fit” for Student X may be all wrong today, for reasons we barely understand.

Children Are Not Begonias

This is where our garden metaphor falls apart. If you’re planting begonias, you figure out what begonias need and you give it to them; end of story. But children are surprising little shape-shifters; what they need is a constantly moving target…as we learn from a pleasant, little ditty from the musical, The Fantasticks.

This doesn’t mean teachers should have to prepare 30 different lesson plans for 30 different students, and shuffle them, day after day. But it does mean that we should always have a few different ways of modeling, demonstrating, and explaining things to our students, and a few different ways for students to show us that they have learned. It does mean that we should be okay with the fact that some students “get” a new concept right away, while other students need to reflect and percolate a little bit before the light bulb clicks on. It means we have to be flexible and adaptable, willing to bend and shift—improvise, as I said a few months ago.

It’s a challenging garden we tend, and the plants that grow from the seeds we plant can be surprising and unpredictable. You think you’ve planted, fed, and tended your garden this year just like you did it last year, but you get completely different results, without ever quite knowing why. It’s what makes this particular gardening job so challenging…and so wonderful.

(originally published at

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Man--and a School--For all Seasons

(originally published at

I didn’t intend to be an educator. My parents were both teachers—my father at a law school and my mother in a fifth grade classroom--but it never occurred to me to follow in their footsteps. I was going to be an artist—a playwright, actually. I worked for my university theatre after graduating from college, and then went to graduate school to get my Masters in Fine Arts. I learned a lot and met a number of people who ended up being important in my life, including my future wife. But the one thing my advanced degree didn’t give me was a job. There were no jobs, really, in my field, unless you wanted to teach. And teaching gigs in theatre, at the time, were scarce and fiercely fought-over. So there I was, returned to Atlanta, GA, ready to ply my craft but in need of a day job.
When I told my mother that I would try to get my old bookstore job back, she…well, she didn’t exactly tear her hear out in classic, Jewish-Mother-Anguish, but she came pretty close. To keep me from this fate, she introduced me to a friend who was running a small, alternative school right across the street from my old college campus. The man’s name was Wood Smethurst, and throughout his career, he had been instrumental in founding almost every progressive alternative school in and around Atlanta. He sounded like an interesting man, and worth meeting, even if he didn’t have a job for me.

I went off to see him at his school, which turned out to be a tiny, one-story house—easy to miss and looking nothing like a school. When Wood came to the door, he looked nothing like a school headmaster. He was nearly bald, with his remaining hair wild and uncombed. He was overweight, with food stains on his shirt and his shirttail un-tucked. He looked, overall, a bit like W.C. Fields. But he had an enormous smile and a hearty laugh, and he welcomed me into his world.

On the inside, his world looked even less like a school. The rooms of the house were furnished with big, wooden tables, where students worked individually or in pairs. There were lovely bookshelves and antiques everywhere. There was a functioning kitchen, where kids could make themselves a bagel or a cup of coffee whenever they needed a pick-me-up. There was a garden out back, where students could sit and read. The adults in the building moved around from room to room, stopping and sitting whenever they needed to spend some time with a student. Everything was individualized and everything was self-paced. Everyone called the headmaster, “Doc,” and he presided over the main room of the building, sitting at the head of the biggest work table and watching over the students and teachers with a benevolent smile, usually with a cat sitting in his lap and a cup of coffee near to hand.

His school, the Benjamin Franklin Academy, was founded to catch high school students who were “falling through the cracks” and who were in danger of dropping out, or who had already dropped out (or been kicked out), but wanted to get their diploma. It was Doc’s dream school—inspired by A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, but aimed at a very particular student body. It was deliberately designed not to look or feel like a traditional school, to help both students and teachers break old habits and old ways of interacting. Students had clear graduation requirements, and worked with their advisors to make monthly and weekly plans. They were free to work on whatever they wanted to work on, whenever they wanted to work on it, as long as they worked and progressed. In fact, there were only four rules governing the entire school: do your own work and let others do their work; be gentle with the house and the furniture; no fighting; and don’t let the cats out. In the four years that I taught there, I never saw the need for additional rules.

This was not an easy school. There were no Carnegie Units, there was no such thing as “seat time,” and there was no social promotion. In fact, there were no grade levels at all. You either met your graduation requirements in a year, or two, or three, or you didn’t. Some of the requirements were formal, like completing twelve, error-free papers in a variety of essay formats. Some were more informal, like being able to identify 20 nations and their capitals, selected at random by a teacher. It was competency-based learning, decades before that was a hot topic of conversation in our world.

It was a deeply human school, designed to meet the needs and lives of adolescents, rather than asking students to bend and warp themselves to fit the structure of the school. Students felt known and understood as human beings, and they knew their teachers as human beings, as well. Learning was an ongoing conversation, rather than a lecture. The school was more than a community; it was a family. In the years I spent there, we never had a truancy problem. In fact, we had more of a drop-in problem; kids felt good there, and they wanted to be there as much as they could be.
Although I never heard Doc say it, it was clear that love was his guiding principle. When hiring new teachers, he cared very little about the schools they had gone to or the certifications they held. What he wanted to know was: Did they know their subject deeply? Did they love their subject fervently? And did they like hanging around with teenagers? He wanted—and he built—a community based on passion for learning. And he led his school with absolute commitment to his students. If a family ran into financial trouble, he kept the student on for free, even in the early years when money was tight. If a student ran into legal trouble, he took collect calls from the jail every day, to talk to the student and keep his spirits up. Everything about the school said, “We are on your side, and we will not abandon you.”

It mattered. Even the most sullen, disengaged student in our school was only disengaged on the outside. After all, they had chosen to come back to school. They wanted to graduate and get on with their lives. But more importantly, they wanted something to be meaningful. They were desperate for meaning and connection and passion. They may have rolled their eyes and said sarcastic things about how nerdy their teachers were, but it mattered to them that they were surrounded by people who cared about something—or someone. That modeling—of living a passionately-committed life—was more important to them than anything in the English or math curriculum.
It is almost thirty years since I first set foot in the Benjamin Franklin Academy. If you click on the link, the school you see will look nothing like the modest little building I taught in. I was there for four of the early years, when desperate parents, surveying the scene, wondered if the headmaster was insane, and doubted if were making the right choice for their children. No one wonders about that, anymore. The school has grown impressively in size and stature. It is an Atlanta institution.

But, like all successful institutions, it will have to outlive its founder. We lost Doc on July 14th. He is the second of my education heroes to have passed, this year—but this loss is more personal and painful to me, because Doc was more than an author I admired. He was my mentor, my guide into this career. His modeling, his manner, and his careful curating of my reading list, early on, all shaped my understanding of what teaching should be and what schools could be. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that everything I have done in my professional career in education bears some trace of Wood Smethurst's beliefs and passions.

I often say that the Ben Franklin Academy ruined me for any other school. I say it only half-jokingly. Being able to see, with painful clarity, the gap between what is and what can be, is a great motivator. It keeps the fire burning, even on the bleakest, most hopeless days of my personal winters. It reminds me that we owe our students—and ourselves—so much more.
Look, we’re all grown-ups here. We’re all professionals. We know that the world demands compromises and concessions from us—sometimes daily. We make the adjustments we need to make to hold onto our jobs and to get through the day. We tell ourselves that today’s concession is pretty small, really, and it doesn’t undo or undermine all of the good we’re doing in the world. And that’s probably true. Holding onto unrealistic dreams and refusing to face reality can drive a person crazy.

But I knew a crazy dreamer once. I knew someone who decided to resist all the compromises being demanded of him, and built exactly the kind of school he had always dreamed of.  It was, and is, a beautiful school—a fitting legacy to a beautiful man. I am grateful to have known him, and to have had the chance to be part of his dream, if only for a few years.



Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Five Essential Questions

Sometimes in your journey through life, you encounter writers or artists who speak in a language that feels like it was written just for you. The things they say or show you may be brand new, but those things resonate and reverberate with you, touching something that’s already there. They wake up something inside you that feels absolutely your own, but also brand new.

Grant Wiggins was one of those people for me, and when we lost him (far too young) on May 28, it hit me hard.
I can’t remember if my introduction to Grant Wiggins was through his book, Understanding by Design, co-written with Jay McTighe, or through a presentation at an ASCD conference. Whichever it was, it happened years after I stopped being a classroom teacher, and it made me wish (as all of my subsequent encounters with his thought made me wish) that I had had access to his wisdom when I had young people in my charge.

One of the first things that Grant Wiggins introduced me to was the idea of the Essential Question—the open-ended, thought-provoking query that can frame a curriculum unit or even an entire year. In honor of that First Learning, here are five big questions that Grant Wiggins posed, either in his books, his presentations, or his blog—five questions that have rattled around in my brain for years, and have affected my thinking and my work:

1) Who taught you how to think?

This question was posed as an opening activity/icebreaker at a conference workshop, and the language was left deliberately vague. When people asked Wiggins for clarification, he refused to provide it. “I don’t know what I mean,” he said. “You tell me what I mean.” When it came time for us to share, each of us discussed what we meant by “think,” and who it was who first taught us how to do that thing. Interestingly, most of us came up with the same, basic definition; we saw “think” as the ability to reason, argue, and analyze. Many of us said that our parents had taught us to think, usually as part of dinner table conversation. It spoke powerfully to the importance of a family sharing meals and having time away from electronic devices to just…talk. I know that for me, dinner was often a time of lively conversation and sometimes fierce debate. Even when I wasn’t the focus of the argument, merely witnessing the back and forth taught me a lot about the importance of being able to communicate and defend a point of view.

2) What was a meaningful learning experience that was deliberately crafted and shaped for you?

This was another intriguing opening question and icebreaker, and Wiggins was careful in the way he phrased it. He didn’t want us thinking about life experiences that taught us valuable lessons (“…and I never stuck my finger in an electrical socket again…”), but activities or experiences that had been deliberately crafted and shaped by someone to produce learning. The language was left open to accommodate non-classroom activities, if that’s what came to mind. And, as it turned out, that is exactly what came to mind for most people in the workshop. When we shared responses, we were surprised to find that almost no one spoke of an academic classroom experience. For almost everyone, the meaningful learning experience was something that had been led by an athletic coach or a choir director—the kind of person most likely to teach through demonstration, or to set up some kind of simulation or “scrimmage” activity to reveal people’s skills and limitations. Even though we were all educators, very few of us connected our most meaningful learning experiences with academic classroom teachers. It reminded us that “teaching” takes many shapes and forms, and doesn’t live solely in the schoolhouse…and that learning can be profound and important to us, even when it’s not about math or language arts.

3) What is the job description for Classroom Teacher?

This question unleashed quite an interesting and contentious debate in a workshop. Wiggins stood in front of a crowd of teachers and “outed” himself as an addict: “I’m Grant Wiggins,” he said, “and I’m addicted to content.” We all laughed, but it was a rueful laugh of recognition. We knew what it was to be enslaved by the pacing plan.
“What’s our job, actually?” he asked us. “If our job description is simply to deliver content, then it doesn’t really matter whether the kids learn or not—that’s their job, not ours. So do we just march through the content and call it a day?”

Everyone groaned “No!”  

“Then what is it?” he asked. “If you were hiring, what kind of job description would you write?”  Step by step, he led us through an activity of clarifying exactly what the job of teaching really entailed and required. And in some places, the end result was a little surprising to us. Where we ended up—pushed in Socratic fashion by Wiggins—was something like, “the teacher shapes and directs activities and opportunities that cause learning to happen in the student.” We realized there could be quite a difference between “teaching,” as we had all traditionally defined it, and “making sure learning happens.”

4) Why are you teaching that?

One of the questions that Wiggins and McTighe forced us to grapple with in their seminal book, Understanding by Design, is this existentially frightening one: why are you teaching what you’re teaching? In other words: who needs it? Who wants it? Why should anyone care?
Imagine someone bursting into your classroom, mid-lesson, and asking questions like those. Would you have an answer at the ready for every lesson you teach? Or would there be places where you’d have to say, “It’s just what comes next?”

This is part of what Wiggins meant by being addicted to content. There’s a comfort that comes from having a textbook or a pacing plan that tells you what to do from day to day. But Understanding by Design challenged us to be more thoughtful and active in our lesson planning, starting with the end in mind and working backwards to the day-to-day. What’s the point of all of this? What’s the big idea I want my kids to understand? How will I know that they have reached that understanding? What knowledge or skills will I need to provide to help them to get to that understanding? Planning backwards ensures that you know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.

5) What is a standard?

In recent years, during the adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, Wiggins spent a lot of time, especially in his “Granted, And…” blog posts, helping people understand what we mean—and should mean—by the word “standard.” It’s a topic that many of us have been arguing about—sometimes heatedly—without figuring out if we’re all using the word the same way. That’s guaranteed to lead to trouble.
Wiggins used his daughter’s experience running track—as he had often used his own, and Jay McTighe’s experiences coaching sports teams—to make powerful analogies about how we measure performance. And he offered up insightful analysis of the new standards to show us where they were helpful and where they might be lacking. As always, he challenged us to think twice or three times about things we had assumed we understood. As always, he prized conceptual understanding over factual knowledge, and was willing to dig (and push us to dig) to get to what was essential.


All of these questions have affected the way I think about teaching and learning. When I reflect on presentations I’ve given and blog posts or eBooks I’ve written, I can see how powerfully Grant Wiggins has shaped my thinking. Although I only met him a couple of times, and never spoke with him more than briefly, I have long considered him one of my gurus. And now he is gone.

It’s a sad and strange thing when your wizards and wise-men disappear. It’s another stage of growing up, I suppose—and it’s a little shocking to realize how long that process really is, how many years into  adulthood it can extend. We depend on the authority and protection of our parents when we are children, but we lean on our heroes for far longer. We turn to their wisdom, and sometimes their example, again and again. But a time comes when they leave us. Either they reveal themselves as less than heroic and they abandon us (or we abandon them), or we lose them to illness or old age. We learn that we have to stand on our own, wise enough to take the right actions and strong enough to defend our positions. We discover that others are relying on us now, to be their heroes and wizards, as frightening as that thought may be. It’s our turn, whether we like it or not. We may never stride the world like the giants we once knew, but we have to do the best we can.
There is a Wiggins-sized hole in the world of education, and it will not soon be healed. It is a loss we will feel for some time. His words are still with us, though, and his passion still burns, clear and hot, through everything he wrote, and said, and shared. What we do with that fire is up to us.