Flavors of Differentiation in Paul Buckley’s “Age of Jackson” Unit

Most of the time talk about differentiation brings to mind open-ended projects and choice.  Giving students multiple avenues to show what they know is key to making room for meaning making.  But what about the ideological differences students bring to classroom spaces?  History, which inevitably involves interpretation that shunts between today, yesterday, and tomorrow,  is arguably the most contested field of study our youth encounter. Is there a way to make space for both forms of responsiveness to the students in front of us?

Enter stage left: Paul Buckley’s Andrew Jackson Project.  Buckley’s assignment sheet begins: “Unit 8: The Age of Jackson is a short unit covering only three lessons from Chapter 10.  There will be no test and no quizzes.  Rather,  you will have three options for how to show your knowledge and understanding of the material.”

Option 1: Hero/Villain Poster– Within the poster option you have choices.  You may create a campaign poster which portrays Jackson as a hero.  Or you may create a wanted poster which portrays him as a villain.  For each of these you will need to include at least four aspects of his life or presidency.  It will also include a written component justifying the topics that you chose to incorporate.  Further, the poster may be either a virtual or a physical poster.  

Option 2: Five Paragraph Essay– Write a 5-paragraph essay in response to this question: “Assess the person and the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  To what degree should we celebrate him and to what degree should we apologize for him?”

Option 3: Research Essay– This is the most challenging option and should be attempted only if you are really motivated by the topic.  Write a research essay in which you address the question “To what degree are there parallels to be drawn between the persons and presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump” You will address their personal characteristics, their policies, and approaches to the presidency. 

P.S. Lest you are thinking what I am thinking (everyone is going to do the poster because it’s super easy and fluffy), there was some writing required either way.  (See the back of the posters for proof below.)

Such assignment prompts are not for the faint of heart.  But anyone who knows Paul knows he cares deeply about supporting students to express their ideas clearly, listen deeply to ideas that differ from their own, and be willing to engage in dialogue across difference.  Paul explains further:

The overarching aim is to have kids recognize the complexity of people and historical  events.  Humans are so complex, aren’t we?!  We can hardly even say that we understand ourselves, much less others.  This recognition hopefully leads to us judging others, past and present, a little less harshly and with a little more humility.  I guess this is one way to help depolarize, eh.  Another aim of the project is to help us to recognize when we are using our presentism lens (judging the past by the moral standards of today) and our historicism lens (judging the past by the standards of their time and place)

From my vantage point, Paul is engaging in two flavors of differentiation in this particular project: (1) giving students choice in the product they create to show their understanding of the unit and (2) creating a clear avenue for agency in historical-ideological interpretation.

My two cents? Generally there are very few clear heroes and villains. We all have a good bit of both all wrapped up hiding under our very human skin.  And I think the authors of the posters below get that too.

When the (Official) Day is Done: Discovering “WHAT ELSE” After School

The word is FUN.  There’s not a whole lot of chance for kids to just have fun . . and let it be their choice, because they are being driven to this practice and that practice, doing homework in the minivan.  All three of us offer and do things with the kids that parents say “NO” to at home, like melting soap to make bath bombs. We’re doing stuff you do at your grandparent’s house, not at your parent’s house. (Patty Wolf)

 I went with the carbon snakes where we were burning things, flames shooting up  . . . ; they want something exciting and they go “THIS IS SCIENCE?!” yes it is . . . “(gasp) what else can I do” And that’s what I like . . the WHAT ELSE . . . in small groups you CAN do the what else! . . .let’s find out . .  (Kathy Vial) 

Yeah I think we all do [after school enrichments] that [we] would want to do.  If I was little, I would want to do, and I STILL want to do it. I taught woodworking one time because I wanted to learn woodwork.  It’s kind of like living through them by doing it. (Kim Sewell)

Fog rising from the grass, I stepped out of the car and wrapped my black, spit-up stained Moby around a half asleep three month old Alianna Rust, securing her to my torso. My husband and I were touring St. Andrew’s (just for fun, not for serious) while on a weekend marathon of house-hunting.  (We had left five year old Lucy and two year old Zander in Indiana with the grandparents.)  I had just recently accepted a gig at Millsaps College in the oh-so foreign land of Jackson, MS.   This school visit was happening courtesy of a recommendation from an admissions-counselor at an Ivy League buddy of mine; she thought we should at least check out the school because of my research interest in K-12 education.  But about 30 minutes into the tour, I felt a distinct sense of home.  My mind began spinning with questions: (1) Is this place for real? (2)  Could we possibly afford this place?, and (3) Do they have high quality after school programming? 

For many working parents with children of a certain age range, finding safe and enriching opportunities for their babies between the hours of 3pm-5pm can become a Herculean task.  St. Andrew’s established After School Care Programming and enrichment auxiliary classes was one large reason my husband and I decided to take the leap into the world of independent school. So perhaps it’s about time we zoomed in on all the goodness that happens after the official school day ends.  Jay Losset and his crew of enrichment faculty and after school staff know that meeting students’ diverse needs after the day is done (right about when exhaustion and hunger can set in) is no small order.  Nevertheless, they do so with a spirit of fun and ease that could serve as inspiration for us all.  

I sat down with Jay Losset (Director of Auxillary Programming), Kathy Vial (Science faculty and long-time teacher of After School Science),  Kim Sewell (PK4 faculty member and Enrichment teacher of classes like Tinkerlab; Emerging Engineers, Slimes, Doughs and Crazy Concoctions), and Patty Wolf (Teaching Assistant and Enrichment teacher of Happy Panda Yoga, Mindfulness, and Glow Girls) to learn more about the magic that makes it all work. (See them all pictured from left to right below.)

Jay, you are an enigma to me with all you manage as director of all of this after-school business for the past nine years! Under your leadership, our camps and after school programming has blossomed beautifully. What is a day in the life like?

Well it depends on the time of year.  I oversee camps when school is out (throughout the school year on specific holidays and teacher work days); enrichment classes (we’re up to 60+), and Saints Summer Experience (Lord willing, registration begins Feb 27th!)   Right now I’m trying to hop to summer because they go live in 20 days, but I can’t tell parents their concerns have to wait until I’m done with that. It’s the day-to -day stuff.  Lynn Davis, Auxillary Programs Associate, keeps the trains of ASC running;  I don’t know how I did it before her!  I’m either getting ready for fall/spring enrichments or summer as well as the constant churn of ASC. (Jay)

I know that After School Care is quite distinct from Enrichments, so let’s start there.  It’s a bit more affordable of an option, more play-based, and less structured.  I know my three Rusts have spent many an hour doing homework in the Commons, playing outside, and watching the occasional movie inside before we can get them at the end of the day. What’s it all about?

Jay: It’s a place for kids to play after hours that’s safe; I think a lot of parents miss that. There are all of these nostalgic Facebook posts about “what I did when I was growing up in the 80’s.”  Some of it was great and some of it was horrible–rose tinted glasses and all that.  We were doing things that we shouldn’t have done.  It’s nostalgic and there were no screens back then, but some of that was not great.  In ASC we have guard rails in place to keep the worst stuff at bay.  We let multiple grades play together; a 1st grader and a 4th grader can look at Pokemon together. It’s sort of a good experiment of sorts.  It gives modern working parents who may lack the neighborhood or don’t feel safe letting them run wild from 3-5 or they can’t get the kid or they have to work.  The number of kids that use it, [not having it] would affect a lot of working parents. After school care is sort of a wild, necessary beast.  I can’t imagine St. Andrew’s existing without it.  

Thanks for that, Jay.  I see you’ve invited three fabulous and experienced enrichment teachers to join us today.  Why did you choose Kathy, Kim, and Patty today?

Jay: Ya’ll came to mind because yours are some of the programs that have multi-year track records of success. For new/prospective teachers, I want to say “go talk to these guys”- they have it down to an art, a science.  Thanks to ya’ll for what you do and being so self sufficient because a lot has changed.

What compliments! And of all of the veterans, I think Kathy wins the award.  I’ve learned just today that she’s been doing after school science for 19 years; when she began, our after school programming just consisted of her science class and basketball. What keeps you going, Kathy?

Kathy: Well we teachers have a vested interest in these kids, and I can do things in my after school science class that I couldn’t do with a full load of kids; we can make sure it gets geared to them.. Of course, it depends on the day. If something has gone down during the school day, it is a little harder.  But as far as planning, I know my subject.  And I have fun doing it.  And I can do it with kids who are excited to do it because they want to, and they get to truly experiment.  They love it, and that brings me up.  Of course I still go home and say “we are ordering out”. For me, I love what I do.  Especially when they are going “GASP- can we do THIS?!” And you can’t do it in one [regular school day] class because if you do it in one class you have to do it for the whole grade.  And they get a whole lot of “I remember,” and that’s fun too and I say “Can you tell me what you remember, and let’s expand on it.”

Student Kimber Sanders created this as a 4th grader in Kathy Vial’s After School Science Class in April 2022.

What about you Patty? How do you find the energy after a full day at work to do enrichments?

Patty: It’s not a struggle or a drag. I love it. I look so forward to it.  This is my second side hustle. I sell real estate so my day ends at 9-9:30.  I have another job after this.  You know, what else am I gonna do? It’s a happy time.  As far as the planning, it takes place during weekends. I plan for the week; I theme lesson plans.  Valentine lesson plans, games, activities on a theme, exercises to go with each theme. I tweak it depending on how many students and the ages. And for Glow Girls I have 20-25 different things whether it’s making bath bombs or self portrait or art. Try to hit varied subjects each semester, each week and let them know what’s coming up the following week.  “See ya Friday at glow girls!” 

That’s amazing! Kim- do you also find this work rejuvenating, despite the added labor?

Kim: Yeah I think we all do things, like I do [after school enrichments] that I would want to do– if I was little, I would want to do and I still want to do it. I taught woodworking one time because I wanted to learn woodwork.  It’s kind of like living through them by doing it. It’s not a drag at all.  It gets harder for me when I have a lot of kids.  It’s more stress when you have 12 kids versus 8.  I remember when Inglish DeVoss left she asked if I wanted to do cooking, which was always packed, but I hate to cook.  Do I want to do cooking that I hate and make so much money and I was like, “no.” 

The theme of this month is teaching the students in front of us; knowing them and adjusting accordingly.  What could classroom teachers glean from something you’ve learned while facilitating enrichments?

Kathy: Since 2005 I’ve been doing after school science.  The one thing I’ve learned is that kids react to each other better and work together better if there is laughter and part of it is, “See where you want to sit” “See who you want to work with”; and “Remember there are other people who might not know you yet.” And I’ve never had a problem with that. Then the kids have their hand in planning it . . . [In after school science] we were identifying bases and acids and they said, “When are we gonna do some real science” and I said, “This IS real science”  . . . and of course they were laughing.  They said they want to do more science and I said, “What kind of science?” and they said “EXCITING!” I went with the carbon snakes where we were burning things, flames shooting up.   They want something exciting, and they go: “THIS IS SCIENCE?!” “Yes it is!”  “(GASP) What else can I do?” And that’s what I like . . the “WHAT ELSE” . . . In small groups you can do the “what else”! . . .”Let’s find out.”  As long as there is (1)laughter (2) they have a hand in guiding it, we can guide where their questions lead them.  They’ve got to come up with them.  And it makes me excited. . I like it so, what can I say; I have fun! 

It’s interesting your repetition of the word “fun”.  Does that resonate with anyone else? 

Patty: That’s it. The word is FUN- there’s not a whole lot of chance for kids to just have fun, and let it be their choice because they are being driven to this practice and that practice doing homework.  All three of us offer and do things with the kids that parents say “NO” to at home, like melting soap to make bath bombs, messy.  We’re doing stuff you do at your grandparent’s house, not at your parent’s house.  And I send home directions on how to do this or that so they can know the ingredients, but even making smoothies, it’s messy, and who wants to go buy 8 bags of frozen fruit to make one child a smoothie at home or whatever!  But it is a mess, but they are paying us to make a mess with the kids!

Okay so is it all just fun and games? Or is there serious “learning” that takes place? 

Kathy: When I was doing rocket science: “Ok you want your water bottle to go how high?”   “How are you gonna measure it?” And they have to come up with ideas on how to do finger measuring and estimates.  And baking soda versus vinegar and recording it. But they don’t get upset about it because it’s theirs . . . they have a hand in it.

Patty:  [Enrichment classes offer]  an opportunity for kids to talk about school with their parents; they will talk about it.

How does choice/interest play into the success of enrichments?

Kim: I think for the most part parents give the kids agency to pick [which enrichments they are in] . . I’ve hardly ever had a kid that didn’t get to choose their enrichments. 

What about the role of the social?

Jay: I think that’s important, because these [enrichment and after school care times]  are some of the few chances kids get to do intermingled activities with different age groups. 

Patty: Something I’ve learned from my work with enrichments: When we teachers are placing children for the following fall, [we should] pay attention more to how the children play, who they play with, who they are comfortable with.  It will draw more out of a child in the classroom when they are with children that they play with: comfort and confidence.

Jay- any final pieces of information you want to share with faculty members reading this?

Jay: Staffing, particularly in after school care, will always be an issue, no matter what.  Space is also a challenge – we are at capacity in the Early Childhood Center! I’m proud that we’ve been able to grow the program back to where we were pre-covid.  In some areas, we’re much bigger than we were before covid.  The breadth and depth of our enrichment offerings continues to grow.  Sidenote:  I’m always looking for someone to teach typing and chess!

Meeting Students Where They Are: How do I Respond when a Kid Falls Asleep in My Class?

This post was contributed by Buck Cooper.

I can tell you the day that I made peace with children falling asleep in my class. I was in the second semester of my first year teaching at (then) T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Another teacher friend who taught at a high school in North Carolina had recently tweeted something to the effect that she had no problem letting a child sleep in her class if that was what they needed at that point in the day or in their life. When I first read this tweet, my righteously indignant, “the children must learn at all costs and there shall be no excuses” (my–not everyone’s, but my particular flavor of (a) Teach For America self) was up in arms. The children? Allowed to sleep? Surely your lessons are hideously unengaging? Perhaps you’re incoherent and they can’t follow what you’re doing? Maybe they’re up all night playing video games at home? Whatever the reason, this. cannot. happen. 

And then I taught in the International Academy (The IA)  at T.C. I had students as old as 23, and as young as 15. I was teaching Geometry and Physics to students who had all recently come to the United States–mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but also from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Moldova and a number of other countries. Their English levels ranged from fairly solid spoken, but rough around the edges written to “I should probably smile when you say what is your name because I have no idea what you are saying unless my friend who is also from my country translates.” It was a lot. My biggest rookie IA mistake was asking a room full of English language learners to trace something assuming they all knew what trace meant. And then I had to try to explain tracing as simply as possible, but with props. 

But back to the sleeping. For much of my first year, when a student fell asleep in my class, I was irritated. I was out there busting my tail to make these lessons engaging, with low linguistic floors for entry and high ceilings for the thinking required to do them. And these students had the audacity to fall asleep in my classes. I began to ask around–among colleagues, the social worker (a really great man named David Wynn, who is 100% one of the greatest and most thoughtful and hilarious humans I’ve ever met and had the privilege to work with), and among my students themselves. What slowly became clear to me was that easily half of my classes were students who left school and went straight to a job, many at restaurants, some in other businesses, where they worked essentially full time jobs. Some worked demolition or construction after school and then worked even more on the weekends. We didn’t have a ton of disposable income while we lived in Alexandria, but when we went out to restaurants, I began to recognize my students as bar backs, busboys, cooks and food servers. And when I asked the ones I knew back at school how much they worked or what they had done over the weekend. And almost to a person, they said that they’d worked basically the entire weekend and that they worked a lot of nights during the week. 

Some of these students were working for walking around money, but a lot of them were working because their family or the people with whom they lived needed their income in order to make the ends meet. A couple, for several different reasons including age, lived on their own. While in high school. In a foreign country they’d lived in for less than 3 years. It was mind boggling. Of course many of them were exhausted on Mondays or by Thursday night or didn’t show up on Friday morning. They were doing the equivalent of two jobs between work and school and the job that didn’t have as much to do with their survival was the one where they felt enough space to relax.  My position in sleeping moderated. I moved from just being irritated by it to asking a couple of questions and doing my homework about who was working where and how much and what the situation was.

My point here isn’t to romanticize the life of teaching immigrants or to say that I got this right. It’s just to point out that there’s an internal logic to what our students do, even when they’re wrong for it in our eyes. What makes sense to people is what they do. And I think a big part of meeting our students where they are is trying to parse out this internal logic and if not to take it into account when we make decisions about children, at least to see that it’s something worth paying attention to. Sometimes it’s something worth respecting. We can go a long way towards meeting our students where they are if we respond to something that they do that’s upsetting appropriately, but thoughtfully, with the understanding that whatever they’re doing makes sense to them, and that that sense is worth getting our heads around.

In a land far, far away… Well, not really.

A few weeks ago, a group from the Lower School made the trip down to New Orleans for some of the most enjoyable professional development, school visits!

Maya Buford, Jessica Farris, Kathy Vial, Mayson McKey, Sara Clark, Sarah Walker, and myself spent two days visiting schools in Metarie and New Orleans. The group visited St. Martin Episcopal School, Metairie Park Country Day, Isidore Newman School, and even got to catch up with Virginia Buchanan, a valued and treasured member of our St. Andrew’s family.

The purpose of the trip was to observe best practices for the application and integration of visual and performing arts, world languages, science, makerspace, and tech integration.

The co curricular team had wonderful and insightful tours and had numerous valuable conversations with teachers and administrators at each of the schools visited.

At St. Martin Episcopal School, the team witnessed the benefits of having departments from all divisions working together, planning, and sharing resources that enriched the students’ learning experiences both in and out of the core content classrooms, as well as fostered the growth of the community as whole from the preschool all the way to the senior class, where students parents, faculty and staff were all valuable parts of the whole.

Metairie Park Country Day was a magical experience where the team was able to observe that thinking outside the box and non-traditional classroom models can actually be a widely successful model for differentiation and student success. High expectations and relationships were the backbone of every story and interaction beheld at the school where students participated in specialized blocks of time for club and enrichment activities held by every member of the faculty and staff.

Isodore Newman welcomed us with open arms, and was excited for our group of teachers to join in their monthly assembly called the Greenie Gathering, where they infuse their monthly calendar with a critical to the educational experience, FUN! Special songs, guests from the community, celebrating success, student and event showcases, and reminders of who they are as a community shined through. 

The team saw so many things that these schools were doing well, and that there is truly not some perfect model for all schools to follow and be successful. The keys are its members, the mission, and knowing and meeting the needs of your community and students.

Although much was learned, seen, and many more ideas were brought to the forefront for future pondering, the overall take-away: There are so many things in which St. Andrew’s excels, and we are proud to be part of the St. Andrew’s Episcopal community.

Take a walk through through the halls, so to speak, by talking a look at a few of the pictures below.

Let’s Get Real about Time, Differentiation, and Sustainability

Elephant in the room:

Elephants” by Mila Marjanovic, 2nd grade year (May 2021)

100% commitment to 24/7 differentiation in any classroom, in its purest and most consistent form, is probably unattainable for a teacher with any semblance of work/life balance.  Why? It takes a whole lot of that slippery, precious precious resource: time.

Maybe it’s possible if you are homeschooling your single child at home. Maybe then.  Only then.

When I was barely 21 years old and looked about 10, I spent my first three years teaching seven preps (6th Grammar/Writing, 6th Reading, 7th Grammar/Writing, 7th Reading, 8th Grammar/Writing, 8th Reading, 8th US History)  at a tiny private Catholic School in Terre Haute, IN.  The entire 6th grade class had 31 students in it, so I needed a few extra chairs.  7th grade, though only populated by 10 students, made up for it in their constant talking over me.  8th grade was a more manageable 25 or so. I had never had a full time teaching gig before, so I didn’t know enough to know this was an insanely challenging load for a first year teacher.  I had a brand new husband, which in my opinion shouldn’t need any maintenance. I remember distinctly thinking: “Oh this is a job you have to work hard for?  I’m good at working fast.  Time, for me, is a flexible heuristic.” (Oh dear, dear Julie before three kids.  You had no idea just how finite time would become.)

So, I dedicated my life to this new adventure: morning, noon, night, weekends.   I rode my bike in the just-rising 6am sun to arrive early to the building, in time to begin my daily routine of faking it until you make it.  Sometimes I was reading the history chapter for the first time as I taught it. I had copious stacks of worksheets just-in-case I ran out of lesson plans.  (Spoiler: I never ran out of lesson plans. I eventually recycled all of the worksheets.) I would sometimes watch a movie with my husband on a Saturday night while responding to letters my students had written me about the books they were reading.  I found a bag of chocolate chips was a wonderful way to get through an impossible load of essays. 

Lesson planning was my favorite world of exhilarating possibility.  How might I spend the next hour, day, week, month, unit, year as I intentionally met the needs of each of my students?  I buried myself in articles clipped from English Journal and Voices from the Middle and resources I gobbled up at every conference I was able to get my hands on.  It was completely exhausting and completely unsustainable and completely wonderful. I fell in love with my students and my profession as I fell in love with my husband.  I grew into my authority as an adult in the room as I literally grew into being an adult.  I don’t recommend this kind of entry into teaching for any first year teacher.  Funny thing is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What could possibly take me so much time? Well for one, I was a complete novice with no English teaching buddy or mentor in the building.  There was no existing curriculum that I thought was worth its salt.  So I painstakingly built it from the ground up.  But there was something else at play here too  . . .an annoying persistence to live out my educational philosophy that the best teaching involves giving individual students what they need in relation to interest, skill level, etc.  Why put on an existing play when students could write a play based on their local reality?  Why use an existing lesson plan on persuasive writing when I could craft an authentic series of activities related to my overdue library books and have students work on letter writing at the same time? Kids are complaining about homework? Let’s turn this into a research opportunity and have them lead a debate for the full school on whether homework in middle grades improve achievement.  Every comment a kid made was a learning opportunity, a data point . ..one that if I listened hard enough could totally shift the trajectory of our curriculum.

For me, the calling to differentiation also often took the form of copious individualized feedback-tracking at every turn.  Every journal entry required a personal response that both affirmed and gave a suggestion for improvement.  Every worksheet was graded for accuracy and put into a spreadsheet I utilized to track individualized mastery of ELA Indiana Academic Standards.  Sometimes feedback took the form of one-on-one conferences which I tracked on a different spreadsheet so I could account for what each student was working on and their progress.  We talked individually about their books, about their writing pieces (which were individualized by genre based on interest of course.) The days and class periods flew by.  Sometimes, the results of my work on student growth were astounding.  Just as often, though, I found the first draft of an essay I had lovingly written all over crumbled on the floor.  My feedback had never been read.  By the end of most days, when I tried to read a few paragraphs in a book for myself, my eyes either refused to focus or I fell immediately asleep.

You can see where this story is going.  I almost lost my mind those first few years of teaching.   This “all the differentiation all the time” approach was killing me and exhausting my kids.  It was also having the unintended impact of creating a curriculum that was all-over-the-place and failed to re-loop enough for most students to grasp full mastery.

This I believe: Differentiating and following individual students’ interests, skill levels, etc. is a TOOL in the TOOLKIT.  It is not the whole kit and caboodle.  On the other side of the coin, if we are never doing it because “it takes more time” or because “this isn’t how I was taught” or “this isn’t how we did it 20 years ago,” shame on us.  But let’s not go crazy either.  Sometimes, we can all benefit from the same lesson, the same message, the same way, at the same time.  Sometimes the kids that are stronger in an area can then help teach the others and bring them along.  This is slowing down their content acquisition process, sure, but is also helping them grow some skills: communication, collaboration, articulation of understanding, metacognitive skills. This is, at its heart a number of game.  And if there is one of us and 20 of them in a classroom, well . .. you do the math. 

And also there’s this: sometimes differentiating would be better, but for the sake of a healthy and balanced teacher that needs to have a life outside of school, we go with second best.  

And guess what? Everyone still survives, learns some stuff, and goes on to live and learn another day.

You’re Doing It!

This post was contributed by Michelle Portera.

I know a girl. A very smart, beautiful girl who can be shy around her peers. She is passionate about science and her brain is constantly wondering things about the world. She likes who she is and is ok with the fact that others may not always value her personality type. She is unaware of how funny she can be and often delivers a perfectly timed one-liner followed by, “What? Why are you laughing?! ” Prior to St Andrew’s, she attended a “good” school, but found it hard to make friends or even find someone to converse with on a daily basis. School was something to get through and survive. Although she knew she had a lot to offer the world, it was a struggle to find people who were ready to acknowledge or receive it. 

In 7th grade, she became a Saint. The smaller class size, diverse student body, and incredible teachers made school something to look forward to. The following year, she took a chance and tried out for the school play. She hoped for an ensemble role that would allow her to be in a group, blending into the background, where she is most comfortable. But. . she wasn’t anticipating the teacher eyes that can see past the surface and into the possibilities, or gaze at the acorn and see the mighty oak. She was given, not a blend in part, but a front and center role! To her, it felt surprising and scary, but also intriguing and hopeful. This brave girl decided to give it a shot. She looked forward to each practice, delighted to discover that singing wasn’t just something she did for choir, but something she truly loved to do. 

There were Moments. Big scary ones. At rehearsals, her mind and body battled it out to see which version of herself would show up that day. Sometimes her mind would reassure her that she was safe, cared for, and able to embody her role in front of an audience. Other days, her friend Anxiety would freak out and she wouldn’t show up at all. Those days she went home defeated and disappointed in herself were the absolute worst. The next day was usually fantastic, though, because her teacher knowingly assured her, “It’s all part of the process,” and that empathy calmed the anxiety right down. It was a sweet surprise when peers asked how the play was going or said they planned to attend her performance. This sense of community was new and it meant everything

In the end, she did it! Her grandmother commented that she wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes. After all, this was the girl who refused to unwrap birthday presents at her party because too many people were watching. Now her world had opened up, and with it, her confidence. She learned something that many adults

(read: me) have yet to fully realize–often, avoiding the hard thing means missing out on the good stuff. 

This isn’t only about a theater teacher or a school play. It’s a nod to all the little moments that led to this. It’s the teachers who asked her to stand and present her work to the class, or taught her to work in a group, or pushed her just a little outside of her comfort zone. It’s the ones who have asked her questions about herself and made her feel worth knowing. The teacher who texted on a Saturday to say she enjoyed reading her essay. The administration who works hard to create a sense of community where everyone matters. It’s you reading this right now, because you are invested in this place and these people. It ripples outward, starting with the energy you bring here. Change mostly happens in small ways that, in the end, are a big part of who our students will become. Sometimes we see it and sometimes we don’t. We are hyper-aware of ways we need to grow in our professional practices–good teachers are always reflecting and adjusting. But balance any feelings of guilt or dissatisfaction with the knowing that you are part of life-changing work. That thing you wanted to do when you decided to go into education? You’re doing it.

Meeting Each Athlete Where They Are: The Coaching/Teaching Connection

“Touchdown” by Ryan Ward, 2nd grade year (May 2021)

Sometimes when I leave my office or a classroom and head down to the ARC, I feel like I’m entering an entirely different world. Indeed, in some ways, the workflow of a coach is nearly unrecognizable from a faculty member’s: starting in earnest before school, loosening up during the school day, and then really amping up when the rest of us are starting to go home.  The joke is that at any given time, you can find the coaches dining on Chick Fillet in that gorgeous set of athletics offices, and to be fair, when the coaches asked to chat with me a few weeks ago, there were indeed myriad hot and delicious breakfast sandwiches to choose from.  But don’t let the shiny offices and delicious array of food deceive you.  The minute we got to talking, the meeting sounded pretty much like every faculty meeting I have ever been in: folks concerned first and foremost for the the youth they worked with, exhausted from juggling the demands of all of the stakeholders (students-parents-admin-etc.), and convinced that the best way to help students grow is by providing them with timely and focused feedback. 

(Here I should pause to note: the perceived athletic/academic divide is absurd since so many of our community members teach by day and coach by afternoon/night.  To those folks I send a double dose of respect.)

Of course I’m most certainly not the first (and won’t be the last) to point out the vocation of coaching athletics and teaching academics have a whole lot in common. (For example, check out Hollie Marjanovic’s killer-good 2021 blog: “The Athletics-Academics Connection, and Why Preparing for Finals is a lot like Practicing for the Big Game.” )  But in this month’s blogs focusing on “teaching the students in front of you,” it feels like an exceptionally good time to revisit how much common ground coaches and faculty share.  But since I, Julie Rust band and drama geek, know about nothing about the life of athletics, I thought we better hear it straight from the coaches themselves: from 36 year veteran Burney King to our first year fabulous tennis coach, Jessie Humble.  I have a feeling reading their ideas below will inspire you in your own work with students, whether your main medium is novels, numbers, art canvases, or tennis courts.

How do you work to target individual athletes’ needs during practices or competitions? 

  • I try to build a session that will focus both on the team as a whole and then individual units. In soccer, all players need the fundamentals of being able to control, pass and dribble so we will begin with a full team activity that works on these three basics. I then try to design activities based on position and split the players up accordingly. For example; attackers will work on shooting/finishing with the goalkeeper and defenders will work on defending crosses, long balls etc. Sessions will be regularly updated to focus on any weaknesses that we have noticed in games. I would love to do more 1 on 1 work with players but our season is so short and practice is so limited that we usually don’t have the time.  (Perry Goldsbury, Boys Soccer Coach)
  • With the pre-season and early season being conditioning and fundamentals there is not much room for variations.  However when we “talk” skills it does vary.  We try and make sure we verbally recognize each kid daily by simply saying their name and encourage those who struggle more with certain skills. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • We have a very young sport here in Mississippi so most all of the student athletes are in the toddler phase of the sport. We are on the mat with them correcting techniques in the moment… in real time.  I think it is important to be able to get in there and mix it up with them so they know what a good training partner should do when drilling techniques. (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • I try to ensure an atmosphere where one can be and express themselves without judgment from coaches and their peers. I also make myself available for any student athlete that needs to address me for any reason. (Lee Marshall, Cheer Coach)
  • I would say it is based on what we see in practice. If there is an athlete that needs more instruction or skill work in a certain area, you stop and address it then during practice. Then continue to work on it each practice so you start to see improvement in that area with them. (Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • The more accomplished you become in the weight room, the greater your self confidence will be on the field or in your sport.  You’ll know, in your heart, that you’re doing everything possible to become a stronger and more skilled athlete, and lose any doubts about your ability to compete.  And all the while you’re strengthening yourself, you can rest assured that you’re also reducing your chance of being injured. (Joe Ray, Strength & Conditioning)
  • Each athlete has different needs. You can’t coach them all the same, some may need more pulling than others, where others you can push. You have to know each player’s strength and put them in the best position to be successful in their role. You can get them out of their comfort zone to embrace what it will take for them to see they have the ability to see the results they want to see. Practice is supposed to be intense so when it is time to compete the tone is already set.  (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • One way I do this is to break apart our practice time into different “periods” focusing on individual work, specialty groups, and entire team instruction. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • Something I love about softball is every practice can be different because there are so many different skills to work on. My goal is to build well-rounded athletes, which means we have lots of different skills to work on. We may work on some of the same skills daily, but there are tons of different drills and ways to work on them. My “for you” page on TikTok is almost entirely teacher videos and softball drills. I love finding and then trying new drills to keep things new and fresh at practice. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • We definitely have a wide range of skill levels and also many players who play multiple positions. One of the hardest things is to design a practice for our players to get reps at the different positions they play.  (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach) 

How do you work to challenge all athletes in the course of one practice session with so many different skill levels represented?

  • Each of my activities have different variations attached to them. I’m lucky enough to have a JV and Varsity team which makes it easier to challenge the different skill levels. My varsity team will go through all the variations I have assigned whilst my JV team will only go through 1 or 2. The aim of my sessions are to challenge the top players and set high standards for everyone. I believe it’s important to set high standards but I believe as a coach you have to understand that by doing this you have to be understanding to some of the younger/newer players who may that not be at that level yet. As long as players are trying their best, working hard and being willing to learn I am forgiving on small technical or tactical mistakes that they may make. (Perry Goldsbury, Head Soccer Coach)
  • We challenge each kid to the max each day with the understanding some will need more encouragement than others.  Also the teammates who excel are really good at encouraging those who might have a more difficult time. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • We do ladder drills where we group the wrestlers by weight classes and have one of them “own it” for multiple rotations. We put them in situations and have them wrestle “live” to get real match scenarios. Once they have gone a few rounds with fresh guys coming in then the skill levels start to even due to them getting tired. This is to have them focus on technique when tired and how to push through those moments when in a match. We put them in tougher situations than they will face in a match so it will be easier in those situations. We, the coaches, also jump in to push them when needed.  (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • Open discussion from each team member what they want for the team. Make note of the objective and goals.  Put them in position to hold everyone accountable; expectations on both side, athlete and coach; ongoing UPLIFT and when necessary Tough LOVE. (Lee Marshall)
  • We separate the JV/Varsity into their sections and work with each according to their skill level/ needs. (Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • Everyone is going to develop at a different rate in the weight room, you cannot compare yourself to others.  There’s something special about going one on one with a barbell and succeeding ant that’s what you build off of. (Joe Ray, Strength & Conditioning)
  • That as a team we all have the same goal we set as one. Different skills level are great, meaning we will not be a limited team, but we have to stick together. The standard of a program where you want sustainability requires discipline, commitment, and eliminating the me, and embracing the team aspects. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball)
  • For football, we do daily skill specific drill repetitions that relate to the player’s position. During these individual drills we can challenge each player and push them according to what we know about their skills and abilities. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • In softball, there are 9 different positions on the field. While some positions have similarities, each one is unique with distinct differences. I vary the structure of my practices constantly. Sometimes I split the girls into groups based on their skill levels, sometimes I split older girls and younger girls, while other times I just randomly split the team evenly. When I throw front toss at practice, I am able to give one-on-one hitting support to each player. This means I can target specific mechanics for each player during this time, which I really value and try to make the most of. I also try to always set aside a little time with each position and work on skills specific to that position. I am always encouraging my older girls to step up, be leaders, and help the younger girls. With most drills, I can easily vary the level of difficulty or challenge based on the player’s skill level. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • At times, I try to stagger the groups so when our younger players are in the batting cage, the older players are on the field, and then they switch. We are then able to increase the difficulty of the skill practiced based on the skill level and experience of the group. (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach)

Is coaching a form of teaching? Why or why not?

  • Absolutely! I was a coach before I was a teacher but I became interested in being a teacher through my enjoyment of coaching. You have to design a session (lesson plan), you have to conduct the session and keep people on task (classroom management), you then have to provide feedback and assess players performance (tests/quizzes) and you have to be able to motivate the players to do their best (create and build relationship with students). (Perry Goldsbury, Boys Soccer Coach)
  • Absolutely! Our content must be broken down into its simplest form and taught back to the whole. Any coach worth his “salt” is a great teacher.  We use techniques such as whole-part-whole just as classroom teachers do. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Absolutely… and I am learning every practice how to do it better from our head coach. It is easy for me to get on the mat and wrestle. It is not as easy to break it down into the small steps to get them to that particular destination. Then there is the challenge of once having broken down a particular technique and then being able to get it out of your head all the way to your mouth and to be able to make it make since to each individual wrestler. Not everyone processes the information the same way… You can’t just teach it one way.  (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • Definitely, Teachers and Coaches are on the same team and share the same goal. I think sometimes that part gets lost between the two.  As a coach I always stress the importance of giving your best during practices, performances; in the classroom and in their community.     We are both equipping these kids with the tools to make it and be a contributing impact in this world.  Foundation is very important. Coaches and Teachers are part of that foundation. It’s a collaborative effort. (Lee Marshall)
  • I would say it is more like a percentage… 30% teaching 70% coaching. Teaching being the correction/instruction you are giving to help the athlete learn to play the sport better. Coaching being skill building and instruction during practice and games.(Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • Yes, great coaches are the best teachers.  To be successful you must be able to master your sport, and great coaches help you get to that point. (Joe Ray)
  • Coaching is teaching. You are able to teach the fundamentals of a sport and life lessons to athletes that had no awareness or to enhance the tools to continue to grow within their skill set and applying  them on a daily basis. Each year, you should see the development of an athlete. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Yes! The students who come to play football (or any sport) come with a wide range of abilities, skills, and knowledge so I have to assess their backgrounds and determine how to give them what they need to participate and be successful. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • 100% YES! Great teachers are always trying to better their craft, whether that be through research, attending conferences, finding new resources, etc. The same goes for great coaches. Coaches are constantly looking for new drills, new workouts, new ways to challenge their athletes. Teachers work daily to help their students master standards and coaches work daily to help their athletes master their sport’s skills. Also, to be a great coach you need to know and care about your athletes outside of the sport, just like great teachers care about their students’ lives outside of the classroom. Lastly, in a classroom, teachers differentiate instruction to meet the needs of their students. The same goes for coaches who differentiate their practice plans based on their athletes’ skill levels. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • Absolutely, I am able to see the progression of our students/players each day and from year to year. That allows me to adjust practice plans to move more quickly to something new or to go back over something that we did not do well. (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach)

Do you have a story about a particularly successful coaching move you’ve made or perhaps something that didn’t go well that we could all learn from? 

  • To date the greatest success story involves a young lady in the Class of 99.  When she came out in the 7th grade we cut her.  The same thing happened to her in her 8th grade year.  In the 9th grade we kept her and she happened to grow 6″ between her 9th and 10th grade season and became our first girl off the bench her sophomore season. She would go on to be a two year starter. Her four years in high school we won 100 games which is the most successful four year stretch in school history.  Currently, she has two boys attending St. Andrew’s and is one of our most ardent supporters. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • The many times I helped one realize their potential on and off the floor; self love and respect for not only themselves but their peers; developed leadership skills (Lee Marshall)
  • I have learned over the past 3 to 4 years that you have to meet players where they are and in doing that it allows space for more grace, motivation, and accountability. When players see that you care about their overall well being, you see a difference in how they compete. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Last year, our varsity team of mostly middle schoolers faced very tough district opponents. Even though we were getting run ruled, it amazed me that my girls stayed positive and continued to encourage each other. Several opposing coaches gave them compliments after the game for the way they never stopped cheering each other on. While I am very competitive and I did not enjoy getting run ruled every game last year, this was a huge win for me as a coach. The takeaway is that while winning is great, it isn’t all about winning. My girls were and are a true team. Our team theme this year is “Trust the Process.”  With 8 of my 12 girls who played last year returning this year despite the rough season, the only way we can go is up. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • In sports you are going to have your ups and downs, the main thing is to keep the perspective on what you are trying to accomplish. Example:  If a golfer hits a bad shot, and he allows his frustrations get to him, it’s going to affect his next several shots, how to handle that!  If you hit a bad shot, you have to have a case of amnesia, forget about it and move on to your next shot.  (Joe Ray)

Anything else you want to share with teachers about your lived experience with coaching?

  • There is no greater profession than being a teacher and no greater moniker than Coach! (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Don’t take your position lightly! We have a unique opportunity to have a huge impact in these students’ stories! (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • It’s a blessing and calling to do what we do as coaches and teachers. #Encourage #instruct #Inspire #Increase and #LeadingwithLOVE (Lee Marshall)
  • Since this is my first year, I would say that it is more of what I have observed in the past from coaches. It takes a lot of dedication to be a coach and commitment. You are spending time away from your family to work with these students/athletes. Especially when teaching and coaching, you are spending the majority of your day with students and that comes from a place of caring and commitment. (Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • Best advice I can offer coaches when creating a training program, or playbook, is Don’t overthink it.  Coaches often hinder themselves by using training methods that are much too advanced for the level of their athletes. Know the level of your athletes. (Joe Ray, Strength & Conditioning)
  • Coaching has changed my life for the better. It is one of the best jobs in the world. The ability to connect with student athletes is priceless. To see them accomplish goals they have set for themselves where at the time they couldn’t see it is an amazing feeling. To be able to witness it and be a part of it brings me so much joy. Sports help build confidence, character, self-esteem, and etc. Winning is fun, but it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is inspiring these students that they can be whoever they want to be in life. Waking up each day to be better than the day before. For them to say because of you I did not give up. To see these students as people, as a game changer on and off the court. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • In my experience I’ve found that I have to set high expectations for all of my players (even the ones that may not have the prerequisite skills needed) and making them believe that they CAN achieve those expectations is key. Holding them accountable is key as well – there are consequences when players actions are not consistent with our team and individual values and agreed upon expectations. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • This will be my 5th year to coach softball at St. Andrew’s. I love coaching because it combines two things I love: building positive relationships and teaching youth. I love “my girls.” The excitement on their faces when they hit a double to the gap or make a terrific defensive play is the best. When I am correcting their hitting mechanics, and the lightbulb dings and they understand what they need to do, it is a great feeling. The smiles on their faces when they see the results from the correction is priceless. The game of softball has brought me so much joy through the years and I am excited that I get to share that joy with girls and be a positive influence in their lives. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • I have learned that it is necessary to be flexible and willing to change from year to year. I am always looking for a better or new way to teach a particular skill. Students have changed throughout the years and it is up to us as teachers to make adjustments also. (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach)

It’s the Who and Not the What

This post was contributed by Hollie Marjanovic.

Last November I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Learning and the Brain Conference.  The last speaker was a man named Principal Baruti Kafele.  It was appropriate that he spoke to us on Sunday morning, because as the saying goes….he took us to church.  His passion for schools to be places that are inclusive and equitable for all students is unmatched.  His simple message to us was “It’s not what you teach, it’s who you teach that matters.”  A very basic mantra and we all get it, but what does it mean?  Do we really know our students?  

He talked about having his teachers during workshop week going to drive through some of the neighborhoods where kids live or doing research on the music, games, tv shows, or other things with which they engage.  Doing so creates a better understanding of who they are.  It also gives us some connecting points when we try to connect the lines of our lessons to their brains.  So much research shows that students can engage content more effectively if it already connects to something with which they are familiar.  It is also encouraging to know that taking this step does not sacrifice time in your curriculum.  Yes, there are pressures to perform for AP exams, MAAP testing, and other things (state tests were a huge one for me in public school).  However, making these connections early on and utilizing practices which allow students to have a voice or work to make sure that they are celebrated in some way in your classroom will help them to become more confident in themselves and be more receptive to the lessons, leading to deeper understanding and learning.  There might even be lessons for you.  

Principal Kafele’s primary message was that certain groups are very much underrepresented in many schools.  When I first started at SA in 2016, we had a 2 day workshop in the summer with a phenomenal DEI leader from SAIS.  He talked about how we should walk around our school and look at the art, the books on the shelves, the pictures, then listen to the lessons in our classroom…and see who’s culture they represent.  Can we walk through our campuses and see who is represented?  If they aren’t represented, can they feel like they belong?

There are amazing teachers here who are working hard to make sure that inclusivity and belonging happen and I’d like to share some tidbits of wisdom, advice, and lessons learned from some of them…..

Linda Rodriguez

  • Dipped her toe into project based learning a few years ago and realized that if kids can be given choice in how they express their knowledge, then it creates opportunities for more inclusive conversations about topics of student interest.  
  • In journalism, the kids have a lot of autonomy to choose stories that they are interested in and we have strict parameters about who they interview to make sure that we are reaching outside of just their friend group and getting input from a diverse collection of the SA community.
  • In history she is always looking for the different lenses from which to examine historical facts and I’m especially interested in finding the hidden voices–the people who don’t get into the history book.  It is tempting to rely on our textbooks in our classes, but by doing that we only present half of the story.  It is VITAL for us to make sure that everyone in our classes feels included in what we are teaching and student choice helps them not only express their own interests but also explore different facets of our curriculum.

Anna Johnson, Director of Choirs

  • The voice, in particular, is a very intangible and personal thing.  It is important for our students to feel that they can contribute to the larger body of work with what they have to offer.  It comes through a LOT of encouragement…..”I know I’m pushing you, but you can do this”….It also comes through them creating relationships with people they might not associate with outside the classroom door.  They might not realize it, but when we voice at the beginning of the year, I place the weaker with the stronger to make them weaker stronger and also the stronger stronger.
  • As far as music goes, trying to include repertoire that speaks to our students in the same way that it speaks to me.  That means we naturally have to do some more classically based choral especially for adjudication, but it is important to also include some more popular songs with which they are familiar, along with music from other world cultures because it is important for them to find their place in our music.  I tell them all of the time that they leave having an appreciation for the art form of music and can contribute to their communities, whether they are a good singer or not.  

Thomas Riesenberger, Co-Chair of the World and Classical Language Department

  • The things I do well is to realize the class is about them, but I use the what to get there…..my content is the shared thing we can talk about 
  • The first thing I do as much as possible is to make space for them to tell me how they feel and what they need.  I have the luxury of teaching the students for 3 or 4 years.  I find teaching freshmen super hard because of that.  When starting to cultivate this relationship with the freshmen, it can be awkward.  But when they return to me as sophomores, they can relate to me more as a person than as an authority figure.  
  • One of the things I do is to pretend that class is starting 5 minutes late….be pretending to connect the projector, or something like that, then they start to talk to one another and then I pick up on the common thread of what they are discussing and then I insert myself into that conversation……I feel that these moments are very genuine and real….and I take it that way….even if they say some dumb teenager stuff, I take it very seriously and then they take it very seriously and they are saying less dumb stuff….having these relationships with them gets me to the point of where I need them to be to do the hard stuff with the content of the class
  • They know by Latin 3 that I’ve never denied anyone entrance to AP Latin, they are welcome to join the ride.
  • Because I have had them for 3 to 4 years, it is really important to hear out that kid because I can’t burn bridges with them.  It is really important that I have them invested in the relationship with me, then they will be invested in Latin. There is space in a classroom for the curriculum, because of the space for them.

Guiding from the Side

This post is contributed by Linda Rodriguez.

I grew up in the age of sages.  Teachers who knew and imparted vast amounts of factual wisdom – so much that my hand would ache trying to copy even just the gist of what they said.  Classrooms were quiet places of rarified knowledge with teacher-wizards who pulled back the curtain and gave us a glimpse into the holy font of their incredible knowledge.

Fast forward about 30 years.  Today, students can access more information than any educator can possibly know on their diminutive handheld computer/communication devices.  But rather than lament the seeming loss of purpose in the teaching profession, I would argue that today’s students are searching for adults who can help them make sense of all the information at their fingertips.

The 21st century teacher must become a Guide on the Side, showing students how to ask the right questions, search the right keywords, synthesize information to find new ways of interpreting data.  We are also duty bound to help our students become independent learners.  I think we all have found that students are requiring more hand-holding post COVID than they ever needed before.  It is our responsibility to take off the training wheels, let go of the seat, step back and let them navigate on their own.

Will they all ride like the wind, taking control of their academic journey?  Unlikely.  However, just like we do with our own children, we can help them up when they fall and give them another go.  Planning lessons that include multiple perspectives, primary source materials, cross disciplinary resources, and out of the box thinking tasks is vital for encouraging the independent higher order processing that our students so desperately need as they navigate today’s info rich world.

Edutopia has a great article with useful tips and links on how to help students transition from dependent to independent learners.  For me, I’m glad to be the guide to my students’ adventure, for it’s a thrilling class when we’re all learning together.

Introducing the Jan/Feb 2023 Blog Blast Theme: Teaching the Students in Front of Us

(Or in my case, the 8th graders who are usually in front of Matt Hosler)

I haven’t been in classrooms as much this year.  Blame it on accreditation; blame it on misplaced priorities.  I have missed it.  Beyond missed it.  So when Matt Hosler asked if I might be interested in taking over his 8th grade English class for a week while he was on paternity leave I got fairly breathless with excitement:

“Wait- can I take it over-take it over? Like actually plan, teach, grade?”

“Sure.  Do whatever you want.”


Coincidentally, this first blog blast of 2023 is dedicated to “Teaching the Students in Front of Us,” as is our final PD Day installment of “High Expectations/Strong Supports.” Also, as Hollie and Buck pointed out, the date of this blog blast release happens to coincide with Valentine’s Day 2023.  So maybe we should call this “Love the students you have; not the students you wish you had.”  Or, if we take the Episcopal Identity route, how can we ensure our pedagogical choices “respect the dignity of all human beings”?  These invitations beg some questions:

  • Is it possible that our “high expectations” tend to privilege some ways of being in the world more than others? 
  • How can we actually enforce high expectations if we don’t recognize that students have varying degrees of ability to reach those?
  • How can we provide strong supports if we don’t match those supports to the individual human needs that populate our learning spaces?   

The idea is if we can better account for all of the differences our youth bring (identity markers, skill level, experiences, speed of processing, religious beliefs, personal interests/passions, etc.) we can curate our own classrooms to meet them where they are through varying content (the knowledge/skills a student should master), process (activities students use to master that content), and product (the methods students use to demonstrate learning.)  If anyone is new to differentiation, here’s a lovely module that helps explain it.  This work, to me, works best in concert with work on culturally sustaining pedagogy. It is impossible and also unnecessary to differentiate everything, all the time, because we have some scientific grasp on what activities and learning experiences work best for which learning goals. (See this blog if you are feeling like it’s all too much.) But enough professor talk.  Back to me. 

I spent an ungodly number of hours over Christmas break dreaming of all of the perfect one week units 8th grade ELA units that could ensure.  I’m no newbie, so I knew all elements of perfection would evaporate the minute my first student entered the room.  Still . . . the possibilities! I read about 62,000 personal narratives to find the perfect mentor texts.  Poems too. I sat in a coffee shop like the good old days when I was a teacher creating my weekly assignment sheet.  Heaven.

Then I taught the students in front of me.  Ya’ll the current eighth grade class is indisputably delightful.  Everyone says it.  Still, the minute my plans left the google slideshow and leapt into the reality, I learned a thing or 5000. Or, more accurately, I re-learned them.  Teaching middle school is a bit like riding a bike, but to be fair if it’s been a solid 15 years since you’ve ridden a bike,  you are bound to have a wobbly start. 

  • No matter how much I harped that it was important and even discussed it explicitly in class, students didn’t internalize the rubric until they “graded” a shared text using those categories and discussed them together. 
  • 8th graders, no matter how unerringly delightful, cannot be trusted. Or to be more precise, don’t give them a five minute break without clear direction or likely one student will choose to climb a tree and Susan Pace will walk out with her class and likely be like, “Wow- Julie Rust has no control over those kids.”
  • Many of them are silently sitting there being brilliant.  Don’t confuse silence with lack of interest or absorption.
  • OHMYGOSH writing with them and projecting what I am writing is so so helpful.  The whole vibe of the room changes when I am engaged in the practice alongside them.
  • The sheer mass of interactions when you see them all on Monday numbs you to the few negative ones. 
  • On the other hand, one negative dynamic can shift an entire class.
  • Grading well= SO. HARD. 
  • The best way to get students what they need for writing is popping over to the desk when they are EARLY and IN THE PROCESS of writing that first draft and dialoguing about how it is going. Waiting until they write a full first draft and then just providing written feedback is far, far less efficient. 
  • There is no better way to teach than to start a mini-lesson off with exemplars of student writing that are gleaned from the writers sitting in front of you.  “What?! You actually read my writing while I am still in the process of my first draft? And you think the rest of the class could learn from something I’ve done?!”
  • Julie Rust- you still make way too many copies that you never use.  Just like your first year of teaching.
  • Two jobs at a time is dumb.  I should’ve canceled my other one that week I taught and not tried to do both.
  • 40 year old Julie  is such a better “I am an authority in this room” person than 22 year old Julie was.  I also take everything less personally and love them so much more. . . possibly because now I see my kids in them. 
  • Beautiful days= the enemy.  When they say “Can I work outside?” the answer is no unless I am fully camped out there.
  • I vacciliate very quickly between loving who I am with them and hating who I am with them.
  • “Focus music” is magic for the feel and focus of a class during work time.
  • There is still NO BETTER CLASSROOM VIBE for me in the world than when 20-some 8th graders are in the zone and writing furiously.
  • Every single time I have students fill out a weekly reflection I am shocked by what they share about their learning and the class.  The magic is always in the meta. 

I think that teaching the students in front of you is, of course, what every single faculty member does every single day whether or not you subscribe to a theory of the importance of differentiation.  I mean, it is implied in the job description.  But I hope that this month’s theme and the collection of blogs we produced help orient us to the fact that Step 1 in this important work is paying attention to the students around you.  Step 2 is being responsive to all the stuff they bring: the crazy behavior, the passions/interests, the strengths/weaknesses, all of it!

Of course, sometimes this takes more grace for some students than others: 🙂

Tis the Season for All the Ways to Make Coffee

This post was contributed by Buck Cooper.

At last count, I had nine (9) different ways to brew a cup of coffee. Each one has something to commend it. I love the sheer beauty of the all glass, but wood trimmed Chemex and the smoothness of the brew, which usually brings out the sweetness of something from Counter Culture Coffee, like maybe their Apollo blend. I’m grateful for the efficiency to quality ratio of my Aeropress, which makes a lovely single cup, and when coupled with my Porlex hand grinder, is close to gourmet quality. I’ve brought the Aeropress/Porlex combo to school in the last week and have begun to make my third and fourth cups here with them. They’re also great when camping, where everything depends on your ability to boil some water and rehydrate what tastes good and isn’t gorp. There are the odd days where I make a cup with my office Nespresso, which I love because it’s the lowest floor to good coffee entry–load the pod, lock it in, hit the button and wait 45 seconds. Presto, I’m drinking George Clooney’s preferred tres Euro coffee product.  And of course, I wouldn’t be an American coffee drinker without a drip brewer at home. I don’t set the auto brew timer in the morning because I like to know that the first cup is freshmade and hasn’t been sitting in the thermal carafe for the last hour while I played snooze roulette with my alarm clock. Somewhere under the kitchen sink, I’ve got a french press, a Turkish pot, a moka pot and a cold brew rig for the warm weather months. The cold brew rig is a reminder that it’s vacation or it’s about to be vacation because I have the time, energy and patience to grind an entire bag of coffee, load the rig, fill it with water and the filters and let it sit in the fridge for a couple of days, then wait patiently for the 30 minutes it takes to drain and strain the cold brew concentrate. 

Look, y’all. I’m not just out here bragging about all the ways I can make you a coffee if you come by M3 to talk shop, although I am absolutely glad to do so. I’m here telling you that if you love something deeply like coffee or children, then learning to love it in many different ways is worth your while. Working with children has an ebb and flow and a sometimes discernable internal logic to it. Within that, you owe it to yourself professionally and personally to find the teaching and learning equivalents of 9 different ways to brew coffee as you work with the children you teach. Now,  I’m not entirely sure what that looks like, but I think it involves switching it up in your classes from time to time so that you’re giving yourself a chance to see your kiddos (in all their complexity and nuance) in new ways, just like your Hario pourover lets something shine that might otherwise be boring in a drip brew. I think it also looks like acknowledging that the weeks right before a big break aren’t necessarily the best for trying to do the things you might have done at the beginning of the year with the same level of focus and intensity, just as you should have the good sense to know that you don’t want that strong cup of Turkish coffee after the steak dinner when you plan to head home and try to get a good night’s sleep. Finally, I think it involves knowing when to give yourself some grace, especially when you drop the ball, teach a dud of a lesson or can’t figure out how to get through to a child on a day when you’re just plain woe out. While I don’t suggest attempting to pour children down the sink and starting over, I do think there’s always the chance to teach another lesson on another day and more beans to grind and brew differently next time.

Tis the Season for Professional Development

This post was contributed by Kim Sewell.

I’m not sure if there is a ‘season’ for Professional Development since we teachers seem to do it constantly. Whether it’s reading articles we’ve found or have been shared, or we go to the weekly Wednesday PD, or our bi-yearly whole school PDs, reading books, listening to podcasts, or skimming Teacher pay Teacher and Pinterest, we are all constantly learning all the time. Teachers are always looking for knowledge on how to help those in their care find the JOY in learning.

I have just recently returned from a beautiful week at the NAEYC conference with 8 colleagues. Four of the 8 were presenting, which, if you have never attended one of these conferences is a REALLY BIG DEAL!! This conference is held every November somewhere around the country. This year’s conference was in Washington DC, had over 6,000 attendees and over 500 sessions.

As we arrived at the conference center the buzz and chatter were just under a loud roar. You could feel the excitement for people to share and listen to what makes their teaching special or disastrous. 

I listened to presenters talk about how to use storybooks to increase a child’s inferential learning by reading the same book intentionally several different times over serval weeks. 

I listened to the magic of how to transform a playground into a place of wonder, creation, and safety for children that desperately need it and can usually only find it at school since play at home no longer consists of that freedom of escape from reality. One of my favorite takeaways from outside play was the mantra “don’t let the catpoop win!”

One that I was surprisingly challenged by was the session on ‘The Power of Play.’ I always considered my teaching style and room layout to be very conducive to play while trying to incorporate academic connections. I came away realizing that I control way more than I thought and there is less ‘play’ in my room than I realized.  The more I control, the more choice is diminished, and the less opportunity a child has to develop their self-identity and their executive functioning skills.

Some questions that we were to ask ourselves… do you control the number of children in an area? the use of materials? where materials are used? how they are used? etc. You see, the power of play has been proven to build a child’s self-identity. Choice is the sculpture of self-identity. Play also develops executive functioning. Executive Functioning skills allow individuals to prioritize tasks and correctly sequence needed behaviors to complete them efficiently. When a child plays without control from an adult these skills are activated. We all know these skills are crucial to be a successful adult. Play also activates the limbic system which is the light switch of learning. As we face the tension that we hold as educators between child-led learning through play and structured learning led by us there is one quote the presenter left us with that gives hope to the most structured and tight of daily school schedules….

“When you don’t have time, at least honor the child’s heart…listen to what matters to them and incorporate that into their learning.” I am confident we can all do that.

I could go on and on about the sessions I went to. I was lucky enough to hit 9 sessions plus hitting the exhibit hall with every new toy, book, furniture, and curriculum you could imagine, plus some giveaways. (I found out Judy Menist is the luckiest person I know. She scored lots of swag plus $100!)

I was thankful that 2 of the sessions that I attended we all can be privy too! Sandra and Maggie led a difficult discussion on how we can engage families more in knowing what is happening with their child and yet not being tied down to documenting every move a child makes at the moment they make them. There was lots of sharing of what works, what makes it worse, and different platforms to try. The takeaway theme seemed to be TRUST. No matter what platform you use, how often you use it, and how information is disseminated it all comes down to leaning in with parents trusting teachers, teachers trusting parents, and both trusting the school system. If that can be fostered there seems to be a lot less frustration on all sides in dealing with communication.

There were also Lea and Taylor leading a discussion on Debunking the Myth of Traditional Calendar time to a packed room. Using the well-known truth that time is an abstract concept in which young children(under the age of six) can not grasp the same way we do as adults, Lea and Taylor challenged teachers to look at the traditional method of how we do calendar and turn it into a meaningful way in which children can relate to time. The method they shared allows the child to build the concept of time by using memories instead of abstract numbers or measurements. As they presented, you could see the curiosity and excitement as teachers began to see a rich and wonderful way of taking an activity as old as time itself and making it a wonderful deeply connecting piece of a child’s learning.

As we all headed home several things became very apparent; first, I am so blessed and grateful to have gotten to know my colleagues better than I would have ever had a chance to if I did not go, second, there is nothing like being around thousands of educators to rekindle one’s fire for teaching, and last, never underestimate just having fun for funs sake with people you work with. It should always be the season for that!

Tis the Season for Conferences and Global Travel and Trips Oh My!

As you’ve likely heard, we apparently had the largest number of students/faculty traveling EVER that last few days before Thanksgiving break.  I was one such lucky human, and I got to hang out with Susan Pace, Cullen Brown, and Monica Colletti in Anaheim, California. We went to some great sessions, ate some amazing Thai food, learned a bit about birding from the expert himself, and everyone was incredibly understanding when I messed up on the AirBNB booking and we had no place to stay for our last night. This I believe: conferences by myself are cool.  Conferences with colleagues are the best.

 But this blog is not just about my fun trip. Here’s a few words and pics from our national and international travelers: 

Blake Ware (Italy with Global Studies): One of the themes that kept emerging in my mind were similarities I found between some of the political tensions that were felt at times in ancient Rome, and how we continue to wrestle with similar questions today. It was a fascinating lesson in ancient civilizations and human behavior!

Hollie Marjanovic, (“Learning and The Brain”): I went because the focus was on “The Distracted Brain.”  There were 2 major topics: Brains and devices and Pandemic Related Issues with the Brain and Learning. This was the BEST conference I’ve ever attended! On the positive, I loved the speaker who said to us that maybe what our kids need to face our future (fraught with issues related to global warming) are the lessons learned from this pandemic.   The fact is that 80-85% of our society (that includes students) experienced Post Traumatic Growth and not Post Traumatic Stress.  Going back to Post Traumatic Growth…..we have to help our students process it.  Ask them questions about before and after the pandemic.  Have them write about or share their experiences from the pandemic.  How has life changed?  Remember when x?  I loved a model of having the counselor and English teachers doing some writing and reflection together.  We can’t just move forward with our curriculum as if nothing happened in the past few years.  We have to help them see how they have grown and that they do, indeed, have resilience.  

The other piece I learned and feel strongly about as a parent and teacher is that we need to ban phones during the school day.  The average student after age 12 is spending 9 hours per day on their phone.  They are losing basic skills at unprecedented rates.  Don’t think of it as “9 hours per day on the phone, but rather what else they could be doing with those 9 hours.”  Every study shows that social media consumption for more than 2 hours per day leads to anxiety.  There is now a term…”acquired ADHD”…that doctors are seeing around ages 14-16.  Their prescription is asking parents to take away phones and social media for 2-3 weeks and see if there is improvement.  I was really impressed by a teacher I met from Rochester, NY who said that their teacher union voted to ban phones at school.  It wasn’t an administrative decision initially.  They, as teachers, were seeing the effects of phone use at lunch and the addiction and distraction.  They wanted to make the change.  She said that the kids are happier and their test scores have improved.  It’s a bold move,  but after seeing the evidence, a discussion– at the very least– is merited.

Emily Philpott (Ireland and the United Kingdom with students for a Global Studies trip): I love traveling internationally…experiencing new places, trying new foods, and meeting new people. There is a sense of adventure and excitement when you are going to a new place fo the first time or going to a favorite destination to make new memories. However, travel isn’t always easy and things don’t always go as planned. Due to a flight delay at the start of our journey, we had an unplanned night in Philadelphia and some extra hours in the airport. Our students handled the situation with positivity and resilience (and some humor), and my fellow chaperones pivoted to create new plans and remained energetic in the face of two very long travel days. I was reminded how much I enjoy traveling with the best students and colleagues, even when things are challenging. 

*I am sharing 3 pictures: (1) students modeling their new “I love Philadelphia” t-shirts purchased from the airport gift shop; (2)students passing the time with puzzles, riddles, and soduko (3) chaperones just arrived in our Dublin hotel, tired but still smiling after 2 days of traveling. 

Lea Crongeyer: We presented at the National Association for Educators of Young Children Conference in Washington D.C.. The experience was incredible! I loved being with others from around the country and around the world that teach young children. We talked about the differences in schools where we teach and why that impacts how you teach. Also, presenting for the first time on a subject we are passionate about was thrilling and very well received!

Margaret Clark  (Italy — Sorrento/Pompeii, Florence, and Rome)

I am one of the teachers in charge of planning and executing this trip. Specifically, I am the only teacher on the trip who speaks Italian, so I was in charge of all dinner bookings + leading the group through the city of Rome and the various sites and museums we visited.

I’ve said this before, but I went on this trip as a student (Spring Break 2004). It changed my life. I spent the next year trying to teach myself Italian, to the extent that my Latin teacher (Patsy Ricks) told me about an opportunity to live in Italy and attend an American school there focused on classics and ancient history. I was basically a goner. It means so much to me to share this trip, which has been so important to me personally, with students. 

One moment that completely took me by surprise happened on our last full day in Italy. We were in Rome, in the Roman Forum. It was about 4:15, and we had been on our feet since about 8:30. We started in the Campo de Fiori, stopped into the Pantheon (my favorite building in Rome), saw the only remaining arch from the Baths of Agrippa (built by my favorite Roman, Marcus Agrippa), toured the Capitoline Museums (one of my favorite collections), drunk from my favorite water fountain in Rome (yes, I have one — it’s amazing), visited the Colosseum (which everyone needs to do once, but honestly, I could take or leave at this point). In the Forum, we got to visit a temple that had only recently been opened up after restoration! We were at the end of our day and stopped by the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus. I guided the students through the famous/infamous inscription over the arch. After all that, the students were still engaged and eager to work through the Latin together! And then, just like that, my work was basically done. It was my first time being in charge of the Rome portion of the trip, and it was exhausting! Rome is one of my absolute favorite places, but at the same time (and because of how much it means to me), it was a really daunting task to guide 21 high school students through its tangled mess of cobble-stone streets without losing anyone to the equally imminent threats of Italian traffic patterns  or dumbstruck awe at the Roman ruins or peaceful and picturesque piazzas in the middle of a vibrant, bustling modern city. I teared up and almost started crying (and I’m not a crier). It was the relief of my major tour-guiding responsibilities being lifted, the emotions of having such a real and genuine connection with students over something that I love doing, and also the awareness that the trip would soon be over and it would be back to real life for all of us. The trip was exhausting in ways that I still can’t really communicate, but it was also so exhilarating. Almost 20 years later, I still haven’t recovered from my reality being cracked wide open by the same trip I am now able to share with my students.

Sandra Flores (NAYCE National Convention Centre Washington DC)

One of the most valuable things was gathering with early childhood educators from around the globe to connect, collaborate, engage and learn together to land a great group of colleges related to us and participate, secondly getting to know each other, my teachers/ friends from St.A.

Susan Pace (Anaheim, CA for the NCTE Conference)

Being in California with colleagues on the eve of Thanksgiving break was an incredible privilege. In addition to being able to join expert birder Cullen Brown on an early morning bird hunt, the conference schedule was jam-packed with teachers sharing tips, tricks, and mindset shifts. A bonus for this lifelong bibliophile was the number of free books I picked up and lugged across the country as my travels took me first to North Carolina to catch up with my family before returning home. The little library I carried with me from my fourth-grade classroom now has an update with middle-grade novels to share with my readers, AND the sessions I attended have invigorated my teaching and learning in the seventh-grade English room. 

Junko Bramlett (Romantic Trip to Italy???)

I went to Italy over Thanksgiving break with David, and some of you commented to me that it was so wonderful to go to Italy with him and it would be so romantic.  Sure we had some relaxing moments…….We got up super early one morning to have breakfast alone before students woke up.  We had some cheese, cured meats, fresh pastries, bread, and juice.  We had a private server for a moment to fix us two cups of espresso and a cup of cappuccino!  But was the trip really romantic?  After all, it was the international field trip.  You have to forget about Italian wine or a visit to a winery as typical tourists. Was it worth giving up my whole Thanksgiving break to take care of 21 teenagers  in Italy?   I am not one of the cool teachers who taught Latin to prepare most of them for this trip like Thomas Riesenberger (Mr. R) and Dr. Margaret Clark, or Dr. Bramlett who can magically make Math class fun for the students who have a difficulty in finding joy in Math class.  

 Well the trip started off just like the spring break college trip I went with Colin Dunnigan and Scott Johnson several years ago.  That time I had to take care of a sweet student who kept throwing up on the bus with severe cramps from her period.  After the trip, Colin shared with me that he could not have survived the trip without me.  Two men could not deal with a female problem alone.  As I noticed before the Italy trip that it would contain several days of 4 to 6 hours bus rides, I put some Walmart plastic bags in my backpack and also saved some sick bags from an airplane on the way to Italy just in case.  Yes we had to use them right away.  When we heard a student yelling from the back of the bus one morning that his friend was feeling sick, I immediately passed the sick bag and the plastic bag to save him.  It was another field trip with students as we do here with Kindergarten.  The only big difference was that we were in Italy.   Same thing on bathroom issues.  As I do for kindergarten students, I had to keep reminding high school students to go to the bathroom before getting on the bus.  Despite my attempts to avoid an issue, one day actually one student demanded the driver to stop the bus for her to pee on the side of the road because she was going to explode if she did not.   Well so we ended up stopping at an OK gas station to eat lunch instead of the nice fancy gas station with decent lunch.  

And the morning of our trip’s highlight visit to the Capitoline museum, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum….  10 minutes before the departure time, two different students texted David that they did not feel well and possibly had a fever.  Of course, David had to dig up two Covid-19 tests from our bag to rush to take them to their rooms.  As you know that the test would take at least 15 minutes from then.  With the delayed departure and one student going back and forth from the visiting sites to our hotel, David had to shove down beautiful and delicious German pastries just bought and Mr. R ended up losing his visit to the Colosseum, and the whole group lost the lunch from David’s most favorite lunch spot, Jewish Ghetto offering tasty meals with reasonable prices.   We had students with tree nut allergy, nut allergy, gluten allergy, religiously restricted diet. It was so tough for Margret Clark to find restaurants who accommodate our demands.  

Was it really worth going to Italy with kids?  Did I still enjoy it?  Yes!  Just be able to view the same buildings constructed 2000 years ago still standing and functioning in some way, to walk on the very same pavements and crossing steps that ancient people used,  and to drink the safe and clean water provided by still steadily functioning water fountains off the road.  We sure have lots of knowledge and techniques we could learn from ancient Roman friends to run clean and safe water.  

One of the most exciting moments from this trip for me was when Josh, who just got transferred to our school this year, discovered the exact floor spot of the Santa Croce Church where Glileo Galiley was buried by translating the Latin writing on his burial marker.  Josh was really starting to blend into our school Latin buddies.  This is the best kind of gift the language teacher could receive from his hard work teaching young students who are craving to learn more and more.  

Yes as for bonus experiences, I actually got to see the real David by Michelangelo and see our Pope Francis in my bare eyes even though his head was pea size.  He kissed three babies that morning.   I will go back to Italy more prepared for knowledge and language so that I can have deeper appreciation and excitement.

Tis the Season . . . For Class Disruptions!

I know my title is teaching and learning.  And I know that every teacher worth their salt cares deeply about EVERY SINGLE SECOND they are allocated for class time.  We have so much to cover! NEVER enough time! The kids seem like they need longer to get it, too. And so much time is spent in unexpected “let’s just hurry up and grow up”  kinds of things. So many admonitions needing to be called out for the second-fifth-millionth time, needing to be said that I never anticipated. “Don’t throw that marker at the board to hear the cool click noise.”  “No, Johnny, you can’t get in your friend’s personal space.” “Can we talk after class about that instead?” I have probably never sat in an honest-open company of any faculty member ever: from my earliest memory of my dad fuming about lost class time with his masters electrical engineer students to my most recent department chairs meeting, in which the plague of class disruptions was not a main theme of conversation.

I want to be clear.  You are not wrong.  We do this work because we think it matters.  And things that matter need time.  And intentional, well structured, well planned time.  Not the kind that is randomly disrupted here or there.  Advocating for that time is a key role of any conscientious faculty member.

But I also want to take a minute to share a dirty secret.  And that is that I think that much of what sets our school apart from other school communities is what happens outside of class time.  I want to say that although I think a whole lot about curriculum and instruction and content and learning, I also think that the things that stick with us are often tied to those moments of anxiety-inducing disruptions. And I think THOSE things are also learning, that learning is in the remembering of lines in a play and the improvisation when you forget, the communication of teammates on the soccer field, the tuning of your instrument alongside those of your peers, the moment at the museum or the zoo or the exhibit where you are touched and learn something anew, that time on the bus when you notice some friends treating someone unkindly and you figure out what to do next. Or, as our Science Lecture Hall word-mural reminds us: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” (John Dewey). 

It naturally follows that to reduce “learning that matters” to just the content in our academic classes is absurd.  To assume that nothing of importance happens in those “things that disrupt” is equally absurd.  Think of all that is contained in:

The plays.

The performances.

The sporting events.

The field trips!

The chapels!

The competitions!

The international trips!

The community engagement and service!

The cultural celebrations!

The yearly assortment of five billion other school events!

I also have this belief, which you can take or leave.  I think the things that we roll our eyes at, the disruptions that make us most angry . . . they can give us some pretty not-so-subtle cues about what we prioritize and what we de-legitimate.  Notice I didn’t put pep rally in my list of things I love above.  This is gonna show my bias.  As a student, I hated pep rallies. I felt like they were for the popular kids, not for the band-drama-honors class nerds.  I wanted to shrink into my bleacher and the noise was seriously over-stimulating for me.  I’m still scared of them at our beloved SA’s.  I hug the wall with fellow faculty members. I appreciate how they give our cheer and dance teams a chance to perform, to be fair. But truth be told, when I see that yet another Friday schedule in October is going to be disrupted for yet another pep rally, I have to check myself and the wave of annoyance I feel rising up.  Because for many students, this is the highlight of their week.

One last note.  If you, like me, find yourself bristling at every moment stolen from you with your students in your classroom, I recommend you consider the following:  

  • Is it possible that other adults in our community could also pour good things into your students? 
  • Will students actually remember the lesson you were going to teach, like the content of it (e.g. fractals or the intricacies of that particular political party) a year from now? 
  • What value does routine have? What value does switching up a routine have?

Growing up I remember a reminder from my church to “make room for Jesus in the busy flurry of the holiday season.” Perhaps in this spirit we can also make room for the possibility that some of the disruptions that most frustrate us (Julie Rust- pep rallies!) might actually hold a core kernel of value for our community and the growth of our students.  I think we can all agree class time does indeed matter. And most of the time, perhaps all of the time, so does the other stuff.  

Let’s all keep fighting for time for students to experience things that matter.  

Tis the Season . .. For Evaluation!

This particular three week sprint is a strange, strange time.  It is cheery.  It is stressful.  There is expectation of holiday spirit and all the fun to which it is tied.  There is anticipation of cumulative evaluation in the form of finals, projects, report card grades and comments. When you think about it, evaluation and feedback in the form of grades is largely a student problem this time of year, one that plagues all of us from age 5-22 or so. Then, you enter the adult workforce and “grades,” “feedback,” and “formal mechanisms of evaluation” dissolve away like snowflakes on my Mississippi windshield.  Very tangibly real for a moment; nonexistent the next.  I mean, teachers do have admin observations.  But for most of us, those are affirming pats on the back; you are doing well, carry on. 

Student course evaluations, however, are an entirely different beast. For anyone that is a teacher of students who are counted “old enough” to have valid perceptions to share, the mere phrase can drive up your blood pressure.  I’m looking at you, middle school, upper school, and college faculty.  As anyone who loves a higher ed tenure track prof in their life knows; those student evaluations hold a whole buncha weight.  They, their numbers and words, determine whether you will be granted that oh-so-scary trip up the ladder of tenure.  In my own 8 year professorial stint, I learned quickly that the best way to open that dreaded envelope of student evaluations was the same way it is best to take bad news: in the presence of friends, chocolate, and (sometimes) alcohol. 

Here at St. Andrew’s we (I think wisely) believe that middle and upper school student surveys are most helpful when utilized solely as a formative feedback mechanism that can give you a sense of what is going well and what isn’t.  But although the stakes may not be super high, I think we can all agree that teaching is deeply personal, whether or not we pretend we have good professional/personal boundaries.  So that sharp, chiding comment in the “what can the instructor do to improve the course” open feedback box can really sting.  Whether or not it is being used for tenure.

That’s why I was interested in talking with Austin Killebrew, who I learned through Lucy had asked her students to do a mid-term anonymous survey.  She wasn’t forced to by some arbitrary administrator’s expectation or link to an institutionally created form.   She was driven to get feedback because this was her first semester at SA, because she hadn’t taught this particular class before, because she is just that kind of a teacher.

As Austin began her first year teaching at St. Andrew’s, she worried she would fall prey to “a tunnel vision of what I learned in geometry” rather than really utilizing the fullness of the CPM curriculum she was working with for honors geometry.  Regular geometry also presented her with conundrums, such as when she walked them through an entire unit of proofs but when she collected tests on what they learned was shocked by the low scores: “Why are they not getting this?!” Austin sees assessments like these as forms of data rather than fuel for frustration at kids.   She believes in examining her own practice as a teacher first since, after all, that is almost the only thing she can control.  Nevertheless, she found herself emotionally drained by the scores: “I sat down and cried because it was so low; what did I do wrong?”  Her sense of bewilderment while grading that singular assessment sparked the idea of the mid-term form: “I need to do an evaluation to hear from them.”

Austin is no newbie. Her previous teaching gig was at a charter school where “I’ve always been the teacher the troubled students came to me and were like ‘hey I just kicked out of my class can I hang out with you?’”  The school had its challenges, but it had a strong culture of feedback.  “I love student feedback because I am here for THEM. I happen to teach math, but I am here for THEM.”  She set up the form carefully: “I need you to do a quick course eval for me; this is something I’m doing myself. . . to get your feedback on how this class is going for you because ultimately this is your geometry experience and I want to make sure it is what you want it to be.”  She also reminded them to take it seriously, always a wise move when dealing with a ninth grade crowd.  

Most students took her up on her invitation to take it seriously in an anonymous format.  Some of the responses made her smile, but in a good way: “When I come to geometry it feels like a break . . . I’m genuinely happy to get to come to this class . . . Feels like an escape . . . “ and “Ms. K is TOP G”!  There were, of course, outliers in every graph.  Whereas 29 students in geometry felt they learned something in class every day, 3 strongly disagreed. Whereas 26 students felt comfortable going to her for help, 3 strongly disagreed.  While it’s hard not to fixate on the assumed identity of those 3 outliers, this is a numbers game.   The data was affirming.  Highly affirming. 

Still there was stuff to learn.  She noticed a high number of students reported anxiety about tests and felt that there was too much homework in the class.  She also noticed more students than she wanted to (although still the vast minority) reported not being comfortable coming to  her for help.  When she saw these patterns she knew the next step of full-on bravery in the process: being transparent about the data with students and talking through changes she could make with them.  Austin made a slideshow of the findings for honors and regular geometry to make visible the patterns with them.  Depending on the block, they either had a thoughtful good discussion or a pretty quick and silent one.  For the silent blocks, she plans on starting a “suggestion box” of sorts for the more reticent students to share ideas for both anxiety overload and comfort in seeking help.

Not all of us are as brave as Austin.  I know there are moments when NOT knowing what others were thinking about my class felt far safer than opening up the floodgates.  But Austin is convinced that it is a useful practice for every class, every level, every faculty member, no matter the years of experience.  Why? Austin explains:

Get student feedback because every class, every grade level is different, different personalities, as students come through culture changes all the time. Even if you’ve taught for years and years not every group of students will react the same.  What is working and what is not? The feedback is GOOD- the earlier I do it- the better I can catch it and make them feel more prepared for the rest of high school.

Maybe it’s a google form.  Maybe it’s an exit ticket.  Maybe it’s at the end of each week.  Maybe it’s at the end of every quarter.  But if we could all inch toward asking the people who know best about our work in the classroom every day more often, and if we could all open the doors of our hearts an inch wider to hear the feedback charitably, I think we’d all be the better for it.

For the record, though, I still recommend reading student evaluations surrounded by friends who understand with alcohol and chocolate close by.  Just in case. 

Tis the Season . . . For Chris Hartfield!

I don’t want to overstate it. But I DARE you to find someone who has a negative word to say about Chris Hartfield. Like triple dog dare you.  The guy has been our tech-savior for the past 13 years and counting.  He undoubtedly gets the brunt of our most stressful moments.  And yet somehow he absorbs all of our anxiety-energy and gives us back a peaceful vibe and a mended iPad, all at once.  See?  Magic. 

So when Zander Paul Rust comes home chattering about 3D printing and the long waitlist, and when Lucy Rust says “mom- hey mom- check out these cool octopus thing” while you walk together on your daily “it’s 7:30 and we just got to school and need to fill up water bottles and mom needs coffee” walk, you might have a sneaking suspicion that Chris has something to do with it.  You might be right.

I got a chance to sit down with him to hear about the mostly-middle-school-craze that is currently 3D printing.  But truth be told, I also just wanted a chance to interview the legend that is Chris.  Consider it my holiday gift to you.  You’re welcome.  

His first words were that he prefers being behind the scenes and isn’t good at “this kind of stuff.” But I’m not so sure. Chris has a way of skipping all the noise and chatter and getting to the substance.  

Chris first knew he was into tech back when he was 8-9 years old: “My mom took me over to some guy’s house that was selling computers and he showed me how to do some things on that . . . it kinda took off from there.” He was initially hired at SA’s just to repair computers, but he was so overarchingly good at troubleshooting a range of issues that his job evenutally evolved to the mix of things he is to all of us today.  So what’s a day in the life like now? Chris explains:

“I show up and make sure everything is actually functioning in the network.  I then get the 3D printers going and ready for the next job. After that I fix the computers when they are broken and deal with the kids as they have problems.  Every day is different; you never know what’s going to happen!  I just like fixing stuff.  It feels good to solve problems.I just like fixing problems. That’s pretty much all I do.”

Problems make my skin crawl.  Like the unexpected, uncontrollable gives me the heeby jeebies.  I never liked physical puzzles.  I like sure things.  Chris is an enigma to me, and kinda what I want to be when I grow up. But I digress . . . 

So what IS the scoop on the strange things that have been populating our north campus library and the lines of middle school students that have been forming?  We’ve had 3D printers at both campuses for ages as I understood it, but, like most schools I know of who purchased this equipment when it was super expensive and super-trendy, we hadn’t found a valuable way to really integrate it into the curriculum or get kids or teachers pumped up about using them.  Enter Chris Hartfield. He explains: 

Probably a year ago we got a couple of 3D printers we started using at Lower School. Some stuff happened so we never got into actually using them and they sat up here for over a year. This year I decided I want to see them do something so I got them all set up and running printing random stuff out and asking kids if they wanted to print stuff and then word kind of spread that the middle schoolers could print.  . . . Just middle schoolers were getting excited about it because they were seeing stuff they wanted to print.   I was letting them email me and then it started getting too many kids emailing me so I had to make a website, a little form for them to use.  There’s a form and a website tied to it that I created google slides for to track their job.  

He attributes much of the 3D printing contagion to his location in a high traffic area, “not tucked away in a lab area.”  I have a feeling though it also has to do with the approachable soul behind the tech desk.  So what are kids actually getting out of this?

Students utilize Tinkercad to create their objects and after they upload their creations to the form, Chris takes it from there, although he’s “trying to get them ready so a few kids are ready to do their own [to] set it up themselves instead of me.”  This is more than just fun and games, “It’s a CAD program, so they’re having to use math, design stuff, being creative with it, and now making them take their own supports off and having them do it themselves.”  Chris went on to share more benefits: “I thought this could be a starting point for future careers.

3d Printing is actually starting to branch out into all types of industries and they all function in the same way as these little printers. They build houses, cars, medical supplies, and a multitude of other items all with the 3d printer tech.” 

Starting to think about integrating this into your own work with students? Go play with the 3D printing that is all the rage among the fifth and sixth graders.  Chris has already put a link to it in your SA BookMarks on your school-issued device.

The art, theater, and science departments already are implementing or planning on some collaborations.  With BioChem, Chris helped design element puzzle pieces, and he also 3D printed pencil bins that especially fit the desks in the room. He even worked with a friend who makes 3D models to provide Daniel Roers a 3D Andy for a recent global studies trip.

All of these creations don’t just cost time; they cost money. What’s on his current wishlist for Santa this year?  

“I’d like to get a few extra printers to help speed up the print so we aren’t waiting a week at a time for one print  . .   We’re already possibly looking at a higher quality 3D printer- that prints different materials (e.g. rubber tires), materials that are flexible. . . I would [also] like to  get funding for filament!”

If Santa’s generosity correlates with the good we put out into the world, I have a feeling Chris will be receiving a sleigh-full of filament.  As unsung heroes go, he’s solid gold. We are lucky to have him in our village. 

Tis the Season . . . for REAL Discussion

This post was contributed by Linda Rodriguez

As you may know, I am a R.E.A.L believer!  This discussion format, geared to middle and upper school students, takes what we try to do with Harkness and gets the teacher out of the way so kids can R.E.A.L.ly talk to each other.

Don’t get me wrong!  I love the Harkness table!  I love the give and take of a great Harkness discussion!  However, too often (in my experience) the same 2-5 students work the room and crowd out other voices.  Additionally, I don’t like how the kids look to me when they’re speaking – I mean, I know I’m grading them and all, but it’s much more interesting when they talk to each other and I’m in the background.  

With R.E.A.L, students come to class with questions and quotes so they have something to say, jumping in when conversation flaggs and voicing their opinions and queries…and they’re NOT looking at me for validation!  Their level of intentional preparedness allows them the freedom to speak from a place of knowledge, not just to earn a grade.

I also R.E.A.L.ly appreciate the built-in moments when students are given quiet time within the discussion.  In my class, this happens about every 10 – 15 minutes.  We break the discussion for 5 minutes so students can reflect on the conversation that just happened, writing what they heard and what they think.  This offers another avenue for the quiet students to voice their opinion, even if it’s just to me.

Now, to be fair, I’m only doing R.E.A.L “light.”  I’m not implementing all of the R.E.A.L.ly great tools of the program, but my students see the difference:

“Overall, I think this was a pretty well rounded discussion involving everyone in class. Discussions in this class are unique from any other class we’ve had in that it is not heavily monitored.”

“I think this discussion went well. Everybody talked and shared their ideas. I could probably work on giving questions during the discussion though.”

“This discussion was much better than the discussion of last time. This is partly because I read the correct document, but also partly because I feel as though the discussion flowed smoother. I feel as though everyone participated. It was slay.”

Toss me an email if you’d like to chat about this program or how to get trained.  It’s the R.E.A.L deal!

Tis the Season Theme Opener: Presenting “Randy the Red Nosed Reindeer”

When Hollie Marjanovic suggested the theme of “Tis the Season” for our November-December blog blast last October, I could not stop thinking about all of the things I could complain about with that opener . . . 

  • Tis the Season . .. for dress down days in which I fail my kids because they have no holiday themed clothing or accessories and we are running around the house yelling “WHO HAS SANTA SOCKS” at 6:45 on a Monday morning (not that I am speaking from experience from my morning, 12/5/22).
  • Tis the Season . . . for way too much sugar (but I mean is that really negative?)
  • Tis the Season . . . for awkward family moments in which my husband hangs out with his brother and turns into someone I don’t recognize!
  • Tis the Season . . . for us never remembering to move that weird Elf tradition thing which wasn’t a thing when I was a kid and it actually pretty creepy if you think about it so why do we do it and let’s face it, Alianna just has more fun if she is the one moving it so let’s elect her to do it! (Sorry English teachers everywhere for the run-on; it just felt appropriate.)
  • Tis the Season . . . for me always and forever being behind in shopping. Arghh.  Gross.  Yuck. Shopping.

Bah humbug, am I right?

But then Jessica Farris sent me some amazing student artifacts to help us with this holiday-themed set of blogs.  And my entire outlook changed, as it always does through the perception and expression of some kiddos.  (Kim Sewell wrote about this phenomenon in October by the way.)  Thanks, young minds and hearts.  You make us all better.

And so, by way of introduction to our cool set of blogs this November-December, I present to you, a holiday story inspired by all of you, the beloved SA community, and these pieces of art work.  I dare you not to be in the holiday spirit after you get a load of this:

Randy the Red Nosed Reindeer: A Story of Us

(Sebatian Roman; 4th grade year)

Once upon a time there was a very skeptical reindeer named Randy the Red Nosed Reindeer.  He saw the world with gray-tinted glasses.  Every time someone said a word or did a deed, he imagined the worst.  When his students failed to turn in homework, he imagined them paying Fortnite and saying into their headpieces: “THAT class?! WHAT A WASTE!  We’d never do THAT homework!”  Whenever his colleague failed to show up for a meeting he had called, he told himself a story about how much they disrespected him and his time.  Whenever an administrator sent an email, he’d delete it before reading, whispering under his breath “I’m sure it’s nothing but loads of nonsense.” Each time a parent asked to set up a meeting, he’d roll his eyes and text his best friend in the department: “Time to hear all about how darling can do NO wrong!”  Each time he imagined the worst (which was all the time), his red nose grew a bit bigger.

( Christopher Skelton, Anne Maybree Hendricks, Abigail Shannon; Unknown)

One day, a few of Randy’s friends showed up at his classroom during planning period.  

“Sometimes the way you are so negative brings us down,” the sad looking Charlie Brown guy said.

“We want you to be happy and enjoy your life, so we come bearing tidings of great joy!” Angelica sang.  

“Quack,” quacked the duck looking thing.

“Here’s a magical bone of holiday spirit that will cheer you up woof woof!” Fido barked.

Randy was skeptical, because that was who he is, but he loved those four guys so he murmured, “what the heck,” and stretched out his hands to accept the bone.  The moment he touched it, the bone began glowing warm to the touch and his nose began visibly shrinking.  He became unexpectedly invaded with warm thoughts.  It all felt so unfamiliar he trembled a bit.

(Jett Ngo; 3rd grade year)

Suddenly, a sleigh swooped through the sky and landed right in the student plaza in front of his classroom.

“Santa?” Randy said expectantly.

But there was no one in the sleigh.  No one at all. He tiptoed warily to look closely.  No presents either.  Of course he knew it was all a myth.  The reindeer part especially. (Everyone knows that reindeer are great at teaching math, not pulling sleighs.)  Still, something drew him to the front of the sleigh.  Without thinking, he began to pull the harness over his head.  And without any effort or deliberation or intent at all, he began leaping into the air, then floating, then soaring. It was joy. Pure joy.  The sky turned from blue to orange to dark.  He had never felt quite so fulfilled.  Just as he had so mindlessly began flying, he found himself instinctively landing the sleigh on a roof.  Still no Santa. Still no presents. Nevertheless, he pushed himself down the chimney and into a warm house.

(Lissa McCrary; 3rd grade year)

There, a wise cat was curled up in front of the fire.  

“Oh it’s you,” she purred. 

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Randy confessed, feeling his now-compact red nose.  “I’ve never felt quite so warm inside before.”

“That’s what happens when you realize you are doing what you were meant to do with the people you were meant to do it.” 

“But Santa wasn’t even in the sleigh,” Randy explained, “And I’ve always been scared of heights!” 

“Flying Santa’s sleigh wasn’t what I was talking about,” the cat meowed.  “And you know it.”

She swished her tail and Randy suddenly found himself back at school, drooling into a few ungraded papers on his desk.

(Eva Houde, Charlie Buyan, Tanner Purnell)

As he wiped his weary eyes, he looked up to see three of his favorite rapscallion students hovering around his desk.  Surprisingly, he didn’t feel a familiar wave of annoyance. Instead, he felt that warmth, still present and strong. 

“Hey hey, Mr. Randy,” they said in chorus. “Check it out- we just figured out another way to solve the problem and we put the strategy into a rhyming phrase so others can remember it!”

It wasn’t a perfect class period.  It wasn’t a perfect week.  It wasn’t a perfect job.  And Lord knows, he wasn’t surrounded by perfect people.  But in that moment, Randy knew what the cat meant.  He was doing what he was meant to do with the people he was meant to do it.  

From that moment forward he stopped waiting for Santa to appear with a sleigh of perfect gifts.  He told himself a greater range of stories about the moments and people that filled his life.  And, when the moment struck and it felt right, he pulled the harness over head and worked to affect the positive change that he could in his little community.

There are worse things to do with a life.

Tis the Season… To Hide a Turkey?

Tis the Season…. To hide a Turkey? Absolutely!

At the Lower School, our little saints are letting their creative juices flow. Specifically, three 3rd grade girls wanting to create some fun and adventure for their friends and classmates.

In October, Annie May Harkins, Emma Papadimitriou, and Alianna Rust wrote a sweet little letter pitching the idea of planning and putting together a scavenger hunt for the 3rd grade. These three brave girls met with Lower School Head of School, Shea Egger and myself to hear out their idea, and help make their idea come to life.

What started out as an idea for a halloween themed scavenger hunt evolved into Turkey Trouble! The girls decided to plan their scavenger hunt around the book Turkey Trouble by Wendi J. Silvano.

The gist of the story is that Turkey is trying to find the perfect disguise to stay hidden from the farmer so that he doesn’t become Thanksgiving dinner. He tries on a series of costumes and is successful in staying out of the oven when he dresses as a pizza delivery guy and delivers pizza to the farmer and his family on Thanksgiving day.

The girls and I set out to create a costume for each school day of the week leading up to Thanksgiving break and then complete the scavenger hunt that would lead the 3rd grade classes to help Turkey find a disguise that would not only keep Turkey safe through Thanksgiving, but also keep him safe through Christmas.

Alianna, Annie May, Emma, spent some afternoons working to make Turkey’s costumes, and brainstorming ideas for the scavenger hunt. The girls disguised Turkey as bowling pin, a mermaid, and even Elvis!

On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving break, the hunt was on! (The original scavenger hunt was postponed because of the flu. Yuck!)

Students came to school to find mission envelopes that started each class on their quest. Each clue sent them to  a new place that moved them closer to locating the pieces of Turkey’s newest disguise to stay hidden through Christmas.

Take a look at the 3rd graders and the fun they had as they worked to collect the pieces to Turkey’s Christmas disguise…

The girls stated they had fun and believed their friends, classmates, and even their teachers had fun, but their favorite part… was the time they spent after school making Turkey’s costumes!

Tis the season… for creativity, glitter, excitement and fun!

Reframing Accountability as Embracing a Series of Tensions: Season Five Reflection

In this final episode of Season 5, podcasts hosts Toby Lowe, Kim Sewell, Michelle Cooper, Buck Cooper, and Rachel Scott come together to talk across all six episodes on the subject of reframing accountability. They share behind-the-scenes secrets about their episodes, discuss how all of this talk impacted their own relationships with students and colleagues, and surface the best definition of accountability we could come up with by synthesizing the six conversations that preceded this one. Listen to the whole conversation, or skip around to what interests you in the show notes below:

2:30-16:15: Our hosts for the season share behind-the-scenes back stories about the process and experience of leading episodes about accountability; plus Kim shares an amazing post-script about how her four year olds became her accountability partners this semester.

16:17-17:14: One of our major takeaways from the season, that could indeed be a starting point for cultures of accountability, courtesy of Francis Croft: “We all need to get on the team of let’s assume everyone is doing their best.”

17:38-18:53: What a conversation in a middle school division meeting about grading made Toby ponder in relation to structures-control-accountability.  

18:54-20:22: Buck explores accountability as holding in tension everyone’s humanity with the fact that there are things we have to do (e.g. produce grades and do recess duty).

20:23-23:57: Hosts explore the trust/transparency tension combo that came up in the honor council and administrator episodes, and they articulate the truth that trust is doubly hard with the turnover that is naturally part of schools (admin and faculty, but also students that change grades and teachers every single year!) 

24:09-27:20: Stakeholder groups in our school that we wish we had invited or heard more from in this season and why.

27:22-28:58: After six episodes, what we can say about accountability for sure: it is best when steeped in relationships and incorporates a circular or bottom-up (rather than solely top-down) feedback loop.

28:58-31:32: The question that still persists: what do we do about justice and consequences?

31:50-32:59: Hosts share what they are going to take away from this system in terms of next steps: change what you can change, lean into grace, open up communication. 

33:18-36:30: Final words from Toby, the initiator of this season’s topic: “What’s next is always work; but it’s a good thing that the work is so delightful.  You should always be pushing yourself, your peers, and your bosses for more accountability.”