What happens when you change curriculum?

This morning I was watching an episode of NCIS. It was the last 4 minutes. A soldier was talking about coming back from the Vietnam War, wearing a uniform and a little girl throwing a stone at it. It made me think about the time we are living in. How authority figures seem to be letting us down — from the presidential candidates to the police officers. It’s a different authority under fire now and yet still as core to American society as the military.

The  protests of not just NFL athletes but also student athletes makes me think of anti-war protest rallies and  student protests like John Tinker and his fellow students planning to wear armbands to school. These are moments that represent the span of our society – both the collective rallying and the individual taking a stand. These are just students, kids, pushed enough from the ennui and narcissism of adolescence to take action. And not taking digital action but live action in the moment.

And I wondered, whether in movements to alter school, make it purposeful for the 21st century, did we stop teaching something like  the Vietnam Conflict and somehow lose a vital take away about the tension point of questioning authority? How does questioning authority relate to social change? Have we learned the lesson enough that we can move through this part of American History — not hurting the good people in authority, not further eroding our trust in our government, not avoiding questioning the people and policies in authority that need to be questioned? Have we overlooked this part of history — that perhaps no longer seems very important in the age of digital media, war without sacrifice, privatized war — and lost the opportunity to learn from our past?

When I teach this unit, I want the take away for students to be an understanding of the many perspectives of history. In the American narrative, this was a powerful time of mainstream Americans questioning a core part of American society. There are many perspectives at play in this historical era. Liberal, conservative, global awareness, ethnic, socio-economic, those who have power, those who don’t have power, those who want a different kind of power. I usually ask students to explore this period of history through a project. Students are divided into teams, each team has a curated list of resources to write their history  book chapter on the Vietnam War. One team may have secondary readings from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History plus many primary sources to reflect marginalized or minority voices; another team may have an wikipedia source, a Rolling Stone article from the time and several song lyrics; another team may have a standard textbook source and official US government documents; another may have a textbook source from another country (French, Russian) and primary sources from non-US perspectives. Once their chapters are written, students must share them and critique others. And then the class must write one chapter to represent as many perspectives as possible with design constraints such as words, pages, and requirements for images.

There is a lot of intellectual growth that comes from studying this period as well as a lot of awareness of the complicated nature of the American narrative. What if, though, we are skipping over this period to get to more about the Gulf War or the War on Terror or the Financial Crisis in 2008 — equally important and yet what have we lost along the way?

And as someone committed to making educational experiences relevant and useful for students, my question is how do we move forward? For we cannot move backwards. We know students need skills over rote knowledge; we know so much more about how learning and the brain work? This is my point of exploration. Thinking about adjustments to curriculum and the  intended and unintended consequences. I’ll keep you updated.



First Attempt in Learning (or 37th)

Just a quick blog post about a breakthrough I had this weekend. I picked up with an old craft this weekend and attempted a rather complicated beading task. The story of it has me reflecting on how themes can find their way back to you in the unlikeliest of moments.

About a month ago I set out to find a bead shop — just to see something different. I stumbled on this shop, Burke Gem and Beads,  through a google search.  I poked around and was a bit overwhelmed with how much I had forgotten. I chose a few items of a rather simple nature so I could stay focused on completing something. Then, of course, this necklace caught my attention. The owner has a Slavic accent. It was like I immediately fell through a rabbit hole or a worm hole and was flooded with the sense of being home, creatively. I studied Slavic Languages and Literature at UVA. And what’s interesting is that I feel like I use almost everyday something I learned in that program. It taught me to think critically — real analysis and synthesis through studying folklore. I learned so much about culture. Yesterday I went back to the store to buy the supplies to attempt the inspiration necklace. I had spent a month on Pinterest, looking up tutorials, looking at patterns. I was really just testing my muse to see if it was going to stick around. It did.

Yesterday afternoon I tried to do this on my own. In my teens, I really struggled with reading directions from craft books and being able to understand how to put those into action. Thank goodness for YouTube! I can watch videos and figure things out. Here’s a photo of my First Attempt In Learning — that’s right, a failure.

First Attempt In Learning
First Attempt In Learning

I didn’t get the size right, I misplaced 2 beads, and didn’t pull tight enough. What I realized when the rivoli wouldn’t fit into the bezel was – “hey, that’s ok”. I probably learned something that would help me be able to do it right this time.

This morning’s attempt is here:

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 11.57.45 AM

A much better form and switching the color way around seemed to work better for the whole project.

Here’s the finished unit:

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 11.57.53 AM

It worked! I still have a long way to go but just getting over this first hurdle and realizing I’ve grown as a learner feels so powerful. Imagine being able to learn about how to overcome and appreciate failure at an earlier age. I think that must be the reason the Russian part of this story resonates with me. I never was able to master the language part of that program the way I wanted to. Imagine if I could have learned Russian with the help of all that’s out there for learning now.

Off to complete more beading. I just wanted to get these thoughts down.

One addition: Here’s the website I used to complete this first round: http://www.fusionbeads.com/Peyote-Stitch-Bezel.

Feedback for a Feel Good February

A lot has been swirling lately but hasn’t all gelled enough to write a post. January saw great use of #hashtags by students that made me think about harnessing their way of communication #140charactersorless for education. Last week three of my colleagues and I attended OESIS (Online Education Symposium of Independent Schools) and the experience blew me away.

This week I came back to school. What is it about February? So I started a campaign which I decided to call Feedback for a Feel Good February. I challenge you to find colleagues, friends, family and give them targeted feedback so they know the powerful, wonderful, transformative things they do every day. Each day, find one good thing. It’s all about mindset anyway.

5 days to the perfect chex mix

Tonight concludes my adventure in recapturing the perfect chex mix recipe. I’ve made a wonderful, caramel-y, crunchy version for the past 2 Halloweens. When I went to chex.com last weekend, I couldn’t figure out which one could be the one.  So this week I made a different batch each night, took it to school the next morning and got feedback from my colleagues. “tasted like cinnamon toast crunch”, “what was that?- oh, ginger – that’s what that was”, “did that have kix in it? that was my favorite cereal when I was a kid”, “I liked the craisins – that added a nice tang”: those are some examples of feedback in the process. I didn’t have the patience or discipline to only change one variable. I wish I had. With each iteration I changed too much to track the different impacts. The last batch was the texture I was looking for. Nice coating, slightly caramel, good crunch. Yum!

Making Teacher Meetings Look Different

Reflection is key to my success. Life gives little time for this. Friday night is my deadline.

I just completed hosting new faculty week at my school. It was a great experience designing a week to get our new faculty to experience the mission and philosophy. I read a number of articles going into the week about orientation — how they were supposed to transmit the culture of a school. Transmission, come on. I don’t need to pour the knowledge into their brains. How will I know what they are ready to do if I talk at them for hours on end? We designed lesson with objectives and held ourselves to the standard of how we want their classes to look  for students. They were out of their seat, exploring, asking questions, making connections, do authentic work, learning through real life examples. The addition this year was an exit ticket – not your standard “give us feedback” fare. We listed objectives of the week. They rated themselves from “I’m solid on this” to ” I need a refresher” to “I never heard of this.”  My team can take this data and determine the next steps for each — personalized orientation.  This is where the stretch starts for my group. Our goal is not transmission, you see, but rather achievement. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I need to thank my team and those who owned the parts of the week for their thoughtful implementation of the format. It takes a lot to plan active learning. I also need to thank the previous Dean of Faculty who helped us break away from the traditional format (we experimented with a flipped video iteration the previous year). While the flipped format wasn’t the right instructional method for this project, trying it helped us get to a better experience. And of course there’s a big thank you to the current leadership at my school for continuing to be open to the best way to do things for the faculty.


Star Realignment

During this past week, just as bit of luck and positive energy were shifting back in my direction, a friend said to me, “the stars are realigning”. I learned last Monday that the chance of a lifetime landed in the lap of one of my dear friends and colleagues. He and his wife have the chance to move to the land of Jefferson who wrote, “where has Nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye mountains, forests, rocks, rivers…with what majesty do we there ride above the storms! how sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder…”. OK, Jefferson was talking about Monticello and Mr. A is moving the Charlottesville, but you get the idea. These kinds of opportunities don’t just happen for independent school history teachers. T-minus 7 days for me to find a history teacher.

Top Ten Ways to Approach This
10.Cry — I did get teary
9. Ask for help
8. Take one thing at a time
7. Look for the small solutions
6. Buy your son “Everything is Awesome” and listen to it on the way to work
5. Buy the above song and set as the default ringtone (in the effort to surround yourself with positive thoughts)
4. Pull on your inner Food Czar and write a spoof to Ariana Grande’s “Problem”
3. Open your mind to things you haven’t thought of
2. Ask for more help
1. Talk to lots of people and listen — both candidates and others to get their opinions

I found 2 new teachers for my school this week, wonderful additions to our community who will do great things for our students.Through the week I found myself being more open to possibility and embracing the challenges of the job. The net effect is that I am very much looking forward to our new faculty orientation and all the possibilities for the school year ahead.

One other thing happened this week: answering an email for my high school’s alumni association I synthesized my teaching vision statement:
Helping people learn how to learn is what I am passionate about. When you unlock for someone how to learn new things, you sow the seeds of innovation and invention. Couple that with teaching the why of doing things and you have the potential to make the world a better place.
This, too, echoes star realignment. I found a way to express how to marry my background as a history teacher with my new passion – innovation and invention. The same stars, just a different pattern.

Reflection is key to my success. Life gives little time for this. Friday night is my deadline.

Artifacts from my first 18 years of teaching

About a month ago I started to excavate my life as a teacher. What prompted this was two fold: first, a move – from one cubicle space to another and second, the cleaning out of the history workroom at my school. About 7 years ago my school moved to a shared classroom model and I became a department chair. I “lost” my classroom and moved many boxes of precious resources to 3 file cabinet drawers in the history work room. In those intervening years we’ve gone 1:1 and almost all of my resources are digital and in the cloud.

This cleaning turned into a treasure hunt of sorts and a deep dive into my years as a teacher. This year I took on the role of Dean of Faculty. I’ve had this beginner’s mindset all year – every day I am learning, acknowledging how little I know. I haven’t made all those small and epic failures like I have as a teacher that give one a great foundation to be an administrator.

Here are a few artifacts I found that highlight the resources I used as a teacher.


I came across a stash of Newsweek magazines. These were gold back in the day. First, they ran these magazines that perfectly tied in with curriculum. They also had the ideal balance of text and pictures. There were personal stories woven throughout. I could ditch the textbook for a couple of days and may even be able to hook in a few of the students who had stopped reading because this seemed more engaging. Now, there’s the whole www/ internet and there’s more and more resources and movies and films. Somehow, though, this for me represented the ideal balance of format. And it makes me nostalgic for a time when resources had less variance and something this simple could get kids excited.


Books. Who knew? Teaching history from a book. Those of you not teaching 1:1 and/or where your kids aren’t in school now may not realize it but books just aren’t the driving force. I had these books because they were my source. I couldn’t google it. I didn’t yet have a vast personal library. I wasn’t curating resources for my students. The Russian history book is the one I used in college. That’s right, I learned stuff in college and transmitted it to my students. Now I think it’s my job to teach my students how to learn, not transmit my knowledge or the knowledge in a book.


This last one is an artifact of my teaching World War II. It took me a whole quarter. Students did the research projects during that month. Sometimes we watched movies. I learned that students could do research at home on snow days and I didn’t lose so much curriculum time.  I taught and for a week or so my students learned all the major battles of both the Pacific and European Theaters. Why? I am not sure. I found it fascinating. It allowed me to differentiate for my students by assigning different battles. And this book was the piece de resistance! Maps! Photos! Facts! When I stumbled across it I hugged it like a teddy bear. I’d make copies of each battle and students had their own resources. They could focus on the writing. Now, there’s so much out there on the internet, it seems silly to have a book. I still love it , though ,I wonder why I taught all those battles?

Next week, find out how a map of Africa and neon file folders taught me to be student centered.


Catching up…random things

The walk to my car each morning and afternoon highlights all the catching up Mother Nature is doing this spring. From 7 am to 5 pm the trees are working overtime to get those buds out and leaves unfurling so spring can get a move on. Procrastination? not really. Not that those trees had any choice in the matter of waiting until this moment to get a bunch of work done. Finally Old Man Winter, may he rest in fleece, (that was stolen by this lovely Patch Article), has retreated enough for Mother Nature to get some work done. I don’t have anything profound to attach to this. It’s just nice to notice.

My other random thought for this week is that everything is connected and that the universe doesn’t let you down. I’ve had a few projects where it’s hard to see the why of what I am doing.  Or I see the why and don’t agree. I do them. I try to do them well. And then there are moments where things come together. Fireworks! Brillance! I look back and say, wow! that’s why it was good to do that. I hope I can hold on to these moments for the future and trust a bit more that it will all work out.

Lots of hard work and then it all comes together — I guess that’s what this time of year is all about in schools. All of a sudden some deadline is in sight (the end of the school year, graduation, concerts, end of the year tests, get that curriculum done!) and the evidence of growth pops up and out and it’s a bit glorious. I see the growth. I hope my students and their parents see it.

Reflection is key to my success. Life gives me little time . Friday night is my deadline .

Keep listing…part 2

This week also starts the Lenten period.  I grew up in an Episcopal school AND I taught in an Episcopal school for my first 9 years.  The Lenten Fast is nearly hardwired into me. It’s like I have an internal alarm clock going off – “what are you giving up this year?”.  In thinking, it seems tied to the “Keep Listening” post. Lenten fast is often tied to sacrifice (giving up chocolate, candy, ice cream). I once had a chaplain who challenged us , though, to think differently about it. Lent could be about creating a prayer, reflection, meditation period. The result could be creating a positive instead of focusing on what was given up.  There’s still the sacrifice of the time but the end result puts the emphasis on creation.  In the flow of  the school year reflection and positive momentum are vital.

One of my favorite ways to reflect on my life and professional practice is on the treadmill or taking a walk, my playlist loaded with songs that get me going and make me think. Here’s my annotated list.

My Top Ten Songs for Lenten Reflection

10. “Oh happy day”  – some positive gospel is what I need to get moving and thinking about what I can do, not what’s holding me back

9. “Happy” by Pharrell — “clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/ clap along if you feel like happiness if the truth”, this is my goal, sometime you need to hear that it’s ok to search for happiness

8. “40” by U2 – it’s a nice break from all that happiness and gets me thinking about some of the struggles

7. “War” by Edwin Starr – we are all fighting something: placement battles, grading guerrilla attacks, collaboration combat missions

6. “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers – a good dose of anti-authority lyrics is good for everyone, including the leaders who are “the man”

5. “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland – a single theme repeated by many voices in the orchestra, it’s powerful when you think about it

4. Songs from Riverdance – get up, get moving, it’s March; there is still lightheartedness to experience

3 “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang – see #4

2. any Jimmy Buffett song but “Attitude of Gratitude” is a good one –

1. “Respect Yourself” by The Staples Singers – almost anything by this group enlightens me about what I need to do

Remember, in these days before the bloom of spring, in the waning winter days darkness has an insatiable hunger. Lightness has a call that’s hard to hear (Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine).  Listening and reflection create the positive momentum needed for growth.

Reflection is key to my success. Life gives me little time (but 40 minutes on the treadmill may just be enough). Friday night is my deadline (score one for being early to meet it!).

Keep listening…

“Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable/ And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear”. Those lines from the Indigo Girls spoke to me this morning. It wraps up what I’ve been feeling for a couple of months now. To keep up the advancement of ideas, momentum and progress in school we need to listen carefully for the lightness calling us. The fear, anxiety, stress and cabin fever of February can wear on us. Here are a few ideas to keep you moving forward:

1. Finish strong. I always think of my gymnastics teacher, Mr. H. I really wasn’t good at gymnastics; I wasn’t flexible enough for handsprings, back bends or swinging my less-than-lithe 12 year old body around the uneven parallel bars. I did learn a lesson. Start strong, finish strong. He was a stickler for that. You could do the best floor routine but if you didn’t do the start and finish he made you do it over. Several times over the past month I noticed the importance of finishing strong. This mid year period is the beginning of the end. Even in the beginning we need to set ourselves up to finish strong. 

2. Don’t be afraid to get yourself worked over

About a week ago I had a deep tissue massage. As I was laying on the table, I realized the massage therapist was going to give me a good working over. I haven’t been taking care of myself lately. Too much stress, not enough exercise, hunched over my keyboard writing emails late into the night, I wasn’t being kind to my body. And throughout the uncomfortable points of working through the knots in my muscle I realized I was getting some feedback. And it hurt. Alot. The next morning I woke up and felt like I was run over by a truck. I drank water. I stretched. I gave myself a break from the emails. By the third day I felt better. Feedback is tough and can really hurt, especially when you’ve been neglecting something. But feel the pain. Take care of yourself and you will make it through. 

3. Reach out

Schools are stressful places. Once a consultant came to our school and said the teaching professional was the second most stressful profession, right behind air traffic controllers. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s this time of year when the crush of 5 day weeks, cold air, pressure of tests and curriculum take the toll on everyone. Reach out and help your colleagues and students.

 Don’t let the darkness gobble you up in the waning moments of the school year. Listen for the light.

Reflection is key to my success. Life gives little time for this. Friday night is my deadline.