A magical practice

Jason Concepcion and Mallory Rubin recently finished their excellent Binge Mode podcast in which they dove deeply into Game of Thrones. At the end of the last podcast episode, Jason makes a case aimed at the Game of Thrones show runners imploring them to not treat the magical parts of the show as shameful aspects of the story. In fantasy, Jason says, it’s often magic that saves characters. Here’s an excerpt from the podcast:

Think of Harry Potter’s story without magic: A child—a baby, really—loses his parents to a car accident. Scarred, physically and psychologically, he goes to live with distant relatives. Resentful of the burden his care puts on them, they bully and ignore him. He sleeps in a storage space filled with spiders under the stairs. Every day, he watches the mail carrier bring in the mail, and he imagines that one of those letters would be for him, calling him away to someplace better, and none of them ever do. Gradually, a darkness, which has always been there inside of him, which he can’t express and doesn’t understand, grows. And one day, he just decides to walk into the woods, intent on ending his own life. Pulls his jacket tight about him and thinks about his parents. Wonders what they would say if they were there with him now.

Or think about Game of Thrones without the magic. A boy grows up, never knowing his mother. His father’s wife hates him. Desperate for a place to call home and to make his father proud he joins the military. When he’s gone, his father and half brother are murdered. An orphan, a refugee from war, on the streets in a foreign land, is sold to a stranger like a piece of furniture by her own brother.

Jason goes on to explain that the fantastical elements of these stories are what save both Harry and Jon. Had magic not been introduced into his life, Harry would have had to endure a sad existence with loveless relatives. Similarly, Jon would have remained a member of the Knight’s Watch and lived the rest of his days suffering in the cold North and knowing neither love nor the truth of his origin. (I’m assuming the truth of his origin is something he will learn.)

There are countless examples in literature of magic’s restorative power for characters. Bilbo would have lived an insipid life had Gandalf not taken him on an adventure to see Smaug.  Luke would have remained on Tatooine, and the Emperor would have ruled the galaxy without Obi-Wan Kenobi’s knowledge of The Force. Edmond’s craven nature is washed away because of Aslan’s sacrifice on the Stone Table.

As you know, literal magic doesn’t save people from the circumstance into which they’re born in the real world. An orphaned boy, such as Harry Potter, won’t receive a letter from an owl inviting him to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And a boy who never met his real mother will not become the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. But as I was listening to Jason speak during the end of the podcast, I thought about the closest thing to magic that can save a child: a good teacher.

Teachers can’t provide magical wands, lightsabers, or swords made of Valyrian steel, but they do equip students with confidence and valuable skills. Teachers provide students with the means to take care of themselves and others–no matter the child’s background. Hope, empathy, and resilience are forged in the classrooms of educators who genuinely care about students and continually work on the improvement of their own practice.

We may not have wizards or Jedi knights at the ready to save lives, but thankfully we have great teachers who save the likes of Harry, Jon, Luke, and Edmond every school year.

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Thank you, Mrs. Bauer

I hated taking the bus to school during first grade. I was a sensitive kid, and walking to the bus stop was no easy task. My parents meant well having me trek down the street every morning–I think the attempt toward cultivating a little more resilience was noble–but there was an issue that eventually threw a wrench in my parents’ plan for carpool-less mornings and afternoons: The morning bus was always late.

Most kids could care less that the bus dropped them off late at school. The tardiness wasn’t their fault, nor their parents’. The culprit was the bus, so most kids didn’t bat an eye when strolling into class 10-15 minutes late.

I was not one of those kids. If the bus didn’t show up at the stop on time, I cried. When the bus did eventually arrive, I’d cry on the way to school. And when the bus finally arrived, I’d cry while walking off the bus and into class.

I’m not proud of these tear-soaked episodes. I wish I could talk sense to six-year-old Steve. “Don’t worry about the bus,” I want to say. “It’s not a big deal. All you’re missing is attendance and the morning announcement. Maybe you’re missing the pre-spelling test if it’s Monday, but again, not a big deal.”

In my memory, the bus was late a lot. Maybe I’m exaggerating this lateness. Even if I am, I have plenty other reasons why the bus was bad news for me. I remember stepping in dog poop before boarding the bus one afternoon. It didn’t take long for everyone to smell it and begin making fun of me. I also recall a pimply bus attendant who introduced me to Freddy Krueger. I remember the first time he told us first graders about a scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street... it was the part when the heroine is in the bath tub closing her eyes and Freddy’s claw emerges from the soapy water near her feet. I couldn’t take a bubble bath for weeks.

The terror of the tardy bus culminated one morning in a way I’ll never forget. My mom walked me outside, gave me a kiss, and waved goodbye from our driveway. It was a cold morning, and as I made my way to the bus stop I could see my breath, so I pretended to be a locomotive for a while. I was about halfway to the bus stop when I shifted by backpack and noticed it was a little light. I slipped one of the straps off my shoulder, unzipped the bag, and peered inside. My lunch box was missing.

At that moment, the bus made its turn far up the street and began to slow toward the bus stop. It was finally early on a morning I forgot my lunch! With my backpack in hand, I made a dash toward the bus. The bus stopped and two or three students boarded. Then the doors closed and the bus lurched forward. The driver eventually saw me out the window, so he stopped, the door opened, and I jumped inside.

Unfortunately, as I was running my nose started bleeding, so I sniffed back the blood the best I could. Most of the kids probably just assumed I was crying–they obviously had strong prior evidence to believe this was the case. Eventually, they were correct, because I did begin crying. I had an empty backpack with no lunch. I was frustrated about the bus coming early on the day I forgot my lunch. I was embarrassed about getting on the bus late. And my nose was bleeding. I was a hot mess.

Because of the bus’s promptness, no other students were around when my bus mates and I stepped on campus. I walked to my first grade classroom, sat outside on a nearby bench, and continued sobbing.

A first grade mind is like another planet for adults. Too quickly we forget what it’s like to be young. The lens with which we view the world is drastically different now than it was then. Life experiences, cognitive development, and common sense all help us control our emotions and put things in a healthy perspective–at least most of the time. 6-year-old Steve, with a bloody nose and no lunch box, had a lot of developing and learning to do. I think that’s why I was crying, and it’s also probably why my crying eventually caught the attention of my first grade teacher.

I remember Mrs. Bauer opening the door. She stepped out, helped me to my feet, and walked me inside. Her room was warm, and she had on the classical music she sometimes played while we worked. It smelled like coffee, which I liked. She sat me down and brought over a box of tissues. She gently rubbed my back as I pinched my nose. She told me everything was OK.

She helped me wash by face when the tears and blood stopped flowing. Then she called my mom to let her know I needed a lunch.

The amount of relief and peace I felt in Mrs. Bauer’s classroom that morning is something I’ll never forget. She calmed me down, helped stop my bloody nose, washed my face, and ensured my lunch would arrive. As the other students began whooping and hollering outside upon their arrival, Mrs. Bauer let me stay inside and eat a snack. She smiled and spoke softly. It may have been cold outside, but her classroom was filled with so much warm light.

Teachers do this on a daily basis. They help students who had bad mornings or terrible nights. They leave indelible impressions so girls and boys can grow into strong and empathetic women and men. Educators help students again and again and again–all the while teaching standards, creating engaging lesson plans, formatively assessing, intervening, attending meetings, and much more.

I wish I could say thank you to Mrs. Bauer. I wish I could tell her I still feel the warmth of that morning in her room. I’d like her to know I eventually did become more resilient–that through good and bad years I grew into a man who now has two of his own children whom he loves dearly.

So thank you, Mrs. Bauer. And thank you to all teachers who care for our most precious resources by showing love and compassion on a daily basis.

7 things teachers can learn from the book THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is full of wisdom for those attempting to spread an idea, which makes it perfect for teachers. Here are seven takeaways from this small but helpful book.

  1. Once a mind is made up, it’s difficult–if impossible–to change it. This means whether you’re teaching an adult or a kid, you need to make the impression right off the bat that what you have to share has value. It’s much better to provide a hook at the beginning of the lesson that intrigues your students rather than starting dry and building a favorable opinion throughout the lesson.
  2. Find a category in which you can be first. In other words, find your teaching niche–something about which you deeply care–and be the go-to person for that area.
  3. “There are no facts. There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Everything else is an illusion.” As a teacher or administrator, you will drift through your day among people who believe their perceptions are reality. The truth is, perceptions are relative. When you think your lesson plan is great and the person’s in the classroom next door is bad, all you’re saying is that you have the ability to perceive what a good lesson plan is better than the other teacher. On a related note, data is real, but the way you interpret it is contingent on your perceptions. Are we just seeing what we want to see opposed to what we should see? And what should we see?
  4. Don’t think that explaining good taste will win anyone over. New Coke was number one in taste according to research, but no one bought it. Instead, people bought the soft drink that tasted the worst based on research: Coca-Cola Classic. Lesson: Explaining facts to people is usually pointless. You have to go about persuasion in other ways.
  5. “The target is not the market.” Whether you’re teaching a sixth grade class or a room full of adults, you need to tell a story that can encompass more than your group. For example, Marlboro ostensibly sold cigarettes to cowboys, but there were very few cowboys who purchased them. Many different people (who smoked) bought Marlboro cigarettes.
  6. When designing lessons or selling your idea of best practices, use ideas already installed in the brain. Own the concepts people believe about you, your school, your philosophy, etc. Be transparent about what’s obvious and go from there. Many times beginning a message by admitting a problem opens people’s eyes.
  7. Hype can be seen from a mile away; real revolutions sneak up on us quickly.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is a great read in its entirety, and you can finish it in an afternoon. I highly recommend it.

Empower those around you, and everyone thrives

The large amount of online resources built to enhance student learning is staggering. There’s no dearth in what can be implemented. Instead, the hurdle to teachers adopting new best practices is actually trifold:

  1. Lack of time
  2. Lack of communication
  3. Lack of confidence

Time is a person’s most valuable resource. When dividing a day between eating, sleeping, being with loved ones, and earning money, it’s difficult to learn new things. Responsibilities pile up pretty quickly for adults, and this means less time to explore unfamiliar territory.

Communication has traditionally been poor throughout many schools and school districts. There are a myriad of reasons why this is. In my opinion, a major reason is because a lot of people feel more comfortable going it alone. Collaboration and transparency get the heart beating quickly–better to stay an island.

Confidence grows when you’ve had time to learn something and experience success. Some walk around with false bravado, but most of us appreciate exposure to new curriculum and technology before confidence and mastery appear.

I believe one of the best ways to enhance student learning is by giving teachers more time, better ways to communicate, and helping them gain mastery over technology (which, for me, is synonymous with curriculum) and instructional best practices so they are confident.

That sounds really nice, but how is this accomplished?

Professional development (PD) can initially be daunting and expensive, but every school district has the ability to build effective professional development sessions. Coordinators just have to start with one idea in mind: crowdsourcing.

It’s important to unpack “crowdsourcing” before moving forward. I’m using the word in the following way (my definition): “Contributing to the collective good by outsourcing work within your tribe so everyone benefits.” To crowdsource in education, you build capacity within fellow teachers who in turn create passionate edtech niches and share that passion and knowledge with everyone in their school or district.

Boom! That’s it. Instead of paying consultants to come in and blah, blah, blah about something teachers have heard over and over, pay teachers to seek out best practices, learn them, harness them, and share them with as many people as possible. The money is staying within the district and local community, and a sustainable network of motivated people can teach colleagues. (If you’re wondering about the nuts and bolts of this human infrastructure, check out what I wrote here.)

And don’t let this be forgotten: Motivated people are necessary because they continue learning. We need individuals who will learn, teach, learn again, teach, and so on because everything is in flux. The need for continual PD has never been so important, and there’s no way for one person to know everything. To create institutions of learning that actually foster learning, everyone needs to evolve. If you’re not getting stronger, you’re getting weaker. If you’re not learning new things, your knowledge base is dwindling.

Recently, my school district put the above into action. In one day we offered twenty-two 50-minute sessions taught by teachers within our school district. Attendees picked five of the sessions they thought would be the most helpful. We named the event PBVCon, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Why did a majority of teachers like it?

  1. They had time to choose their own path of learning. Autonomy is a powerful thing.
  2. They communicated with knowledgeable presenters with skin in the game, and they communicated with each other.
  3. Their levels of confidence grew. Perhaps not to an extravagant degree, but there was definitely an increase in the belief: “I can do this!”

Time, communication, and confidence. Crowdsourcing, which is just another version of the age-old technique called “jigsawing,” is the most powerful method schools and districts can adopt in order to help students.

Empower those around you, and everyone thrives.

Build up teachers by crowdsourcing

Consultants are used in many fields. Business. Politics. Sports. Education is no different–especially with the influx of devices pouring into school sites due to 1:1 deployments.

There’s nothing wrong with consultants; they’re helpful in many instances. I do believe, however, it’s important to keep two things in mind when hiring an edtech consultant:

  1. Hiring a consultant to teach a specific program may be necessary, but remember that edtech programs are in a nascent state, which means free apps may start charging, websites could go under, and better technology might be right around the corner. Paying someone to teach you something that may rise in price, disappear, or become inferior is a waste of money.

  2. Teachers within your school or district may end up being the best consultants you’ll find. As of right now, the only reason I’d pay a consultant is to help build capacity within a school district by making teachers mini-consultants. This is a form of crowdsourcing that allows school districts to continually curate the best edtech programs on the market, train teachers, and save money. We should be making edtech experts out of teachers by helping them find their niches. In this way, the overwhelming task of combing through all the available resources is made more manageable. In addition, teachers are empowered and invigorated to not only help students, but also fellow educators.

In my opinion, avoiding traditional consultants and building up teachers as experts is the most sustainable way to provide professional development and build capacity as we enter the era of the Brave New Classroom. I implore all educational leaders to look within to foster professional growth and student learning.

Thirty universes

You’re an astronomer whose job it is to observe celestial bodies, galaxies, black holes–in short, everything that can be perceived in the universe. It goes without saying this is a complicated task. There’s so much to study, and there’s so much we don’t know. A scientist could spend his or her lifetime observing the universe and not even begin to exhaust its complexities.

Imagine if there were thirty universes with completely different laws. 

You’re a physician who deals with various bodily afflictions. Of course, every person’s health is different, but fortunately you have a strong understanding of the human body: bones, veins, blood, lungs… the body is complicated, but it’s measurable and possible to study.

Imagine if there were thirty alien bodies with completely different physical structures. 

You’re a top athlete who’s mastered how to play basketball. You’re a pro at dunks, assists, three-pointers, and free throws. You just helped your team beat an opponent.

Imagine tomorrow night you have to play with a different sized ball every thirty seconds. Would this affect your shooting and ball handling? 

Teachers deal with approximately thirty students. That’s thirty different universes. Thirty different bodies. Thirty different basketballs. Each one different. Each one with his or her own learning modality.

What does schooling do? It treats each universe the same. It says that these standards are good enough for everyone. It says that this test is sufficient for assessing mastery. It says that bell schedules, five-day weeks, grades, and compliance are one-size-fits-all constructions. Educators do the best they can to teach children who have:

  1. Different backgrounds

  2. Different experiences

  3. Different cognitive developments

  4. Different values

  5. Different interests

  6. Different learning modalities

  7. Different desires

  8. Different emotions

  9. Different abilities

  10. Different ways they started the day

Thirty universes whose complexities are impossible to comprehend, let alone study sufficiently. It’s impossible to learn how each student best learns in 9.5 months. As soon as a teacher gets an inkling of how individual students can learn successfully, the kids have summer break before staring over with new teachers.

Imagine the skin in the game if teachers had students for multiple years. What would happen if we understood the thirty intricate universes just a little better? 

It’s safe to say that Dumbing Us Down has me thinking.

Dumbing Us Down

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. –Mark Twain

John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down is a lit match in a dry thicket. It’s a feverish dream before the beginning of a long school year. It’s a wet blanket draped over the positive ideas to which you may cling concerning the effectiveness of Systems. It’s every reservation you’ve held about public education, packaged in an economical 94 pages.

The interesting thing about books is the nature of their relevance. Sometimes a book catches like wildfire and then gradually loses its power. In other instances, a book is released to crickets only later to scorch the world with its ideas.

John Taylor Gatto’s book is a slow and steady burn tailor-made for thoughtful educators concerned with the effectiveness of the public school system. Dumbing us Down was originally published in 1992, and although it isn’t the most widely read book on education out there, it definitely has a strong following. I read another book of Gatto’s years ago entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction, and it posits a truth about public education I’d never fully realized. Dumbing us Down has accomplished the same feat.

I recommend you stop reading this post, open another tab in your web browser, go to Amazon, and purchase the book right now. If you’re not ready to add another book to your Amazon Cart, or you’d like more information about Dumbing Us Down, feel free to venture forward.

The main idea sewn throughout the book is that tinkering with schools to make them better is a lost cause–we have to re-imagine what school should be. Public education was an invention of industrialism, and the main subject schools have concerned themselves with is compliance. To this end, schooling has been extremely successful. Gatto even goes so far as to divide the first chapter into seven sections that represent what he taught as a New York public school teacher for 30 years:

  1. Confusion

  2. Class Position

  3. Indifference

  4. Emotional Dependency

  5. Intellectual Dependency

  6. Provisional Self-Esteem

  7. One Can’t Hide

You’ll have to read the book to find out how these items are taught. If you do so, you’ll either be cheering for Gatto’s gumption or think he’s crazy. There’s not much middle ground in Dumbing Us Down. In fact, on page 12 and again on 61, he makes a statement with which you may or may not agree:

…the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn (Gatto 12).

He goes on to say that each content area can be easily self-taught; all it takes is the right timing, and if there’s one thing public school does not concern itself with, it’s timing.

Gatto paints a beautiful picture, but don’t let the romantic ideas fool you: Putting his thoughts into action would drastically change society. Consider the following excerpt:

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone (Gatto 16).

Does this mean he would do away with credentialed teachers altogether? It’s difficult to say. What is explicit throughout the text is his insistence that school has replaced more important community institutions such as family and church. Gatto makes a clear delineation between communities and networks. Essentially, communities are groups in which people give and receive empathy. The members have skin in the game, which leads to a healthy sense of love, perseverance, and self-reliance. Networks, on the other hand, are places of sympathy. They have no skin in the game. Even though people may feel badly for one another in a network, there’s no sustaining bond.

According to Gatto, schools are networks–soulless places that make students obey a bell (under all circumstances) and force them to another teacher every year (in most circumstances). If you’re a teacher, I challenge you to calculate the percentage of former students who hold meaningful places in your life. It’s low, right? It’s because we’re all a small part of the System.

Dumbing Us Down was written in the early ’90s, so (web based) social networks weren’t yet created. I’d really like to know what Gatto thinks about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. It seems to me social networks exemplify the same traits Gatto gives to “traditional” networks in the book. Facebook provides a feeling that we’re surrounded by people who have skin in the game, but we know this is false. Empathetic relationships are forged within community via closeness of proximity and investment of time–things which social media cannot replace. I think Gatto would lump schools into the same category as social media, which is to say that school is well meaning infrastructure that produces an illusion of belonging.

Twitter, the network of choice for teachers, has spread great teaching ideas while at the same time disseminated educational junk and empty platitudes. It has also propagated the idea of the importance of a PLN, which for most teachers is nothing but smoke and mirrors on Twitter. Consider the following:

When the integration of life that comes from being part of a family in a community is unattainable, the only alternative, apart from accepting a life in isolation, is to search for an artificial integration into one of the many expressions of network currently available. But it’s a bad trade! Artificial integration within the realm of human association–think of those college dorms or fraternities–appears strong but is actually quite weak; seems close-knit but in reality has only loose bonds; suggests durability but is usually transient. And it is most often badly adjusted to what people need although it masquerades as being exactly what they need (65 and 66–emphasis mine).

Am I wrong in saying this describes the false sense of “community” we’re experiencing online?

If you read Dumbing us Down, you’ll have to choose for yourself whether you agree with the following beliefs: 1) School is causing addictive and dependent personalities. 2) School is promoting a life of “accumulation as a philosophy”. 3) “Only self-teaching has lasting value” (31). 4) The theory of teaching isn’t ever discussed in classrooms and lounges. 5) “…we shouldn’t be thinking of more school, but of less.” (47).

Conclusion

Gatto argues that less school, not more, is a move in the right direction. It’s a bold statement and totally antithetical to what’s tossed about in the media, district offices, and school sites. Nevertheless, it’s a discussion worth having, and reading Dumbing Us Down is the perfect place to start. The book is remarkably quotable. I’ve actually had to restrain from posting a lot of excerpts, but I’d like to leave you with some last words written by Gatto:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live life and how to die (67 and 68).