The Best Lesson I Didn’t Teach

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion
We share our stories in order to survive. Story-telling is uniquely, beautifully human. Our ability to communicate and connect through our mutual experience distinguishes us in our mammalian lineage. We paint our stories, dance them, sing them, act them out. We tell stories, we write them.

Story-telling is civilization.

This week we embarked on our final unit of the Baltimore Renaissance Project, during which I will challenge my students to change their world. Wednesday, we began with a Socratic circle discussion. Why do we need a Renaissance in Baltimore? They talked at each other. They talked over each other. They talked around each other.

They did not talk to each other. They did not listen to each other.

Thursday, we told stories. We learned to listen. Stories are the root of communication, the root of civilization. We recorded their Baltimore Stories. A recording device demands attention. Preservation implies importance: your words matter, let’s save them.

Tell me a story… a Baltimore story.

We sat in a circle, surrounding one chair in the center, reserved for the storyteller. One by one, they took they hot seat. They shared their stories.

Baltimore… Me and my friends. I was, like, I was 10, and this boy, Bernie B., right? He was 14. So, we around our way up the hill… we around our way up the hill. We was all on this porch, there were a lotta people on the porch. Lotta people. Then this white car came around the corner – it was a white car… Then they just start shooting. I was, like 10, so I didn’t know what to do. I just ran in the house, for real. So like, we all ran in the house, and they shut the door by mistake. My boy little Bernie B. got shot out there. He was 14. And he died out there.

Children are remarkably candid. If you want to hear their stories, you need only let them know you are listening.

My uncle died. He got shot in the head. Some of my family died from drugs. Some went to jail… I don’t know what else to say.

My 7th grade boys are stoic, but rapt. Death is casual, too familiar. They never learned how to cry, or maybe they forgot.

They shot him six times. 

Gun violence has touched them all. They live in an urban warzone.

I was sad…
He didn’t have insurance… 

They just let him die. 

We have one part-time social worker and one part-time psychologist for 400 students. We triage their tragedies.

They just started shooting…. he’s paralyzed now.
They stabbed him 8 times. There was blood on the floor… yea, I was crying and stuff.
I started runnin’….
…molested me when I was 6.

My students need more, deserve more. They need equitable resources (not to be confused with equal resources). How many Baltimore City students suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? How Montgomery County students suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

How do I teach the ancient past when they are preoccupied with grieving the present? How can I call myself a Social Studies teacher if I ignore my students’ psychology, anthropology, geography?

My Dad… he got sent to jail in North Carolina. I’m afraid I’ll never see him again.

Yesterday, these two girls were at each other’s throats. But today?

I know how you feel. My Dad’s in jail, too. Sometimes it helps me to think about him coming home.

They hug and cry and mourn together. And tomorrow? Tomorrow, they will remember they share the same pain.

He killed my baby brother.
She did a lot of drugs…
My Dad got shot 6 times.

I’m ill-prepared. I met the credentials, passed my Praxis, and hung my Master’s degree on the wall. I’m ill-prepared. I can write a lesson plan, design curriculum, and assess mastery, but I was not trained to counsel grief.

If I’m supposed to teach them, who’s supposed to heal them?
Her head hit the pavement… there was blood everywhere.
When my sister died…

Let’s stop pretending all our problems with education are in the classroom. 

I heard gunshots
I saw him outside my window.
I lost my baby sister…

All my 6th grade girls are crying – not just tears: wailing, keening, heaving. My classroom is a trauma unit. I panic. Have I done something bad? Have I done something brilliant? My principal is going to kill me. I am surrounded by 30 teenage girls in crisis.

They have never told their stories before. So, tell me your story, any story. 

He was drunk, he didn’t see her.
…held a knife to my throat
My Dad told me to hide in the closet.
They took me away from my Mom… they separated me from my brother and sister.

They call her dirty, call her ugly, make fun of the way she talks.

Sometimes I want to kill myself.* Some people are just born that way… It’s not right.

Across the room, another girl starts to weep.

I did that. That was me. I called her names. I never knew…

I hold her tightly (because guilt is grief, too) and whisper, Tell her you’re sorry – and mean it. She does. They hug. They listen. I see them laughing together after school. The panic recedes.

I got a lotta stories. Lotta stories…

These are our Baltimore Stories. Were you expecting crabs and Camden Yards?

* I referred this student to the mental health specialists at my school.


The two most dreaded letters in the teaching profession: PD.

Professional Development.

On this matter, I give you a Passionate Diatribe.

Part I: PD 

The structure and execution of PD in Baltimore City Schools is Positively Disgusting. So bad, in fact, it would seem Purposely Deleterious. Yet, I think the true Problem Derives from either a lack of imagination or Profound Distrust of educators.

On a typical day of Professional Denigration, teachers will trek across the city to a Predetermined Destination, where they will sit for anywhere between 4-7 hours watching Perfunctory Demonstrations of mediocre teaching strategies. On one Particular Day of Public Disparagement, I sat through an hour long read-aloud of a 3rd grade level text (I teach 7th grade Social Studies). First of all, that’s just Poor Didactics – modeling a read aloud should never take more than 10 minutes or so… because the students should be Participating, Duh! Second of all, Please Don’t insult our intelligence by using low level texts in a Pedagogical Demonstration. In fact, teachers might better understand the frustration of struggling readers if they had to Patiently Dissect a Painfully Difficult text – perhaps something from the New England Journal of Medicine? When I left the session, I felt not Professionally Developed, but rather, Powerless/Demoralized.

Under the Teaching strand of the new BCPS Instructional Framework and Rubric, teachers are evaluated on their ability to facilitate Peer Discussion (student-to-student academic talk), yet teachers are forced to be Passive Diminutives in their own Professional Development. Why not encourage Public Discourse and allow teachers to share their own experiences and best practices?

We’re instructed to Practice Differentiation, personalizing instruction to meet the unique needs of every learner, yet the district insists upon using precisely the one-size-fits-all approach that it Publicly Disparages when it comes to educating its teachers. I’m mandated to attend sessions that are Presumptuously Decided upon to meet my needs or Possible Deficits, but it always turns out to be another Pointless Day.

In another case of Pure Dysfunction, I was made to sit through the exact same PowerPoint presentation in a Preemptive Discussion of the Common Core Standards (effective 2014) on THREE separate occasions. On the third occasion, I Publicly Disgraced myself by crying – softly, at first, tears dripping into my lap, then choking, heaving sobs. It was a Petulant Display of my frustration, and not my Proudest Day, but the Patent Disregard for our time is infuriating.

Part II: A Little Autonomy Goes a Long Way

Wasn’t that obnoxious? Having all that ill-fitting, gratuitous PD thrust upon you?

Enough of that.

The nature and structure of Professional Development in Baltimore City is a symptom of larger problems in the district that stem from trying to micromanage teachers. Wendy Kopp spoke to this point in her piece in The Atlantic last week, “How Micromanaging Educators Stifles Reform,” which confirms that this problem is not restricted to Baltimore City. Kopp advocates for increasing autonomy for educators in the classroom, based on the example of several successful schools in New Orleans, but increasing autonomy for educators could also be the key to improving professional development.

The majority opinion of news editorials will lead you to believe that the fate of the American public education system rests on our ability to attract and retain smart, innovative educators. If that sentiment is true, school districts will need to transform their operating models to make teaching more attractive to smart, innovative people. Schools and districts cannot hope to retain intelligent, creative people in a system that not only fails to recognize or appreciate these qualities, but stifles them. Smart, innovative people will never be satisfied in a top-down system that treats its employees like drones.

How do schools and districts create an environment that is conducive to innovation? This starts with transferring classroom level decisions to the classroom. With the adoption of Common Core Standards, which are broader in content and fewer in number, teachers can design curriculum tailored to the needs and interests of their students – if they’re permitted to do so. Let’s scratch the Draconian checklists and one-size fits all curriculum.

Let’s motivate teachers to develop creative curriculum by recognizing and rewarding the most transformative curricular units of study. Let’s offer Innovation Grants to support teachers with the time and money they need to experiment in their classrooms. Let’s encourage learning from failure. Let’s sponsor semi-annual Hack Daysto empower teachers to develop their own tools for instruction and learning. Let’s eliminate Internet filters and encourage teachers to leverage social media. Let’s allow teachers to direct their own professional development.

Part III: The PD Market

What if Professional Development was not only useful, but also offered the potential for monetary gain?

What if we create a PD Market in which teachers are both the producers and consumers of the professional development experience and supply and demand direct the market?

Let’s imagine that Baltimore City Schools slashed its entire PD structure and replaced it with a PD market. In this market, all funds previously allocated to the top-down provision and management of Professional Development would be reallocated directly to teachers in a lump sum of, say, $1000 at the beginning of the school year with the sole guideline of using the funds for 40 hours of PD during the school year. Any teacher in the system may become a Professional Development Supplier to gain monetary benefits for his or her personal expertise.

Let’s say Mrs. Smith has become an expert at leveraging Social Media to improve her instruction through increased access to resources. Mrs. Smith decides to enter the PD Market as a Supplier and offers a two hour course on Leveraging Social Media for $50. Any other teacher in the system may register for Mrs. Smith’s course and pay for it using the money in the PD Account. Mrs. Smith will keep 80 percent of the money and 20 percent will go to the district.  If 50 people register for Mrs. Smith’s course, she will earn $2000 that weekend and $500 will go to the district for operating costs.

After the course, every attendee will evaluate their experience.  If every educator found Mrs. Smith’s course profoundly useful to his or her professional development, Mrs. Smith will probably receive many glowing 5-star reviews. Other educators will be intrigued by the reviews and want to take Mrs. Smith’s course in the future. Conversely, if everybody finds Mrs. Smith’s course a waste of their Saturday, she will earn negative reviews. If she does decide to offer it again in the future, it’s unlikely that people will register for it, diminishing the returns on Mrs. Smith’s time investment. After a few rounds in the PD Market, excellent courses will gain popularity and terrible courses will cease to exist.

I suggested this PD Market idea to a friend and his response was highly negative. People will game the system, he said. Let me return to my point about distrusting educators. Why do we assume that teachers’ natural impulse will be to abuse the system? Furthermore, I seem to recall a few brazen bankers abusing the housing market recently, and nobody put the kibosh on that.

If we create a system that simultaneously provides personalized, relevant development and rewards teachers for their expertise, industry, and innovation, teachers might stop trying to avoid PD and may actually become excited about opportunities for growth. In my experience, teachers only dread and avoid development experiences because they are a complete waste of their time.  Conversely, teachers will readily shell out hundreds of dollars to attend education conferences like EduCon, ISTE, and EdCamps all around the country because they value the professional experience.  These conferences are useful primarily because they are led by expert educators and attendees can navigate their own development by choosing seminars that are interesting and relevant to them.

Let’s recruit smart, creative people to be teachers. And then let’s keep them.

What Educators Could Learn From Bikram Yoga

Savasana, from the Sanskrit word for corpse. Dead body pose. Total relaxation.

I struggle. Stillness of body is no problem – I’m paralyzed with exhaustion. Stillness of mind poses a greater challenge. Be still, be still, be still, be – ah: clairvoyance.

My yogic epiphany: education should be a little more like Bikram yoga class, and a little less like… school.

1. Depth v. Breadth:

Bikram Yoga is distinguished by a unique series of 26 postures. Every Bikram class, anywhere in the world, consists of the same 26 postures, in the same order, for the same amount of time.  You might think this sounds like a lousy workout, but it’s a grueling 90 minute routine that works every muscle, tendon and ligament for a total body experience. Since every class is the same, students focus on mastering the posture, rather than worrying about the routine. Of course, you may be lost the first few classes, but after awhile, you begin to anticipate exactly what’s coming next, which means you can concentrate all of your mental energy on actually practicing the posture, rather than spending any amount of time figuring out what’s going on.

Far too often in education, we prioritize quantity over quality. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the Bikram series, carefully selected the 26 most essential postures on which to focus his practice. Of course, there are hundreds of yoga poses, but perhaps Bikram recognized that trying navigate an infinite number of yogic series might not be ideal for mastering any one of them.  Instead, every Bikram student works diligently to master just 26. As a result, all mental and bodily energy is free to focus on technique, rather than content and procedure.
Currently, the state curriculum mandates teaching something like 180 content-based standards in as many school days.  With approximately one day allotted to learn each new thing, students and teachers alike are constantly scrambling to juggle new content. This is akin to taking a yoga class with an entirely new series of new postures every day. How could a yogi ever hope to truly master even one of those postures?
Imagine if educators took the Bikram approach, concentrating on just 26 skills all year – perhaps even for the duration of the K-12 education. Students would be cautious at first, but after a month, 6 months, or 5 years spent working on those same skills, they would have a real shot at true understanding.  This concept of depth over breadth is the driving force behind the Common Core Curriculum: building on a core set of skills from K-12 grades with gentle scaffolding from one grade to the next.  I sincerely hope teachers adopt the spirit of less is more with the introduction of this new curriculum, and leave behind the days of whirlwind 180 day tours of content-based standards.
2. Come as You Are:
There are no leveled classes in Bikram Yoga. No grades. No basic, general, advanced classes. You might go to national training and be elevated to certified instructor status, but that’s the only official differentiator between a rookie and a master. In any given class, you will find students testing the Bikram waters on their very first day standing alongside yogis who have been practicing for upwards of a decade. Since everyone is working on the same skill set, it simply doesn’t matter where you are on your yogic journey. Everyone participates in the class at their own pace. If it’s your first day and you want to sit down on your mat and watch, fine. If you’ve been coming every day for a year and you really want to perfect your standing-bow-pulling pose today, fine.
Come as you are. Try your best.
3. Personal Mastery:

Since every student arrives to class at a different point on their journey, success or mastery is necessarily unique for each student each day. Let’s take standing-head-to-knee pose for example.

Let’s say Student 1 is on her second Bikram yoga class ever.  She comes to the first step of the posture (pictured below) and holds it there for the duration of the minute-long pose. It’s a challenge for her and she struggles, focusing hard to keep her planted knee locked.

Student 2 has been practicing for several months now, and today is the day he strives to push his other leg out at a 90 degree angle and holds it there. He falls out of the posture about 20 seconds into it, but tries again.

Student 3 has been working on this pose for upwards of a year, can steadily hold her leg at 90 degrees, and is finally ready to tuck her chin for the final step of the pose:

Should we say Student 1 failed for only completing step one of the posture? Should we say Student 2 failed for attempting step two and falling out of it? Of course not. Each student pushed him or herself as far as he or she was capable of going that day. Each of them pushed further out of a personal comfort zone into a new level of mastery. They each demonstrate personal growth and achievement.

Unfortunately, this is not how our nation currently measures student achievement. If a 6th grade class contains readers ranging from a 1st grade reading level to a 9th grade reading level, they are all expected to finish the year on at least a 6th grade reading level. There is no award for a student’s growth from a 1st grade reading level to a 4th grade reading level, nor is there any disincentive for failing to grow the high-achieving student at the 9th grade level.

Expecting all students to learn and grow at the same pace is not only unreasonable given what we know about cognitive capacity, it’s also deeply unfair to teachers and students alike. If my yoga instructor was being evaluated on his students’ ability to reach step three of standing-head-to-knee, he would probably start looking to teach in a community with a high population of dancers and gymnasts, who have been touching their noses to their foreheads since they were 2 years old.

For exactly the same reason, there exists a routine exodus of teachers from urban centers to affluent counties where children have been exposed to, on average, 60 percent more vocabulary words than their urban peers by age 4.

4. Lifelong Learning

When did we decide to grade expertise and mastery of knowledge and skills on a 100 percent scale?

A finite scale of learning is grossly antithetical to Deweyan education ideals of lifelong, interactive learning. Scoring 100 percent on anything suggests that you are done: there is no higher level of knowledge to be attained.

In yoga, there are no percentages. The converse holds true as well – in a world with no perfect scores, there are no failures, either. In fact, there’s a lovely mantra one of my instructors is fond of repeating: “You don’t do yoga, you try yoga.” What if we taught our students that learning isn’t about scores or correct answers, but rather, trying, striving for some new level of knowledge, skill, or solution every day.
I do not get a report card in Bikram Yoga. It’s tortuously difficult, I’m awarded no grade to indicate my progress, and I earn no certificate of achievement. By Jove, how will I know if I have improved? Why bother learning at all if there’s no standard metric by which to gauge my progress and achievement?
Theoretically, if a skill cannot be mastered, one could spend a lifetime in pursuit of that unreachable mastery. Precisely. (There’s a reason, after all, that America’s founding fathers had the good sense to grant us the right to the pursuit of happiness: some things are best left unattained.)
Shouldn’t that be the great aim and end of education? To love learning and desire to continue learning? Grades, scores, certificates, and diplomas suggest that there are finite measures of educational attainment, but ideally, teachers would do well to instill in their students a passion for a lifelong pursuit.
5. Teacher as Facilitator 
Teacher modeling is noticeably absent from a Bikram class. It’s a method so unfamiliar to our traditional idea of teaching that the instructor explains his role at the beginning of each class. “I will not be doing any of the poses with you. You’ve got great examples all around you.”

The beauty of the teacher-as-facilitator is two-fold. Firstly, it sets a precedent of camaraderie and collaboration. Gone are the days of folder-tents, cloistering students in isolated carrels. Don’t understand? Look to your neighbor. Learn from him. It’s okay: it’s not cheating. Secondly, since the instructor isn’t occupying his physical and mental energy trying to morph himself into a Japanese ham sandwich, he’s completely free to walk the room observing students and offering positive reinforcement, encouragement, and support.

In the information age, many teachers are rightly moving away from direct instruction models that position teachers as the sole arbiters of information. With increased instantaneous access to information, the purpose of school is shifting away from memorizing finite amounts of knowledge and beginning to focus more on the skills of finding, analyzing, manipulating, and creating content. With the new function of education, so to should develop a new function of teachers as guides and facilitators on the educational journey, rather than solitary gatekeepers of knowledge.

6. Holistic Evaluation

Last week I had a terrible Bikram class. I was recovering from a head cold that wreaked havoc on my equilibrium and hadn’t drunk enough water or eaten enough that day. After about 20 minutes, I was just about down for the count. I sat on my mat, suppressing waves of nausea and vertigo. Once, the instructor mouthed, “Are you ok?” because he knew it was unusual behavior for me.  I told him I wasn’t feeling well, and that was it. He trusted me to make the decisions about my body and my practice. The next day, I made sure to drink and eat enough before class and, determined to make up for the previous day, had one of my best classes ever.

What if there was standardized Bikram Evaluation? What if one day per year, the offical Bikram Evaluation Board stopped into classes all over the nation, assigned a seemingly arbitrary numeric score to everyone’s yogic practice, and that number defined all future yogic endeavors? If the Evaluators had stopped in on the day I was feeling ill, I surely would have received an unsatisfactory score. If they stopped in the following day, I would probably be deemed an above average yogini. In reality, neither of those days would provide a true measure of my overall practice. The only people who could give an accurate analysis of my practice and progress as a student of Bikram yoga would be the instructors, who have closely watched me practice and progress over the course of a year – but the Evaluators do not ask them, because they would be biased.

Once a year snapshots of achievement are insufficient metrics of learning, but again, this is exactly how we treat American students in K-12 education. As humans, we naturally have good days and bad days, which may be influenced by any number of factors. As anyone who has ever taken an important test can tell you, performance may be affected by what you did or did not eat, how much sleep you got the night before, your personal comfort, stress, hormones, emotions, or any number of life-changing events, like the death of a loved one or parents’ divorce.  Given all these variables on the human mind and body, how can we expect to capture a true understanding of student progress and achievement with just a solitary snapshot once a year?

7. Teacher Collaboration
I once heard my instructor Julian say, “Hm, I’m not sure, let’s talk to Eddie and see if he has any advice for you.” What a superb approach to teaching. The messages conveyed to the students here are that the teachers are true colleagues, working together for a common goal, and that they continue to learn from each other. I frequently hear my instructors mention a tip or word of advice they picked up from another instructor. It’s congenial, not competitive, and the students and teachers both benefit from this spirit of collaboration. In addition to chatting in between classes, the instructors even take classes from each other, further conveying the message that we are all still learning together.

Whether due to scheduling, competition, or culture, I rarely see this level of collaboration between teachers at a school level. I see it more on Twitter than anywhere, but our students are, for the most part, deprived of witnessing this kind of esprit de corps, which is a real shame. As educators, we should strive to model our own pursuit of learning, especially in a collaborative effort with our colleagues. Another unfortunate consequence of the emphasis on evaluations and scoring is that many teachers have become afraid to speak up about their weaknesses. Lest there be a punitive check or note against them on the increasingly important evaluation score sheet, most teachers have bowed their heads into terrified silence. Admission of weakness opens a teacher up to scrutiny of her practice, which may indeed lead to punitive evaluations. Better to keep quiet and focus on what one does well.  This culture of fear surrounding personal and professional development could not be further from the open, honest, collaborative professional learning communities teachers should be modeling for students and each other.

8. Come Back Again Tomorrow
“Great class! Come back tomorrow!” That’s what Julian, Eddie, Allison, and all of the instructors say to me after every class – whether I agree with them or not. Whether I had the sort of day when I had to spend 20 minute stretches sprawled on my mat or the sort of day when I held that standing-bow-pulling-pose until the last darn second, their response is the same. They trust that I have given it my all. I did the best I could today, and for that: good job! On the sort of days when I feel like I have not lived up to my yogic standards, I remind myself of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on genius:

Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Ole!’ And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

Ole! indeed. Sometimes, I forget to give my students their due credit for having the stubbornness to keep showing up. Some of them spend hours each way on poorly scheduled buses, standing in the cold, wind, or rain for stretches of time between lines. Some of them are battling emotional and physical scars from abuse, poverty, or any number of attacks on their fragile bodies and psyches. As teachers, we would do well to remember to accentuate the positive, as the old song goes, which does not mean ignoring mistakes or room for improvement. Focusing on the positive does not preclude my instructors from correcting deficiencies or mistakes in my practice. A little positive praise can go a long way.

So, the next time your student has the kind of day when she just can’t bear to pick up her head off the desk because someone made fun of her hair or she failed a math test or has a headache, remind her: “Hey – Ole! to you, nonetheless. Try again tomorrow.” And, no doubt, she will.