Tuesday, March 4, 2014


If you're curious, you can read my preamble to this project here.

I subscribe to the philosophy that simpler is almost always better. Keep that in mind as you read my macro-structure for teaching character in writing class.

Every Thursday in writing class, which is already #ThrowbackThursday, we currently play classic jams from the 80s and 90s (and some 00s, though that makes me feel old) - it's heavy on Destiny's Child, N'Sync, Backstreet Boys, and other staples of my late adolescence. We also invest heavily in teaching sentence frames (much gratitude to Doug Lemov for the inspiration) but we haven't yet put the two together with character - until now.

Assume the following:
1. Our kids know the names of the "big seven" character strengths and their definitions, with some level of background for each.
2. We have 10 minutes every Thursday for this activity, in writing classes of about 30 kids each.

We start #ThrowbackThursday by reviewing two character strengths (the ones we're focusing on) and a couple sentence frames (see below)

We then show a "protagonist card" (e.g. Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Frederick Douglass), two "sentence frame cards" (e.g. sentences beginning with "despite" and sentences that include the words "neither" and "nor"), and a "character strength card" (e.g. "grit", "social intelligence") and have students use the Rally Robin structure (whereby students take turns writing as many creative responses as they can) throughout the duration of the #ThrowbackThursday song that use the protagonist, one of the sentence frames, and the character strength in a grammatically accurate and plausible way. Does the song have a character-themed message? Of course it does! Does the song incorporate one of the sentence frames at some point in its lyrics? Maybe! 

Bonus points (utterly worthless bonus points, that is!) will be given for responses that incorporate a reference to the song that is playing at the time, but our debrief will focus largely on creativity, correct use of the sentence frame, and students' interpretations of the character strength being described (e.g. In your sentence "Despite her quarrels with some of the other members of Destiny's Child, Beyoncé showed a lot of social intelligence by speaking well of them even after launching her solo career," how does this action show social intelligence? Are there any other character strengths Beyoncé showed through this action? What have you done in a similar situation? What would you hope to do next time?)

For good measure, I'll ensure the debrief highlights the grit it took to continue generating increasingly ridiculous sentences, the social intelligence it took to let your partner have a turn when you really wanted to just write your next sentence already, and, of course, the character strengths exemplified in the student-generated sentences themselves. Throughout, we'll have a lot of fun (see zest.)

I don't mean to plant any ideas in your head, but allow me to highlight that I'm planning this before doing it with students (some may say "proactively"), it's a student-centered activ(e)ity, the character strengths align to both the song lyrics and the actual student actions during the activity, and this activity recurs every Thursday.* I should also point out to the hashtag-averse that all the kids are doing it, and its use gives us permission to play cheesy music under the guise of being "hip to the groove" (as all the kids are saying these days.)

Let me know how you would simplify or otherwise improve this macro-structure!



*For full points, here's one piece of relevant research: Seligman's research is not limited to character growth in the "Big Seven", but underscores the importance of using one's own "signature strengths" as levers to improve in the "Big Seven", which is the reason behind expanding our list of character traits beyond the seven that seem to get most of the air-time. Boom. Two points.

Preamble to #ThrowbackThursday

This is the first of two posts responding to an online course graciously taught by the inimitable Dave Levin through Coursera. It has been a good experience and has served to both refresh some of what I knew and push some of what I thought I knew. In this post, I'll put some of my philosophical thoughts out there; in the next post, which will serve as my final project, I'll describe a "macro-structure" for character development.

In the spirit of embracing the 'and', I want to highlight some issues I see with this approach to character education and why I believe it's the way to go. I hope your mental soundtrack is playing the last movement of 'Rodeo' by American composer Aaron Copland, because I'm going to start with the beef:

I see two primary issues with the approach this character education I've learned about here and elsewhere:

1. Using data from indicators of character strengths to inform decisions about what to work on often leads to a change in the indicators but at the cost of a distortion of the character strength it was designed to indicate, per the Campbell effect (see below.) So if we try to build, say, grit, by working on how well we keep working when we feel like giving up, maybe we actually just get better at looking like we're working for a longer period of time, or over-reporting how often we felt like giving up, or any number of things.
"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change, Donald T. Campbell, December 1976
(from this talk by Uri Treisman on equity and the opportunity to learn in mathematics education)
2. Any discussion of how strengthening one's character provides a better shot at success should include a healthy dose of acknowledging the reality of our world: We do not live in a merit-based world, and we do our kids a disservice if we point to low college persistence numbers and fault a lack of grit before financial stress, structural racism, alienation, social pressures, or any of the other very real causes that are often acknowledged outside of the front page. I know of many great teachers who walk this line effectively, and I want to make sure that teachers who are exploring character for the first time grapple with these issues before making the mistake of going in front of a group of kids and telling them that if they would only show more grit, the world would treat them more fairly. KIPP teacher extraordinaire and fellow graduate of the esteemed Rice linguistics department, Lelac Almagor, says this far better than I ever could here.

I fully believe what I've written above, AND I concurrently believe that an intentional emphasis on character education is the only way to go. 

As a parent, I can't let my fear of being oppressive or controlling (nor my fear of distorting and corrupting our family processes) keep me from looking out for my children's best interest, or from talking to my kids about the choices they're making, or from helping them to learn the value of hard work, honesty, attention to detail, playfulness, or any of the other things that make life more wonderful. I hope their teachers feel the same way, so that if Barbara works hard she feels like she's becoming a more hardworking person. If Sebastian says something unkind to another kid, I hope the teacher would highlight for him that this is not the way to live one's life. 

And, having been a kid myself (OMG, you too? No way), I can now look back on the cumulative effect of a lot of these small moments that, in retrospect, have had a huge hand in shaping the person I am today. What if my teachers had decided that they didn't want to emphasize character for fear of being paternalistic? Would I have learned the lessons I learned from countless hours spent studying for Academic Decathlon, or from avoiding my 3rd grade journal project, or from any of the number of things I initially thought were hilarious - only to learn later that they were hurtful to others? I'm glad they spoke up, and I'm glad they did so in a way that assumed I would learn from each experience, rather than assuming I was showing the signs of some immutable trait.

If you're still interested in reading about a small way to teach character that I hope will lead to some good things, read on...

Monday, March 3, 2014

Teacher development at Elm City Middle

At Elm City College Prep Middle School, as at most Achievement First schools, we spend a lot of time thinking about teacher development. As I've written before, I believe teacher development should be a school's first priority, not because we should care more about adults than we do about kids, but because the effort we expend to develop teachers leads to a much greater impact on students than a singular focus on individual students.

Our work with teachers falls into four categories, seen through the lens of a science lesson on cell division:

Before the lesson, helping teachers to do the intellectual work to prepare for a lesson. This is a time to ask questions such as "What will a truly exceptional response to this question sound like? What misconceptions do we expect students to have, and what will they sound like? How will we follow up to get students to do the thinking required? How can we create cognitive dissonance to get students to confront their own misconceptions? Where and how can we help students find the joy in this lesson?" Here's where we take an initial "mitosis creates new cells", transform it into "mitosis is an ongoing process that creates new cells through the division of existing cells, initially faster than cells are dying and later, in adulthood, at approximately the same rate as cells are dying." Then we figure out how to ask questions to get kids there when their first response to "how does the number of cells change throughout one's lifetime?" is "You get more cells."

During the lesson, helping teachers with whatever it is they're currently trying to develop in their own teaching. This ranges from classroom management (I might send a signal to scan the room to see who is on-/off- task, or remind a teacher to smile, or whisper to a teacher that they should use proximity to get students A, B, and C back on track) to the broader category of holding a high bar for student outputs (I might ask a student to revise his/her response by using two of the unit's vocabulary words or by restating the answer in a complete sentence, or I might indicate that the teacher should ask a follow-up question to ensure students are building on each other's responses - "I wonder if anyone can add to that last response by using more precise vocabulary?") This real-time coaching is a key component in making sure the intellectual work teachers did ahead of time translates into a positive learning experience for teachers and students in the classroom.

After the lesson, looking through student work to determine how the lesson went and what we can do to improve for next time. This ensures that we're being honest about the impact a lesson had - an in-depth analysis of student work highlights the true impact of the lesson on student understanding in a way that is often overshadowed in the midst of a lesson by how the room "feels." Did students actually understand not only the process of mitosis, but also its function? Can they articulate this understanding in writing, without any "rounding up" needed from us? What are our next steps based on the writing we see?

Finally, about once a week, we work on the important parts of teaching that don't fit into a single lesson. How can we develop our capacity to promote an inclusive environment in which we are understanding and affirming our kids' identities? What do these unit tests reveal about what I should re-teach and how? What are best practices for grading/giving feedback to students/calling home about homework? How can we make the most of our time at school so we're not taking hours of work home every night? How can we motivate students who we're not currently reaching? How can I develop as an instructional leader? How can I give this critical feedback to a colleague?

This may sound like a lot of meetings. First of all, this doesn't mean four meetings a week. Usually it's one or two, and we don't get to do all of this with every teacher every week. Second, I think it's strange that so many teachers in so many schools are essentially left to figure all of this out on their own. These are not the dreaded "staff meetings" with a room full of teachers listening to a presentation - they're intellectually stimulating collaborative work sessions where teachers develop their skills while planning to help students develop theirs.

It's tough to pick a favorite part of this process, but for me it's a tie between 1) seeing the joyful rigor we've planned for come to life for kids during the real-time coaching part of this process and 2) looking at student work to see what students produced. The first is wonderful because it's great to see kids smiling and learning and saying brilliant things, and the second is great because it allows us to both celebrate kids' progress and figure out what we can do to help them continue to grow. I cannot imagine a better way to spend the day.