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Check on #cfrecommendations to read

February 27, 2017

Getting personalized right, the recent edition of Educational Leadership, has a number of interesting articles. I’ve been making my way through them and thought I would share short synopses that could use to decide on whether an article was worth exploring in more depth.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, generally a good bet for an interesting essay, wrote, Let’s Celebrate Personalization: But not too fast. She suggests that before a school jumps into the deep end of the personalization pool, first carefully explore a variety of questions:

  1. Why and why now?
  2. What will the match be between your curriculum and personalization?
  3. Who will experience personalization and when?
  4. What if the approach falls short for some students?
  5. How will old and new paradigms of teaching coexist?
  6. What support will teachers need?
  7. Who will help teachers retool and will you have sufficient support?
  8. What is the school leaders role?
  9. Where are parents in the change process?
  10. What aspects of the educational environment will have to change…grading practices, scheduling, etc.?

She sheds a little light on each question and walks a fine line between promoting personalization versus staying the course. Clearly, she is a strong proponent of differentiating for students interest, readiness and learning profile. Be informed and be reflective is her advice.

John Spencer wrote an interesting article about using design thinking in the classroom, The Genius of Design. Piloting a structure modeled after Google’s “20% time,” where students get about 20% of their weekly class time to work on projects that connect to their interest. His rationale for introducing this change is that “students should actively create their own learning rather than consume it.” He adopted design thinking as a strategy for structuring the Genius Hour because “it’s a creating thinking process that focuses on developing actual products that solve real problems.” He adapts the standard empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test cycle of design thinking into:

  1. Look, listen, learn
  2. Ask tons of questions
  3. Understand the process or problem
  4. Navigate ideas
  5. Create a prototype
  6. Highlight and fix
  7. The Launch

In the article he defines what happens in each stage with some examples from student work. Certainly, a clever adaptation to make design thinking work as the driver for projects in Genius Hour.

In One Size Doesn’t Fit All Homework, Cathy Vatterot profiles an elementary school in Massachusetts, Vinal Elementary School, that uses an individualized (personalized) homework model. She answers the question: Why personalize homework? The answer lies in the research that supports investment in “student empowerment and autonomy in learning.” Vinal went down the road of personalized homework because it fit another significant change, standards-based grading, that they launched.

In the article, Vatterot describes what personalized learning looks like at Vinal. How do teachers structure the environment so that students chose the type of homework assignment that matches their learning profile and interests while staying focused on mastering the standards. The article addresses the ways in which teachers assess and bring students into the assessment and grading process. She writes about the logistics and the parental concerns, which required an intentional education process so parents could function as a facilitator and not a doer of homework.

We learn from Vatterot’s article that there are huge benefits to creating a personalized homework culture. In addition, there is a different kind of teaching required of the teacher to make it work. She quotes Elliot Eisner’s 1991 article in Education Leadership:

Amidst the noise of standards and the merely measurable, we had somehow lost the idea that the essence of schooling should be to nurture curiosity, wonder and excitement of learning something new.

That is a great quote to end this post on! Enjoy your reading of these pieces. You will need a subscription to ASCD in order to read the full article or request it from your librarian.

#unconferenceATl sponsored by @westminsterATL & World Language teachers

February 26, 2017

world_language_unconference__westminsteratl__with_images__tweets__%c2%b7_centerteach_%c2%b7_storifyCheck out the Storify (click here) for the extensive learning that 120+ Atlanta-area World Language teachers engaged in this weekend at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. This is the second unconference that Middle School Westminster World Language teachers organized. Kudos to the organizers and much appreciation to all those who came out on a Saturday morning to learn.  The conference website can be found by clicking here.



Time flies when you’re having fun!

February 25, 2017

You know the expression, “time flies when you’re having fun!”  The Greeks had two words to express time, Chronos and kairos.  Chronos was the word used to refer to clock time, time that can be measured in days, hours, minutes and seconds.  Think of chronos as quantitative time, and part of words like chronology, chronic, or chronicler, words that imply a specific reference to ‘time ticking away.’

In Greek mythology, Chronos is:

pictured as an elderly man with a scythe at his side, sitting at a desk looking at an hourglass. (click quote for reference)



Whereas kairos was used to express something more qualitative about time.  It could be used to express the timeliness of the situation.  What will I do with the deadline for this project?  The timing of my response to this email is important.  These references to time are more about the right time to do something.  Time is referenced as having more to do with the quality of something.

In Greek mythology, Kairos was:

the god of opportunity. He is often portrayed on tiptoes and with only one lock of hair and holding scales balanced on a razor. (click quote for reference)



The other way to think about kairos is the passage of time when you are in the flow, a term used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has done extensive research on the state of being.  Being in a state of flow can be thought of as doing something you enjoy and losing track of time.  (Watch his TED talk below for more insight into flow)

So think how time moves when you are doing something that is effortless, interesting, captivating, or absorbing.  As you think about times when you were in “flow,” what comes to mind?  Use the Google Form below to submit responses to the question.  I will reply to the post with answers I receive.

What about situations, events or activities where time seems to move so slowly because you are disconnected, daydreaming, or watching the clock?  Again, submit your responses in the Google Form below and I will share them at a reply to the post.

How do we design for “kairos” experiences in which we are in the flow of the situation?  Where there is no sense of time ticking away.  In fact, we are surprised at how much time has passed when we finally notice it; time seems to fly.

I think there is a connection to mindfulness in designing for a kairos experience.  When time flies we are often immersed in the present, not thinking about the past or future.  The present moment captivates us or holds our attention.  Using meditation or mindfulness activities can be one way to prepare ourselves to live in the present.

I would imagine, although I haven’t surveyed students on this question, that most students are disengaged from many of their classroom experiences on a daily basis.  A 2004 Gallup poll showed that most teens associate school with boredom and fatigue.  While a 2015 survey reported on USA Today, suggested that most students are tired, stressed and bored in school.  This survey, conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with support from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, was of 22,000 students across the US.  A simple  survey, one of the questions asked respondents: “How do you currently feel in school?” Eight of the top ten responses to the survey were negative.  Why is this?

Do we think curriculum designers in corporations, state departments of education, or for that matter a typical teacher is designing curricula or lessons to elicit “flow?”  I think the answer to that question is a resounding NO.  Why not?

The answer might be reasonably simple, that isn’t their priority.  They are designing for students to remember information, master standards, and perform well on tests, but not to be totally excited, enthusiastic, or in flow during a learning moment.  Some students may experience those things in traditional classrooms, but they are not the majority.  The designers are not designing for:

  • relevance
  • meaning
  • novelty
  • application
  • exploration
  • creativity
  • doing something useful

If we want school to be filled with moments of flow we will need to design learning experiences differently than we do now.  Assuming we want to engage the 22,000 students who took the survey referenced above.  I wonder if students would say that a Lady Gaga concert is boring or would they say they were in a flow moment.  Probably the later.  I can only imagine that she designs her concerts so the audience has a kairos experience.  Time flies!  Some say that they tuned into this year’s Super Bowl to be able to watch Lady Gaga.  Others say it was the best halftime show of all time.  Personally, I thought Bruce Springsteen’s was better, except for the theatrics.

What if we designed school so that students had flow experiences?  What would that look like?  We certainly ought to challenge ourselves to try realizing that we are designing for daily experiences not once a year for 13 minutes.  Kairos should be our goal!

Our fates are undeniably connected!

February 19, 2017

Choldren and wooden boat on cracked earth

Two articles are a must read for information and reflection.  They both appeared in Sunday’s New York Times.  The first was written by Michael Kimmelman, Mexico City, Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis.  The lead quote from the article is:

Climate change is threatening to push a crowded capital toward a breaking point.

The second article, written by Neil MacFarquhar, Where the Booze Can Kill, and Putin Is Deemed a ‘Good Czar’, chronicles the challenges of the recession and alcoholism in Russia.  People are looking for the “cheap fix” and buy alcohol tainted with methanol, a deadly poison.  People are dying!

After reading these two articles, I couldn’t help but think that the fate of people in Mexico City, Irkutsk, the town in Russia afflicted by alcohol deaths, Flint, Chicago or any other city that comes to mind are undeniably linked.  While this realization is not a new one, I was left feeling after reading the articles that we try to hide the fact that one country’s problem or one people’s affliction is the problem or affliction of all of us on the planet.  It becomes easy to ignore the larger problem that one day we will all need to face reality: what is happening in communities across the globe is a problem we must own and address.

President Trump wants to build a wall between Mexico and the United States to keep out illegal immigrants.  But there is no wall high enough that will keep 21.2 million Mexican people from immigrating to the United States if the water crisis in Mexico City is not addressed in a more urgent and creative way.   They will flee a city that cannot provide for their most basic need, clean drinkable water.  They will come legally and illegally, over walls and under walls.  Read Kimmelman’s article and you will understand the problem is just around the corner.  The fate of Mexico City is linked to our fate in the U.S.

We have our own water crisis situations in the U.S.  Here are just a few examples that loom large in our society:

  • Flint, MI water crisis now in its third year.  Because Flint is a city filled with people who are struggling, 41.2% of residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is $24,862 (, we (politicians) seem to ignore the problem.
  • A National Water Crisis, a report in U.S. News illustrates that the problem is not unique to Flint, MI.

Across the globe, the water crisis is imminent.  In Africa, 332 million people are without access to drinkable, safe water on a regular basis (

The world doesn’t stand a chance without water.

That is a chilling quote.  If Africans cannot find safe, drinkable water, their problems will become our problems in a short order.  These global water problems are rooted in the climate change crisis that encompasses the planet.  While there are probably other reasons as well, inequity in the distribution of resources, our planet is fighting back after a century of uncontrolled abuse.

Our fates are undeniably linked.  There is no wall that can be built high enough to shield us from the global challenges that exist.  We must face them with a sense of urgency, creativity, and collaboration.

With the recession in Russia, people are facing the challenges of living with less.  Russian people without a good paying job or the means to put nutritious food on the table are struggling to stay connected to their better selves.  Without sufficient funds they become victims of contemptible people who want to make money off their vulnerability.  They are being sold tainted vodka.  The poison, methanol, is not detectable.  Where are the Russian leaders holding those accountable for these crimes?  Where are the protections that help make communities safe places to live productive lives and raise children?

We can look the other way, but we are undeniably linked to the people in Irkutsk.  Think of the challenges people in the US face living in unsafe environments.  It wasn’t too long ago that we had our own financial crisis and recession, remember 2008-2010.  Here are some other examples:

  • What’s Driving the Violence in Chicago (NPR)?  “Chicago’s violence doesn’t have an age limit. Since September 2011, at least 134 people under 17 have been killed in shootings and at least 1,382 people in that age group have been shot. (Chicago Tribune)”
  • 5 Charts That Show How Bad America’s Drug Problem Is (Time, 2016).  “About 570,000 people die annually in the U.S. due to drug use. That breaks down to more than 480,000 deaths related to tobacco, about 31,000 due to alcohol, nearly 22,000 due to overdose from illicit (illegal) drugs, and close to 23,000 due to overdose from prescription pain relievers.” (

We don’t talk about these problems very much nor do we devote precious resources to trying to solve these perplexing, global problems.  Yet we are losing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives every year, lives of people whose potential is lost to the illegal drug trade.

In the US, we spend over 600 billions dollars annually on our military.  We only spend about 50 billion on fighting the “war on drugs” in the US, and most of this money is wasted or has done little to address the problem.  Where are our priorities?

Finally, these challenging problems are faced by people in every community in every country around the globe.  We must be careful not to isolate ourselves or think that “well that’s Africa’s problem.”  Africa’s problem is everyone’s problem.  Every child that loses a chance to realize their full potential because he or she was unable to secure drinkable water, is a loss to our global community.  Every person is the US that is lost to gun violence puts a drain on our global resources.  We are all undeniably linked.  We cannot build a wall high enough to shield ourselves from the challenges on the planet, most of which are human made.  When will we fight like hell to confront these problems and do so in a collaborative way.

I do realize that there are thousands of hopeful initiatives taking place minute-by-minute; however, I fear it is far easier to ignore the scope of what we face.  The New York Times articles I mention vividly present the problems, but fail to address the interconnected nature of these problems for all people.




How to become a great #teacher: magic, training, or practice?

February 12, 2017


Is a teacher a magician?

Is a teacher a magician?

Reflecting on two recent stories about great or inspiring teachers, I can’t help but wonder why our society, maybe it’s just the news media, focuses on the great teacher being a “hero,” someone who comes to the rescue of students who are poorly served in school.

The first story is about a teacher who builds trust through handshakes (see below if you missed it).  He uses a “gimmick” he copied from Lebron James, who greets each teammate with a special handshake before a game.  News reports on this teacher’s technique have garnered headlines like, “millions around the world are talking (WCNC in Charlotte, NC).”  OK, the skeptic in me wonders why all the hoopla.  There are plenty of teachers

nationwide who greet students warmly every single day, and not with gimmicks just with a caring voice, a sincere hello, or convincing eye-to-eye contact with a smile.  We never see news stories about these thousands of teachers.  Gimmicks aren’t necessary, but they are what get reported by the news media leaving everyone with the impression that good teachers need to be a hero or an entertainer.   Remember the movie Dead Poet’s Society and the unconventional techniques of John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams.  Teacher-as-entertainer was presented as the key ingredient to good teaching.



The truth of the matter is that I have never seen a good teacher get by with just a gimmick.  All good teachers work hard at their craft, spending countless hours preparing, rehearsing, and setting up their learning environment to make it possible for learning.  While magic and personality can get you out of the starting gate, long-term success, running the sprint for a full mile, requires training, practice, failure, iteration, more practice, and continuous reflection.  These are the qualities that make for good teaching.

By the way, I have never seen Barry White Jr. teach, so he might be a great teacher independent of his handshake routine.  I also agree with his assertion that establishing solid, trusting relationships with students is critical if a teacher wants to be successful.  However, I would rather see a story about his full range of abilities that lead to good teaching, not merely his handshaking strategy, which doesn’t necessarily translate well to other teachers.  He makes it work, but other good teachers couldn’t.  There are practices that lead to good teaching that all teachers can and should learn.

So take the story about a “demanding” Mr. Dorsey, a much different kind of story about a great teacher on NBC Nightly News.  Mr. Dorsey directs the Dillard High School jazz ensemble, one of the best high school jazz ensembles in the country.  Check them out on YouTube (click here).  Mr. Dorsey cares about his students but is focused on:

understanding that life brings us struggles.

He believes in his students and demands that they dig deep for their best, no gimmicks, just hard work.  A student says this about Mr. Dorsey:

he is not subtle about it, it’s about the music, but more importantly it’s about life.

Mr. Dorsey’s words of wisdom ring true:

sometimes you may come up short, even if you do your best, Ok, but if you do your best and you have no regrets, you are alright, you won.

So for Mr. Dorsey it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the work ethic that each student applies to the task of learning and trying to fulfill their potential.  In my mind, his story is the real story of an excellent teacher.



click the image to go to NBC news report


I have never seen Mr. Dorsey teach, but I have watched and listened to the fruits of his labor.  The jazz ensemble is excellent, so he must be a good teacher if we judge his effectiveness by his students’ results, as well as their tributes to his other techniques.

By contrasting the stories of Mr. Dorsey and Mr. White, I am not comparing their effectiveness or their styles as much as pointing out that as a society we need to be extremely careful about how we tell the story of teacher effectiveness.  It is a complex story so let’s not package it with the “gimmicks” some teachers use.  Let’s tell the story by looking more carefully at what is behind the individual, their techniques, personality, practice, and the results they achieve.

Good teaching comes in many unique packages.  Check out the CFT post, What Good Teachers Do and Don’t Do, some thoughts from a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson.  In addition, read the CFT post, What Qualities Make for an Ideal School or Classroom.  Good teachers are always on the move, they are learners at heart who try to use diverse practices to engage all learners.  There is some magic involved, but there is lots of training and a great deal of practice, thousands of hours.

Teaching about #health and #nutrition could save our children

January 17, 2017

Educators should read the article in the New York Times, Savings, Longevity, and the Year in Fitness, by Gretchen Reynolds, (@gretchenreynold), who is the physical education columnist for NY Times Well blog and author of the bestseller, The First 20 Minutes.  She reports on studies which show that people who ignore their health and fitness are in jeopardy of early death due to heart disease and annual health costs that jeopardize saving for the future.  She reports on two studies that represent the focus of her article.

The first is 42 percent and represents the extent by which people’s risk for premature death rises if they are out of shape, according to a study published in July. That number almost equals the risk of early death associated with heavy smoking.

The second figure is $2,500 and is the amount of money that each of us most likely could save annually on medical costs related to heart disease if we walked for 30 minutes most days, according to a wonderfully pragmatic study released in September.

It raises this question for me about schooling in the United States.  Do we offer our students enough exposure and education to issues of that pertain to their health and financial well-being?  How much educational programming in school is devoted to helping students understand nutrition and its impact on a person’s long-term health?  From my experience, almost none.  Students might receive a quarter or semester health class that devotes a small portion of the curriculum to nutrition, but that may be all they are ever exposed to.  Relatively few students graduate from their K-12 educational experience having any knowledge of financial literacy.  Is it any wonder that Americans are basically uninformed about their health and nutrition and its impact on their long-term financial security?   We have work to do in redesigning K-12 curricula so that students graduate ready to live informed, healthy and secure lives.


Communities of practice @WestminsterATL impact change

January 8, 2017

In their 2000 Harvard Business Review article, Communities of Practice: The Organization Frontier, Wenger and Snyder discuss the value of organizations promoting more informal communities of practice that are flexible groupings of people who have “shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise.”

People in communities of practice share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems.

Communities of practice differ from other formal team structures in the following ways:

  • Members self-select to be part of the experience
  • Members come together to build and exchange knowledge freely
  • Members’ passion for the reason for coming together drives their commitment
  • Members stay together as long as their interests are nurtured through the work

At Westminster Schools (@westminsterATL) in Atlanta, we have a variety of formal groups that regularly meet: board of trustees, leadership team, OS1 and OS2 teams, professional learning communities, division teams, grade-level teams, department chairs, and many others.  With almost all of these groups, you have to be invited in order to attend.  These diverse groups meet to accomplish the business of school, but rarely is their purpose and agenda structured to create, build and exchange knowledge through a free and open dialogue.  They all serve a vital purpose to forward the mission and philosophy of the school, but do not necessarily create new knowledge in service of the school.

On the other hand, there are many groups of people at Westminster that function as communities of practice.  These groups have open meetings where anyone could in theory attend, participating in the group’s work provided he or she shared in the purpose and passion for which the group has assembled.  These groups add tremendous value to the organization because they are often creating new knowledge that infiltrates and shapes the program in some way, either in the short or long-term.  Here are some examples:

  • A Middle School STEAM group organized by a foreign language teacher.
  • A STEAM Cohort of cross-divisional faculty meets weekly to discuss and plan STEAM experiences culminating in a STEAM Showcase in February
  • As part of our SAIS accreditation, we have three groups of faculty and staff, representing different areas of the school, meeting on three topics that serve as focal points of our self-study.
  •  We have student and faculty affinity groups that come together to discuss important issues pertaining to particular passion that draws them together.
  • We have book clubs that self-organize.
  • Members of our leadership team come together monthly as a “critical friends group” to work on aspects of our leadership that need attention
  • Middle School teachers participate in a “FedEX Day” gathering on a monthly basis (see Daniel Pink’s Drive for more details).  During these gatherings offered by colleagues, teachers select a learning experience that aligns with a passion or a need.
  • Design teams, working through AK12DC (@ak12dc), meet to address a school challenge identified as important to address.

There are probably other examples of conmunities of practice at Westminster Schools that are unbeknownst to me.  What all of these groups have in common is that are mostly informal, self-selecting groups of people who share a passion, meeting to build and exchange knowledge.  In some cases, their work and the knowledge they generate remains somewhat under the radar.  While in other cases, the STEAM Showcase, their work is creative, inspirational and public.  In all cases, the communities of practice add value to the school’s work of teaching and learning.

In their article, Wenger and Snyder write:

As communities of practice generate knowledge, they renew themselves.  They give you both the golden eggs and the goose that lays them.

The authors recommend that to get communities of practice started in an organization and sustain them over time, leaders should:

  1. identify potential communities of practice that will enhance the organization’s strategy capabilities;
  2. Provide the infrastructure that will support such communities and enable them to apply their expertise effectively;
  3. use no traditional methods to assess the value of the organization’s communities of practice.

From their experience, promoting and sustaining communities of practice allow organizations to successfully innovate around the periphery of their core work.

Communities of practice are the new frontier.

What communities of practice exist in your organization?  If they don’t exist, what could you do to seed their development?


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