Protecting Trump Costs NYC a Million a Day

According to this article from CNN Money, it’s costing New York City more than $1,000,000 a day to have President-Elect Trump and his family stay in Trump Tower.  So, let’s get real and compare using that money for three people versus hundreds or thousands.


It’s National Novel Writing Month! Your novel is waiting to be written. What are you waiting for?

Hello, everyone!  I published this post originally on November 12, 2014, and it is still relevant today, so I am posting it again.  

– Heather, 11/8/16


During National Novel Writing Month, millions of words are arranged and re-arranged to form novels of many genres.  People fire up their device of choice, sharpen their pencils, buy a new pack of pens, or talk into their digital recorders as they pour their writer’s heart out onto the page.  Some will never publish their novel – perhaps most will not – but that does not matter.  The text will exist, and will join the canon of human experience nonetheless.  The NaNoWriMo crew has been encouraging writers to create their novel since 1999 by challenging them to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  One can only imagine how many novels are out there that remain unpublished.  Personally, I have three, and am working on my fourth.  For me, it has changed November from the month of early darkness to the month of limitless possibility.  Perhaps it could do the same for you.  Your novel is waiting to be written.  What are you waiting for?

Continue reading “It’s National Novel Writing Month! Your novel is waiting to be written. What are you waiting for?”

Unity Day 2016

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Today is Unity Day, and it seems such a shame that we even need to have such a day.  As someone who has been bullied on and off for her entire life, I am grateful that an organization is challenging our culture.  People are taking this seriously now, which is a welcome change from the way it used to be.  Remember hearing that you just needed to “suck it up?”  I would hear that, and worse from adults other than my parents and from my classmates.  As if what the bullies did was my fault.

Let me tell you: It wasn’t.  It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.  But habits are hard to break, so when I run across a bully, I feel the need to curl in upon myself just as I did in the schoolyard when this kid came up to me and slapped me across the face because I was fat.

Bullies make you feel that they do what they do because you make them do it.  Call them what you will: verbal abusers, emotional manipulators, physical abusers, control freaks… they are all bullies.  Guess what?  They are also cowards.

My mentors said many times, “If you stand up to them, they will back down.  They’re cowards at heart.”  They were right.  How did I stop the bullying when I was in elementary school?  By showing those who would tease and condescend to me that I would not be hurt by their words.  In fifth or sixth grade (I can’t remember now), I was hit by a SEPTA bus on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia.  It went through a red light as I was crossing on the green.  Whack!  I blacked out for a few seconds, Mom came to get me, and I was basically fine.  I went back to school on Monday, and soon everyone knew what had happened to me.

So, of course a kid had to ask me if I totaled the bus.

My response?  “Sure, you should see it!”  I think I said something about it being mangled.

The kids around us laughed, but they weren’t laughing at me.  They were laughing at him because he “got burned.”  That’s not what they said then, but that’s what kids would say now (I think; I’m not up on the latest lingo.).  That was the last time that kid made fun of me.  Come to think of it, that was the last time anyone made fun of me until Middle School.

Ah, Middle School… What a nightmare.

When I was teaching, I was a witness to a bullying incident.  The kids had just finished reading Night, by Elie Wiesel.  One boy said to another, who happened to be Jewish, “I wish your family had been put in the ovens.”  The victim tried to laugh it off and tell him to [insert expletive of your choice here], but I wasn’t having that.  The bully ended up apologizing profusely to the victim after I got done getting him to see that what he said was deplorable.

Today, Positive Peer Pressure is an anti-bullying program started by 19-year-old Matthew Kaplan to stop bullying in middle schools.  So far, he has worked with over 4,600 students, according to CNN.  Instead of looking for ways to make yourself feel better about yourself by putting others down, you build others up and protect them from those who would do otherwise.  I think the era of pushing the nerd into his locker and shutting the door might be over.  (Beware those who try that, for you never know if that kid is a black belt in martial arts.  You’d be surprised.)  I think that it is less cool now to torture someone in text messages or via social media.  However, kids are still cruel.  It must be some sort of right of passage thing.

I hope you’ll acknowledge Unity Day, even if you were in the “in crowd” and don’t know what it is like to be the target of someone’s cruelty.

Note: I wrote this post in one sitting, so if there are grammatical errors, please accept my apology.

Some Thoughts on the ESSA Act

Diane Ravitch published a book in 2010 that every educator (teacher, administrator, and faculty support person) should read, called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.  In it, she speaks of the value of curriculum and standards, and the danger of using standardized tests to make definitive judgments against teachers and students.  She makes a valid argument against using testing as a sole accountability measure, and explains the degradation of the American education system that occurred as soon as standardized test scores became the main indicator or school progress.  NCLB did little to reform our public schools, and much to instill fear and loathing in our educators.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”“The way tests were used in teacher evaluation, … it became lunacy,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month (Klein 2016b).” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

My question is: “What ARE we doing?”  According to the American Federation of Teachers (2015), we are changing a lot with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently referred to as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.  I bounced that pronouncement off of Ravitch’s opinion, as a sanity check.

Ravitch (2016) summed up the good and bad of ESSA this way.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#FFFFFF” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”The good part about the Every Child Succeeds Act is that it spells the end of federal punishment for schools, principals, and teachers whose students have low test scores, and it restricts the ability of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to dictate how schools should reform. There is no more AYP (adequate yearly progress); there is no more deadline of 2014 by which time every student everywhere will be proficient, which was always a hoax that no one believed in.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#FFFFFF” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”The bad part about ESSA is that it preserves the mindset of NCLB, a mindset that says that standards, testing and accountability are the keys to student success. They are not. NCLB proved they are not. Since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, policymakers have been in love with the idea that this combination will cause a dramatic rise in test scores and close the achievement gap among different groups. It has done neither, yet ESSA continues the fable.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

Ravitch’s ideas about education are similar to mine.  We both believe that strong curriculum and learning within authentic contexts (in other words, not learning about how to “game” tests) will help our students to be more successful.  In her book, she references Carol Jago’s book With Rigor for All (2000), in which Jago makes the argument that teaching the classics is still valid in the classrooms of the time, at a time when teachers were moving away from the canon of “dead white men” to more contemporary work.  While I am not sure I agree with all of what Jago wrote, I can agree that a strong, coherent, and meaningful curriculum can do so much more for students than a scripted curriculum that teaches them how to take tests.  Hopefully, with the passage of the ESSA, teachers can steer back to that type of teaching.

One of the reasons why they probably can do that is that teacher evaluations will now be based on multiple factors.  Student “achievement” (read: test scores) is still one of those factors, but now it is not the most significant factor.  As the Alliance for Excellent Education said, “States may use federal professional development funds to implement teacher and leader evaluation systems based on student achievement, growth, and multiple measures of performance and to inform professional development; however, states are not required to implement such systems” (2015).  The Secretary of Education is NOT allowed to dictate what evaluation systems should look like, which gives the states more autonomy to develop evaluation systems that make sense.

The ESSA also strives to ensure that professional development activities are not simply items that one checks off a list as “done,” but that they are developed with educators, available to all school staff, and collaborative.  That states can now decide how much standardized test scores will factor into accountability systems, and that AYP is dead, should also bring relief to teachers (American Federation of Teachers, 2015).  Another interesting development is that states and districts can now use interim assessments to develop a final summative score for federal accountability purposes, meaning that students are assessed throughout the year, rather than only once toward the end of the year.  Those results should return to teachers in a more timely manner, meaning that teachers can use those results to inform instruction.  That makes the assessments so much more valuable (Gong & Dadey, 2016).

Much remains to be seen, and the ESSA is certainly not perfect.  However, it does represent change that is intended to support students much more effectively than its predecessor.

This Educator’s Hopes

Now that LEAs can feel somewhat relieved about the death of AYP, waivers, and the US Department of Education’s death grip on their autonomy, I do hope that some things can happen now that could not before.

Standards-based Education

It is my hope that standards-based education will become more common.  Instead of teaching kids how to game the system and that grades are more important that learning, it’s time to finally assert that learning, problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and intrinsic motivation are more important than one’s grades or standardized test scores.  It’s time to assert that students deserve an education that prepares them for college and career while also providing them the tools they need to be successful beyond school.  It’s time to listen to college educators and business people who lament that the young people they hire are not ready to accept the responsibility of self-directed learning, whether it be in the college classroom or the corporate cubicle.  It’s time to use assessment for learning, provide results in real time, and allow everyone time to be reflective – teachers and students alike.  It’s time to allow for remediation, differentiation, high-performance team making, innovation … and thinking.  It’s time to stop talking about this stuff, and actually make it work in the classroom.

Professional Development That Works

Next on my wish list is that better professional development will become available, for free, to educators at all schools.  PD should be continuously available, and should not be just something that people check off their list of things they did during in-service.  Instead, teachers should be able to develop effective professional learning communities, and should be provided the time they need to learn together and from one another.  Communications among teachers should open the closed doors of each classroom, in a figurative way.  Teachers should be able to observe each other more, and to advise each other more.  Teachers should in no way be in competition with each other.  They should instead feel they are in a partnership.  Instead of loading up a teacher’s day with class sections, why not hire more teachers and give all of the staff more time to meet, plan, and discuss their classroom situations?

Resurgence of the Humanities

Many history teachers, art teachers, music teachers, and those who teach subjects not typically tested for accountability have felt left out for a long time.  They feel that their classes are considered unimportant when the administration plans to have assembly during them, or when the counselors visit the class to talk about next year’s scheduling because what they are working on is not as important as the other classes that “count.”  If we want our students to be well-rounded, thoughtful, informed adults, we need them to learn to appreciate cultures, art, music, social sciences, and the like.  They need to learn how to write about history and philosophy, how to interpret art and music, how to appreciate cultural traditions, and how to recognize phenomena within society. These subjects have been ignored for far too long.

What Are Your Hopes?

I would love to hear from you.  Add a comment at the bottom of the page.

Alliance for Excellent Education (2015, December). Every Student Succeeds Act primer: Teachers and school leaders . Retrieved from
American Federation of Teachers (2015). Every Student Succeeds Act: A new day in public education. Retrieved from
Gong, B., & Dadey, N. (2016, June). Using interim assessments instead of summative? Considering an ESSA option. . Retrieved from
Jago, C. (2000). With rigor for all: Teaching the classics to contemporary students. Portland, Me.: Calendar Islands Publishers.
Klein, A. (2016, June 16). The every student succeeds act: An ESSA overview. Retrieved September 5, 2016, from Education Week,
Klein, A. (2016b, May 10). Under ESSA, states, districts to share more power. Education Week. Retrieved from
Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Shu Ha Ri: Lessons learned from Scrum and Martial Arts

I practice martial arts – not well, mind you, but with enthusiasm. I am also a teacher who devours books for breakfast. Because of my work with a software company, I am also interested in the software development process. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff and J.J. Sutherland (2014) managed to pique my interest in all three respects. On pages 38 – 39, Sutherland introduces the reader to Shu Ha Ri. Since reading about it in Scrum and elsewhere, the connections among martial arts, curriculum development, teaching, and software development have become clear. This post focuses on Shu Ha Ri, martial arts, and Curriculum Development.

What is Shu Ha Ri?

Thanks, Jason Novack, for the image.
Thanks, Jason Novack, for the image.





Shu Ha Ri is a concept that comes from Aikido, a Japanese martial art form.  In the Shu  (learning) state, you are learning the rules and the forms.  You practice them over and over until you do not need to think about them anymore, and you do not improvise. You are in the Ha (innovating) state once you are able to improvise a bit, since the rules and forms are so firmly ingrained.  Finally, you enter the Ri  (transcending) state.  Sutherland says,


[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#000000″ align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”In the Ri state you’re able to discard the forms, you’ve truly mastered the practice, and you’re able to be creative in an unhindered way, because the knowledge of the meaning of aikido … is so deeply embedded in you, your every step expresses its essence (2014, p. 38).” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]


As I read pages 38 – 39 for the first time, I thought, “These are different levels of mastery we can apply to almost anything.” That’s just one more reason that martial arts is suitable to anyone. As one of my teachers, Sensei Steve said to me this past Saturday morning, “Martial arts is for everyone… ev-e-ry-one! Things you learn here you can apply to every other aspect of your life. No one sits on the bench here. We are all needed, and we need everyone else.”

I would add that there are no winners, nor are there losers – at least not in our dojo, as we do not take part in tournaments, and haven’t for decades. Our black belts are not interested in making lower belts look bad (in other words, it’s not unhealthy competition); in fact, they “fall all over themselves and each other to get to a person who needs help,” as Steve put it.

But I digress.

Curriculum Development and Shu Ha Ri

Curriculum development ideas immediately came to mind after reading those two pages in Scrum. Developing curriculum in a K-12 setting is quite different from developing it within a corporate setting. Teaching students how to use a software application is definitely a lot less complicated than teaching a content area! I tried to bring the K-12 curriculum development method to a software company, and for a little while, I thought I had a good grasp of what I was doing. It can essentially work. We can create curriculum using this model, as it is iterative. Here is an example of what I mean, using K-12 ELA Standards.

In Grade 8, students meet the benchmark when they find a central idea in a text with certain skills. By Grades 11-12, they have a more advanced skill set, and meet that benchmark when they can analyze two or more central ideas of a text. The foundational skills they developed, practiced, and honed over the year help them to become more sophisticated, and to integrate new skills into the cognitive toolkit.

Although we could continue to use this model, I think I am making things much more complicated than necessary. Here is how I see Shu Ha Ri applying to software curriculum development.

Shu Ha Ri and Software Curriculum Development

Shu: Learn the rules, and use “best practice” approaches.

Ha: Begin to innovate, to find multiple solutions to the same problem, and to find multiple paths to the same conclusion.

Ri: Use heuristics to fix problems. Use the software in ways that others do not, because it works for you.

I am looking for that “a-ha” moment in which designers and consumers understand what to write and do at each level, and I want its design to be iterative, meaning that for each stage in learning one is “learning by completing” and then revisiting the basics and building upon them (Cockburn, 2006, p. 73).

Shu Ha Ri, Curriculum Development, and Martial Arts

2016-07-08_9-08-38New martial arts students start their training with a white belt, and are in the Shu state of their martial arts practice.

In our dojo, the student is in that state through the first few belts. In that state, or at that stage, students are learning the rules and the basics. They see higher belts performing moves that look natural, but really took years to master, and they know they have to master their basic skills before they can attempt to do anything more complex.

They are also most interested in learning one way to do things. Asking a student to consider multiple options is often going to confuse and frustrate her, because she does not yet know what best practice is. Therefore, the teacher (Sensei) will work on discrete techniques and movements that are easy to understand. In my case, they were not that easy to understand, but for most white belts, they are. Don’t believe me? Ask Sensei Steve about the first time I tried to do a down-block kata. Watch his face. Do you want to know what he said to me? Put something in the comments and I will share it with you.

Throughout the Shu leg of my journey, I have learned the basic blocks and strikes, self-defense techniques, and ground fighting techniques. These basics are the foundation upon which we learn other other techniques and movements. In curriculum development terms, a student (K-12, post-secondary, graduate, or adult) learns foundational skills in a learning progression, gradually adding complexity and sophistication as she develops cognitively. She will need to rely upon these early experiences and return to them again and again.

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Bloomtaxonomy-e1445435495371One can also relate this to Bloom’s Taxonomy.  How can one “use information in new situations” (apply) without being able to “recall facts and basic concepts” (remember) (Armstrong, 2016)?  Similarly, how can one “produce new or original work” without being able to use the information in new contexts, or without being able to remember the facts (Armstrong, 2016)?

Here’s an example.

[fruitful_ibox column=”ffs-two-one” image = “” title = “MARTIAL ARTS STUDENT”]

A white belt student learns how to defend against multiple attackers while moving in one direction and repeating the same actions each time. The attackers start in the 12, 3, 6, or 9 position and punch with the same hand each time.

A yellow belt student learns how to defend against multiple attackers while executing two similar yet different techniques, again with multiple attackers at various clock positions, but the attackers punch with either hand.

Students learn the white and yellow belt technique to learn how to move, avoid, and control an attacker’s movements.  These are foundational, and the Senseis intend the students to use them in other contexts when it makes sense to do so.

At the orange belt level, students learn to defend against multiple attackers outside the circle using whichever lower belt technique works, to choose an attacker to focus on, and to integrate the bear hug technique, which is a back attack at the white belt level. As the student moves up in rank, and through the Ha stage, basic and advanced techniques are added to the multiple attack. Executing this technique becomes more complex and takes much more time. Students may also discover different ways of doing things by innovating.  In the Ri stage, students often find themselves debating if a move is necessary, suggesting something different, and saying things like, “For me, this works better.”

[fruitful_ibox column=”ffs-two-one” image = “” last=”true” title = “OTHER TYPES OF STUDENT”]

A person learning Hebrew first learns how to read the aleph-bet with the nikkud (vowel points), and to recognize the letters and simple words in print form.

A person learning Hebrew who knows the letters and nikkud, as well as simple words, then learns to write the letters in Hebrew cursive, with the nikkud, and to make the connection between the print form and the cursive form.

Eventually the person who has learned to read basic words and write in Hebrew no longer needs the nikkud for these words, and has passed over to the Ha stage. She can tell which word she is reading from the context of the sentence. As fluency progresses, the Hebrew speaker becomes more proficient at determining meaning from context. Fluent Hebrew speakers in the Ri stage often find themselves debating the meaning of anything written in that language.


Without those basic skills and the chance to practice to automaticity, a martial arts practitioner and a Hebrew student cannot get beyond the Shu stage of learning. Without that prior knowledge upon which to build new knowledge, the student is without a bridge over which he can cross to assimilate that new knowledge into his thought process. In other words, he’s stuck.

My son Lucas during his green belt test
My son Lucas during his green belt test

To the left is a photo of my son Lucas, taken while he was testing for his green belt. It was a gruesome test; my mother said she would never watch us in martial arts class again! However, he did very well, because he had the knowledge within him. He only had to prove it to himself, and everyone else.

My son after passing his test, and while receiving his green belt
My son after passing his test, and while receiving his green belt

Once that knowledge is present within the student, however, he can cross that bridge to the Ha stage.  In our dojo, when that happens and he passes the test, he earns his green belt.  To the right is a photo (albeit fuzzy) of Lucas receiving his green belt.  Our teachers expect more of him now because of his rank, but not nearly as much as when he makes it to Cho Dan Bo and then Sensei.

When a student becomes a Cho Dan Bo (black belt candidate) and is studying to become a Sensei, she has to come up with her own techniques.  Just like someone at the Ri stage, she is required to become creative, albeit within the bounds of our martial arts style, Kwon Ryu Fu Chi Do (say that five times fast).  Sometimes the student’s techniques are so compelling that they become part of the curriculum!  What an honor!  A student at that level demonstrates that the “knowledge of the meaning of [our style] is so deeply embedded in [her], [her] every step expresses its essence” (Sutherland & Sutherland, 2014, p. 38).

Some Thoughts on the Ri Stage

Cockburn (2006) says that someone at the Ri stage of learning is akin to someone either working on their dissertation, or someone who has already earned a PhD.  Any subject matter expert (SME) is in the Ri stage.  They often know their subject so well that it is difficult for us to separate them from that subject.  They are historians, literary critics, scientists, teachers, software developers, etc.  As I said before, Ri stage practitioners are able to discard the forms, use heuristics to solve problems and gain new understanding, and use the tools of their subject area in ways that others are not able to because it has become part of them.

Not everyone can attain this level of mastery, nor does everyone want to or have to.  Let us return to K-12 education for a moment.  In terms of proficiency levels, these are “Advanced” level practitioners.  Notice that we speak of “proficiency” levels; the goal in standards-based education is to become proficient, which is often the third of four levels.  To become advanced is quite difficult, as it should be, and not expected.

Implications for Software Curriculum Development

Shu: Shu stage students are learning the rules of the software (navigation, business rules, processes, parameters, etc.), and are learning how to use “best practice” approaches.  Learners require new knowledge to be relevant and applicable to their lives.  They need to have a sense of agency – a sense that they can use the knowledge.  If teachers try to teach multiple ways to do the same thing, or expect learners to improvise at this stage, they could discourage learners and affect their confidence.

Ha: Ha stage students are familiar with the software.  They know the basics.  Now they want to build on that prior knowledge.  We can introduce them to new ways to do things, and let them explore possibilities within the software.  Students can fix problems on their own, or describe to others what they believe is wrong.

Ri: Ri stage students are able to use heuristics to fix problems, even complex problems.  They use the software in ways that others do not, because it makes sense to them.  These are the subject matter experts to whom everyone turns when they do not understand something.  It’s probably most difficult to write curricular components (objectives, standards, activities, etc.) for this group, since they are doing things of which we are not aware.

Writing this post has been a terrific exercise, forcing me to stretch my thinking beyond the initial reaction I had when I first read pages 38 – 39 in Scrum (Sutherland & Sutherland, 2014).  There is still more to think about, but this seems like a good start.  What do you think?


Armstrong, P. (2016). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching,

Cockburn, A. (2006). Agile software development: The cooperative game (2nd ed.). United States: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers.

Novack, J. (2016, May 26). Shu Ha Ri: An agile adoption pattern. Retrieved July 8, 2016, from Agile Management,

Sutherland, J., & Sutherland, J. J. (2014). Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in Half the time. United States: Crown Business.

Other interesting items

This presentation proved interesting, too.


Root Because Analysis: Curriculum Mapping

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In industry, when something goes wrong, Quality Management personnel do a root cause analysis.  What if we were to start making products with a root because analysis?  I’m not referring to only industry when I ask this question; I am referring to all spaces, including education.

Why do we use curriculum mapping software, for example?  Doing a root because analysis using the 5 Whys Protocol might provide some answers.  I submit that the ultimate reason is that we need to answer this ubiquitous question clearly:

Why do we need to use curriculum mapping software?

We use the software to create curriculum documents that are called maps, which are basically a collection of units related to a subject area, grade level, and / or course.  The software also stores this information in a central repository searchable by everyone in the community.  Finally, it generates reports based on the information from the maps and the student performance management software.  In one place, then, we have access to a lot more information than we have had in the past.

Why do we need access to this information?

The curriculum is a document of everything that will be taught to the students, and includes a timeline (when), instructional strategy (how), and the materials needed (what).  To ensure that the curriculum is coherent, vertically aligned year by year, and horizontally aligned class-by-class, we need to be able to visualize the curriculum.  

Why is it so important to visualize the curriculum and ensure alignment?

We visualize the curriculum and ensure alignment to educational standards so that the topics students are learning about flow logically from one concept / skill / practice to the next, more complex concept / skill / practice.

Why do standards help us develop curriculum?

When reviewing curriculum from kindergarten through twelfth grade and beyond, we should see a learning progression – a building of knowledge and a gradual release of responsibility that will ultimately lead to independent thinking and performance.  That learning progression is supported by well-developed educational standards, which we develop as we agree upon those things that are important for students to know and be able to do.  

Why is it important to agree upon those things that are important for students to know and be able to do?

For many years, once a teacher closed the figurative and literal classroom door, the classroom became an oasis unto itself.  What happened within that classroom could be the same as what happened in others, or what happened could be dramatically different.  The teacher decided where the instruction would lead. 

This led to a disparity of instructional quality from one classroom to the next, which ultimately hurt those students who did not have student-centered teachers.  

While a teacher’s classroom is still sacrosanct today, many educators are willing to collaborate to ensure that what they teach is comparable to what others in their content area teach, and that what they teach will support the students as they move on to the next grade.  When they are in agreement about how the curriculum will support students, they are more likely to have cogent answers to that age-old question, “Why do I have to learn this?”  As a result, students will know how what they are learning today will help them learn tomorrow and for years to come, and find the elusive relevance they all seek.

One last thought…

Many educators realize that once we have agreement, we also have a direction to guide our students toward the goal of any educational program: freedom.  Freedom of thought, movement, speech, and other freedoms are all possible in a well-informed and well-educated society.  A significant part of the curriculum, then, should be devoted to developing the skills of freedom: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication.  That will be the subject of another post, as this one is already too long. 



Writing across the Curriculum

Freshman year of high school was terrifying.  People seem incredulous when I tell them that, of all the years of schooling I have had, that year was the hardest.  After all, it was high school.  What could be so tough about that?

As my Grandmom used to say with a huge sigh, “Well…!”

The first problem was that I was not prepared for the workload.  Coming from a public middle school into this rigorous public high school that wanted to weed out those who weren’t able to handle the curriculum, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of work they made us do.  By the time I turned fourteen in October, I thought I was going to lose my mind.  It didn’t help that our school President, Dr. Pavel, said to us during orientation, “Look to your left and to your right.  One of these people, or more, will probably return to their home school at the end of this school year.”  Yikes.

The second problem was that I was expected to do things I had never done before, like write papers and essays.  In elementary and middle school, we did not do much writing.  I think we did book reports in fifth grade, but I could be mistaken.  It wasn’t that I was a bad writer.  I actually enjoyed writing for my own purposes, but did not have the tools I needed to create the papers and essays the teachers wanted.  In other words, I didn’t know how to meet their expectations.  That was scary.

Enter Dr. Kreider, my World History teacher.  She is still my academic hero; I haven’t met a teacher like her since.  The best gift she could have given us hurt like hell: The chance to practice writing.  Many of us almost wrote our hand off.

OK, not really.  But it really did hurt.

Dr. Kreider did three things for us, actually.  First, she managed every student a copy of the New York Times every school day.  Second, she made us keep journals in which we reacted to topics covered in class and NYT articles.  Third, she responded to everyone’s journals over the weekend, and not just with a “Nice job!” either.  Oh, no.  We would get paragraphs back.   If we almost wrote our hand off, she must have thought she should, too.  I do not know how she did it, but I do know that she loved her kids.  She loved them enough to embrace writing across the curriculum with gusto.   Dr. Kreider actually did research in the area, I would learn later, and delivered papers about the positive effects of students learning to read and write in all content-area classes.

Fast-forward 30 years to my son’s freshman English class.  His teacher listened to the students, slack-jawed, as they told her that none of them knew how to write an essay.  Admittedly, this is her first year teaching freshmen in a long time, so perhaps she simply lost perspective.  In my opinion, however, it just shows that some things never change, but they need to quickly.

Rewind 26 years to English Composition class.  Typically, we would write an essay, peer review our classmates’ essays, and then create a final version for the teacher.  I remember being appalled by the writing I reviewed.  My red pen dashed across the page until I think there was as much red on the page as blue or black.  Some classmates appreciated the help.

Others, I was informed one day while riding the 66 bus home with my friend Susanne, were terrified to give me their papers to review.  I asked why.

“Because you are so mean, Heather,” she replied, quietly.

“I’m just trying to help!” I responded, indignant.

“Perhaps you could try helping with a different color ink and less sarcasm,” she said, emboldened by being right.

I sulked, as I usually did when I was wrong about something.  The next day I went to the college store, purchased a green pen, and resolved to restrain myself.

Situations like these are why the creators of the Common Core State Standards focus on literacy and writing – in other words, on communication in all its forms.  The fact is that many students need more opportunities to write their hands off (and yes, I’m an advocate of writing on paper before writing electronically).  They need to write in each content area class, not just English.  Social Studies teachers – like Dr. Kreider – have excellent opportunities to have their students write informatively, persuasively, and creatively.  Science teachers can enforce good communication skills, as well as proper grammar and style, in lab reports, responses to essay questions, etc.  Even math teachers can post intriguing problems and require a constructed response (Aside: Where did that term come from?  I’m not crazy about it.).  My son’s math teacher has done that, using a discussion board online to help the students think through Algebra II problems using critical thinking and standard English.  Technology teachers can incorporate writing skills into their projects.  PE and Health teachers can ask students to produce works that show critical thinking.  Vo-tech teachers can ask students to write about their projects and what they have learned from doing them. Any teacher can incorporate critical thinking and effective communication skills into their curriculum.

Again, why are the creators of the Common Core State Standards so keen on ensuring that communication skills are practiced across the content areas?  I am sighing now as I write, “Well…!”  Here is a another reason.

The students’ inability to communicate effectively, both when writing and when speaking, continue when they enter adulthood and the workforce, unless they are given the chance to overcome these challenges in school.  The potential for knowledge sharing is greatly diminished when a person cannot get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper, the screen, or during a meeting.  Opportunities for innovation are lost, as well as opportunities for employees to advance in their careers.

As teachers in a corporate setting, we find this inability to be most problematic when working with the SME, the subject matter expert. Often, SMEs have difficulty explaining what they do.  They express frustration, often punctuating it with, “That’s just the way it’s done!  Watch me.”  Being unfamiliar with a technique, we can watch all we want, but we will not be able to reproduce their efforts without spending more time than we have to spare trying and failing, or researching.  We cannot ask the SME to teach others, since they cannot teach us.  If we do, we just waste everyone’s time.  That invaluable knowledge remains stuck  inside the SME’s head.  No one else can benefit from it.  We educators feel that is a terrible loss.

Great communicators are not born, contrary to popular opinion.  They learn their art the same way that we all learn something that intrigues us, by watching, listening, and trying.  As Vygotsky said, all learning is social, and it is within the community that we progress from a state of not knowing to mastering something under the tutelage of one or more more knowledgeable others.  It is important that we learn from those who can explain.

I have heard time and again: “I’m just not a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  What they mean is, “I don’t have the talent to be a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  Talent is irrelevant.  Communicators such as  Hemingway, Jobs, Socrates, Shakespeare, and Twain made it look easy, natural.  In fact, they practiced.  Their first efforts were, most likely, awful, not awesome, and what I mean by “first effort” is each and every time they chose to create something new by rearranging the letters of their alphabet.  I’m sure that even Socrates had to practice on someone, perhaps Plato.  Ask any of my writer friends and they will tell you that they have “killed trees” trying to get their message “right.”  What makes the great communicators different from the rest of us is commitment, perseverance, and grit.  Somewhere along the line there was their Dr. Kreider there to push them, even if only in their minds.

I applaud any teacher who embraces “Writing across the Curriculum.”  For those who aren’t English teachers, it seems like a daunting addition to their curriculum, although it does not have to be.  There are plenty of resources on the web that will help these teachers figure out where it makes sense to include a writing or speaking component into their current plans.  Explore the NCTE and ASCD websites for more information.

Happy New Year!