Tuesday, September 28, 2010


One does not go far in the world of education today without tripping over the word accountability. In the past four or so years, the word has gone from barely existing on the edges of my known vocabulary to staring me in the face nearly every day. I come across it on the radio, in the news, at staff meetings and committee meetings, in education books and articles, on Facebook, in blogs, at lectures – anyone who is talking or thinking about education is talking and thinking about accountability.

It is a word that is bandied about so commonly, in fact, that its meaning is rarely explored. If I could figure out how to do so politely, I would make it a practice to stop anyone I hear using that word. “What do you mean by ‘accountability?’ I would ask. If they answered with something nondescript, such as, “It means we make sure teachers do their jobs,” I would try to dig deeper. What does it look like? What do you want to see? How would we be able to tell if we had achieved “accountability?”

I think a lot about this word, and wish I could interrupt everyone from Arne Duncan to my colleagues when they use it, because I am unconvinced of its helpfulness. Its value seems questionable firstly because of its unspecified and imprecise meaning, and secondly because it is generally used with a vague (or at times quite pointed) sense of blaming teachers for… you name it: the achievement gap, poor attendance, low test scores, bullying in schools – I could go on and on.

Disclaimer: I am not opposed to having high expectations for teachers. I think creating, developing, and retaining good teachers is the most important thing we can do for education, and I think we ought to “find bad teachers another line of work” (as John McCain once wisely said). I also think most of our policies, rhetoric, and money are not invested in teacher development, and it is often easier to decry bad teachers than it is to start fixing problems.

The dictionary definition of accountable is “responsible to somebody else or to others, or responsible for something.” This doesn’t sound too bad; teachers, and all of us, are accountable for our work. A list of synonyms, however, includes words like “answerable,” “liable,” “held responsible,” and “blamed.” It is a word that, if placed on a continuum that stretched from negative to positive connotations, would certainly lean toward disapproving.

What is it that people want when they talk about accountability? They don’t usually explain. But the feeling I often get is that they want to punish teachers (or to fire us). They want to catch us not doing a good job, or saying we’ll do one thing and then doing another. They want to prove we are purposefully hiding our deficits. They want to ferret out all those happy-go-lucky teachers who leave school at 2 pm to plan their summer vacations, and make them pay. A sense of culpability and negligence haunts the word.

If I had my way, I would temporarily banish the word so that we could talk about what we really want. Once we came up with an effective, useful definition, I might start to bring accountability back into the conversation, under the guise of a new meaning. But not until then.

What do I think we might, in a better world, mean by accountability? I think we might mean that we want to be able to connect good teaching to good learning: to figure out the best ways to teach all kinds of students, to share those practices, and to see more learning as a result.

If we are talking about responsibility, a nicer way to say it might be that we want teachers to honor their commitments. (This is how I like to word it when proposing norms to a group I am leading: We will honor our commitments to the group by coming on time, prepared for the task ahead.) This seems somewhat like common sense; in all careers, in all lines of work, people are asked to do what they say they will do. And in most arenas, when people are doing something very complicated or very hard, they get help. Experienced practitioners mentor them; supervisors guide them; peers collaborate and puzzle and struggle with them. If what we want when we talk about accountability is for teachers to do good work, then perhaps we need more of these kinds of partnerships.

The ability to improve teaching and learning lies in the hands of teachers. The pundits, politicians, and policy-makers who speak of “accountability" are wise to acknowledge our expertise and capacity. There are many, many barriers that stand between us and higher achievement. And there are countless specific ways for us to begin to break down those barriers, starting with a spirit of collaboration and collegiality. The time for rhetoric and placing blame has passed. Let’s hold each other accountable for moving forward.

Coming next week: Musings on the word “data”

Friday, September 24, 2010


A Teacher’s Guide to Fellowships and Awards: Opportunities for Professional Growth and Renewal
Last year, my teaching team somehow came up with the idea to take forty second graders roller-skating during the second week of the new school year.  I was a reluctant participant in the scheme, for what I think should be obvious reasons.  But there’s a locally owned roller rink about 4 blocks from our school, in one of the neighborhoods we study each year.  In the past nine years, I have read approximately 791 stories about skating at The Rink; our students love to go there.  So I reluctantly agreed that it would be a nice way to build community at the beginning of the year.

On the day our field trip dawned, I awoke with a feeling of dread.  It was the fifth day of school. I didn’t know much yet about my class, but I did know they were a challenging crew.  We had a complicated, somewhat daunting plan for our time at The Rink.  We would start with some whole-group activities, then move into small groups, then pairs.  We had little cards with each student’s name and shoe size, so we could get skates that fit.  The morning would finish with pizza for lunch.

We arrived at a cavernous space that echoed with hip-hop music.  My students couldn’t hear anything I said, and even if they could, they were too distracted by the strobe lights and disco balls to pay attention.  Trying to run group games was hopeless.  Still, we forged ahead, loyal to our plan, until I was hoarse and out of breath.

Then we started onto the rink.  As it turned out, roller-skating is tricky.  Those wheels roll fast, and that rink is hard.  Most students fell the second their skates hit the rink’s wooden floor.  The rest fell before they stepped off the carpet.  The crack of bones hitting wood filled the air, and I tried to block out thoughts of head injuries.

To my surprise, though, I saw good things starting to happen.  I watched students hit the floor again and again, bruising different appendages with each fall, and get back up each time.  These were the same kids who, when asked to write one sentence, would lay their heads on the desk, or would burst into tears when a math problem got too hard.  Yes, there were tears at The Rink.  But when one student cried, others stepped forward to comfort him.  Stronger skaters stopped to offer a hand to friends who fell, or slowed down to keep pace with a novice.  All around me, my kids were exhibiting the behaviors I most want to see in my classroom: perseverance and teamwork.

This year, I knew just what I wanted to get out of The Rink.  My new teaching partner later told me that, on the day of the field trip, she felt the same way I had a year earlier: full of dread.  I have to admit I was relieved that it was her day to teach, not mine, so I was the extra set of hands, not the one running the show.

A few days before The Rink trip, our class wrote our Class Promises.  We agreed that in our class, we would be kind to each other, focus on learning, solve conflicts by talking, and take care of materials.  Two days before the trip, we did an activity about how everyone has things they are very good at and things they are just learning.  We went over our learning targets for The Rink:

§       I can control my body so I, and the people around me, will be safe.
§       I can persevere (keep trying) even when something is hard or scary.
§       I can help and encourage my classmates so they can do something hard.

And then, we practiced.  Each student got a Rink partner, who was assigned by putting stronger skaters with beginners, according to their (not necessarily accurate) self-assessment.  With their partners, we reminded each other of the goals: perseverance and teamwork.  And we did a short pair activity (directing your partner to draw something with his eyes closed) to practice those skills.

By the time they got to The Rink, they knew what they were supposed to practice.  While they skated, I reminded them to check on their partners and to encourage each other, and I pointed out every instance of perseverance I saw. 

The Rink is a perfect metaphor for the rest of the year – and, even better, it is a metaphor second graders can access.  They rated their skating ability before and after the trip, and saw that they had gotten better in just one hour of focused practice.  Almost to a person, they felt genuine frustration at The Rink; some felt despair.  (I saw the look in Diego’s eyes as he stepped on the rink and immediately fell, his feet flopping sideways under his legs every time he stood up.  Diego is a strong student who rarely experiences trouble in school. In the context of school, this was a new feeling for him.)  No one, however, dropped out. 

Last year, we used The Rink all year to remind students that they could persevere when something was hard, and that hard work would lead to progress.  When we began to model self-reflection, and how to verbalize what you had learned with your head (knowledge), hands (skills), and heart (habits of mind), we started out with roller-skating.  As a steppingstone to developing the kind of learners and learning community we want to raise, it couldn’t be more perfect.  I take none of the credit; I’m still terrified of roller-skating, and I still cringe every time I think of those small elbows hitting the floor.  But I’m glad we went.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Chad is a small, quiet boy.  He is one of only two new students in my class this year.  He arrived armed with a hefty IEP, primarily for social / emotional reasons.  His IEP is so hefty, in fact, that in most schools he would be taught in a substantially separate classroom.

In the first week of school, Chad has said very little, although he often speaks just under his breath.  Despite sometimes being confused or missing part of the instructions, he follows the directions he understands to the letter.  When I look at him, I usually find him following me with his big, serious eyes.  I think he is a little scared of me.

My suspicion is that there are many delightful and intriguing thoughts going on inside Chad's head.  It would serve us all well to be a little quieter around him so we can hear what he has to say.

Yesterday we did an activity designed to get students thinking about what they are very good at and what they still need to get better at.  I made 3 signs: "Beginner," "Getting Better," and "Expert." I explained that we all have things we are experts at, things we are beginners at, and things we are working on getting better at.

For example, I said I am an expert at riding my bike, and also at being a teacher.  But I am just a beginner at playing basketball.

Next, I asked the class to think hard about activities for each category.  They listed a few.  Then I started naming activities.  As I named each one, they had to go stand near the sign that indicated their ability level for that activity.

I started with basketball.  They were pretty evenly divided: some beginners, some getting better, some experts.  (Of course!  Many second grade boys are "experts" at basketball.)

Next was spelling.  They were surprisingly confident in their spelling ability, until my assistant reminded them of the spelling assessment we'd been working on.  She said that if the spelling test was kind of hard for them, they were probably not experts at spelling.

(This is tricky.  On the one hand, it is encouraging that they all feel like spelling experts.  I want them to be confident and excited.  On the other hand, I don't want them to stand by "Expert" just because everyone else is.  And one of the purposes of the activity is for them to be aware of their beginning ability level so they can track their improvement.  If they are already experts at spelling in September, how will they know how much better they got at it by June?  And why would they be motivated to work at it?)

After spelling, I called out "drawing."  Again, pretty even split.  Next was "making friends."  I heard mutters of, "Oh, that's easy!" as the crowd moved toward "expert."  I put myself in between "Getting better" and "Expert" because, as I told them, I am pretty good at making friends but sometimes I am a little shy.

I turned to look at "Beginner," and there stood two students, alone: Chad and Gloria.

I paused, breathless at their self-awareness.  Indeed, neither Chad nor Gloria are experts at making friends.  Gloria's face usually wears a half-scowl.  She doesn't give off very happy or approachable vibes.  And Chad -- well, he rarely speaks.  He is very serious.  He wants very much to make friends, but it is something he doesn't really know how to do.

To be the only two people in a class of 20 who are beginners at making friends -- that is courage, especially at the age of 7.  I know I wouldn't have been brave enough to do that myself in second grade.  Their willingness to be vulnerable, to share so publicly something they wish for and don't yet know how to achieve  -- it still makes me shake my head in wonder.

Last week, all the students wrote their Hopes and Dreams for second grade.  Most wrote things like "I hope to go on field trips," or "I hope to be a fashion designer," or "I want to get better at reading, and do a lot of math."  Chad wrote, "I hope to make new friends."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why all teachers should job share

Here is my argument for job sharing, and it does not have to do with working half time or having time away from your students, and it certainly doesn't have to do with getting paid less (a lot less).

Job sharing is allowing me to watch another great teacher teach.

Granted, I only got to teach with her the first two days of school.  Even so, those two days gave me a good sense of her as a teacher.  In those two days, I learned a lot.  Since then, we've talked on the phone and emailed quite a bit.  Every time I face a dilemma, I face it with her.  I benefit from her wisdom and experience, and she benefits from mine.

(And we both intend to go to school on our non-teaching days sometimes, just to watch each other.)

Teaching is an isolating profession.  This is a truth you will hear thousands of times.  My job is, compared to most teaching jobs, extremely collaborative.  In my grade-level team, we share responsibility for planning all lessons.  We make copies for each other.  We digitally document what we do so we can remember it for next year, but also so we can share it with each other.  Most of the time there is another adult teaching with me, sometimes more than one.

Despite all this teamwork, and despite having a skilled colleague teaching next door, I haven't gotten to share my classroom with an experienced teacher since I was a student teacher, ten years ago.

Since then, I've shared meeting space with many good teachers, but never a classroom.  I rarely set foot in other rooms to watch my colleagues, and no matter how much I think about my job and wrestle with ideas, I haven't been able to learn so deeply from another teacher in terms of day-to-day systems, ways of speaking, and the just plain fun of teaching.

So let it be known: all teachers should job share or co-teach at least every few years, to grease their intellectual wheels and enrich their practice.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


The evening before the first day of school, I had an important realization.

I was ready to start school.

A year ago, I was most definitely not ready.  Last year, my school was moving and nearly doubling in size.  We weren't even able to get into the building until a few days before school began.  When we got in, our rooms were empty.  The auditorium was strewn with old, broken furniture.  The gymnasium was a forest of stacks of boxes, and trash.  I didn't have shelves for my classroom, and had to scavenge for tables. I spent hours picking out unfinished shelves, getting them painted, and then going back three times to pick them up because they were never ready when they said they would be.  It was draining and infuriating and nerve wracking.

Last year, I spent days unpacking and trying to decide where things should go.  I didn't know my way around our enormous school building, which is about the size of a small city.  When I look back at my To-Do list from the days before school started last year, it is full of things like "Talk to the cafeteria lady about how we will get our lunches."  "Go look at the cafeteria to see where we will sit." "Decide with the K-2 teachers how to do bathrooms."  "Find out where dance class happens."  More than half of my time was taken up with things that this year, I didn't have to do.

Last year, no one at school was ready for the year to begin.  We didn't know how to run a big school: how to do dismissal with 550 kids; how to operate a huge cafeteria with kids of all ages, from 4 to 15; how to manage that many students in the hallways; how to prepare so many new teachers for the hard work ahead. If we, the teachers, wanted something organized or planned or clarified, we had to do it ourselves, because no one else had time.  When would we have our weekly K-2 assemblies?  Where would each class sit during assemblies?  How should we run recess, and where? Which bathrooms would each class use?  We had to figure it all out.

This year, I was ready, and we, as a school, were ready.  We learned a lot of lessons last year, mostly the hard way.  We have systems and schedules now.  We have rules and expectations, for adults and children.  It feels less unsettling, less overwhelming and scary, and less exhausting.  It is less isolating and less sad.

In the past two weeks, I had lots of time to get my classroom ready.  Everything found a place.  (Last year, there were a few piles I didn't figure out what to do with before school started, and they were right in the same place on the last day of school.)  It is hard to feel settled if your classroom isn't really ready.  Having those hours to putter around, to do small things like clean out the filing cabinet and make labels for every small container, helps me feel ready, excited, and in control.  A teacher needs to feel in control of her domain, or else watch out.

When I thought back to a year ago, I realized, it's no wonder I didn't like my job last year, or my students.  Those poor kids, they were lost before they even set foot in my classroom. I wasn't ready for them!  I needed more time; I really didn't want them to come.  So when they did come (and, let's be honest, when they turned out not to be an easy bunch), my heart was set against them.  Not only that, but they were following on the footsteps of two years with my best and easiest class.  They didn't have a chance.

The last few weeks, my biggest fear was that this year I would go back to school and not like it again.  Not like my students, not build relationships with their families, and not want to be a teacher.  If last year was an anomaly, that would be okay.  But if it had become the new reality, that would be heart-breaking.  Being a teacher is so much a part of who I am.  How would I adjust to changing that part of my identity?  I'm only a few days in, so there's no answer yet.  But already, this year feels a million times better than last year.  This year, my heart is in it again.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Into the Fray

It is a shock to the system, this transition from summer vacation to school.  So shocking, in fact, that in the evening of that first, seemingly endless day of school, I couldn't speak.  I was too tired to watch a movie, or read a book, or send an email, or talk.  So I ate half a bagel for dinner, and got in bed at 8:30.

It is no wonder that my students can make it until about 1 pm and then start to fall apart.  If I can barely stay standing or keep my eyes open, what can we expect of 7-year-olds?  All of us are trying to adjust.  Adjusting to going to bed early, to being unable to sleep because we are nervous and excited and our minds can't shut down, and to waking up early.  Adjusting to being alert and focused for hours and hours at a time, after the ease of the summer schedule.  Adjusting to noise, chaos, and 23 bodies in one room in a small space at the same time, after the quiet and space of summer.

Summer vacation is delicious.  Waking up on my own time, after getting enough sleep.  Awakening gradually, so that when I am awake, I am really awake, not drowsy.  Moving slowly, which was the part I most enjoyed this summer, and most miss now.  As I make breakfast in the summer, I can put away dishes from last night, water the plants, putter around.  I can eat unhurriedly, reading the newspaper from front to back.  I can tidy up the apartment, making neat piles instead of the leaning towers that usually prevail.  I can read!  As a rule, I get through more books in two weeks of summer than I do in the whole school year.

I am mostly sad for two reasons: 1) The rushing around.  2) I miss the calm, leisurely time with my partner in crime, when we are both awake and alert and happy instead of worn out and brain-weary.  (With both of us on an academic schedule, the abrupt change last week was even more startling.)

But I am also excited.  School is animating, and the fast pace gives me a rush (until I crash and all systems shut down).  I like to be efficient, get things done, and think hard about what and how to teach.  I like children, and being a teacher.  (At least, I still feel this way after 2 days of school.)  And this year, a new experiment begins, as I teach only half-time, and fill the rest of my days with coaching and leading teachers, and my own projects.  So I can still have some slower days, and get reinvigorated for my days with children.  Cheers!  To a new year.