The Secret Sauce (#educon reflection)

I go to Educon for a lot of reasons. I love hearing about other schools. I grow from listening to smart people, and new perspectives. I see my Twitter friends and meet my Twitter heroes1. As I’ve grown, it’s become a weird Philadelphia-Teachers-Who-Haven’t-Quit festival, and I spent much of Educon 2016 wandering and chatting.

But, like nearly all of the out-of-towners, I go to peek inside Science Leadership Academy. I’m an unabashed fan of what they do. I’ve bought all the books2 and tried, as much as one can, to apply the principles in my room and, as I’ve grown, in my school. I usually leave frustrated. Laptop envy gnaws at my innards, or I slump my shoulders watching my peers coordinate with the biggest movers-and-shakers in Philly. And the next year I come back, hoping to find the magic words.

This year I was stationed in Larissa Pahomov’s presentation. It was a basic, no-nonsense review of the tools teachers at SLA use in daily practice. It was packed. This, we assumed, was the “Shazam” that made things tick.

So first came the Google Docs. Then some student group contracts. Then more Google Docs. And, by the third time Larissa said “Yes, it’s all on our website“, I was struck with revelation. None of these tools, in her (terrific) session were things I hadn’t seen before or used before. These were not weapons of the gods. Other than the $30k student management system, all of this stuff was within my capabilities.

There is no secret sauce. This school, like any other great institution, identified its values and intentionally built their organization to reflect those values, and they have done it for a decade.

I decided to start lifting weights in college3. I get a good number of freshmen boys asking how they can “get husky”? My answer: Lift a lot and eat right for 16 months. They scowl.

Writing this, I am more-than-a-little ashamed it took me so long to arrive here. How do we get better besides intentional practice? But the way I approached school was much closer to “THIS DAD HAD ONE WEIRD TRICK TO GET SHREDDED AND DOCTORS HATE HIM”.

This also applies to policy. Great Oaks Charter seeks to acquire a Philadelphia neighborhood school. Their solution? Tutors4. That’s what we’ve been missing? That’s the secret sauce?

I wrote my leadership team a follow up email. In short: I’m done with best practices or “go to ___ school and see what we can steal”. We create values and we work towards those values.  Anyone else selling anything else can take a hike.

I enjoyed Educon, I will certainly go again, and I will go knowing the secret is out.

  1. Guys, The Jose Vilson knows who I am. He. Knows. Who. I. Am. 

  2. you should, too 

  3. for us short and slow guys, the options are limited 

  4. and a hefty management fee 

The Best Socratic Circle Ever

This story is about a small victory in my classroom, one that shines a light during the days before standardized testing, when stress oozes and festers from the walls. It’s also about Gladys, a young lady with a menagerie of interests. She does music, writing, performing, and medicine. If she went to a well established high school in a community with more libraries than liquor stores, she would be that girl who is in every yearbook picture. Gladys has a problem with organization. She’s a dreamer, and tends to get lost in class, especially a class with 32 other kids with other issues.

It’s Wednesday and we are hip deep in a round of Socratic Circles. The activity involves a text, The Catcher in the Rye, and questions, either student or teacher created (usually both). We have two circles, inner and outer. The inner circle is to use text and questioning to have a student-driven discussion, while the outer circle acts as a “coach”. The latter part is recorded on a worksheet. I don’t care for worksheets. But it’s an easy way to assess and organize what’s going on, plus it keeps kids focused when the discussion gets dull.

There’s Gladys, in the outer circle, dozing off. I’m watching the discussion. It’s…not the best. 3 kids have not read and are praying for a fire drill1. All of a sudden, I see Gladys’ motor start. She’s supposed to be coaching Brianna.

For all her artsy-fartsy wonderfulness, Gladys really cares about her grades. So she moves directly behind Brianna with her novel. She tugs on Brianna’s collar and starts, well, coaching, meaning she’s actually pushing Brianna’s face into relevant pages.

The other kids, inner circle and outer, start to notice what Gladys is doing. Brianna is a fire-breather, and is eager to defend the now-reinforced position on Holden’s sexuality. The other coaches want in. The other participants want help. And the class is abuzz with energy, as every student in the room strives to be their own Gladys.

I know you’re wondering about the “victory” part. Gladys is not using the worksheet and she’s abetting a student who didn’t do their homework. The old “me” would have felt the exact same way. I used to be obsessed with figuring out who had read, to the point where, cribbing from Penny Kittle here, I made tests that were so complicated they stumped the kids who actually did the reading.

Brianna didn’t read. Which will give her motivation to do better: A zero, or a raunchy debate on whether you would follow Holden on Instagram? And when everyone participates, everyone feels better – even the students who are in neither circle (remember, 32 kids) start to perk up. The main purpose of a Socratic Circle isn’t to expose people who haven’t read. It’s to practice and improve the ability to use evidence, direct and indirect, in order to make a point. Everyone is learning more about the book, and I get dozens of opportunities to watch my guys.

I end the class by giving Gladys a shout out, and asking everyone to rate both their coach, their coachee, and themselves. One guy approaches Gladys about being his coach. I give Gladys an oh-so-meaningful dap on the way out.

But the victory isn’t in the smiles, or the energy, or the way an assessment of a reading can serve as an incentive for reading. Here’s what thrilled me: Gladys had a job to do, and, on her own. she found the best way to do it. She didn’t ask permissions. She didn’t shrug and say “forget it”. She found a better way, and that better way spread to all my students, who adopted Gladys’ technique and improved the class. The classroom did not belong solely to me, it was a community effort and it was good.

The smartest people I know speak of student-centered learning and turning control of the class to our students. I think they undersell the difficulty of doing so. Agency, like any other learning, comes in fits and spurts, especially when one if fighting a system that relegates student activity into a box labelled “Disobedience”. Tomorrow, Gladys and the rest will hear me, reading from a script, insist they never go back to section 1 and only work on section 2 within the bubbles. But that Wednesday will live on and, for that, I am thankful.

  1. joke’s on them, we can’t afford smoke detectors 

Hey Rookie (On the Assault at Spring Valley High)

Dear New, Probably White, Most-Likely Overwhelmed Teacher,

I hope your year is going well. I hope you have kept the joy and passion that got you into this job in the first place. I hope the kids have some funny nickname for you.

I hope you’ve taken the opportunity to watch this video, now called the “Assault at Spring Valley High”. We don’t get much good training in management. Here’s what I’ve learned about discipline, management, and any other euphemism for running your classroom in a way where people can learn:

What went wrong at Spring Valley High?

#1 – The teacher confused defiance and disrespect

He  Rookie, Did you ever disrespect a teacher? When a student does so, as I did and maybe you did, they don’t hide it. Why would they hide it? That’s the point of disrespect.

No, the young lady in the video should not have been on her phone. But her motive wasn’t disrespect. “I’ll show this teacher, I’ll text quietly! That’ll really grind his gears.” That’s not how teenagers work.

Why was she on her phone? As we learned later, the young lady was going through an unspeakable period of grieving. But let’s put that aside: The reason students are on their phone in your class has nothing to do with you. It’s the same reason people sit on their phone in a car or a faculty meeting. Phones are wonderful, terrible, and utterly addictive.

When a 3rd grader is fidgeting in one of those tiny “desk-into-chairs”, we don’t think it’s disrespect. The same is true with an 8th grader on Snapchat. For many of our kids, the 16 hours they are out of school is 16 hours of staying connected. Of course they push back – not against us, but rules that seem both arbitrary and alien.

#2 – The teacher wanted to show he was “no nonsense”

Quick tip: If a teacher regularly says something like “They never mess around in my classroom. They know Old ____ (insert name nobody calls them) would bury them so fast they’d never see the sun again!”, you should not listen to them about classroom management, or anything else. The students mess around in that class, probably more than they mess around in your class.

In fact, the more a parent or teacher talks up their discipline, the more likely it is that their children are bouncing off the walls. Here’s a helpful chart:playing


Maybe this teacher was told to be tough. Not to take any sh-t. Set an example on the first day. And maybe this teacher didn’t realize that the same rhetoric is applied to prison. I’ve been there. What I learned is that if you want to earn the kids respect, it’s not getting a police officer to remove them from a class. It’s posting their A+ essay that they spent all night redoing with 4 sources and a bibliography in the front of the room. It’s teaching that kid, not incarcerating them.

Want a disciplined classroom? Be disciplined. Show them how an adult handles disrespectful and rude people. Be the model for how your kids should speak to authority and protect the defenseless. You’re training future managers, bosses, and CEOs, right? If you are a no-nonsense tyrant, you will teach your students far more about power than algebra.

#3 – The teacher went straight to punishment

By all accounts, the teacher followed some discipline checklist.  The teacher was clear in his warnings. But, as far as we know, he never asked the question “Are you OK?”

I cannot overemphasize the power in that question. It is caring and humanizing, and, though this might not be in your code of conduct,  students like people who care about them and treat them as human beings. Here’s a little ditty to try next time so-and-so is acting up:

Teacher: “Hey, are you alright?”

Student: “Huh?” (they are primed for rebuke and punishment)

Teacher: “Are you OK? Is something wrong?”

Student: “Noooo…” (they think they are being Punked)

Teacher: “You don’t seem like yourself today. Is everything OK?”

Student: “Yeah.” (Totally dumbfounded, possibly worried about your sanity)

Teacher: “Yeah, you just don’t seem like yourself today. I remember when ______ (insert some great student work). I’m not seeing that today and I’m worried.”

Student: “Um…yeah I’m distracted”

This is not a silver bullet. School does not make time for these conversations; this is a hard job and you, like the rest of us, will have bad days. But once you convince a child you care about them, everything else is easier.

The teacher in the video may have cared, but he didn’t show it. He probably thought that caring meant treating a misbehaving student like an Amazon shipping order, going through the checklist until the destination is reached. That’s not why you got into this job.((And if it is, good news – today is a great day to hand in your resignation))

#4 – The teacher got the police involved.

In my formative teaching years, I worked with a School Police Officer who was a true force of nature. If called to your room, one could expect the following:

  • A brutal, verbal assault on the student
  • An equally brutal rebuke of the teacher if he felt the situation did not warrant the police.
  • A take-no-prisoners, full-auto tirade against any other bystanders, including administrators.
  • A deafening screaming match between any and all parties listed above.

The Officer was effective in one way: I was scared to call him. And, as I got to know him as a thoughtful, caring man, I began to treasure him. He taught me a lesson I hope to impart to you, probably-white-probably-middle-class teacher.

If you call the Police on a student, assume a student is going to jail.

That’s what Police do. The badge, the gun, the swagger is directly linked to the authority of the State to erase a person’s freedom. If you teach in a school with African American and Hispanic children, more likely than not they’re linked to some sort of trauma or abuse. Look, the officer in the video clearly has their own issues, but even the presence of any officer will escalate everything. Teenagers make awful decisions when they are hyped up and your job, greater than any subject content, is to keep kids from making awful decisions.

Write a referral. Call a parent. Schedule a meeting. Give a detention. Take care of the misbehavior! But if you call the police, there’s a chance someone goes to jail. Is that risk worth a cell phone? A naughty word?

#5 – The teacher forgot he was human

Teaching is hard. School is hard. Challenging things require reflection and humility. Without that, we act like this teacher acted, we take the student’s defiance as an assault on our professional credibility. We take it personally. We act swiftly and ruthlessly and without any regard to the point of a school, which is the well being of a child.

We also ignore our biases. We forget that dark-skinned children are much more likely to be punished than their white counterparts, that we are set to see certain human beings as scarier than others. We can’t say for certain that this teacher, who is white, was racist. We do know that girls who resemble the victim are regularly punished for crimes that, for their white counterparts, are simply misunderstandings.

To the New, Probably White, Most-Likely Overwhelmed Teacher, you’re going to have those days. 10 years later, I still have those days. It happens – to us and the kids. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job, or that you’re not tough enough, or that your lesson was awful. It means you’re human, and this stuff is hard. This teacher forgot that. I pray you do not.

My First Day Activity

Note: I borrowed this idea from a National Council of English Teacher blog post called “How Poetry Can Earn You a 6 Figure Job”. For all my Googling, I can’t find it. If I infringe on another author in any way, please alert me so I can make corrections.

I don’t love re-using old lessons. I like staying current. I like designing lessons. I have mild attention deficit disorder. But my first day lesson plan for my 11th graders has been a staple for the last few years.

When kids come in they grab a survey. My survey is nothing special: I ask about their favorite teacher, what I do that drives them crazy, and their super power. They also pick up a job description. I’ve copy/pasted below:

Education: Bachelor’s

Job Type: Full-Time

Location: Tulsa, OK

Compensation: $100,000 (approximate)

Start Date: Immediate

Provide technical support and assistance to both Williams internal application systems users and external customers/partners. Develop familiarity with business, application, and technical processes and use this understanding to improve the processing and accuracy of the data and the performance of the interfaces between internal systems and external customers. Lead efforts to resolve issues across business, application support, and technical support groups seeking the best solution to problems that arise in the process, performance, or accuracy of application systems and the data exchanged between internal and external systems and customers. Problem resolution efforts will often include direct interaction with external customers. Must be a strong leader able to manage cross-functional teams toward a common goal of problem resolution and process improvement. Problem resolution efforts will often involve teams with dissimilar goals and priorities and the need to manage them toward a common goal and gain the support of their disparate management organizations. Must possess exceptional written and oral skills. A good existing understanding of business, application, and technical areas is required and/or the ability to seek out and assimilate information independently and quickly. Must be able to work with little supervision and manage time effectively. Knowledge and experience acquired through this position will serve as excellent preparation for movement into advanced leadership positions within Williams Communications. Bachelors degree or equivalent experience.

Then I review annotating, making sure to emphasize that the goal is for them to be able to use the document instead of re-reading it over-and-over. They annotate, we use phones or dictionary for some of the more difficult words, and then I ask them to list all of the skills needed to land this job. We create a collaborative document on the projector. Here’s one from this year:


Good people skills


Strong leader

Express yourself through writing and talking

Independently work


Knowledge and experience

Problem solving

Working quickly

This, I tell them, is what we are doing in here. These are the skills we want to build. And then, if there’s time, I do some rules and tell them how excited I am.

I love this. First, it’s a break from everyone meticulously reviewing their syllabus. Gah. Second, we’re setting the tone by doing real work. I urge my students to annotate everything, so it’s a skill they need. I even get to present a rubric!

Finally, it’s real. I had a young lady challenge me on this, that $100,000 isn’t a that much money1. She Googled the average earnings for a bachelor’s degree, and all of a sudden she was paying attention.

It’s a great lesson. That hard part? Living up to the expectations.

  1. Thanks, Rick Ross 

Not Dead Yet

Been a ghost-town here, no?

I spent my summer working and rehabbing, so there wasn’t much time for the blog. But there has been writing! I’ve had a few posts for Citified, the “nerdy kid that get shoved in a locker” of the Philly Mag blogs.

We should opt-out of bad tests – standardized or otherwise.

Why are Philly politicians undermining Philadelphia Schools?1

Some thoughts for incoming Mayor Kenney

Being an Insider is an unpaid gig, and I honestly don’t see a career in writing or journalism. But writing for a larger audience with a real editor is a treat.

And I have my own, personal Hater. You, LOLSALTZ, you have made this truly special2.

I probably should have double-posted here, but I’m new at this stuff. No worries. This is just to say this space prevails.

Happy New Year.

  1. Money. The answer is money 

  2. Yes, it’s probably drunk Mike Wang but still 

Internal Commotion (on #phled hiring)

I don’t normally dwell on news analysis. For one, it’s usually boring. Second, there are significantly smarter people than me who do this sort of stuff.

So when the District plans to spend a couple million on suits at their Headquarters, I can count on some intrepid reporters to do good work. However…

The beef: Our District is broke, but still beefing up bureaucracy. This is certainly compelling; it’s hard to argue a six-figure “director of external relations” is more important than 10 nurses. Compelling, but a bit disingenuous. Important people were highly excited for Action Plan 3.0. Hiring more administrators in lieu of nurses was a clear goal in that plan. When Superintendent Hite said he needed more “flexibility” in staffing, what did people think would happen?

Though plenty of good people are dealing with this, there are two issues I don’t see being tackled. Prepare for tackling.

The Philadelphia Student Union1 did yeoman’s work in researching the new hires. They focused on the candidates’ void of experience in public schools, or their active role in kneecapping them. That’s important and worth reading.

But let’s assume the best of Hite. Perhaps these people are highly qualified professionals who want to help our kids. They also have a long and well-documented history of jumping ship.

James Harris, the new executive director of operations, has gone from Dayton to Springfield to Philadelphia in the span of 5 years. I applaud Christina Grant for leaving the simmering sycophant swap on which CAN network sits, but her resume also speaks of hopping from school to school.

These people were not hired in a vacuum. They came after the majority of the brain trust ran for the exit.

There’s nothing morally wrong with people who move jobs. But Hite is trying to execute a long-term plan by recruiting people who have never stayed in any position for 5 years.

In 9 years at Robeson, I’ve seen at 3 principals and roughly 6 different assistant superintendents2. Instead of planning for the future, we spend time figuring out who is in charge and what they want. That’s not good for kids.

I have a fix. And my fix is also a problem, which sums up my thinking these days.

Besides spending a lot on moving trucks, what all the new hires have in common is they are not from the Philadelphia school district. Hite did some reshuffling – moving people already in his cabinet around, up, and sideways. But, aside from new assistant superintendent Chris Lehmann, all of the hires are from somewhere else.

That’s the worst part of all this. Yes, it’s even worse than the prospective wasting-of-money. Great organizations – including the charter networks we’re supposed to imitate – promote from within. Plenty of talented teachers want to work in District HQ. I don’t understand either. But they do, and the message being sent to them is clear: “Leave”.

This isn’t just about promoting teacher voice. There is too much enmity between the people in HQ doing their job and people in the classrooms doing their job. We can break that. It’s difficult (although, conceded, not impossible) to screech at the “pencil-pushing six-figure suits” if those people were teaching down the hall last year. Promoting people from the classroom creates a sense of shared purpose, and we need a lot more sharing and purpose.

By only going outside, Hite is ignoring leaders and leadership incubators. Woe to PhillyPlus, a group that trains future leaders on the importance of aligning your philosophy with whatever the boss says. Even less obtuse groups like Philly Core Leaders or the terrific Teachers Lead Philly can’t get a foot in the door.

Say what you want about Mastery and KIPP3, but they do an awesome job making sure talented people have a ladder to climb. I’m 120% for promoting within the classroom, but some people want to go to administration. They live here. They work here. What’s the hold up?

Agitating against nepotism misses this crucial element. Great organizations make promoting stable, long term leaders a priority, not an exception.

  1. They need a home. Find them a home! 

  2. most notable is Mr. Shirley Gilbert, who was fired on Christmas 

  3. and prepared to be swarmed by their social media support group 

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Blunder

Here’s how I was hired for being old.

The previous summer I had worked for a brand new camp in a supervisory role. The next Spring I underwent extensive knee surgery. Running after 6 year olds and the 18 year olds paid to supervise them did not seem like the best medicine. But sitting around the house taught me that I don’t like to sit around the house, and I called my boss to talk jobs.

It was an odd conversation. He kept offering me strange roles, like drama director or aquatics facilitator. We left on “if you want it, we’ll find you a position”. I liked the camp. I didn’t like the thought of a Bart Simpson type summer. Let’s do it.

When I rolled up at orientation, all was clear – the average age of the counselors was 17. I have a decade of educational experience, including Jewish education in-line with the camp, but that’s not why I was rehired. You’re not wondering if so-and-so tagged you on Instagram? Welcome aboard.

And you know what? The staff was awesome. They loved the kids, they loved camp. They sang “Down by the Bay” for an entire 20 minute bus ride. Was there drama? Yes. Did they do dumb teenager things? Of course.1

But dealing with the counselors was my job, and the counselors made it rewarding. It was a great summer…except:

Our camp rents out the campus of a private high school for our facilities. Walking around with a bunch of 17-18 year olds, it was impossible for me to forget that the same people who were given ultimate responsibility over the lives of others would be trusted with absolutely nothing had they been on the campus 6 weeks earlier or 6 weeks later. They would have to ask to go to the bathroom, apologize for burping too loudly. They would lose points if their name wasn’t in the right corner of if they talked out of turn. Since the entire staff was white, they wouldn’t have to go through the B.F.-Skinner-dystopian-universe rigor of a “no excuses” school – walking silently through the hallway, having to sit on the floor until they earn a desk, or being named and shamed if they didn’t have the right test scores.

Come September, the same kids we trust to serve food, manage money, and care for miracles will be, at best, trusted with nothing. At worst? Treated like would-be criminals. That’s school; that’s nonsense.

One counselor said she liked working with me because “if the kids were bad, we could threaten to send them to Andrew”. Bonkers. On one level, I’ve reached old head status and I’m good with it. On another, I have, among teachers, a reputation for being “soft” with discipline. I’ve accepted it because it comes with respect for how I run my classroom.

But trusting kids shouldn’t be seen as weakness. One Robeson Senior would go through a full school day, work a shift at Wendy’s, and wake up to help a younger sibling get to school. I don’t feel like she needs my permission to pee.

Yes, there’s a difference between compulsory schooling and employment (which we can fix by making school more relevant). Yes, many students need help learning responsibility. Yes, I’m living in the high school bubble. But it’s utterly asinine – and this next part comes from administrators, teachers, and parents – that we demand teachers set a sky-high bar for academics while treating every kid like Nelson Muntz.

And not to jack #educolor , but remember it’s mostly white, privileged teachers like me enforcing these norms on people of color. Expectations, indeed.

Teachers, administrators, everyone: If you bought water-ice2, deposited money at a bank, or sent your kids to summer camp, you most-likely put a whole lot of faith in a child. There’s not reason that faith has to evaporate come September.

  1. Did you know people can have nostalgia over High School Musical? In related news, I’m out of beer 

  2. it’s not italian ice it’s water ice that’s in the Constitution get used to it 

Lessons: Freshmen and Infographics


The goal:

My freshmen would create Infographics, visualizing the research they completed. They completed an annotated bibliography earlier, the theme being “Will Technology Make the World More or Less Peaceful?”

Infographics are great for this because they are challenging, new, and easy to share. With an essay, we slog through a gauntlet of terrible habits. I risk an aneurysm every time a freshmen reminds me that a paragraph is anything over 4 sentences. Infographics means everyone starts fresh.


The Results:

Mixed. Some were really good, some were not so good. There was some correlation between great bibliographies and great infographics.

What went well?

Lucidchart combined with physical (paper) graphic organizers. I don’t like to shrill for technology, but Lucidchart is really that good.

–The Big Board. I would project random student’s Lucidchart (not their screen) throughout the course of the class.  Kids were thrilled. The most common start to my class were two students arguing about which one of them would be “featured”. I did put some less-than-stellar work on the Big Board, but only after substantial warning.

–“Infographic of the Day”. The invaluable Diana Laufenberg provided me with some amazing resources. For our Do Now, we’d critically examine an infographic on the board. This helped acclimate my guys and provided quality samples.

–Annotated Bibliographies are terribly underrated. A great way for freshmen to show their research in an area they understand.

–Rigid Deadlines. See below.


What didn’t go well:



–FRESHMEN. Pure, unfiltered immaturity. There was apparently a love triangle in my class that turned into another love triangle that ended up with everyone crying. I am Jack’s utter lack of empathy.  Anyway, strict deadlines and phone calls to parents helped a lot more than pedagogy. Freshmen.

-These were more “visual essays” than infographic. We didn’t do too much with visualizing data. Speaking honestly, I’m not sure we could with the time allotted.

What I would have done next time:

I think it would have been neat to grade the project…then give it back. Pushing process over product is missing from freshmen.

Stricter deadlines to push the pace. This seems dumb. I guess I can be dumb sometimes.



The School Plan Nobody is Talking About Because It’s Not a Very Good Plan

This is a story about a bad idea. It starts as a quixotic bad idea, then a comically bad idea, and then a fairly dark, bad idea. But mostly, it’s a story about how, despite loads of money, research, and talented people, education reform is largely amateur hour.

Allan Domb, the self proclaimed “Condo King”, is running for City Council at Large .  Since Domb is running for office, he needs an education plan. Domb’s idea, gleefully championed in the Philadelphia Citizen, is to convince private enterprise to “adopt” schools, thus creating kids with work-ready skills.

“Imagine, for example, a Comcast Benjamin Franklin High training students to become linemen, or technicians, or customer service reps. An Urban Outfitters South Philly High, teaching retail skills, from design to sales to bookkeeping. A SmithKline Edison graduating students ready to work technical jobs at the pharmaceutical giant. Domb envisions schools that are successful in a way test scores can’t measure, and that could actually draw students from outside the city, looking for real skills.”

Look, kudos to Mr. Domb for thinking beyond “Quality!”, the platitude-tiled bathroom floor most candidates where most candidates play dead. But there’s no two ways around it: This is bad idea.

“Adopt” explicitly means something is unwanted or uncared for. We adopt stray kittens or highways that nobody else wants to clean. When Domb suggests that Urban Outfitters could adopt South Philly High1, he’s ignoring what actually goes on at Broad and Snyder. Under revered principal Otis Hackney, Southern has earned praise for improvement in climate, new CTE programs, and plans for a community school. I’m sure Domb didn’t mean to insult the community – perhaps the most diverse in the city – but I’m equally certain he didn’t do a shred of research. He wanted a “failing” school and, reality be damned, he got one.

But wait there’s less! Urban Outfitters has already faced controversy for trying to profit off the Kent State shooting or the Holocaust. Under Domb’s plan a school that is 65% African American would be run by a company that sold “Ghettopoly”. Comcast is widely considered the worst company this side of the Umbrella Corporation.

And schools already use private entities to help prepare student: Internships. If Domb wanted to leverage his influence in the business world, he could call on any company with over a certain number of employees to provide internship opportunities to Philadelphia’s neediest high schools, an idea both helpful and rooted in reality.

Yes, the idea of private business stepping in where the public sector has failed is appealing to zealots and lobbyists alike. But the history of educational for-profits running schools is abysmal. Domb wants more abyss. That makes sense, because if Philadelphia’s children are going to succeed the city will need to re-think the property tax abatements at the core of Domb’s condominium business.

The story doesn’t end there. Larry Pratt and Ajay Raju, the editor and financier of the aforementioned Philadelphia Citizen, held a “gathering of civic innovators” to talk about adopting schools. The result? Not much. Raju, who expected Millenials to “be packed to the rafter”, bemoaned the 40 or so people who showed up as an “echo chamber”.

Raju is familiar with such a place. He and Platt are the force behind The Philadelphia Citizen, “journalism that focuses on solutions”, and they love Domb’s plan. In fairness, they love everything. The Philadelphia Citizen is the most upbeat anti-authority disruptor you’ve ever met. They’re high on solutions. None of the disruptors or millennials or game changers they feature need be subjected to critical thought by their very nature. It’s like if the kid in High School who wore camo and a hundred punk-band/anarchy patches got a frontal lobotomy.

As neophiliacs, they also love charter schools. There’s nothing wrong with loving charter schools, even if you love them because you see them as disruptive schools rather than good ones. But loving outside-ness in a void of context is problematic. Here, The Citizen fawns over Young Scholars at Frederick Douglass:

The teacher points to a yellow line painted on the floor about two feet from the wall. “Remember, you stay on your side of the line,” she says. Then she watches each kindergartner walk towards a star—also painted on the floor—that indicates a “crosswalk,” where they turn, and quietly make their way back against the opposite wall, next to another yellow line. Throughout, the teacher issues reminders—“Walk straight. Eyes forward”—until they arrive back at the start, where they do the whole thing again.

Nowhere does The Citizen concern itself with the the ethics of this neo-Spartan regime. There’s no reason to think about the real Frederick Douglass, a man who was forced to walk straight with eyes forward until he physically upended his tormenter. Like Domb’s plan, this must good. The old has failed. Hail to the new.

The vast majority of these new turnaround and “adopted” schools would be filled with poor children, most of them historically underserved minorities. These children would go to schools like Young Scholars, where walking on the right side of the line is emphasized as much as writing. They would then go to High Schools run by companies who train them to work in jobs where dutifulness is valued over critical thinking – folding shirts for Urban Outfitters, taking calls (or making coffee) at a Comcast Service Center. The bottom rung of the economic ladder would be specializing for jobs with a guarantee of low wages, since taxpayers are providing a bountiful pipeline of employees.

Yes, I am embracing the tinfoil hat. And no, not every child can be a doctor or lawyer or, this is for you Citizen, creator of the next Uber. These ideas, corporate schools and militant climate, are presented with zero context. That’s the only way they can survive. Plenty of schools are disrupting education by embedding student voice and choice, along with democratic principles into the classroom. They’re adding recess to High School.

They’re also calling for an end of the absurdly inequitable funding system, and pushing back against a climate where test scores rule. You won’t hear that from Domb, Raju, The Citizen, or anyone else pitching the next great thing education. As Frederick Douglass said, progress always requires sacrifice. Disruption, even dressed in its Sunday best, requires the sacrifice of others.

  1. Note to Condo King: all the locals call it “Southern” 

Bringing Feedback Back

Apologies: I’ve had 2 surgeries, one minor and one not-minor, over the past 10 weeks. Suffice to say, my blogging has suffered. This post was intended for February.

It was about January in my second year of teaching when I realized I hadn’t seen my Principal since Thanksgiving. He was in the building, but never in my classroom, and our conversations never lasted more than 3 minutes. Was I doing a bad job? My colleagues were clear: Our Principal, like most, spent their days putting out fires. If he didn’t talk to me, that’s because he didn’t need to talk to me, and I most definitely didn’t need to rock the boat. I wasn’t a problem, so I must be doing fine.

This is the status quo in many schools. Principals work to keep things working. They don’t have the combination of time, resources, will power, and pedagogy to improve instruction.

But Principals aren’t the only problem. Teachers are, deep breath, stubborn creature when it comes to evaluation. We don’t trust anyone with less than a decade of experience, or who came from an Ivy League college, or wearing a really expensive suit. In fairness, that’s because too many Ivy leaguers in expensive suits and no time in the classroom do a “drive by” 11 minute evaluation, followed by a strongly worded memo about my objectives being written in the wrong place and a girl eating chips.

It’s a crazy entanglement of resources, tradition, ego and incentives. It is not acceptable.

I have found something that works: I ask the kids. Starting about 3 years ago, when I could count on 2 full periods of laptops, I used Google Forms to survey my students.

I spent a week figuring out the best way to share the results. Somehow, 2 different screen-shot apps and a lot of fiddling failed to produce blog-worthy results. So here’s the summary. My conclusions:

The first is that I can push my students further than I thought. Second, I need to review rubrics more. Third, I need to make more time for the “fit in” students so they feel welcomed. In maybe my biggest challenge, I need to get all my students to take the survey1.

So there’s that. If you feel differently, let me know. We need this stuff.

From a policy perspective: Teachers2 have an ego problem. Go to any professional development, and you’ll hear the phrase “in my class..”, implying that they rise above the “other” classes. What I’m saying is that these numbers mean nothing unless we are willing to accept them as meaningful. Not only could I explain away every single negative point, my first instinct was to do so. Being a public school teacher means being constantly defensive, which means resisting feedback. Not good.

So, here I am. I make no claims about using this on an official evaluation, although I’m up for it. I don’t think I’m setting the bar for student voice, but I’m moving there. If you have any comments or criticism, leave in the comments. Or email, Tweet, whatever. I’m listening.

  1. I gave them a week and a half, with daily reminders and emails. Maybe I’ll promote a tweet 

  2. more prominent in High School and in male teachers, I’ll assume