The Right Side of History

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I have a distant memory, so distant that I’m not entirely sure whether this image in my mind ever was real or just a dream.  Regardless, it feels real, it feels visceral, and it’s sat with me for the better part of 15 years now.  It was during P.E. in middle school, not only one of the most challenging developmental stages in any child’s life, but also one of the most sensitive times of the school day.  Making oneself vulnerable, especially in the context of sports and physical activity, is hard for lots of kids.  It visibly reveals weakness. It highlights insecurities.

Especially when you’re a boy.

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What Spaghetti Sauce Has Taught Me About Curriculum

spaghetti sauce

Spaghetti sauce has become a staple in my family’s culture. My mom, my aunt, my grandma, and now even both my brother and I, make our own, homemade spaghetti sauce. Sure, it’s a bit more work than buying a jar of Prego at the grocery store, but the time we’ve lost by investing ourselves into our sauces has compounded into a rich family culture, a culture from where I get a lot of my childhood memories.

I always remember Mom’s two big pots of sauce, cooking for hours, filling the house with aromas of tangy tomato and smoked meatballs; I remember Grandma and Grandpa coming over to take care of my siblings and me, bringing fresh baked bread and Grandma’s version of spaghetti sauce–a bit lighter, but soaked with pieces of perfectly cooked ground beef. As I was making my own the other night, I reminisced on all that has come from a rather simple recipe, with rather simple ingredients, but has somehow evolved into these incredibly different versions of the same thing.

So what on earth does this have to do with teaching? Or with curriculum?
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What’s the Difference Between Personalization and Differentiation?

In many ways, it’s been quite a radical change going from the public school environment to a personalized, private-school environment.  Never before have I had the opportunity to craft academic and social-emotional goals for each of my students, catering specifically to the needs of each child, nor have I been able to document so acutely to those specific needs.  And while it’s changed the way I operate in the classroom–to a certain degree–there have been ways in which going from public school to personalized learning hasn’t really changed me all that much.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 8.14.27 AMPerhaps it’s because I still view the classroom in a similar way.

In many ways, my philosophy has not changed over the past year, despite the fact that this radical change in environments has pushed my thinking and shaped me even more as an educator. Instead, it’s caused me to ask many questions, the biggest of which centering around the definition of personalization.  Even more specifically, I’ve wondered, what the difference is between differentiation and personalization. Is there even a difference?  And if there is, why doesn’t it feel that different than what I used to do?

In public school, I was raised in Carol Tomlinson’s philosophy of differentiation, which entailed differentiating for each learner by content, process, and product.  And this could look different in a variety of contexts.  Deconstructing standards, creating lessons with multiple entry points, and allowing students to interpret content in their own ways to make a variety of products were parts of my practice–ones that I feel I’ve only developed more in the personalized learning environment.  In fact, Tomlinson’s model even accounts for the more nuanced pieces of differentiation, including student interest, readiness, and learning profiles, all of which will contribute to the content, process, and product in any child’s learning path.

So then the question still stands: What’s the difference?

To me, the slight differences between personalization and differentiation lie in the humanism with which all teachers should approach their craft.  Differentiation, as a clinical or technical term, seems almost benign; somewhat removed and disconnected from the needs of students as humans.  On the other hand, the term personalization, coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) grounding its roots in the word “personal,” connotes connection and a recognition of the immeasurable individual.

When I reflect on my own practice and the changes I’ve made between these two environments, I feel most palpably this heightened sense for the recognition of the child as human.  For instance, in public school, I emphasized assessment criteria, “proper” pedagogy for these various learning styles, and a commitment to “covering the content.” And mostly out of worry.  I worried that my excellence would be judged, that my judgment would be questioned, and that questioning the norm would be more work than it was worth.

However, in the personalized learning environment, these worries are turned on their respective heads.  Instead of worrying about my excellence being judged based on content coverage and adherence to district initiatives and norms, I have conversations around practice that are centered on making all students successful and questioning why practices aren’t working for students, as opposed to why students aren’t fitting into our practices.

pencilsI suppose, though, the term we use doesn’t really matter.  In fact, when I reflect on my own philosophy, I recognize that it isn’t determined by the semantical differences between personalization and differentiation.  Instead, it’s determined by who I am as an educator and how I view these little humans in my classroom.

And what really matters is that I look beyond just what they are, in order to truly look at who they are.

3 Personalization Myths

Personalization is all-the-rage across the country, and it’s no small wonder. Until recently, personalizing student learning felt like a dream, but now, in an age where user-driven practices are the standard and where technology helps us function more effectively than ever before, personalization is feeling less and less like a dream, and more like a blissful reality.

Along with any dream, however, comes some unattainable and idealistic myths.  And while these myths make perfect sense, many of them deter teachers from even attempting to personalize learning, perpetuating the deep sleep of the one-size-fits-all approach.  Are you one of those teachers dreaming of personalizing your classroom of thirty kids? Train your brain to break these three myths, and then get to personalizing!

Myth 1: Personalized learning means everyone is doing something different.

When I started working in a personalized learning environment, I immediately imagined it as individual students working on their own projects and activities at their own pace, all coming out with differing products.  But what I’ve learned is that not only is this difficult to manage; it’s also not exactly what we want — at least not all the time.  Yes, we want to differentiate content for our students in order to help them access it in ways that work for them, but we also don’t want them working in silos, void of interaction and deprived of shared experiences.

In order to resolve this conundrum, it requires balance. While students should have time to work on passion projects, teachers should also set up processes, protocols, and lessons that help nurture and manage the classroom ecosystem.  Shared and small-group experiences are important, even if it means these activities are less personalized than individual activities.  After all, it is through interaction with similar content that students are able to have discussions, observe peer models, and participate in a learning community. This does not, however, mean that said lessons or activities will be one-size-fits-all; instead, these activities and lessons will have multiple entry points, allowing for varied paces, without having to plan 20-30 unique activities.

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Collective inquiry can personalize more than you might think.

Myth 2: Personalized learning is always interest-based.

Many believe that student interest lies at the heart of learning, but I invite you to reconsider this assumption and modify it slightly.  It is true that providing high-interest content will engage students, and it is true that students are more likely to interact with content that is within their interests; however, at the root of this lies student engagement with its roots planted deep in success and self-perception.

Student interest is only one dimension of personalized learning, and this dimension impacts each learning experience differently.  In an engaged learning experience, all students are able to see themselves in the content, connect to it, and as a result, interact with it in order to learn.  Connecting it to a student’s passion isn’t always a necessity.  Instead, at times, it’s about fostering success and helping them see the relevance in the topic.

Most recently, I taught a series of lessons involving Westward Expansion to my students.  While I’m sure “Westward Expansion” would fall into few of our students’ self-identified interests, they were all engaged in the lesson.  Why?  They were engaged because the content and process of the activity was structured in a way where students could observe, ask questions, and make inferences at their own pace.  Some students drew pictures, while others wrote on post-it notes and created concept maps to show their learning.  What’s more, this series of lessons was another way to debunk Myth 1, showing that if students are able to active prosumers of information, a well-planned shared experience will personalize itself!

Myth 3: Personalized learning is way more work than one-size-fits-all curriculum.

It doesn’t have to be more work to personalize.  In fact, I argue that it’s simply a repositioning of where we focus our attention in the classroom.  Sure, it may feel easier to plan using a textbook.  However, a prescribed curriculum requires time reading teacher manuals, making copies, and grading benign assignments, where as a student-driven and teacher-curated curriculum, personalized to the needs of individual students and classes, redistributes your time.

In a personalized curriculum, teachers spend time building soft skills, finding authentic materials that can be used for future students, and conducting authentic formative assessments that build momentum.  Students slowly become more autonomous — more reflective — and we start to see a return on investment.  We get to enjoy all the fruits of the labor that went into planning, preparing, and helping students access a personalized curriculum, which ends up actually saving us time in the classroom, as our practice becomes less reactive and more embedded into natural routines of inquiry, disequilibrium, and student-driven problem-solving.

The Return on Investment

The classroom is an ecosystem, and with every trophic level we travel up, it requires more energy to keep the passion for learning alive.  By personalizing the curriculum, creating student-driven activities, and putting learning directly in the hands of students, we end up saving energy in the long run.  Students become autonomous, taking responsibility for every piece of the learning process, and you find yourself sitting back and watching your well-oiled machine work on its own.

This takes a leap of faith.  These myths wouldn’t be out there if there wasn’t a grain of truth in them.  Most likely, when you start personalizing, it will feel like more work at first, but like anything else, all it takes is a bit of time, some experimenting, and a daily dose of reflection to feel like you’ve got the hang of it.

The Truth About Co-Teaching

I walked off the train this morning, my ear buds nestled inside my head, quieting the busy morning around me.  The recycled and musty air of the underground train tousled my hair as the train took off behind me.  It gave me a sense of peace as I walked up the stairs, ready to start that last day of school.  The last day of school has it’s own unique feeling: one combined with reflection, happiness, relief, pride, and sadness.  It’s one that only a teacher knows.

Time and Change

It’s funny how time seems to go just a little bit slower, not just towards the end of something, but also towards the beginning.  I remember when the year started, the days seemed to move glacially, like we had moved only an inch when it seemed when should have moved a mile.  Slowly, but surely, our momentum carried us forward to the point where we were propelling so quickly through the year that it seemed like it would never end.  These last few weeks, however, have added friction to our ill-perceived inertia, reminding me again that things do, in fact, come to an end, people move on, and most of all, that things do change.

My attitude towards Change is ambivalent.  I recognize her necessity, but sometimes loathe her narcissism.  She sees not individuals, but the big picture.  And in order for the big picture to continue to its dynamic evolution, Change is necessary.  Change knows this; she knows there is collateral damage, but she persists onward, reminding us that evolution is the only way to truly grow.

I’ve grown a lot this year, just not necessarily in the ways I thought I would.  I left my home in Chicago almost a year ago now, on a quest to find a place to fit in, both personally and professionally, running towards something that I thought might help me in that respect.  And that it has.  As a result, though, the lessons I’ve learned, while diverse and varied, are not necessarily pedagogical or curricular.  Sure, I’ve expanded my repertoire of resources and learned a few new tricks; I’ve practiced the delicate art of social-emotional learning with the help of some great educators.  But as I walk in this morning and prepare to walk out this afternoon, I’ll leave reflecting mostly on the relationships I’ve built this year, especially as a co-teacher.

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Kate and I are on our first day of school! #scared

 

The Truth About Co-Teaching

Beginning this year, I knew co-teaching would be my greatest challenge.  Before this year, all I knew was having my own classroom. Yes, I had collaborated with colleagues before, but when our meetings ended and we closed our agendas, I was still able to go back to my classroom and conduct my lessons in a way that worked for me and my students alone.  But this changes when you work with a co-teacher full-time.  While all close collaborative relationships are intimate, having a full-time co-teacher is like living with your boyfriend, your husband, your wife, whereas working on a team, each with his or her own separate classroom, is like living in a really fun frat house, each person somewhat independent of each other.  You may come together in the common areas for reflection, for fun, and maybe a little bit of partying, but the reality is you still lead relatively separate lives.

And so, this adjustment was a huge challenge.  We started the year tentatively, learning each other’s ticks and ways to help each other grow. We found places where we were similar, and even more places we were different.  We talked; we smiled; we hugged; we fought.  We left work blazingly angry at each other many days, but finished even more weeks unbearably grateful for each other’s talents and support.  We were forced to take a perspective far different than ours, and we were required to concede, even if it wasn’t exactly what we thought was best.

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This is how we take pictures now.

Now, at the end of the tunnel, the wind tousling our hair peacefully as our train leaves us, we can see that it helped us grow. We note each other’s strengths and our commonalities before we ruminate on our differences; we see now, with clarity, how we fit into the ecosystem of the classroom as one cohesive unit — and in this marriage we call co-teaching.

After a certain amount of time co-teaching, you have no choice but to let yourself be entirely seen for what you are — your good, your bad, and your ugly.  Perhaps this was why I was so scared of it this year.  I certainly didn’t want that to be seen.  And while putting on a facade may work temporarily, the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the classroom brings out your natural habits — both good and bad — and you have no choice but to make it work.  It’s hard, it’s vulnerable, and it’s emotional, but when I look back on it — when I look back on how far my co-teacher and I have come this year — I don’t feel an ounce of regret.  Out of any “marriage” comes lots of things: times of happiness, times of sadness, anger, all of these things. But what also comes out of a marriage is a best friend, a confidant, and unconditional love.

I found that this year, and it was the best thing I’m walking away with.

Letting Your Voice Be Heard

It was the second day of class, and I walked into the large lecture-style room, passively looking at the faces of those who would soon be my fellow colleagues.  We’d share every class together, and we’d get to know each other slowly, but surely, over the course of the next year.

Our assignment that day was to bring an artifact that makes us “American.”  It was all a part of a series of lessons, meant to help us understand social justice education, the biases we bring to our classroom, and the potential effects of those biases.

That day, I brought a picture of me kissing another man on the cheek.

“This is what it means to me to be American,” I said.  “I’m gay, and being American to me, means that I have the freedom to love who I want.”

photo (31)And like that, I had come out to my colleagues.  It was actually rather easy, but I knew it wouldn’t always be that easy.  In fact, the teacher of the class helped me to see that over the course of our time together.  We pondered over the potential school districts and areas I could teach in, and we simply talked about the challenges that I would potentially face.

I spent the first couple years of teaching in fear of those, and even the better part of the last year or so wondering about the repercussions from speaking my mind in my last school district.  But today, as my voice is heard to a broader audience on the Huffington Post, I feel so proud, so inspired, and so grateful for those of you that have encouraged me over the past two and a half years to speak loudly.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your readership.  I’m forever indebted and eternally grateful.