Thursday, July 27, 2006

What's Worth Fighting For in Our Schools

Ok I have never run an online discussion about a book, if anyone wants to email me with suggestions I would much appreciate it.

I picked a couple of quotes from the book, shared a personal reflection or classroom experience inspired by the quote and tried to keep the discussion positive. I am not suggesting you need to keep the conversation positive however remember it is easier to complain than to see the value in something.

Chapter 1

There is simply not enough opportunity and not enough encouragement for teachers to work together, learn from each other, and improve their expertise as a community. (p.1)

Currently I am blessed with a situation where inter-visitation is encouraged, and time is set aside for team (grade level) planning. Although not everything is best done in teams having the option really lends to excellent morale in the school. I am not at all concerned with how I am perceived by my administrators, however each day I come to work and think to myself what will my teammates (specifically the English or Math teacher) think of me when they visit my class today?

However I have been in schools where this was discouraged. Using your “prep time” for professional development was something one administrator wanted to write me up for.

"This simultaneous bottom-up and top-down tension in bringing about reform is a symptom of fundamental dilemmas and problems in bringing about educational change." (p. 2) The authors identify six basic problems in this struggle:
1. Overload

2. Isolation
3. "Groupthink"
4. Untapped Competence (and the neglect of incompetence)
5. Narrowness in the teacher's role (and the problem of leadership)
6. Poor Solutions and Failed Reform

When I read this section so many things rang true. I always just neglected the incompetent teachers, and I personally felt like I was never given an opportunity to show I was competent. Decisions always seemed top down, and whenever a new reform was passed down from the incompetent top I was always very cynical and waited for the reform to “blow over”. I would publicly “yes” all the reformers to death to their faces then shut the door, and do what I had always been doing with my students. The conversation I had with my peers rarely focused on pedagogy. I was afraid to show my lack of understanding of the art of teaching. I honestly always thought the people I worked with were so much more advanced as teachers than I.

This first chapter really pointed out so many things that I have experienced. I didn’t know it at the time but all schools are not like this. My currently teaching assignment is one of an empowered staff that work alongside a supportive administration.

Chapter 2

"Many staff developments take the form of something that is done to teachers rather than with them, still less by them." (p17)

“Sitting through” staff development and “engaging in” staff development are two completely different things. I have “sat through” staff development. I been attentive and listened as teachers openly challenged the facilitator exclaiming “yeah but this will never work in my class” or “I do this already in my class I just don’t have a name for it.” I really became disenchanted with professional development because of all these negative experiences. Looking back on the experience, most of the concepts the facilitators were trying to get across were extremely progressive and valuable. However the facilitators forgot to take into account the “teachers” and people who were not ready to change their practice until the culture of the building changed.

Engaging in professional development is something completely different. Actively listening, reflecting on the experience, applying the new practices to lessons, adapting the suggested practices to fit your style and then freely becoming immersed in the vernacular as to better converse with your colleagues is something far more than “sitting through” a PD session. Professional development sessions are finite learning experiences but when effective are starting points for new innovations pedagogy that become common traits of a school culture.

"You cannot understand the teacher or teaching without understanding the person the teacher is. And you cannot change the teacher in fundamental ways without changing the person the teacher is, either." Teaching is a function of the lives, the biographies, and the people the teachers have become. (p25)

Ok, I struggle with this all the time. I am undoubtedly a workaholic. I have often been accused of neglecting other obligations because my mind is “always on school.” I often get frustrated when others are not at the same level of passion about teaching as me. Just because a colleague does not appear to me to be giving 110% of them self (even during the summer) does not mean they are not good teachers. I personally really have to work on this.

Chapter 3

“There are four kinds of ‘collegial relations amongst teachers.’ The first three are: (1) scanning and storytelling (2) help and assistance (3) and sharing. Each of these relations may be found in either individual or collaborative school sites, but each is relatively unreliable to affect long term changes within a school. The authors write at the most effective form of collegial relationships are ones that concern "joint work." (p.47)

In the past I’ve experienced the first three forms of professional relationships described. The creation of a ‘joint work’ relationship where all members carry equal weight in decision making, and all members are respected as voice bearers in the conversation has still eluded me. I am assuming that less pointing of fingers as to the failures of the school and more acceptance of the teacher responsibility in a school are the litmus test for a successful school environment.

I am hoping to becaome more involved in “joint work”. Unfortunately we as a team do slip back into placing blame on individuals who do not “buy into” the philosophy of our school. We point fingers and avoid working out the problems that distract us from “joint work”. Our team has set protocols that enable a group meeting to be a venue of the open sharing of ideas.

One thing that I am still questioning is; how do we know where our school is at? If you ask me, all schools upon reflection, especially anyone who is reading a blog about education over their summer break is in a “moving school environment”. The moving school environment is one that is collaborative and more open to other ideas. Those teachers involved in moving schools tend to be more helpful to colleagues, and many are not afraid to seek advice from administrators. Does everyone have to be a total teacher in a total school?

Chapter 4

1.Teachers need to develop and be certain of their personal values and goals in teaching. Once teachers have a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish in the classroom, the burdens and the complaining that is often associated with teachers can be diminished by focusing on what is important. Teachers thus need to be reflective in their thoughts and their practice by taking time to journal, conduct discussions with colleagues and students and to give evaluations so that they can ascertain whether their values and goals are being reached. And then once their values and goals are identified they need to be lifelong learners and participate in activities that help them reach those goals.

2. Teachers need to be risk-takers and to take steps, no matter how small, to foster change and growth. The authors are asking the teachers to be the first ones to try something for the good of the others at their school site.

3. This book encourages teachers not to be hermits and “balkanize” or segregate into their own teaching departments. They encourage teachers to share their ideas and experiences and especially how they have risked so that all can benefit from the knowledge of the staff. Teachers are to be leaders no matter what official role that they serve. Every teacher is an expert at something and that experience needs to be shared for the common good. Teachers need to support all their colleagues including their administrators.

4.Teachers should understand that their development is tied hand to hand with the development of their students. When teachers continue to improve and have desire to increase their realm of knowledge, the students will benefit from this and more development with occur in them.

All of these points put alot of the reform possiblilities and failures of schooling back on the classroom teacher.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn

The Montessori Summer Program concluded this past Friday on the plaza in front of Borough Hall in Brooklyn. We all go into teaching searching for those fulfilling moments. Some teachers receive letters or visits from former students letting us know the impact we had on their lives. Friday was one of those experiences that will be stored in the memory banks of the students and teachers for years to come. I know personally next year around February, when I’m beginning to loose faith in the system, I will look back and reflect on this experience.

Currently I am reading “Whats Worth Fighting for in Our Schools” and at first glance the answer is simple to me ‘programs like the one we had this summer.’ It really was something special.

OK Brown, What was so special? Really nothing, the teachers took 48 students who for one reason or another were lacking in appropriate credit and decided to work 8 to 10 hours a day studying the Brooklyn Bridge. The intensive research was compiled into a book, published, and then distributed to the public by the students on the bridge. They also received instant feedback by on the booklets at .

Using the model of backward design by Grant Wiggins as abbreviated at the ISA Summer Institute during the Terry Borne curriculum workshop the teachers of the Montessori Small Learning Community developed an interdisciplinary masterpiece.

In a moment of complete serendipity I found myself sitting aside Jonathan Katz at dinner, and then attndeding his thematic workshop applying quadratic equations to the design of suspension bridges just 4 days prior to the launch of our project. He outlined how to get students to create blueprints then build their own models of suspension bridges. The teachers had been throwing around the idea of how to have the students create a model of a bridge but Katz really gave us the 'nutz and boltz' on how to accomplish this task.

The experience was incredible. We as a whole (teachers and students) applied quadratic formulas to graph parabolas and create blueprints for our own suspension bridges. We then became entrenched in the literacy of bridges. Words like: tower, vertical suspenders, anchorage, vertex, main span, side span, tetanus, caisson, and ratio all became part of our vernacular over the next nine days.

After watching Ken Burns’ documentary “Brooklyn Bridge” (which airs routinely on PBS) the team of bridge investigators began to look more closely at NYC during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Using primary sources such as Roebling’s engineering reports to the trustees of Brooklyn and NYC, and many articles from the Brooklyn Eagle our students began to piece together the controversial history surrounding the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Also inspired by the video students began to look more closely at the steel making process, the tidal region of the “East River”, and the devastating effects of decompression disease.

If this sounds all too much to attempt in 9 days with students who struggle in traditional school I would have agreed with you. However on July 14th the students had completed the booklets and distributed them to an impressed public.
Why are we unable to do this during the school year?

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Ok well obviously I have not been blogging at the same reflective pace that I had been during the school year.

Here is an idea…lets read a book together. Like an online book club. The title of the book is What's Worth Fighting for in Your School? By by Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves,

You can purchase the book for under $5 at

We will begin a discussion around the book's main points and any reactions to the book on August 1st.