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Where is the U.S. in School Reform in 2017?

To answer this question, I will do what lawyers often do when arguing a case. I will stipulate certain statements as facts. These statements may not sound like facts but as an historian and practitioner of school reform I claim they are.  Should readers quarrel with these statements, I do have supporting references and we can discuss those in dispute later. I stipulate the following:


Historically, school reformers have overstated defects in the existing system and made gloomy predictions of disaster. Then they have understated difficulties of changing the system by proposing rose-colored solutions.

Exhibit A is what has occurred over the past three decades in the U.S.

Market-inspired school reformers, endorsed by policy elites, media and parents, using low U.S. scores on international tests time and again, have blamed chronically low-performing public schools for hampering national economic growth, innovation, and productivity by  producing graduates mismatched to the job skills employers needed to compete in a constantly changing global marketplace.

To solve this serious problem of low academic performance and inadequately prepared graduates, state and federal officials have–between the early 1980s until 2015–created and legislated a federal and state reform agenda containing the following items:

*Common (and high) K-12 academic standards,

*State and national tests to determine if all students meet those standards,

*Student test scores as the primary metric to determine success of policies,

*Accountability regulations that hold districts, schools, students, and teachers responsible for results,

*Expanded parental choice, mainly through publicly financed charter schools,

*Deploy and use new technologies to get students to learn more, faster, and better.

*Teacher and administrator evaluation and compensation on the basis of student test scores.

Business and civic leaders, public polls, and  bipartisan policymakers endorsed this school reform agenda. The evidence, however, showing that this popular strategy has improved schooling for U.S. students, including minorities in urban districts or that skilled human capital has, indeed, led to national economic growth and an improved market position—remains seriously contested.

Moreover, with the U.S Congress and President dropping the No Child Left Behind Act and passing Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), of the seven items on the reform agenda, power has devolved to the states meaning that each item will be differentially implemented  across the nation. Only three remain: common curriculum standards–and that varies greatly among the states, the expansion of parental choice, and the ubiquity of new technologies in schools.


Of the multiple and competing economic, political and social purposes for public schools in a democracy, the economic aim of preparing students for a market-based democracy continues to dominate public schools in the 21st century.

In the early years of the 20th century, a business and civic coalition of educational progressives lobbied state and federal governments to create vocational schools and curricula  to prepare youth for industrial jobs. The federal government began subsidizing vocational courses during World War I. Progressive reformers created the comprehensive high school in the 1920s with multi-tracked curricula, including vocational education, that sorted students by their probable destination upon graduation into blue- and white-collar jobs.

By the 1970s, however, reformers were dismantling separate vocational curricula. While the comprehensive high school still exists, vocational education courses have migrated to community colleges and other venues.

Currently, the three-decade long concentration on schools as instruments for national economic growth has created a college prep curriculum for all students. The present market-inspired reform agenda, like the earlier movement for vocational education, has overwhelmed other collective purposes that have driven U.S schools since the 19th century.

Preparing youth for the labor market has competed with the public’s expectation to prepare children to participate politically and socially in the community, expand equal educational opportunity, and, at the same time, help individuals climb the social ladder to success. This last purpose of schools as a vehicle for social mobility has meant that parents see schools as an individually acquired consumer good to help their sons and daughters achieve success in life.

The economic purpose for tax-supported schooling—a public good–has dominated policy debates for well over a century and in the past three decades has joined social mobility, a private good, to suck out all the oxygen in any discussion of civic or other purposes for public schools.


Most reformers, the general public, and educators have yet to distinguish between cycles of policy talk and action from what actually happens to policies when they are put  into practice  in schools.

Policy talk refers to reformers’ cyclical rhetoric of gloomy assessments of schooling problems married to  over-confident solutions. Hyper-excited policy talk occurred over national defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s; we hear echoes of it now with fears of Chinese economic and military hegemony in Asia. Ditto for policy talk about online instruction transforming U.S. schools and colleges in the 1960s, 1990s, and, now. Pronouncements from federal officials—take a look at the 2010 National Technology Plan—and for-profit companies promise a brave new high-tech world of individually tailored online learning, blending of face-to-face learning with online and the enactment of “personalized learning.”

In short, policy talk (either of the sort that says schooling has failed or its reverse side, an edutopian, high-tech solution) is hyperventilating rhetoric that we have heard repeatedly.

Policy action refers to the decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make in adopting policies to solve school problems. Examples range from school boards buying iPads for kindergartners to superintendents establishing new math programs to the U.S. Congress and President approving ESSA. Like policy talk, there have been cycles of adopting similar policies in phonics, dropouts, and technologies.

Policy implementation in schools, however, is not cyclical. It is linear. There are trends. Schools as institutions have structures, cultures, and history. Regularities in structures and culture change slowly and incrementally so that trend lines become noticeable over time.

Implementing new programs stretch out over five or more years. When researchers, for example, observe classrooms to see how computers are used by teachers in activities they find great variation across classrooms in the same school and among schools in the same district. Some teachers pick and choose elements of the program; others change policy by redesigning activities and lessons. Because of school culture and organizational realities, change is gradual and episodic. But trends do appear over time. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the hyperbole and gloom accompanying cyclical policy talk and action.

These three statements about current patterns in school reform, I stipulate as facts answer the questions of where the U.S. is in school reform in 2017.


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“Trapped in a History They Do Not Understand”

They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

James Baldwin referred to white people when he said “they.” Examples that he cited then and since along with a large cadre of journalists, researchers, and essayists make the point with examples after he died in 1987 such as police beatings of Rodney King in Los Angeles and Dylan Moore killing of African American parishioners in Charleston (SC).

A recent but less lethal example of being “trapped in a history they do not understand” is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s comment that historically black colleges were “pioneers” and stellar examples of school choice, a policy she is determined to expand through vouchers and charter schools.In a PR statement she released after meeting with the President and leaders of HBCUs, she said:

A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.

HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.

Their counsel and guidance will be crucial in addressing the current inequities we face in education. I look forward to working with the White House to elevate the role of HBCUs in this administration and to solve the problems we face in education today.

The ignorance of the remark—HBCU’s arose in the 19th and 20th centuries because white colleges, by law, would not accept black applicants—stuns anyone familiar with the history of legally segregated education in the U.S. After the dismantling of Reconstruction following the Civil War and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) Jim Crow was the law in Southern states. That segregation was alleviated by a myriad of court cases between the 1930s and 1950s to get white colleges to at least provide equal (albeit separate) resources for black applicants. Not until the Brown v. Board of Education did Jim Crow K-12 and higher education begin to weaken and eventually dissolve but leaving HBCUs in strapped financial straits. Those “trapped in history” seldom offer context for their remarks, as Devos failed to do.

Devos quickly backtracked in her remarks after  a storm of criticism from college presidents and pundits by tweeting the context of racism and segregation that she neglected to provide in her initial comments. Were James Baldwin alive now, his expressive face would not have registered shock at the U.S. Secretary of Education mindless comment.

Another member of President Trump’s Cabinet also, “trapped in a history they do not understand” is U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. In this instance it is a highly educated African American who said to HUD staff:

That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity…. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.

After an uproar in social and print media, Carson backtracked in a Facebook entry.

The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy.

Yet there is another issue here: forgetting the terror and shamefulness of the slave past. Dropping the historical context from this three century chattel experience in exchange for unalloyed optimism–or as one writer put it “state-sanctioned sunniness” (which both DeVos and Carson revealed) mocks any knowledge of the past.

History provides context for what happened. Without the context, ignorance reigns supreme around policies seeking improvements. That the U.S. continues to have an independent media broadcasting such non-historical comments from our top leaders to their readers gives hope to those aware of the U.S. past and who work toward the time when leaders and average citizens step outside of that trap.

They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. .


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Be Vulnerable ! Who Can Fix My Code (Neil Finney)

Teacher educators tell the novices sitting in front of them to take risks when they teach–that is how you learn, they say. Education pundits dwell on the importance of the teacher modeling how to learn–admitting that they don’t know a fact, a concept, or have trouble acquiring a skill. Professors write scholarly articles on the importance, nay, the significance of teachers saying “I don’t know.”

But when teachers close their doors and face the class and the lesson that they had planned to teach, much of this well-intended advice flies out the transom. Why? Because it is very hard to show students that teachers can admit to mistakes and learn from their students. Canadian teacher Neil Finney in his blog describes precisely this behavior.

According to his blog: “I am a teacher in an Ontario school and hope to ignite discussion, incite action and inspire change to the way we teach students. Incorporating more technology and driving our programming through a student-centered model will reach our learners and meet their potential effectively. Currently teaching a grade 7&8 class in Orillia, Ontario and enjoying every day as an opportunity to change what I do!”

Modeling can be everything as an educator in today’s classroom. During this week’s “Hour of Code,” I tried to put that idea to the test…

I signed out as many ipads as I could get my hands on for a 1.5 hour block of time. I started the lesson using the projector and screen at the front of my room and plugged in an ipad to show them the “Kodable” app as our first activity. I had already created a class “Kodable” account – so now I can track the progress of my students on skills such as; variables, strings, loops, sequences and functions. I showed them my solutions to the first 2 easy levels (first telling them to put all the ipads face down on the table and hands-off) and then turned the time over to them to explore and learn.

About half-way through the time, I asked them to exit “Kodable” and try “Tynker.” There was no explicit teaching this time. Except, I also picked up an ipad and started the “Tynker” app. I worked away at the first couple of puzzles and then hit a brick wall. After trying a number of solutions – without any being successful – I realized that this was a moment for learning.

“Who can fix my code?” I asked out loud – while my ipad and current incorrect code was being projected at the front of the room. I immediately saw 4 hands go up. I chose someone – a student who does not often raise his hand during lessons or class discussions – and invited him to come up to the front and change the code that I had used to try and solve the level. He changed a couple of things and ran the code – but it still wasn’t successful. The next thing that happened is what I was waiting for…

Two other students instinctively got up and walked to the front to help the first student “fix the code.” For the next couple of minutes, I had a group of three students (representing both grades 7 and 8) working together to solve a problem and modeling their strategies for the rest of the class to see. They did end up fixing my code. They were successful. And all the while, I watched as a common problem became the source of inspiration to collaborate and problem solve.

We often ask our students to try new things and take risks in their own learning. How often, though, do we sit back and observe? If coding matters – and as the teacher in the room – I have never modeled coding (and the problem-solving; trial-and-error; failure and success; risk-taking that it demands) – then I have not validated it to my students as being important enough for me to learn.

Some of our students will want to code. Some will excel at the independent learning style that many of the coding applications require. Some, though, will put up walls and struggle when the code they write doesn’t work. It is those students that, not only, want to hear us say that it is a valuable skill to learn; but also, watch as we (their teacher) struggle with a new area of learning. How we approach learning and risk-taking is evident everyday in the classroom….


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The Heroism of Incremental Change (Part 2)

In a recent  podcast, economist Ed Glaeser and journalist Stephen Dubner were discussing “big bang” solutions, big leaders who make dramatic changes, and the folly of looking for such “solutions” and leaders. Here is their exchange on civil rights between the 1940s and 1980s.

DUBNER: So civil-rights reform strikes me as one where, incrementally, there have been massive improvements, and yet it seems as though the appetite for an overnight  solution to every civil-rights issue is kind of expected. And when that doesn’t happen, there’s massive hue and cry — even though, overall, the trend has been moving in the right direction. You see that as well, or do you think I’m wrong on that?

GLAESER: No, no I agree totally with that. And it required people who — the NAACP for example, which worked for decades before the Civil Rights Act, right, to move the ball forward. Often in, you know, ways that were important, but seem today quite modest. I mean fighting up to the Supreme Court. Fighting the attempts to zone by race, for example, which it did in the teens. Right? You know, American segregation would’ve been even worse if cities could explicitly zoned by, by race, but they couldn’t. Fighting restrictive covenants as it did in the 40s. Fighting segregation in American schools as it did in the 50s. Decade by decade, increment by increment. And once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, we lose that, we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change.

In short, important changes in our individual lives and our society simply don’t happen out of the blue. Small changes aimed toward a larger goal accumulate and make a huge difference when considering a longer time frame. And that is the case with schools and individual teachers.

Schools as Institutions

The thirteen years that every child in the U.S. goes to tax-supported public schools didn’t happen out of the blue. For voters to tax themselves including those who had no children in order to support schooling meant that larger goals were at stake beyond literacy. The connection between a public education and a working democracy were explicit in the minds of political leaders in the  early 19th century.Building an institutional framework for public schools took well over 150 years. But it was built.

Early 19th century public schools were part-time and scattered across the largely rural U.S.  Those children who attended went for a few years to one-room schools–racially segregated by law–where teachers taught lessons to 6 year-olds and youth altogether over the course of the few months they were open.

As cities grew, innovative age-graded schools, an import from Prussia in the 1840s, slowly replaced one-room schools. The “grammar school,” a building housing grades one through eight, became the norm. By the late-19th century, high schools catering to the academically inclined began to appear throughout urban America. At that time, one out of 10 teenagers went to a high school.

By the early 20th century,another innovation, the junior high school arose and elementary schools became grades 1-6, as the  7-9 organizational innovation spread across the U.S. Once academic high schools slowly became comprehensive ones offering multiple curricula for those who sought jobs after graduation and those who went to college. By 1950s, kindergartens–a late-19th century experiment added to public schools–had become widespread enough for school districts to become K-12 organizations.

By the 1970s, pre-kindergartens were appearing in public schools and tax-supported community colleges open to high school graduates now made public schools pre-K through community colleges a publicly financed institution. That steady process of incremental organizational changes has not stopped. It continues now.

Incremental changes added up over nearly two centuries to become the existing public school system. Surely, its incremental growth then and now has become a target for critics at every stage of of its steady growth, with critics proposing innovations at every phase of its expansion. And in the early 21st century, a proliferation of options at every level of schooling exist including alternative schools, magnets, and charters. There were no “big bang” changes then or now.

So tax-supported public schools didn’t happen out of the blue. They were built slowly and steadily into a vital institution by those who saw the essential linkages between schooling and democratic life. That “heroism of incremental change” occurred in public schools over time. As it has for classroom teachers.

Classroom Teachers

Listen to Kim Hughey, a 15 year veteran math teacher at a central Texas high school, recall an incremental change she made in her teaching a few years ago.

During our inservice meetings before school, we had a great speaker who was not only humorous, but was full of helpful advice that could be applied to any classroom.  One of the things I took away from her presentation was a discipline technique that is simple and effective with any age of student.

Over the years, I’ve learned it is best to avoid direct confrontation with teenagers and to not put them in a position where they have to defend themselves in front of their peers.  Although I do my best to avoid this type of nasty situation, there are times when for one reason or another, I find myself having to confront unwanted behavior in my classroom.

The technique the speaker presented is simply to avoid conflict by addressing the behavior and not the student.  She demonstrated several situations and did a great job by using dramatic pauses as she addressed the evil deed doer.

So this week when I saw headphones in Johnny’s ears, I didn’t say a word to Johnny.  I simply gazed out into the classroom and said, without looking at anyone in particular, “If you (dramatic pause) currently have earbuds in your ears, I am going to need you to take them out at this time”.  The entire class looked around trying to figure out who had the earphones and the guilty person sheepishly took them out while I continued teaching.

When charming little Ashley had her cell phone underneath her back pack and was busy texting, I stopped my lesson and calmly said, “If you (dramatic pause) currently have your cell phone out, I am going to need you to put that away”.  Again, instant compliance and I don’t think anyone other than the offender had a clue who it was that had their cell phone out.

In one class after lunch, I looked out and saw several heads on the desk, so you guessed it, I simply said “If you currently have your head down on your desk, I’m going to need you to lift it up right now.”  Every single person complied without a single argument.

I literally used this technique every day  last week without a single problem.  The flow of the lesson was not interrupted by someone trying to defend themselves by saying “I’m just checking my phone to see what time it is or “my earbuds are in, but my music is off”.  There was no need to defend themselves because I never pointed them out in front of the class. 

Incremental changes like the one Hughey made are the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. The small but significant change she made in addressing a common management issue in lessons–noting behavior rather than the individual–was a big deal for her. The heart of teaching and learning is having a firm, caring relationship with a class and individual students. The small change she made–an innovation for her–strengthened that relationship.

From changes in content, how to approach different skills, room arrangement, trying out a new piece of software, letting students make key decisions on content and projects—I could go on and on with examples from so many teachers including instances from my years in the classroom but I won’t. Making bite-sized changes, trying them out to see how they fit and then shedding them or incorporating them into one’s repertoire is what teachers have done for decades and continue to do now.

Nothing dramatic. No headlines accompany such changes. But over time these small changes add up to who a teacher is and what she does. And what students learn.

Like primary care physicians, classroom teachers practice the “heroism of incremental change.”


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“Heroism of Incremental Change.” Part 1

So much has been written about the importance of “transformational” change in health care, schools, and criminal justice.  Seeking fundamental changes quickly in how institutions operate is dramatic, visible, and garners media coverage. Too often, however, glowing rhetoric exceeds actions.

Making small changes, for example, in how health care for millions of previously uninsured Americans is delivered and paid for is undramatic and often goes unnoticed. The Affordable Care Act–Obamacare to many–is a prime example of an incremental change in health insurance for more Americans that is both important and substantial. The current “repeal and replace” political rhetoric promising dramatic changes in the Affordable Care Act that will “transform” health insurance remains, as I write, just words.

Similarly, claims for “transforming” changes in teaching and learning through “personalized learning,” robotics, and virtual reality are, well, still magical incantations that have yet to transpire in most U.S. schools.

But small changes in schooling can accumulate and help students learn. Teachers spending more time with individual students and increasing teacher collaboration are less visible, less media appealing changes. Setting aside time in daily schedules when children and youth can interact with teachers outside of lessons sounds so procedural, even trivial to starry-eyed reformers yet remains significant to individual teachers and students because those adult-student relationships are at the core of learning.

Or small changes in getting police officers in largely minority communities to treat individual citizens with respect, even at a time when social media saturates police-citizen interactions, reformers greet such changes with yawns and shrugs. The yearning for massive, swift, and head-turning change is strong among Americans. Yet….

In most things in life, the important changes are small and, over time, may accumulate into a transformation. Giving a six year-old responsibility for daily chores around meal time and increasing their responsibilities in small chunks as the child gets older can lead to driving privileges at 16. Yes, such planned changes gather slowly and build up to substantial shifts in behavior.

Sure, there are dramatic interventions that change lives:  the eight hour surgery that removes a brain tumor; the pilot who landed a crippled jet in the Hudson River in 2009; a successful mission to rescue hostages. Those decisions, those events, those changes have powerful effects on individuals and their families.

Yearning for the dramatic intervention overlooks, however, the building up of small changes over time that accumulate in a family, school, and organization behaving in ways that become evident over time. Consider policymakers allocating annual funds to fix the inevitable wear-and-tear  in bridges, highways and dams before a collapse occurs. Those actions become the heroism of incremental change. We need more of this rather than the showy, media-grabbing attention of promised “fundamental” or “revolutionary” change that disappears in the next 24-hour news cycle.

Consider surgeons and mortality rates.

Avoiding mistakes in operating rooms can save lives. Errors in surgery often cost lives. Studies showed that having surgeons and nurses go through a simple checklist prior to administering anesthesia and wielding the scalpel would reduce deaths from surgery.

*confirm the patient’s identity.

*Mark the surgical site.

*Ask about allergies.

*Discuss any anticipated blood loss.

*Introduce yourself by name.

Such checklists, according to studies done in the U.S. and Europe have shown sharp reductions in surgery-related fatalities (See here, here, and here)

A small addition to what surgeons and nurses do daily saves lives. Yet even this incremental change has been hard put to show sustained gains over time because implementation of checklists vary among hospital staffs.

Implementation is the key word. It is a ho-hum activity to policymakers and wannabe reformers because it lacks pizazz and eye-catching tweets or headlines. Putting an idea into practice requires careful attention to detail.

Where surgery is dramatic and can be life-saving, primary care physicians traffic in colds, headaches, stitching up cuts, painful knees, lower back pain, and listening to patients. Surgeons may use checklists and reduce errors but surgeons are not in the business of listening.

But primary care doctors are. . They aim for  prevention, stability in patient health, step-by-step progress in combating difficult problems, one patient at a time. And this incremental approach reduces mortality rates

A Boston surgeon visited and wrote about a nearby clinic to see primary care physicians in action.

The clinic is in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and it has three full-time physicians, several part-timers, three physician assistants, three social workers, a nurse, a pharmacist, and a nutritionist. Together, they get some fourteen thousand patient visits a year in fifteen clinic rooms, which were going pretty much non-stop on the day I dropped by.

People came in with leg pains, arm pains, belly pains, joint pains, head pains, or just for a checkup. I met an eighty-eight-year-old man who had survived a cardiac arrest in a parking lot. I talked to a physician assistant who, in the previous few hours, had administered vaccinations, cleaned wax out of the ears of an elderly woman with hearing trouble, adjusted the medications of a man whose home blood-pressure readings were far too high, and followed up on a patient with diabetes.

An expert in primary care told the Boston surgeon that the success of primary care is that patients and doctors develop relationships over time. The surgeon visiting this clinic writes:

I began to understand only after I noticed that the doctors, the nurses, and the front-desk staff knew by name almost every patient who came through the door. Often, they had known the patient for years and would know him for years to come. In a single, isolated moment of care for, say, a man who came in with abdominal pain, [to] Asaf [primary care expert] looked like nothing special. But once I took in the fact that patient and doctor really knew each other—that the man had visited three months earlier, for back pain, and six months before that, for a flu—I started to realize the significance of their familiarity.

For one thing, it made the man willing to seek medical attention for potentially serious symptoms far sooner, instead of putting it off until it was too late. There is solid evidence behind this. Studies have established that having a regular source of medical care, from a doctor who knows you, has a powerful effect on your willingness to seek care for severe symptoms. This alone appears to be a significant contributor to lower death rates.

Observing the care, I began to grasp how the commitment to seeing people over time leads primary-care clinicians to take an approach to problem-solving that is very different from that of doctors, like me, who provide mainly episodic care.

Unlike surgeons, primary care doctors see patients time and again, develop relationships as they tend to their aches, pains, and wounds. And they listen. They are the “heroes of incremental change.”

Part 2 turns to teachers as the “heroes of incremental change.”


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Let’s Plan A Unit! (Peter ​Anderson)

For policymakers, journalists, parents, and pundits a daily lesson is easy to understand. The teacher has a 45- to 90-minute period and covers certain content and skills. There are objectives and activities that unfold before an observer’s eyes. There is a beginning, middle,and end of a lesson that a typical observer–who had once been a child and youth sitting a few feet away from his or her teacher–can parse easily enough.

But not a unit. A unit is a collection of lessons lasting one to four or more weeks that has overall goals and an arsenal of activities. The various lessons connect daily objectives and tasks to unit goals. Few policymakers, school reformers, parents, and journalists have a sense of how much planning occurs before a teacher crosses the threshold of her classroom to introduce a new unit to her charges. Searching for resources, constructing engaging activities, getting feedback from students, assessing what students learn, all of these soak up a large chunk of a teacher’s time before, after school,at nights and during holidays. Here is one teacher’s description of a unit he created for his middle school students.

Peter Anderson teaches 7th grade English Language Arts in Northern Virginia. He is a National Writing Project teacher-consultant. This post appeared on his blog December 2,2016.

Just like pretty much everything else in teaching, planning for a unit is equal parts exhaustion and exuberance. A new unit is daunting. In one sense it’s sort of like the bags of holding from Dungeons & Dragons, capacious receptacles able to store and accommodate pretty much anything. But just because you can cram every formative assessment, common text, and standard into a unit doesn’t mean you should. As one of my old bosses used to say, if everything’s an emergency, nothing is.

The difference between a successful unit and a bundle of lessons cobbled together comes down to skill and preparation. As a perfectionist, I typically go overboard with the latter to make up for the former. Unfortunately, the planning process places a lot of stress on my holy trinity of anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism. If I had to graph my stress level throughout a unit, it would resemble what Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher, told me is a sine wave.

The middle of the unit is always the least stressful; I’m teaching and students are at least going through the motions of learning. The end of the unit is when I have to face the results of what I’ve just spent the past few weeks trying to accomplish. It’s also when the machinery described throughout this post gets going again.

Planning a unit is like going food shopping. Or, I imagine it should be. I would never be tasked with such an important job because me + grocery stores = stupefaction. The volume of products found at any half-decent grocery store, to say nothing about the impact of music, fluorescent lighting, or signage, bogs my brain’s processor down. I lock up. (This is why my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s have to be as fool-proof as possible. I go every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM and navigate the aisles in the same order and purchase the same products in the same quantities. And even then I routinely space out and forget something or end up with a cart full of miscellaneous desserts.)

This year, after reading the outstanding Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I committed myself to a mentor text-based vision of the English classroom. The authors refer to mentor-based planning as “planning forward,” a clever nod to backward design. Instead of starting with the finished product, planning forward begins with a quality mentor text. Since all direct instruction and mini-lessons arise from the mentor texts, selecting the right mentors is pivotal.

Before I located mentor texts, I had to settle on the unit’s focus. After finishing up their memoirs, I asked each class what they wanted to work on next. A surprising number of them told me that they wanted to learn more about poetry. I don’t really like poetry (yeah, yeah), but who cares because the students wanted to do it, their enthusiasm is always infectious, and I didn’t want to burn them out with another ‘writing heavy’ unit. Found poetry was the first thing that popped into my head.

Over the summer I had watched a wonderful presentation on using found poetry in the English classroom. With the lesson still on my brain, I scoured the internet for examples of found poetry. What I found, while exciting and artistic and certainly representative of higher level thinking, felt a little meager to be the cornerstone of a full on unit. Confused, I emailed Allison Marchetti. She confirmed my concerns about found poetry and suggested reframing the unit around word choice. How do authors pick just the right words? Allison helped me see that starting with word choice would allow me to teach mini-lessons on denotation/connotation, syntax, vivid verbs/specific nouns, tone and mood, etc.

With the unit focus set in place, it was time to find mentor texts. I started out by picking the brains of my middle school teacher friends. What poems do middle school students enjoy? They have to be accessible but not simplistic, engaging but not vapid, written by diverse authors, be emblematic of a variety of perspectives, and they must pass the highlighter test. Oh, and they have to relate in some way to the larger theme of belonging. And be free verse. The hunt was on.

This is where the aforementioned stress comes in. I threw myself into the internet. I clicked, read, and copied, saving a dozen potential poems to my Google Drive from websites like Split This Rock, Poetry Soup,, Poetry 180, and the Poetry Foundation. Since this was my first round of gathering, I erred on the side of quantity instead of quality. (This is also how I tend to write. Type up a whole bunch of words, remove 50%, rewrite 25%, and leave the final quarter untouched. Then repeat.)

Following along with Writing with Mentors, I next read through and annotated each poem, looking specifically for potential mini-lessons and teaching points. After a couple hours, I emailed Allison asking her to review my annotations and poem selections. I was in a holding pattern until I received her response, so I closed the laptop and did some chores. By the time Outlook received her reply I had refreshed my mailbox more times than I care to admit.

I’ve learned that my overwhelming need for instructional validation, certainly not one of my best qualities, is an important check against my tendency to plow forward without thinking. It’s tough to find someone willing to put up with my ceaseless flow of communications, so I try to change up who I pester every few months so as to avoid burning them out. Allison has been an amazing resource and I’m beyond fortunate to learn from her.

Allison’s reply (which, as always, came mercifully quick) confirmed my fear that the mentor texts I chose were might be too difficult. The students I teach are awesome, but I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by throwing poems at them that were developmentally inappropriate. By now I’ve learned that a poorly chosen text can derail even the best of lessons. So I clicked-and-dragged all of my annotated poems into a new Google Drive folder, went to the bathroom, and started again. This time I decided to ask my PLN for help. I queried Twitter and received a few solid recommendations.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the amount of tabs open in my internet browser bloomed from the five to twenty-five and then back again, each successive closing representing a successful find or a hasty refusal. Half a pack of gum later and I’d found and annotated a new set of mentor texts. The next two days were spent writing and rewriting lessons for the first week. But that’s for another post.

The beginning of a unit in many ways sets the stage for what follows. This is one of the reasons I hem and haw so much about finding the right texts and planning the right introductory reading like a reader/writer activities. All of the previously described activity took place over Thanksgiving break. I spent as many hours as my marriage would allow hunkered down behind my dusty school Dell. What a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time devoted to making minute pedagogical tweaks that, in all honesty, probably have very little effect on anything.


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Cartoons on the Politics of Schooling

For this month, I have gathered a bunch of cartoons that get at the fact that schools are political institutions. They are wholly dependent upon taxpayers and voters for resources to operate schools. Thus, parents, lobbyists, civic and business leaders, the courts, media, and community groups push, shove, and caress school board members, district administrators and faculties to cut costs while maintaining academic excellence, and embracing the changes they seek. Furthermore, because schools are political, shifts in government, social, and economic changes inexorably spill over to classroom. Enjoy!















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