Aligning Philosophy and Practice

road home1

(Delaney and I on the ride home after school.)

Me: “So… have a good day today? What did you do in Adventure Club before I got there… since you weren’t there for long?”

Delaney (8 years old): “Well… someone farted. And we were all arguing about who did or didn’t do it.”

Me: “Uhhhhh….. riveting.” (Or something. I can’t really remember what I said here. Likely some form of mild interrogation re: whether or not she was the culprit.)

Delaney: “And then I helped Brooklyn read a little. She is only in Kindergarten, and she was reading a book called ‘365 Days of Wonder,‘ and I was pretty sure she wouldn’t know a lot of the bigger words in that one.”

Me: “How do you know that? That’s not exactly fair. Are you telling me you couldn’t have read that book when you were in Kindergarten?”

Delaney: “No. I’m not saying that at all. It’s just that I read with her a lot and I know what she can and can’t read when she’s all by herself. I help her read, but I don’t just give her the words when she gets stuck. I help her sound them out and make sure she can do it by herself.”

(And here is the part that really got to me.)

Delaney: “Because, like Ben Franklin said: ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.’

Me: “Uhmmm…… ok. Wow. So, (At one of my rare -loss for words- moments.) where did you get that and how do you know that applies to reading books?”

Delaney: “It is in my ‘Superstars of Science- The Brave The Bold and The Brainy‘ -book about all kinds of scientists and what made them really great and interesting.”

Me: “Very cool. I’m not sure I’ve even seen that book. I’ll have to check it out. But hey… what made you think of that quote when you were helping her read?”

Delaney: “I didn’t think of it when I was helping her read. You asked me why I helped her the way that I do… and that’s why I do it that way. Ben Franklin is pretty smart and so I just decided to do it that way when I help people. I want her to be able to read it when I’m not by her.”

Me: (probably still fairly speechless) “Uhhhh….. that’s a really classy leap of intuition there. Do you know how many people I wish could internalize an idea like that… and then consistently act on it because it is the best thing to do?”

Delaney: “No.”

Me: “A lot. More than you know. Just… do that. Everything that you just did and told me about. Just keep doing that. You’re a really good girl Delaney, and I’m proud of you.”

Delaney: “Thank you, Daddy.”

delaney & neve reading


Seriously. This is but one tiny example (told in such detail here because it is my kid and I have that latitude) of how amazing children really are.  If you ever wonder why I’m so unpleased with your “…yeah, but my students can’t do that” -rant… this sort of thing is why. Just listen to kids. Really listen. You might just be surprised. I would even suggest that fully half of designing and maintaining an engaging and challenging learning environment is merely keeping your ears open. Really open. Not just to hear what you expect to hear. When you honestly listen to children, they tell you what they are capable of. So often it is beyond our jaded adult suppositions. Delaney didn’t realize the sophistication of her transfer until it was highlighted and named for her. It was just an intuitive thing that simply made sense to her. In my mind, often the best thing wise adults can do is to design settings and scenarios for kids to organically do amazing things… then pour gas all over those warm little fires of understanding they create.

One of my foundational rules of classroom engagement is simply this: never be the first one to open your mouth and start talking about any topic. Twenty years in the classroom taught me that one. Never assume. Never take prior knowledge for granted. Listen first, then act. Never presume to know what the students in front of you are capable of. They’ll show you if you are bold enough to listen.

*I originally tapped this little story out directly into Facebook. After a few lines, I realized the reason I was so drawn to the exchange is that it illustrates so many things I have come to believe about the process of learning. And that means it would have to end up here. However, I finished it there first because I already anticipate getting the inbound reminder notification from Timehop next year at this time. The older I get, the more I appreciate the sometimes subtle cyclical nature of life.


-For “Portra 400VC” by Bravo_Zulu_ via Creative Commons from Flickr

-To John Rushin and Cheri Patterson, who taught me more about listening than I would have figured out alone.


How Toasted Are Your Lessons?


Learning is a journey, and your students want to know you are with them. How do you let them know you truly are? In my experience, this is done by creating learning experiences that mean something. Experiences that live in real space. Experiences designed to be seen by more eyes than yours as the teacher. What do the other students think about the issue? What about experts in the field? I am a longtime proponent of designing lessons that do not live on the page alone. And yet, I also understand that every lesson on every day cannot possibly live such a contextualized life. There are skills to be learned. Basic facts to comprehend.


And yet, even these basic facts and skills can be presented in such a way that they feel intended for the learner alone. Customized. Toasted. A recent post by Seth Godin posited the value of things being “toasted.” In this brief post, he defines “toasted” as this:

“Here’s a little treat, something extra I did that wasn’t necessary, for you, right now, here, I made this.”

He’s right. As a fan of good food, I can honestly say that whether via restaurant chef or home-made, anything toasted carries with it that extra bit of “just for you” at that very moment. This can apply to every single experience in the classroom. But first, what might be the alternate view? McDonald’s burgers? Textbook-company-created worksheets? Lesson 3.1.1?

I remember many of my first experiences as a teacher back in 1993 as clear as if they happened yesterday. Back then I was handed a textbook and a course title. “Biology” is a really vague direction without articulated standards and learning targets to define the scope. I must state that my district had actually produced a curriculum charting the path more than others. However, it would be some years before strong instructional leadership helped to not only define the K-12 pathway, but also to align it with local assessment to check progress along the way. Prior to that time, my colleagues generally marched forward along a path prescribed by the textbook company we had adopted. And this…  this led to stepwise assigning of tasks, number by number until the end of May. Students catch on to this. And they catch on quickly.


It is here that I must say unequivocally that the job of a teacher  – 100+ students of all abilities, defined time spans, the sum total of the “school experience,” etc. –  is massive. I know the depth of that reality because I lived it for 25 years. I lived it in both face to face and blended environments. I lived it as a teacher, and later as a school instructional coach, a district instructional technology specialist, and a district instructional coordinator. I know the time it takes to design a solid lesson. Luckily, I did this for many years prior to the national standards movement, as well as for many years under such external pressures.

One thing I can honestly say I learned in year one: never photocopy a blackline master worksheet. No matter how well constructed or designed. Even prior to the equalizer we now know as the dawn of the Internet, students could easily see through the McDonalds-like automation of the worksheet. If they were asked to complete a task on paper for me… it was designed by me. It was designed by me, and customized directly for them… and I made sure in construction that they would know it.



Today we know far better. We have long lived in a world where media is created by anyone and everyone. Students know when you are creating a task specifically for them, and they appreciate it. The appreciate it by responding to a level we desire because they buy in to reality far more than into a false construct. Fast forward to today…  where I lead a virtual school of 19 teachers offering a total of 34 courses to a district of nearly 20,000 students and many more in the region we serve. And so, I ask the simple question: to teachers near and far: how toasted are your offerings for your students? How do you put those dark delightful grill marks onto your designs for learning?

Artwork thanks

*Robyn Lee for “Ham, Brie and Apple French Toast Panini” via CC on Flickr

*Ewan McIntosh for “She’s not so keen on worksheets – quite right!” via CC on Flickr


Reflecting on Reflection

What makes you smarter? I bet you have a pretty good idea by now. Personally, I get a little smarter every time I’m behind the edit pane of this blog. I have a new bit of research to share that might even help reaffirm this little claim. Now, I don’t really know if you are actually getting smarter by being where you are right now, on the outside of the blog looking in… reading. I can assume you are getting smarter by reading this blog with about the same level of certainty that I can say my students got smarter by listening to me talk.



For most savvy educators, the metacognitive power of reflecting upon learning is no secret. I think few in the business would refute that assertion. And yet, I have long believed that we do not take this practice serious enough to truly nourish it until it flourishes.* The practice of careful and explicit reflection embedded throughout the process of learning is a far, far cry from the practice of merely assigning reflective thinking. As dialed-in to this practice as I am, I can’t say I’ve personally nailed it down to the: “Four Steps to Winning via Reflection.” Believe me, if I could write that blog post I would. The reality is that most of what it takes to support deep, meaningful learning is far too nuanced for a bulleted blog post hitched to a cocky title.

What I can say, however, is that at some point in my teaching career, I stumbled upon the advantages of thoughtful, coached reflection. If you’re tackling a concept sophisticated enough to require a bit of struggle, then you can benefit from careful reflection. Thankfully, I discovered this early enough in my career to be able to figure out -by trial and error- some thoughtful ways of encouraging, supporting, and embedding this type of thinking. I later learned this to be the seventh of the Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis:

Strategy 7: “Engage students in self-reflection, and let them keep track of and share their learning.” – Long-term retention and motivation increases when students track, reflect on, and communicate about their learning. In this strategy, students look back on their journey, reflecting on the learning and sharing their achievement with others.

On Assignment

Again, contrast this embrace of the nuances of learning with the mere practice of assigning reflection. I reiterate this to insure that you don’t simply read the linked article, start assigning it on Monday, wonder why Friday’s quiz scores are no better, and then drop the practice as another failed attempt at smartering**. In fact, I would have to say this reminds me of a rather worn out practice within online/blended modes of schooling: the “post once, comment twice” approach. That protocol arises out of the fact that we would like to see a back and forth exchange of information in these new spaces. We’d like to see students engaged in conversation as an additional mode of learning. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to figure out how to support this sort of discourse in physical space. I’m guessing most of us would be far happier if it just “happened” for us in online spaces as well. It makes sense that we’d rather not have to spend the time and effort figuring out yet one more way to interact when we’ve already got this surefire way that still “works.” And thus, attempts at online learning experiences often fall far short on most measures of authentic engagement.

Spiral Bound Hoop Jumping

In short: without at least a measure of careful attention to fostering content conversations and open self-monitoring of learning…  reflection becomes yet another hoop to jump through. Experience tells me that assignments created without either input from or options for the learners themselves…  are a hoop. And before you label me a radical constructivist, I do believe students should engage in “path shaping” experiences designed by a learning expert. The degree to which those experiences are seen as “hoops” is entirely dependent upon design. Photocopy it from a text resource? Hoop. Include little more than low-level regurgitation of dogma? Hoop. Fail to help build a context for the work? Hoop. Require it to be done as a movie, merely because you can? Hoop. Every student in the class looking for the same “right answer?” Hoop. Less than timely and non-descriptive feedback on said assignment? Hoop.

Now More Than Ever

The list goes on and on. It takes serious effort to design learning ecosystems and experiences that are more than a collection of hoops to jump through. Teaching and learning are sophisticated endeavors. The world has changed. We don’t need to attend school to collect facts anymore. We can do that from our handheld devices. If you are still caught in a tell me things on Monday-I write it all down-you quiz me on Friday cycle, your approach has been seriously disrupted by the modern world and is ripe for reinvention. Start by studying self-reflection strategies. Perhaps now more than ever, what we do need to attend school for… is to seek wisdom: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement. I would further suggest that the road to wisdom is paved with reflection upon thoughtful reflection.

Getting down to specifics, purposeful self-reflection can help students on the path to wisdom in many ways. Coaching students through self-reflection on their learning process can help them…

  • see changes and development over time
  • deeply appraise their own learning process
  • take ownership of their own learning
  • diagnose gaps in their learning
  • select strategies that support their learning
  • find confidence in risk taking and inquiry
  • set goals for future learning

This Just In

The reason for returning here to think deeply about reflection was an EdWeek post from a few weeks ago entitled, Post-Lesson Reflection Boosts Learning by Ellen Wexler. The post outlines a study done via the collaboration of researches from HEC Paris, Harvard, and the University of North Carolina. The original paper, Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance, can be directly downloaded on the Social Science Reasearch Network. The author highlights the measurable boost in self-efficacy which is thought to be much of the fuel for the results shown. That is no doubt a significant factor, but I think there is more to it than that. I believe there is still much work to be done in this area.

To be clear, I don’t usually put a great deal of stock in the educational application of research fresh out of business school. Learning is learning, however, and this reminds me of so many practical action research projects my former students and I conducted along the way in any given year. Explicitly engaging students in my personal quest to learn more about learning was full of win. Tossing aside the mystique of schooling and involving students in the process helps to put them front and center in the classroom… where they belong. Get a start this summer. Read this article. Read the Stiggins and Chappuis stuff. Design one small way to make rich student reflection on learning more than another classroom hoop.

In Addition

*Nourish it until it flourishes:  I think I’ll use this phrase again. It has an almost musical-internal-rhyme-Marshall Mathers-sort of thing going on. Or something.

**Smartering:  A Michael Gier term for the goodness that takes place within the mindspace that is his classroom.

Finally, thanks to Bert Kaufmann for sharing A Very Escher Christmas, and Joel Penner for sharing “Hoop Jumping” both via CC license on Flickr.

Make It Rain


I apologize outright if you are from a drought-striken region desperately searching the electronic ether for a glimmer of hope, only to have arrived at this post courtesy of the title. There are no deluge-inducing instructions here. No chants. Barely a plea. But questions? Yes. This post is about questions.

Family Tree of Droplets


While sitting on the deck taking in a beautiful early evening outside, I began my traverse of the daylight/dusk/night barrier when my five year old daughter approached me at the table on the deck, and asked to climb into my lap. While shimmying in for kitten-like comfort, she kicked up a seemingly simple conversation…

Neve: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Oh… just about about ways of thinking. Just something to help me be smart about the work I do.”

Neve: “So, can you read a book to get smarter about anything?”

Me: “Almost. Yep… If you think about something you want to learn about, or know how to do… you can probably find a book to help you. You can pretty much learn about anything you want to today.

So, yeah… if you want to learn something, we’ll find books and things to help you.”

Neve: “Can you get a book if you want to learn how to make it rain?

Me: “(pause) Well… actually yes. Probably. There are people who have been trying to make it rain for a very long time. And sometimes they’re getting pretty OK at it in small spaces. Sort of.”

The conversation from there got a little too lengthy and geeky to relay here, but you get the idea. Learning at age five has so…… so much potential. Infinite, really.

Screenshot 2014-06-16 21.01.27


I’m really not entirely certain what the segue might have been between these two events, but, fast-forward twenty minutes to when I posted this*:

“Holy cow…… the girls asked what a cardinal sounds like. I pulled up a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab on my iPhone, and seriously, our backyard is now a cacophony of cardinal music.

Why have I not done this until now?”

The comment stream below the post was rich as well, with several connections from those who had done similar things, as well as some fantastic suggestions for taking this to the next level. I get smarter, kids get smarter, rinse, repeat.


Once the girls heard the cardinals come to life around us, once they saw two land on the fence directly in front of us, they were in. “What does a goldfinch sound like?” “What about an oriole?” “Does a hummingbird make a sound?” While we Googled every last question in the fading light, I tried to interject a thing of two about the limits of their quick little tests. “Maybe those other species weren’t close by.” “Perhaps this was the wrong time of day for them to respond in that way.” Maybe this, perhaps that…  but at this point they had already crossed over into trying to mimic backyard birdsongs themselves to even hear my prompts. At this point, science was bridging a wee bit into art and I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we attempt such an exploration. 

Here is my question for you: do you realize how close real, honest-to-goodness, publishable scientific inquiry is from this very point? Once you’ve asked a fascinating question (often by accident) and taken the time to muck about and explore the elements of the investigation, you are so close to real sophistication. The sophistication of the process. It is at this point you begin to take those “what ifs” and figure out the scope of what you might be able to find out next. You’re digging into what others have already discovered. You are figuring out feasibility. You are formalizing. Little kids don’t need names for these things to inquire, they just need a guide. A guide who will stay out of the way. A guide willing to intervene minimally and only when needed, but a guide that is curious and kind enough to keep pushing. Gently pushing. Ask questions to get questions. Fewer answers. More possibilities.

Science education begins quite young if you let it. Ask the questions. Keep asking them. Once you get more in return than you give…  you’re winning. Go ahead, make it rain.

Today Weather

*”Family Tree of Droplets” by HUSO on Flickr via CC.
*”Neve and The Inchworm” by me.
*”Today Weather” by kristina Alexanderson on Flickr via CC.

On Avocados and Presidents

Life moves pretty fast

So, it happens that I was just checking out at the grocery store with my youngest daughter, Neve, by my side. While she danced around behind and beside me (literally), the checkout girl, who I could tell was quite green, asked if the bag of produce were avocados, “just to be sure.” My reply:  “Yep… they sure are.” I smiled warmly in an attempt to soften her subtle, but obvious discomfort in having to ask.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.


Meanwhile, my littlest one pulled her 3-4 year old frame (she’s rather tiny for five) up over the edge of the counter by her hands. With her lips barely perched atop the rim and her feet afloat above floor tiles, she said to the girl: “Avocados are a fruit. They’re not really a vegetable.”

The checker replied: “Oh yeah… how do you know that?”

Neve: “Well… see… they have a seed in them and that makes them a fruit. (significant pause) …Even though some people think they are a vegetable. They’re not really though.”

The checker looked up to me for what appeared to me to be a slightly sheepish content check. I’m not sure what exactly I did in response. Did I wink? No, I probably nodded. I think. Maybe. She then said to Neve: “Wow. How do you know that?”

Neve: “I don’t know… it’s just in my head.”

Checker: “How old are you… five? Wow. You’re really smart! Maybe you could be president some day.”

Neve: “Nahhh… I don’t think girls are presidents.”

My "doorman" …or, "doorwoman."

My “doorman” …or, “doorwoman.”


I had a bit of consulting to do after that last line. If you either, A) know me personally, or B) have read a bit of this blog, you can likely imagine our conversation in the car on the way home.* All of this has me wondering about the roots of empowerment. Do we really consider how early and deeply ideas become rooted in the brains of our little ones? When is “too early to matter?”


Actually, if you happen to be one of those die hards from the old days on the blog, you might remember a related story here: But Math is Hard. If you have not read it, you now have your assignment. And really, toward the end of the comments on that post, a rather beautiful thing was born. The web of links there will take you to a content area reading/writing strategy that I use to this day every chance I get. Now that I think of it, Miss Neve quite possibly learned that bit of history while observing the purely male string of presidents on Presidents Pro.

*These talks are usually the silver lining in the cloud of a 50 minute commute that is soon to come to an end. Why is this a negative thing? For one, I’ll just plain miss those long car conversations. Well, that and hearing her sing about 90% of the 96.5 The Buzz playlist from memory. (and yes, of course I have to switch to the iPhone playlist at times during The Church of Lazlo, she’s five.  ;)


-“inside the beast” by Darwin Bell on Flickr via CC
-“door opener” by me.