Monthly Archives: September 2012

“It’s Amazing What You Remember, and Amazing What You Forget”

It had been over a month since I’d visited my Aunt at Wesley Health Care, and I wondered if she’d remember me. My dad and I arrived to find her napping. Being her younger brother, he clapped his hands and she woke with a dazed look on her face. I smiled at her while my dad pointing to me asked, “Do you remember who this one is?” She looked at me puzzled for a few seconds, but then smiled and said, “Stephen!”.  She remarked with slurred and halting speech, “It’s Amazing What You Remember,” and after a five second pause, “And Amazing What You Forget.” I smiled and responded to my Aunt, “Yes, it is amazing.” She returned a tired smile back.

Whenever I visit my Aunt Jo, whether in her prime when she worked as Margaret Mead’s protege, or now in late stage dementia, I am always reminded of her good work and zest for intellectual curiosity. My Aunt is/was a free-spirited, brilliant, first generation Sicilian with a passion for teaching and learning and a life marked by significant contributions to education and society. A lovely article about my Aunt written by Paul Post of the Saratogian hangs by her bed.

Aunt Jo lived on the tail end of the bell curve and went to the beat of her own drum. However, that beat always involved intellectual curiosity, teaching or learning, and contributions to the poor and ethnic minorities. Through her dissertation work under Margaret Mead and contacts with Jean Piaget in Geneva as part of a Mensa grant to study intelligence, Aunt Jo published,  “An Anthropological Exploration of the Influence of a Sicilian Peasant Culture on Cognition.” Wow! From my perspective as an educator, that is seminal stuff.

Basically, Aunt Jo experienced the culture of her parents through her study of a small school for underprivileged boys in the Sicilian mountains led by Father Don Calogero La Placa. She was curious and wanted to both amaze and be amazed through her anthropological research and findings. And that is how Aunt Jo led her life. Amazement is good, though it often requires hard work and perseverance. Do we amaze our students today? Do we arouse their deep intellectual curiosity, or has technology and a zeal for testing tamped out that innate element of our being? It’s all so complicated. And yet, if we make time to delve deeply into topics that matter to our students (not necessarily us), and if we reduce the constant stream of stimuli in their environment, we can surely bring amazement to our students and their learning.

We left Aunt Jo smiling. During our visit a staff member brought in two of her dogs to entertain and stimulate the residents. I watched the dogs prance around on their hind legs for a pepperoni flavored dog treat. When I looked over to my Aunt, she was studying me. I asked her, “Are you watching Max and Teesa? They’re amazing.”  She responded, “I’d rather watch you.” My Aunt Jo, the amazing anthropologist at work. I left knowing I need to visit her more often.


When it Comes to Teacher Leadership, If You Build it They Will Come

I’m a baseball fan. In particular, dare I say it, I’m a Mets fan. In any case, one of my favorite movies was Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner. It was a fun baseball fantasy movie, and I saw it a long time ago. The part I remember best was the small town farmer who heard a voice telling him to build a ball field out in the cornfield, which he did. Ultimately, baseball players walked from the corn stalks and out on to the field. They were the infamous Black Sox, including one Shoeless Joe Jackson. The movie ended happily with hundreds of people driving to the farm to watch the players play. I simplify, but the point is the farmer took a risk, invested money and time into something he believed was the right thing to do, and was rewarded for his efforts.  Hmmm.

So, how does this all apply to teacher leadership? I’ve been harping on the need for distributed leadership in schools for months now, and as the stakes and pressures on principals to be instructional leaders increase with school reform, it is time to empower teachers to share the burden of instructional leadership responsibilities. With that empowerment comes a commitment at the district level to compensate teacher leaders with time and money. The work is too hard and teachers too vulnerable when stepping out of the fold for districts to rely solely on a teacher’s good will and intrinsic motivation to lead others. No. What’s needed is time and financial incentives to draw our schools’ finest educators into the realm of school leadership.

I just read research by Jason Margolis and Angie Deuel (2009) on teacher leadership. Their qualitative research centered on three questions, “(1) What motivates teachers to take on leadership roles? (2) What does the official designation “teacher leader” mean to teachers? (3) What approaches and strategies do teacher leaders use to impact colleagues’ instructional practices?.” The authors found three factors that drove educators to take on leadership responsibilities: an intrinsic desire to do what’s best for the school and students (moral imperative), self-directed growth and learning, and financial compensation. The title of “Teacher Leader” held little value to the teachers when compared with moral imperative, self-directed growth, and financial compensation.

Money matters. Time to do good work matters. Teacher leadership matters. If we hope to transform schools and put the square peg in a square hole, then districts will need to rethink how instructional leadership happens  in schools. In particular, district leaders must ante up with financial incentives, time, and support to encourage teachers to take on greater instructional leadership responsibilities. We know teacher leadership works, and now it’s the simple matter of allocating resources appropriately. If schools build the organizational structure and incentivize leadership, teacher leaders will come.


MARGOLIS J, DEUEL A. Teacher Leaders in Action: Motivation, Morality, and Money. Leadership & Policy In Schools [serial online]. July 2009;8(3):264-286. Available from: Education Research Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 8, 2012.

Start the First Day of School Right With A Common Core Instructional Shift

The first day of school is upon us here in New York, and with that, Student Learning Objectives, teacher rankings, Common Core Learning Standards, new Annual Professional Performance Review Systems, Dignity for All….. Not to mention the arrival of nearly 2.8 million public school children by bus, foot, car, bicycle, and skateboard. Like the Coney Island Cyclone ratcheting up the final feet to the first thrilling fall, things are about to pick up real fast with the start of school. And with that, the fun begins.

So, how best to start the new school year with all the winds of change upon schools? How about with one of the 12 math or ELA/literacy instructional shifts? If you’re teaching Common Core curricula, then what better way is there to get students thinking–which is what the shifts ultimately ask of students and teachers. One strategy is to put a provocative news article on each student’s desk and have them be prepared to defend their position using evidence from the text (ELA/Literacy Shift Four (Text-based Answers)-Students engage in rich and rigorous evidence based conversations about text.). Be sure to find something relevant and engaging for the students. Another strategy would be to have students use mathematics and/or a set of data to answer a question (Math Shift Four (Application)- Students are expected to use math and choose the appropriate concept for application even when they are not prompted to do so. Once again, rigor and relevance matters.

Whatever shift you choose, the point is to promote thoughtfulness and not just go through the rituals of student index cards, locker combinations, student surveys, and so on. Those are all important aspects to the first week of school, but we want to start the very first day of the school year off with something eye-catching and memorable to the student. Ultimately, we’re looking to energize students’ thoughtfulness–not always an easy task given content-laden textbooks and programs.

This morning I read Grant Wiggins’ blog, Granted, but… His topic/title today was, Thinking about a lack of thinking, and in it he writes, “A thoughtful teacher would realize that “coverage” is not a goal but an action unsupported by clear aims.  (By definition, coverage means there are no priorities and no explicit performance goals). “Teaching all the content” is not an educational goal at all; “learning to draw upon and use content thoughtfully and effectively” is the educational goal. Your job is to design backward from that goal, not march though stuff without considering the consequences.” If we want students to think, then we must make the Common Core Instructional Shifts part of our daily practice. If we want to go beyond coverage, then we have to trust that time spent on thinking will lead to greater student retention than time spent on covering material.

Best wishes for a successful first day of school. May you and your students have a thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable 180 day ride!