Building A Collaborative Curriculum Development Process

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Durham Academy is an independent day school in Durham, North Carolina. We serve about 1200 students in grades PK-12. For the past two years, we’ve been engaged in a curriculum mapping process that promises to transform our school.

At its core, curriculum mapping is a process of embracing change. Change can be demanding for any organization, but it is particularly tough for independent schools, which tend to double down on “tradition and continuity” (read: “change aversion”). Coupled with that is a deeply-rooted predilection for teacher autonomy. Freed from the shackles of end-of-grade testing, national standards, and administrative interference, independent school teachers are largely left alone to design their courses and teach the way they want. Our “independence” is something we fiercely guard.

It can be a lot of fun to teach in this environment, but it can also lead to a wildly incoherent experience for our students and families. Balancing the tension between pedagogical autonomy and curricular cohesion has proved to be a singular challenge for us at Durham Academy, and in the recent past, we haven’t made much headway. Our most recent strategic plan compels us to address this problem directly:

Goal: To create a cohesive, connected and collaborative student learning experience

Durham Academy believes every student’s learning experience should be cohesive, connected and sequential throughout his or her tenure. Our curriculum should also evolve to incorporate more critical thinking and problem solving to meet the demands of today’s world and to vigorously promote innovative teaching and learning as we reinforce core skills.

Action steps:

  • Examine and revise, as needed, scope and sequence in all disciplines.
  • Ensure core academic curriculum incorporates experiential education; critical and creative thinking; team-based projects; character and service learning; and appropriate, responsible use of technology.
  • Maintain curriculum at the vanguard of age-appropriate content and skills.
  • Enhance the culture of intellectual curiosity.
  • Confirm appropriate consistency across key elements of the student experience:
    • Class sections/Grade levels
    • Student assessment
    • Workload
  • Beyond commonly agreed skill and content goals and instructional frameworks, affirm pedagogical autonomy for faculty.

Out of this mandate came the idea to reboot our curriculum maps. Unfortunately, like many schools that embarked on curriculum mapping in the mid-2000s, our school bore the “scar tissue” of the prior process. Back then, the goal of mapping was to “get down what you’re doing.” Mapping was almost entirely a solo project, and the results were digitally shelved and rarely if ever reviewed again. In fact, if you polled our faculty about the status of their curriculum maps, most would’ve told you that we were no longer “doing that.”

We knew we needed a different approach. First, we needed to reconceive of what mapping could be. We worked to get our teachers to see this as something entirely new, different, and distinct from the last iteration. We pushed back hard against the urge to “cut and paste” what we’re doing now…or what we mapped before. Rubicon Atlas helped tremendously in this area; the software is now much more intuitive and easier to use, and we have a strong partnership with the Rubicon staff.

Second, we decided our process was going to be entirely collaborative. This part was non-negotiable. “No one maps alone!” is our mantra, it has become a serious no-no to skulk off and map by yourself. But collaboration is still not easy for us. Collaboration requires most teachers to engage in unfamiliar behaviors, which can be painful. But as we know, if “the process [does] not result in awkwardness and disequilibrium, it would not affect any significant cultural transformation” (Instructional Rounds in Education, p. 11). For us, mapping time is synonymous with team time. In the end, it’s about normalizing the behavior and ab-normalizing the opposite; we make it hard to not collaborate, and you stick out if you don’t. We also celebrate collaboration by putting money behind it: our summer grant process and a good chunk of our professional development budget is now devoted to mapping teams who want to work on their own time.

Third, our maps are aspirational; they represent the very best version of our classes. In essence, it’s not my version or my class, it’s our version and our class. But the understanding is also that what we’re mapping right now is not currently being taught – at least not in its entirety – though it will be one day soon. Our purpose here, now, is to co-create the ideal and then aim for it with all of our energy.

Finally, we have emphasized that curriculum mapping – at least the way we’re going to do it – puts the student experience first. I suspect that for many independent school teachers, the teacher experience is paramount. My students read the things they read because they are things that I enjoyed reading. They are assessed how they are assessed because that’s how I was assessed as a student. This isn’t good enough anymore…if it ever was.

Here’s an anecdote that I think will illustrate what we’re hoping for:

Recently, I was in my kitchen, preparing to microwave a burrito for my daughter Jane. Between them, my children eat a total of four foods, and three of them are orange, so a burrito feels like a victory.

So I’m heating up the burrito, and my wife Marianne happens to be in the kitchen when I’m doing this, and she looks at me quizzically.

Marianne: Is that the way you do it?

Me: Yes, this is the way I do it.

Marianne: I wrap it in a paper towel. It’s recognized as the best practice.

Me: Well, I don’t wrap it in a paper towel, and Jane still seems to enjoy my burritos.

Marianne: You’re supposed to. It keeps it from getting soggy.

And a series of thoughts ran through my mind – some of which I can actually share here. My first thought was: Seriously? She’s telling me how to microwave a burrito? What’s been wrong with the way I did it the past 12,000 times? With my method, the burrito still gets heated, it gets eaten…what’s the desperate need for a course correction now? My initial reaction, with a mixture of pride, annoyance, and fatigue, was to reject the advice from a fellow burrito warmer. I used to be a cook in college! And I don’t wrap burritos in paper towels. Maybe she does it that way, but I’m not going to. And it won’t be too long before Jane can microwave her own burritos, and I’ll be out of the burrito microwaving business for good.

Many hours later, I realized that this exchange was a great analogy for our collaborative, aspirational mapping process. Essentially, there wasn’t anything wrong with the way I was heating up the burrito. My microwaving skills have been honed over many years, and my primary goal – give child warm burrito — was achieved each time. But I had to admit I had been ignoring the instructions – clearly marked on the package – to wrap the burrito in a paper towel. So, Marianne’s feedback about my process wasn’t undue. In fact, I didn’t factor in much at all. Marianne’s (child-centered) goal for Jane was the same as mine: to get her the most delicious burrito possible. What I needed to do, though, was remove myself (and my ego) from the process. Opening myself to the possibility of change through authentic collaboration would yield a better outcome.

So now we don’t microwave anything in the house without first coming together and saying, “If we were going to microwave this food in the best way possible, what would that look like?” and proceed from there.

There is an actual lesson here, and it is this: As we graft, prune, add and subtract from our courses, we must try to remove ourselves as much as we can from the process – from the initial sting that feels like judgment — and focus on the outcome we have in mind – the best possible learning experience for the students. We’re making good progress and learning a lot as we go.

Victories and Lessons Learned

Rubicon Atlas works! This process is forcing us to work together, and we’re having more conversations about teaching than we have ever had before. Collaboration is becoming normal, and our classrooms are becoming more transparent. Faculty curricular leaders have emerged, and we’ve leveraged their talents and experience. Our curriculum and our teaching practice are slowly but inexorably coming together and becoming more coherent and cohesive, and a map of what we do and how we do it is emerging.

What’s UbD, again? If I were to start the process over again, I would spend a year training our faculty on Understanding by Design before starting the mapping process. Literally overnight, we became a “design-thinking” school, and we were caught flat-footed by that. We’ll need ongoing PD – but a very targeted, specific kind – in addition to continuing to review the fundamental parts of UbD.

Ease up on the oversight (at least initially). We have resisted instituting review measures. Right now, we’re in sandbox mode. The refrain has been “Engage! Work together! Challenge each other!” I think if we shifted into “And now we’re looking over your shoulder,” it would have a chilling effect on the work and also make most of what I’ve been saying for 18 months sound disingenuous.

Time (Clock of the Heart). One fundamental message we heard from our faculty is, “We are serious about engaging with this work, but you have to give us time to do it.” You cannot steal meaningful time from other areas; it has to be carefully planned in advance. Next year we will have a series of six two-hour late starts that will be reserved for mapping and faculty collaboration.

You need support from the top. Now that we’re two years into the process, the language in the strategic plan seems almost jejune. It belies the incredible complexity of this process. But still, that institutional support for the process – and imbedding it in the school’s strategic thinking – is helping make our mapping process successful. In addition, our head of school is completely invested in this, and he reinforces our philosophy and the significance of the work every chance he gets. That has been instrumental.

Whatever your timeline is…it will change. My initial goals for progress were far too ambitious. Insisting on collaborative work slows down the process significantly. In the end, we have rejected the concept of timelines entirely. I now subscribe to what I call the Buckaroo Bonzai Philosophy: “No matter where you go, there you are.” I’ve found our faculty need constant reassurance – to hear that wherever they are in the process is exactly where they ought to be.

One of the toughest messages for our faculty to hear was that they will never “be done” with mapping. Curriculum Mapping is now part of every teacher’s job description. And for us, the more important aspect of this process – that it provides a framework for conversation and collaboration – is met every time two or more teachers gather to discuss their maps. I challenge my colleagues to see curriculum mapping not as additional work, though it is, but as something that can help us do everything we do – how it can complement every initiative and task already underway.

It’s not about one person. For the past few years, I have been the “Cheerleader in Chief” of Curriculum Mapping. Someone who has time, energy, and passion for the work is key, but to be successful (and lasting), the process needs everyone’s investment. It’s the faculty who will put the flesh on these bones. And it’s hard, hard work. The weight of it is palpable. But it is also incredibly inspiring to watch it happen.

Not everything needs to change. It’s important to remember that what’s best for students is going to include a lot of what we’ve been doing for years. Recently, a colleague wisely reminded me of the danger of sending the message that if you don’t align to standards, if you don’t already have essential questions and enduring understandings written for all your units, if you’re unwilling to sacrifice your lesson on arthropods — if you refuse to wrap a burrito in a paper towel! – then you are clinging to the past and unwilling to embrace this future…and you don’t care about the students.

Obviously, this just isn’t true. We all care about the students and want them to learn, grow, and thrive. And this work – learning the Understanding by Design framework and the various components of the Rubicon portal and then mapping…and re-mapping…and re-mapping – is going to come more easily to some than others, and it’s going to energize us all in different ways and at different levels. Instead of focusing on that, we focus on best practice. That’s who we are as a school. We ask, in every case, with everything we do, what’s the best practice that yields the best outcomes for our students? Some of that best practice will mean new content and new ways of thinking about our teaching – and some letting go of old lessons and traditions – but it will also mean embracing some of tried and true, too.

Whenever our faculty gathers to do this work, I see groups of colleagues all over our campuses working together, wrestling with this process, and following our two basic rules: engage, and don’t work alone. I believe in my heart that what this work has the potential to totally transform our school. I am proud of our faculty – proud of their willingness to put behind negative prior experiences, to collaborate with one another, to be open to change, to commit to learning something new, to put our students first. We’re already a better school because of it.

Here’s a version of the blog posted by Rubicon Atlas.


Review of The New Art and Science of Teaching

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When I read educational literature, I prefer it that the authors take it easy on me: give me something sweeping, general, and inspiring – more The Courage to Teach, less IKEA instruction manual. But lately I’ve been pushing myself to read more technical approaches to education (more on that below), and The New Art and Science of Teaching certainly fits the bill.

This book, an update to The Art and Science of Teaching (2007), is organized around these eleven sections:

  1. Providing and Communicating Clear Goals
  2. Using Assessments
  3. Conducting Direct Lessons
  4. Conducting Practicing and Deepening Lessons
  5. Conducting Knowledge Application Lessons
  6. Using Strategies That Appear in All Types of Lessons
  7. Using Engagement Strategies
  8. Implementing Rules and Procedures
  9. Building Relationships
  10. Communicating High Expectations
  11. Making System Changes

I’m sorry to say that reading this new edition, which is actually a workbook for teachers, is not an especially pleasurable experience. If you have ever longed for research-based approaches to, say, “demonstrating intensity and enthusiasm” in the classroom, look no further. The book’s tone is dry, and it is rife with descriptions of strategies like this one for “using humor” in the service of “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that indicate affection for students”:

“The teacher uses humor strategically. The teacher can use playful banter, jokes, or self-directed humor. The teacher might also use historical and popular sayings to make a point or incorporate cartoons, jokes, puns, and wordplay into instruction” (90).

Playful banter is totally on fleek! (I mean that affectionately.)

Nothing sucks the art out of teaching as quickly as subjecting it to the science part. It’s like having to explain a joke. And nothing turns me colder than the repeated instructions you will find here about how to handle issues at “the district level.” No two ways about it – this book is intended for public school teachers and administrators.

Of course, it’s easy to poke holes in something intended to provide a framework for much of what independent school teachers do instinctively. Still, there is plenty of wisdom here if you’re willing to push past the crusty formality. For instance, amidst some technical verbiage about how to design effective assessments is this challenge:

At its core, assessment is a feedback mechanism for students and teachers. Assessments should provide students with information about how to advance their understanding of content and teachers with information about how to help students do so” (21).

 For many of us, I suspect, assessments are used primarily as a sorting tool and as a discrete measurement of performance on a specific topic. The idea that assessments are intended to be primarily feedback tools for continual improvement seems simple on its surface, but designing them with that intention takes deep thought and careful practice. This book can help with that, and lots more.

Reading this book is an intimidating experience for the uninitiated. It’s literally full of things I don’t do…and don’t know how to do. When confronted by charts like “sample scales for generating claims, evidence, and reasoning,” which then direct me to “clearly articulate learning goals” by, among other specific strategies, embedding them in “a proficiency scale” (12-13), my reaction is a mixture of despair and paranoia. I can’t do this! Who in my school knows how to do this? Should I know how to do it, too?

No doubt Robert Marzano and his colleagues would have little patience for my gnashing of teeth here; their work is aimed toward people who are willing and ready to establish research-based teaching practices. Regardless of however pitiful or small it might seem, as I read the book, I fought to lean into it and to not reject it just because this work seems foreign or confusing…or just hard to do.

In fact, it is past time for independent schools to stop being willfully oblivious to specific teaching practices like those outlined in this book – or to stop turning up our noses at anything that seems too “public school-y,” which is perhaps the more pernicious of the two sins. For too long, most independent schools have traded on close, communal connections in our communities and derisively waived away questions about the (largely invisible) infrastructure that undergirds our teaching. Curriculum development, end-of-grade testing, grading rubrics, evidence-based teaching practices – they all get tarred with the same brush.

But hopefully we can also agree that high-quality teaching is the greatest differentiator for independent schools – perhaps even more than the close communities that, with increasing frequency, are replicated by magnet schools, charter schools, and other innovative public school models. With enrollments dropping in independent schools across the country, the time is right for us to utilize targeted approaches to improving teaching, even if it’s already excellent.

So…read this book, but in little sips. It would be ideal for a hard-charging Critical Friends Group or a PLC that is focused on improving teaching and student outcomes and is willing to have its practice challenged. Administrators can use it to help teachers find ways to improve their habits in ways they never knew existed.

See the original review here:

Review of The Secret Lives of Teachers, by Anonymous

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One morning in the spring of 1992, Brad Gioia called me to ask if I’d be interested in applying for a teaching internship at Darlington School, my alma mater. Mere months from graduating from Chapel Hill, I had been accepted into law schools but had little interest in going (my father’s dream, not mine; cue the “I don’t want your life!” scene from Varsity Blues), and teaching English sounded like a fun way to while away the time while I figured out “my next move.” I didn’t have an idea in my head that hadn’t been put there by someone else, and I knew even less about the subject of English (to say nothing of teaching it), but after an interview that could only be described as desultory, Brad nevertheless saw fit to offer me the job.  Given my limited role as an intern, I suspect he thought the damage I’d inflict would be minimal – a dangerous assumption with one as earnest as I.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, over my first few years, I gave various administrators plenty of reasons to fire me (impersonating the headmaster in a play lampooning a young teacher’s life at the school?  Check.), and it was common for me to stand in front of my class and feel like a complete charlatan.  But if I knew less than nothing, I cared deeply – for the school, for my students, and for my colleagues – and fortunately I was given the time and enough mulligans to cobble together something resembling a pedagogy and an educational philosophy. I wouldn’t have lasted long as a new teacher at my current school today.

I paint that brief portrait not to kill all future job prospects (I’ve grown, I promise!), but rather to underscore what all teachers instinctively know: that we are human beings, and by nature as flawed as we are virtuous. I suspect that many of my independent school compatriots would, in a paroxysm of honesty, admit to an origin story similar to mine: we didn’t intend to be teachers, and we have screwed up mightily on occasion, but nonetheless here we stand, empodiumed – and at times, still making it up as we go along.

 The Secret Lives of Teachers doesn’t explore such conflicted histories or motivations, but they are the basis on which it deconstructs the myth of the selfless and sacrificial teacher (held largely by those outside the profession), an impossibly high standard to which one might hold a human being (and ones as poorly compensated as we). In its place the book paints a far more human portrait of the modern prep school teacher.

This is one of the best books (or, in the author’s estimation, a “series of interlocking essays”) about being a teacher (about actually being one, with all its humiliations and petty jealousies, as well as its joys and triumphs) that I have ever read — about a life lived in service to others and, at times, in mere servitude. It’s not a call to arms about the state of teaching in America or the national obsession with uniform academic standards.  In fact, it’s a very specific window into a particular kind of life in education – that of the prep school teacher.  It’s about how hard this job can be, even when you’re holding a pretty favorable hand, as most of us who work in independent education are.

It’s worth exploring why the author felt he needed to hide behind “Anonymous,” the ultimate pseudonym. First, doing so hints at a truth so brutal that our aging history-teacher-cum-author must be protected from its searing heat; it implies, to quote the immortal Sisqo, that something “so scandalous” lies within — equal parts Primary Colors and Kitchen Confidential.  And scandal sells, even if here it’s unreasonable parents or moldering coffee cake in the staffroom or the monthly fear of not being able to making the car payment – the quotidian indignities each teacher faces – rather than something more salacious (though we all know stories of teachers who manage to do those things, too.  But that’s a different book.)

Anonymous has his limits as a writer, especially when it comes to rendering classroom dialogue in a convincing way, and most often his attempts to recreate it fall flat.  Even while he decries “Mr. Chipsian” self-aggrandizement, he can’t escape it entirely (he names his narrator Horace Dewey, after all.)  And the parents, students, colleagues, and administrators who populate the book — no doubt amalgams of real people in Anonymous’ professional sphere – come across as ciphers rather than flesh-and-blood examples.  The rough frame of the book, which is a year in the life of the school, allows him an excuse to cover the ground he wants to, but it too feels constraining and forced at times.

The book really sings when Anonymous skips the anecdotes and speaks from his personal perspective; in these instances, the book is smart, trenchant, and very funny. The best chapter, entitled “Compensations” (which was excerpted on, highlights the compromises all teachers must make once they have committed to this profession.  His take on the financial plight of teachers is clear-eyed and unapologetic. [Long story short, we all eventually pay the bill for deferred maintenance.] Whether you agree with him or not, his honesty is refreshing – and, truth be told, quite novel. Teachers don’t like “telling tales out of school,” especially when it comes to the gory details of their real lives.  Credit Anonymous for keeping it real, and for (mostly) not succumbing to the platitudes that plague most writing about our profession.

As always, my bottom line with any book is, “Why read it?”  Is it just to be reminded that teachers are imperfect, as human as everyone else?  That hardly seems worth the purchase price or the time.  Instead, the real value here is the book’s ability to force us to contend with our imperfections. When it works, the book asks us to reconsider assumptions about our work, our students, our goals, our limits, and our teaching lives. It is possible you will view yourself – and your profession – differently after you’ve read it.



Review of Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude

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When I was a kid, my uncle Bob (Darlington School class of ’66) was my coolest relative. He drove an Alpha Romero convertible; he had long, wavy hair; he rode horses; and he did all these things while living in California (Fresno, actually, but I didn’t know any better; I assumed the entire state of California was sunshine and palm trees). Whenever Bob would catch a red-eye home for Christmas, we weren’t to disturb him until he awoke around midday (even his jetlag seemed cool.)

When I was in college, Bob gave me a copy of A Grateful Heart, a collection of ecumenical blessings from a broad array of faith traditions and secular sources (Bob had some West-Coast hippie in him, too). He knew knew that a disposition of thankfulness – of feeling grateful – would keep me grounded in my journey through life. Years on, I still have the book, which I thumb through regularly, mining its wisdom.

Gratitude is an idea I’ve been chewing on a lot these days – especially as I watch some of our students routinely miss opportunities to express thanks to our faculty for the letters of recommendation, the hours spent explaining (and re-explaining) the Krebs Cycle, the endorsements of their various candidacies, or to their parents for their extraordinary sacrifices to send them to our school. I don’t blame them for being blind to this, though; we do a poor job of teaching them how to communicate gratitude in authentic ways.

More troubling, it’s also at the center of what seems to be a rising tide of dissatisfaction among a subset of our parents who view independent schools on a strictly transactional basis. When “their” dreams of Harvard-Princeton-Yale-Stanford prove to be out of reach of their children, well…gratitude isn’t exactly the emotion they’re feeling.

Which is why Oliver Sacks’ monograph Gratitude caught my eye. Most people know Sacks, a British neurologist and author, from his portrayal by Robin Williams in the 1990 movie Awakenings, based on Sacks’ book of the same name. Sacks was a humanist, and not a person of faith, so I have always felt a certain philosophical connection to him (though to compare my lazy conclusions to his years of thoughtful writing would do him a profound disservice.)

Gratitude is a deeply affecting collection of four essays Sacks wrote for the New York Times during the two years before his death from cancer at age 81. The final essay, “Sabbath,” was published just two weeks before his death. This book will remind some of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, a book that, I must confess, never quite sat right with me. To be sure, the tragedy of Pausch’s death hit me square in the heart, but the book also felt a little opportunistic for some reason. Sacks’ book feels less filtered; in fact, it reads like he is taking stock of his life as he is writing it. It is also not much of an autobiography; for that, see Sacks’ excellent On the Move: A Life.

In the first essay, “Mercury,” (a reference to Sacks’ lifelong fascination with the periodic table), Sacks paints himself as conflicted as most people would be, especially because at the time he wrote it, he was still in relatively good health, though he had recently been given a devastating diagnosis.  He reflects on his unshakeable belief that his life is just beginning even as it has almost reached its end. He balances feelings of joy and regret with the knowledge that his mental life and perspective are expanding, and that he has been granted the freedom to “bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together” (11). The tone of this first chapter is one of hopefulness, and its focus is on life – and what of it remains – not death.

Later essays concern the additional perspective Sacks gains as the end of his life looms. Sacks notes that he now sees his life “as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts” (18). What emerges is a sense of mindfulness about his life and what it means to him, as well as an overwhelming sense of gratitude for those he loves and who love him and for what he has given and been given.

The centerpiece of my school’s mission statement is an aim to “provide each student an education that will enable him or her to live a moral, happy and productive life.” “HappyMoralProductive” (one word) has become an oft-repeated shorthand for that statement. Gratitude seems to me to be an essential element (or at least a natural byproduct) of living a good life and a notion we and our students would do well to appreciate more fully.

Sacks seems to agree; as he says at the book’s conclusion, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself” (45). Further, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure” (20). That he can still feel grateful in the waning moments of his life serves as a reminder to me of the power gratitude has to shape one’s heart and mind.

Sacks’ little book truly has a lot to offer us.


A version of this review appears online here.

Review of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, by Donna Hicks

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When I was in college and for many years after, I worked for the Virginia Beach Leadership Workshop, a program run by the city school system in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It’s a camp, basically; in addition to leadership training, it has all the trappings of a regular sleep-away camp: decades of history, traditional songs, athletic competition, nightly skits, summer love (some years), intense longing (every year), and moments of epiphany.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was at VBLW where I started my career in education. It’s where I learned that I loved teaching, even if I wasn’t especially good at it.

It’s also where I was introduced to a short book called The Silent Majority: The Problem of Apathy and the Student Council, written in 1971 by Kent M. Keith. Keith’s thesis is that there are legions of students who wander through schools each day feeling no connection to the institution or those who fill it. He describes that existence as “…a world of lost longings; of things one would like to do but does not have the ability to accomplish…or of things one would like to understand, but does not have the insight for…a world which, if painless, may seem empty and meaningless” (4). It seemed (and seems) to me to be at best a sad way to go to school, and at worst a scenario with potentially tragic consequences. To Keith, student activities exist as an antidote to this – as a potential conduit for connection between students and the school. Student leaders, then, are the primary catalysts to create a culture of acceptance and mutual value in schools.

Given that I totally bought what Keith was selling, it’s not hard to understand why, halfway through Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (2011), I wanted to stand up and cheer when I encountered an analysis of “the profound human desire to belong, to feel the comfort and safety that acceptance brings” (48). Dignity is a book with some age on it now, but that hasn’t stopped it from regularly surfacing at conferences and in conversations with educators. And with themes ripped right from the philosophical playbook of any caring educator, this important book is indeed worth reading.

Dignity also comes at a critical time in our evolution as a species and as a nation, beset as we are by the difficulty we have in connecting with each other in authentic ways. As Hicks rightly notes, “We all seem to know how to belittle and criticize others” (13) (thanks, Snap Chat!) Hicks believes we can re-learn to connect with and value each other – and, what is more, to create genuine cultures of dignity. I hope she’s right.

Hicks defines dignity as “an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things” (1). She contends that violations of dignity are often at the root of conflict (she ought to know; she’s mediated intractable conflicts between warring parties across the globe), that treating others with dignity is a fundamental human right, and that establishing a culture of dignity is essential to organizations that want to thrive.

Dignity’s organization is simple. Part one describes the essential elements of dignity; for example, giving people the freedom to express their authentic selves, making others feel like they belong and are safe, treating people as equals, and believing what others think matters. Operationalizing this section of the book would help make every conversation in a school more authentic and our schools feel more welcoming. All educators would be wise to commit to memory its precepts. (I am tempted to send copies to our state legislature).

The second section is an analysis of what violations of dignity look and feel like. Not surprisingly, these violations are easy to commit, and it’s even easier to play an unwitting role in violating our own dignity. Hicks maintains that most of this – avoiding conflict, saving face, resisting feedback, blaming others to avoid guilt — stems from a deep-rooted desire for self-preservation.

The final section of the book is a treatise on how to reconcile conflicts by using dignity. It contains an extended recounting of a reconciliation that Hicks helped mediate between a former member of the IRA and a British police officer he shot and almost killed. Hicks contends that recognizing dignity has the potential to heal deep rifts between people.

One of the most poignant anecdotes Hicks shares is her fish-out-of-water story of leaving Madison, Wisconsin for a fellowship at Harvard. Upon arrival in Cambridge, and for a variety of reasons feeling inadequate and unworthy, Hicks found herself questioning her decision to join this new community. It wasn’t until she was literally welcomed with open arms by a colleague that she began to feel safe and valued.  How many of our new families or faculty feel that same indecision, panic, and dread when faced with joining our school communities for the first time – or, after, when they feel their dignity has been violated? It’s fun to envision the schools we would have if all of our constituents — every family, employee, and alum — felt as Hicks did when her colleague exclaimed, “Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you!”


A version of this review appears online here.





Song of the day: “Ran” by Future Islands

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I’ve always flitted around the edges of Future Islands, liking the singles but not digging much deeper. Their new song “Ran” has fully grabbed my attention, though — it’s a mix of Flock of Seagulls, The Fixx, and Joe Cocker. There aren’t many pop singers with Sam Herring’s unique pipes, and the alchemy they weave here is mesmerizing. This is retro-pop perfection.

Also, check out David Letterman losing his mind about their performance of “Singles” in March 2014. Watch until the end.

Review of Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, by Ron Ritchhart

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Among the more vexing trends in education is our current fixation on developing “21st Century Skills.” The lists of skills vary a bit, but they typically include competence in at least some of the following areas: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. Perhaps it is the “21st century” designation itself that is most annoying; it has never been clear to me what makes these skills unique to our new millennium. Wasn’t communication important in the 20th century, too? (And the 17th?) And when this movement goes the way of all flesh, as such things do in our line of work, will schools stop emphasizing these skills and move on to…something else that starts with a “C”?

But there is no denying the importance of these skills, no matter the century, and as aims for education they certainly seem to have taken root – especially “critical thinking,” that most intellectually muscular of talents. In fact, one could argue that given current events, the ability to think critically is more urgent now than ever before.

When I visit schools, I always ask members of the community what makes their school distinctive. Apart from the close relationships between teachers and students, the response I hear most frequently is, “We teach students how to think.” Of course at some level everyone already knows how to think; if not, we couldn’t get out of bed each morning. When pressed, they often refine it to “We teach critical thinking,” which sounds important but is similarly inexact.

Generally, what we mean by teaching “critical thinking” is that we teach students to be discerning, to weigh competing claims and to determine their merit, to synthesize, to reason and make effective decisions. In addition, when we teach students how to think, we also try to teach them how to think about themselves as well – how to be thoughtful, introspective, and self-evaluative. Becoming your best self requires a lot of critical thinking skill, too.

Unfortunately, most teachers I know (and I include myself here) have at best fuzzy notions about how they teach thinking skills – and even less of an idea of how to measure their success in doing so. We hope that the educational environment – caring teachers, time-honored curricula, and motivated peers – will work some kind of alchemy and that critical thinking will simply happen as a result. Specifics (and a game plan) are in short supply.

I’ve made my feelings clear about educational literature in past reviews (i.e., I think a lot of it is garbage), so it is with humility that I say that reading Ron Ritchhart’s outstanding book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools was indeed a transformational experience for me. It gave shape and structure to how to teach critical thinking that before I had only vague notions about.

Ritchhart hypothesizes that we can create environments of thinking by being more intentional about the forces that shape educational culture in schools.  He identifies these forces as

  • Expectations
  • Language
  • Time
  • Modeling
  • Opportunities
  • Routines
  • Interactions
  • Environment

He then discusses in great detail how teachers and administrators might alter the learning environments in each area at both the classroom and school level to create cultures of thinking. For instance, in his chapter on language, Ritchhart outlines how the language we use in the classroom can have a direct impact on our students’ development of critical thinking skills. He advocates for a variety of changes: analyzing and altering the language a teacher uses in the service of learning (down to the last pronoun), increasing wait time when responding to students, changing the ways we ask questions, and modeling the language of thinking, to name but a few. Ritchhart delineates these alterations and their outcomes in a more nuanced way than I have space and time to review here. Suffice it to say that the effect can be significant, and I have dozens of pages dog-eared and ideas scribbled in the margins for how to change my own teaching.

Reading this book made my brain hurt (but in a good way). In every chapter, I found myself asking, “Do I do this? Why not? Could I? Yes!” Weighing my own teaching against Ritchhart’s best practices was an exercise in embarrassment; in his ideal classroom, teachers are purposeful about every word, every minute, and every activity, each of which is harnessed in the service of creating cultures of thinking.  “People often mention that in a culture of thinking, there is a sense of purpose to the learning,” he writes. “This…imbues the group’s efforts with personal and collective meaning” (4). It was also daunting – Ritchhart’s methods ask a lot of teachers in terms of time, energy, and focus. The first way to ensure your students are thinking critically, he says, is to think critically yourself about your own teaching…and then work, work, work.

This book forced me to stop and contemplate the muddled mess of my teaching – and to begin to formulate a plan to fix it. Creating Cultures of Thinking is my new guidebook for becoming the teacher my students deserve. I highly recommend it.


A version of this review can be found here.