Unpacking the Learning – Part 4

Class Sizes


There is a known phenomenon that occurs when you cram too many people into a small space.  It gets crowded, uncomfortable, and makes it hard to breathe.

“Phone Booth Cramming was a late-1950s fad with a simple premise: cram a phone booth full of dudes (and/or ladies) and take a picture before the people on the bottom suffocate.” Words to the wise from a student who participated…”People at the bottom were really laboring to breathe.” More info here click link

The same outcome occurs when you cram too many young people into a small learning space and think its okay. Psychological studies have indicated that overcrowding can cause chronic stress, increased irritability and aggression, as well as lack of privacy which can lead to depression. While most studies examine living conditions, one could make an argument that classroom cramming can also have negative effects.

No one knows the magic number when it comes to determining the optimal amount of students in any given learning environment. In most schools, this determination is usually based on a district’s yearly budget. There are so few studies on this topic, more than likely due to the budget implications, so we just accept the status quo.  Even when the mid 1980 STAR studies (pg 92-93 in Learning Unleashed) did demonstrate a strong correlation between smaller class sizes and student performance results, it was not embraced by most schools around the country.

From a parent and teacher perspective, a small class means more attention for all students, especially those who may need more support. Having fewer students offers a multitude of student learning benefits that are absent in larger classes. At least in some states, legislators have decided that younger children may need more attention and therefore they provide funding for smaller class sizes in the early years. Wisdom occasionally surfaces at the legislative level.

The large class conundrum forces teachers to employ various “behavior management” techniques in order to keep the classroom running smoothly. Bribery tactics and coercion are in full force to maintain calm and ease any distractions. Children are programmed early on to know and understand that they are “good students” if they accept the bribery du jour and adhere to the coercion efforts.

In my book, Learning Unleashed – Reimagining and Repurposing Our Schools,  I propose class sizes of around 15 students. I am sure that any school board member, superintendent, or district office manager knows this is next to impossible. I thought this when I was an assistant superintendent.  On the surface, and given the budget constraints, it is impossible within our current schemata of school.

The costs of running a school district are staggering. Most of those costs are regulated by unfunded or far less than fully funded mandates. Our federal and state legislators continue to write laws that place extraordinary burdens on the average school system. Money that is allocated is earmarked for specific purposes leaving a school district’s hands tied.

A good example is the federal Title I dollars that schools scramble to spend before the imposed deadline. The federal guidelines strictly states that it cannot supplant programs the district normally operates within their own budget. The allocated funding can only supplement these programs. It also outlines specific ways in which this funding can be spent. There is little choice for local school districts.  Elected officials continue to dictate what they believe is best for our schools and our students.

In addition, certain school programs have exorbitant and sometimes unknown expenses that the district must absorb. Yearly school budget proposals are developed to plan for the worse case scenario while the district waits and hopes for the best. Therefore, local schools are left with a constant leaking faucet, often forcing them to make the most cost effective decisions rather than more learning effective ones.

The “seeing is believing” phenomenon is another drawback which proves an even larger impediment to changing anything in schools. Trying something different or new is often seen as a waste of time. It is easy to understand why school folks are less than enthusiastic with new initiatives since they tend to surface about every five years or so accompanied by a sometimes painful training process. It is important to note that most of these changes have little to do with the basic structure of schooling. That is an untouchable.

Credit to Tom Guskey below.Guskey innov

Within public schools, the best we can hope for is to stay afloat while ever-increasing external demands suck the life and joy out of real, individualized and authentic learning for every school aged young person.

In the perfect world of anytime, anywhere learning where parents and children chart their own journey, attending a public school becomes a choice not a mandate.

For those of you who hate to read long blogs, I apologize now. For those of you who don’t mind reading on here is how this might play out on any given school day. Cost savings are noted with an asterisk. *

  • Students are not assigned to teachers. Teachers are chosen by parents and students for their coaching/content expertise and rapport with children.
  • Teachers are not solely evaluated by the school district but included is an effectiveness rating from their clientele (former and current students and parents). High stakes test results are not used to evaluate teachers.*
  • Teachers provide an online presence to families that include but is not limited to the following: educational philosophy, copy of credentials, professional resume, samples of successful school projects, informal student performance data, etc.
  • Teachers who do not have a track record of success via district, parent/student evaluation are then offered support by the district. If support has not improved agreed upon results within an agreed upon time frame, then teachers are terminated. Teachers agree to this process when hired.*
  • Teachers work in teams to carry the daily case load of up to 15-20 students each but can work with as many as 60-70 students a day depending upon age level as they rotate among the team of teachers.
  • Newer teachers are paired with seasoned teachers.*
  • Students are not assigned letter or number grades which allows the teacher more direct contact with students.  For the Love of Learning – Not grading – click here Students self evaluate at regular intervals.*
  • Parent conferences are scheduled at regular intervals as needed.
  • Students stay with this team of teachers for at least four years unless parents choose other educational alternatives or teachers change. Students are not grouped in grade levels.*
  • Teachers utilize the non-student contact hours (remember from my previous blog there are shorter hours that students attend school) for professional development (PD) that suits their particular need not a district mandated in-service, except those required by law. Teachers share their learning with their team. They may also choose to record their PD efforts and subsequent change of practice or enhancement to their practices on their websites as reflection or to provide updates. *

This scenario empowers the families, students and teachers by creating the conditions for more ownership, personalized learning, and academic growth. It also assumes that our current school system structures are re-purposed to accommodate this model. For those of you wondering how this could ever happen in a public school,  please read further.

When you empower teachers with built in accountability, there is less need for management or an elaborate evaluation process. There is also less need for teacher unions. When you trust the teachers you have hired, there is less need for oversight and control. When you offer your community a proven commitment to ensure that student learning is your top priority, there is more likelihood of continued success.

Over time a district hires less managers (district and school level) and more teachers as the priority shifts. A district pays less for PD and costly data management systems as well as the central office staff to plan and implement.

We tend to think that new and shiny buildings equate to a better learning environment with smarter and happier children who will then perform better on tests. Learning can happen anywhere at anytime so there is less need to build newer and more expensive schools. Maintaining current buildings is costly enough. Utilizing partnership facilities such as the local library, community centers, religious facilities, or community colleges opens up a whole world of possibilities.

This type of school can exist in the publicly funded version of schooling but it would take some time to convert all the skeptics and to pry ourselves loose of crippling regulations. It would require out-of-the-box thinking, something very foreign in school systems.  In addition, we must stop spewing our arrogant notion that parents are not educators, have not been formally trained, and therefore can’t possibly know what’s educationally best for their child. Unfortunately, we have convinced them of that. Parents as partners must become more than just a catch phrase or school PTA slogan.

We have to embrace a new kind of thinking where schooling no longer exists to educate the masses for the work world that awaits them. The work world has changed and so should schools. For it to survive, it must totally transform itself – now.

For those who can’t wait any longer, you might try other options like homeschooling, co-ops, Sudbury, a good charter school or democratic/progressive schools. Sadly, many of us just wait and hope.

The bottom line – public schools must change or be left behind.  In their present state, they are grossly out of touch with the new kind of learner and forever doomed to the lowest common denominator mentality. Forced grade level curriculum, a massive obsession for testing, and the need to rank, sort, and compare students, teachers and their schools guarantee this result.

“I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive.” – John W. Gardner





Unpacking the Learning Part 3

Length of the School Day and School Year


Q: How long is enough time for a child to learn?

A: As much time as they need.

I wish it was that simple. In reality, we have determined that the old agricultural calendar still serves a purpose in the big scheme of schooling.  Many believe that tampering with this archaic relic is a waste of time and energy. Time-honored traditions are hard to change, especially when the alternatives seem so daunting.

Obviously schools have tried variations on this theme with a modified school calendar hoping that it will yield good results for all parties involved. However, there are problems inherent with modified calendars as well as traditional ones. They suggest that the time allotments make sense for everyone. They don’t.

Time to learn is so unique that we can’t even imagine what that might look like apart from the current 6-7 hour grade level, compulsory school day and 180-185 school days a year mindset.  The rationale that says more time in school equals more learning is widely accepted as fact.

In a cursory review of the main research studies done on the correlation between more time or extended time in school and its effects on student achievement, one finds a common thread. More time in school such as preschool or all day Kindergarten, does not translate to lasting benefits much beyond the primary grades.  It is also noted that the quality of time is the most reliable indicator of success. 

Of greater interest to me is how we use the time we already have in school. Schools are “childcare” institutions, sports arenas, social events magnets, health, welfare and nutrition monitors, technology advancers, curriculum police, student sorting and comparing culprits and the one-size fits all organizer of information. We have all acquiesced to this belief system, so schools work tirelessly, on a daily basis to ensure they operate with all this in mind.  It’s no wonder people think more time is needed. How do we fit it all into a day?

In order to effectively teach “all” the current standards for each grade level subject, a teacher would need a solid block of uninterrupted daily time with nothing else scheduled.  I have heard that in order to present all the material in most grade level standard documents, one would need about twenty three years to cover it. There is always a sense of urgency to keep moving forward for fear of lagging too far behind. The evidence of this delay will no doubt appear obvious on end-of-year assessments, therefore teachers are forced to keep the determined fast pace.

Teachers, whom I highly respect, often tell me that this is one of the most frustrating parts of their job. They wish they could spend as much time as each child needs.  They see time slipping away and can’t do much about it apart from offering their own lunch or planning time to help their students. This is not a fair fall back and is totally random depending upon teacher willingness. Sometimes after school or summer programs are seen as the answer to this problem of time, but are they really effective and how do we know?

Additionally, teachers say they need far more time to collaborate with their colleagues than their current schedules allow. This is why there is often teacher burn-out or the need for a “summer vacation” to recoup. This is also true for students and one of the many reasons why after-school and summer school programs often have low attendance rates and less than reliable data to demonstrate their worth. Parents have also come to rely on the summer months to plan vacations, summer camps or other family oriented outings.

In my book, Learning Unleashed, I propose a radical, but doable solution to the question of time. “Minimize the school day to four or five hours…Non-mandated schooling hours and days per year allows parents the freedom to choose other appropriate options for their children without the threat of punishment by law.”  (Pg. 90) Fewer hours for all students and less hours for younger ones aligns better with results found in developmental psychology studies that rarely find their way into our schools. Wait, doesn’t less time in school seem counter intuitive? Let’s unpack these ideas a bit further.

As stated in one of my earlier blog post, getting rid of grade level configurations would greatly address the problem of time. If teachers could utilize pretests, both academic and interest-based, to group students for learning without the age requirement, the likelihood of greater teacher and student engagement in learning would be increased. Teachers and students would be able to stay with the learning until evidence proves that learning was achieved. The concept of individualized mastery learning would take on a whole new meaning.

For example, a typical third grade curriculum mandates that every student masters certain multiplication facts with automaticity by the end of a grading period. We know that all students don’t meet this performance level within the given time frame. So we just march on to the next set of facts and grade students accordingly. Those who have failed to meet our deadline are now overwhelmed with more facts to keep straight and a failing grade as incentive to do better. This is often an irretrievable downward spiral that resurfaces each year thereafter. Junior high teachers are left scratching their heads wondering how these students got this far without knowing their multiplication facts.  It soon becomes apparent that something is terribly amiss. How can they do Algebra when they can’t multiply?


It is true that multiplication involves memorization, but for so many students this is where the breakdown and math anxiety begins. Statistically, there is a notable drop in math scores across the country in fourth grade. If we could stop the practice of timing when the learning should occur and just stay with the child for as long as it takes without punishment, they just might experience success. It may take 2 months, 10 months, 12 months or longer for a student to master a particularly pesky challenge. We don’t make those kind of exceptions in schools, we just pass them on to the next round of grade level standards hoping they’ll manage to catch up somehow. Or worse, we retain them to repeat the grade level they just managed to botch.

I have heard teachers tell their students and parents that they will not be spending any class time beyond the basic introduction to the multiplication facts because students just need to memorize them on their own time. Maybe students really can teach themselves.

Helpful Reminders  (click on the link)

Attention spans, interest levels, need for rest, exercise and play all point to a shorter school day. Tapping into peak learning times by starting later and ending earlier might address the early morning/late afternoon slump syndrome, a low energy issue that so many children experience. Ask any teacher to gauge the productivity level of the students in his/her classroom at the beginning and towards the end of a long day and hear a common response, “It takes a while to prime their pumps in the morning and at the end of the day they are so DONE and so am I!” Having students practice, for 12 years, the endurance test of long hours in school as preparation for the real work world is cruel and unnecessary punishment.

Not rushing to cover all the grade level standards within a ten month time frame is exhilarating. Not having to assign a failing grade to students who don’t meet the deadline, values and redeems learning whenever it happens. Less grading and less recording, allows more time for engaging with the students who are there to learn. It’s what every good teacher wants and what their students desire.

Schools must be willing to adapt to a new world, one where young people can access information on demand. They must also pry their hands loose of strict time constraints and allow for flexible learning time and space. They must seek authentic learning opportunities that take children and young people out of the four walls of a classroom as often as possible. They must also give up the dictatorial mandate of compulsory schooling recognizing that a menu of educational options is more in keeping with where we are headed in every other quest for knowledge and information. Simply put, they must relinquish CONTROL.

If school were not compulsory and parents could access it as one of many options for getting an education, re-imagining school time might look something like this.

  • Younger students, (6-11) can choose to attend school between 9:00 a.m and 1:00 p.m. this includes 20 minutes for lunch and frequent short free play breaks.
  • Older students, (11-15) can choose to attend school between 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. this includes 20 minutes for lunch and at least one or two quick, unstructured breaks.
  • Students 16-17 years or older might spend their last “school” year(s) in an apprenticeship, mentorship, work study, or travel study program. This is a parent and student choice with teacher input as needed.
  • When teachers are not in direct contact with students, time for planning, collaborating, communicating with families, and in some circumstances, attending school or district meetings will fall within their regular 7-8 hour negotiated work day/year.
  • Students (6-11 yrs old) are matched (with parent input) with two or three teachers that stay with them for the entire time. Mastery goals are set by the teacher and student with incremental check-ins, not by age or required end of a school year deadlines. Student progress is monitored and communicated via parent/student/teacher conferences, not report cards. If a student meets all the mastery goals before the five years, they are free to join the 11-16 groups.
  • Students (11-16) are matched (with parent input) with three or four teachers that stay with them for the entire time. Mastery goals are set by the students with teacher feedback. Progress is monitored and communicated via parent/student/teacher conference, not report cards. Students are free to choose independent study research/projects, etc. if they reach mastery goals before they are 17.
  • Parents may choose, in combination with school or not, other educational opportunities as well. These might include online courses, home schooling, community college classes, experts in their fields for mentoring, neighborhood service or religious oriented clubs and organizations as well as a myriad of other learning venues.

This scenario would work best in a school structure that values learning above sorting and testing. It presumes that children are more engaged when they have more control over their own learning without threat of punishments or bribery with rewards. It assumes that teachers nurture and follow the student in the natural flow of learning. Teacher teams share the coaching based on their expertise. It functions as a vital opportunity for those who choose to access it. It’s purpose clearly becomes student-centered and student driven. Teachers are sought out for their value as a coach/facilitator/mentor and are recognized as such with a salary that honors their contributions.  (I am not referring to merit pay here.)

This scenario also assumes that school does not exist to provide free child care for working families. That is not its purpose, nor should it be. It embraces the notion that parents are responsible for the education of their children, not the school. Parents are vital in this equation: Parent + Student + Teacher/Mentor = Learning.

For families living in poverty who may need extra support from their community, schools could partner with existing child care entities who offer supervised play, activities, or field trips before or after school times.  This partnership would be locally determined and locally funded. Many already exist in our inner cities as well as rural areas. Some offer low cost options and some offer scholarships that are funded through grants, endowments, and donations.

Many believe that universal preschool would level the playing field and address a pressing problem for low income or poverty level families. However, years of data collected on Head Start and similar preschool programs has not shown any significant long term learning benefits for its participants.  As stated earlier, studies have shown the quality of time spent is far more impactful than the time itself.

As long as public tax dollars support public education, there will be those who demand strict accountability. Rather than high stakes tests, punitive teacher sorting, or infighting over school choice options, can’t we all agree on one important factor? The best evidence of accountability is when we have effectively prepared young people to become productive and contributing citizens in their communities and world regardless of which educational avenue they access to get there.

This kind of accountability can only be measured one young person at a time in a culture that values all kinds of learning and all kinds of students. Anywhere, anytime learning is the future.        

Time Tolkien)

Unpacking the Learning – Part 2

Bell Schedules


The second school practice, or “un-commandment” as I refer to it in my book, Learning Unleashed Re-Imagining and Re-Purposing Our Schools, is the revered school bell. To be perfectly clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with bells, whistles, or other instruments that gather attention for an intended purpose. Examples include sports, performances, outings, timed events, etc. However, when used to cut off or compartmentalize learning it has little to no value.

When we designed the typical K-12 school day, we determined that portions of time are set aside to administer subjects. Grade level, content material such as math, reading, science, social studies, etc. are taught in regular and metered doses weekly or daily.  In order to cover all the determined subjects, minutes are assigned in various intervals and adhered to throughout the course of a school year.

Elementary grade level students may have a bell schedule that sets aside one hour daily for math instruction, an hour and a half for reading, and perhaps thirty minutes for social studies and thirty minutes for science. Usually, physical education, music, art and other special classes which might include a visit to the computer lab or library, may also be scheduled throughout the week. This is how we’ve done it for years. Few question this format.

The teacher must keep one eye on the clock and the other on the pace and needs of the students in her/his classroom. At times, teachers may extend or shorten as needed based on extenuating factors.  However, due to curriculum pacing and scheduled reporting periods, this practice can’t be a regular occurrence or the students will fall behind. Those who do fall behind are a mixed bag. Some may get interventions, some may get nothing.

Unfortunately, those who need more time and even those who need less time are trapped in a rigid, unyielding schedule.  The whole bell schedule scheme falls apart right here and guarantees that only those who can keep the determined pace during the allotted time frames will succeed.

Apparently, we have come to believe that learning is like baking a cake. We add and mix all the right ingredients, then we bake it for 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or an hour and “Voila” it’s done. Or so we hope.

Bake a cake Blog pic

The problem with this mind set is the notion that we all learn in the same amount of time. We don’t, we never will. Yet schools set schedules to cover material, keep orderly movement and continue the damaging practice of allocating time limits to learning. Factory schooling will never change it’s scheduling design because it refuses to acknowledge that every child is different.

Factories mass produce duplicate products, they don’t make original ones. Originals take too much time and are not cost effective.

Proponents of school reform offer many and varied ideas to promote and enhance learning but few ever tackle the sacred cows that I mention in Learning Unleashed. Bell schedules is one of them.  A change of this magnitude requires a deep understanding of how we learn and a deliberate effort to make it happen. It requires us to rethink the concept of TIME.

Finals Schedule

2016-2017 Ellison Bell Schedule

What if we allowed children to take as long as they needed to learn something? What if we removed the grade level schemata? What if teachers spent more or less time based on what their students needed? What if we set up a daily schedule that honored learning not the clock? What if we wanted to produce originals not duplicates?

I’ve heard that school curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep.  It’s true, depth takes time. In school, we already have plenty of time but not for depth because there is too much breadth.   If you gasp while reading these next few statements, please consider the why.  We don’t need to add hours to the school day and we don’t need before or after school programs.  Why?

Simply put, if we give children the time and support they need without rushing them through or holding them back with pre-determined minutes, grade level time lines, and ineffective grading practices, they would learn both depth and breadth.  Translated to practice this means a removal of the time honored grade levels by age and ten month baking period as well as grading everything.

To some, these ideas are heresy and to others an unnecessary departure from what they believe has worked for years.  It all depends upon one’s philosophy of learning.  Mine is rooted in the mind and heart of every child and young person who the schooling system has robbed of authentic learning via rigid time constraints.


Next in the series is length of school day and school year. Stay tuned…








Unpacking the Learning


Grade Levels old

In my book Learning Unleashed, I lay the foundation for why we need out of the box thinking along with radical changes for our schooling systems in this country. In addition to my observations, I provided adult and student voices to help shed light on what might be an opportunity for real innovation. I referred to the ideas as courageous because they shake the core of our complacent status quo with regard to educating our young people.

I described a few practices that I named the ten uncommandments. I did this because they are not written in stone and not substantially supported by research or results. However, the solutions I offer are rooted in sound child and adolescent psychology, proven results, and common sense.

I will provide the entire list as a reference as we proceed in this series.

The Ten Uncommandments (from chapters 11-12 in Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools)

  1. Grade Levels
  2. Bell Schedules
  3. Length of school day and school year
  4. Class sizes
  5. School Buildings
  6. Assessments
  7. Grading
  8. Restrictive and limited academic curriculum
  9. Teacher-centered instruction
  10. Teacher tenure and unions

I begin this blog series with the first uncommandment, grade levels.

I’ll cut right to the chase, we don’t need grade levels in school. In fact, they are detrimental and counter productive to real learning. You can read the details in my book, but for the sake of time, here is the condensed version.

For the most part, children who turn five are sent to Kindergarten; six year olds are first graders; seven year olds are second graders, and so on throughout the K-12 system. If they “adequately” learn the information, they get to move on to the next grade level; if not they either repeat the entire year, or they move on with interventions. This is acceptable practice and no one typically questions it – no one except bright and insightful teachers, administrators and parents who understand that the developmental progression for each child varies.

Setting an arbitrary end date by way of completing a grade level is ludicrous and flies in the face of everything educators learn in undergraduate psychology courses and have come to understand more clearly from brain research. We know that children learn at different rates and may require less or more time depending upon their needs.

Sir Ken Robinson titled his talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” and although his particular focus was the lack of time and place for the arts and avenues to foster creativity in our schools, he also provided a very compelling history of why this is the case. He explains that we continue to use the factory model to educate children by “batches”.[i]

In his TED talk, and subsequent book, “Out of Our Minds,” he wittingly says that “students move through the system in age groups as if the most important thing the children have in common is their date of manufacture.”[ii]

This seems like a no-brainer, yet we ignore it and refuse to make any kind of change in the grade level schemata except to create combo-classes which address numbers and staffing more than educationally sound practice. So, we continually have interventions which we must provide that are costly, time consuming, and demoralizing for the student who needs to receive it. Why is this so? Who really benefits from grade levels?

The educational institution itself benefits in that it makes record keeping and tracking easier. Grade levels are easy to monitor and control. Within the confines of a grade level, standards, curriculum, textbooks, and accounting all provide ease of navigation to all those involved with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Except, teachers will tell you that the greatest challenge they have is meeting the needs of all the students in their classroom, because they are all at different levels in their learning – some needing more time and different resources than others. What a novel concept; learning is different for different people.

Children also learn quite a lot when they are among varying age groups. Older students can learn from younger ones and the opposite is also true. Check out more ideas on how we might rethink grade leveling in schools as you read my book, Learning Unleashed – Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools. It’s time to put into practice what solid research and common sense tell us about how one learns.

[i]. Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” Computer Users in Education, 2007, Monterey Technology Conference.

[ii]. Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, (West Sussex: Capstone Publishing, 2011), 57.


Witnessing The Dream


Humbly acknowledging the borrowed words of a great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I have quoted small portions of his iconic speech to challenge our idea of educational freedom and authentic learning. I do this now rather than the observed January holiday or designated Black History month not to diminish their importance, but to elevate the notion that great people and great ideas are worthy of acknowledgment at any time, all of the time, and at particularly difficult times.

When I recently revisited Dr. King’s 1963 speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, I was moved to tears reading the humble but powerful cry for freedom and equality. I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. King deliver this speech on August 28th via our television. My mother and I sat intently clutching onto every word that deeply seared our hearts. It was a pivotal time in my life that I will never forget. It happened just a few years before our family would be put to the test of his words. I am forever thankful that I took the test and passed it.

Our family became racially integrated through marriages and children of my siblings. I gained beautiful new family members, along with a new understanding and acknowledgment of my particular privilege. It took little time to discover that these family members were treated differently on many occasion. Often, they were given less than respectful interaction. At times, they experienced blatant disregard. I observed first hand the ugly scourge of racism. I began to understand the words of Dr. King, that I heard as a 10 year old when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Later in life, I found myself working as a teacher and then administrator in a predominately African American community. I saw once again challenges and struggles as parents sought to level the playing field for their children by way of a good education. Ten years before my arrival to a new state, in the mid eighties, this school district had gone through a tumultuous desegregation mandate that resulted in a “white flight” escape to the suburbs. There is much more to that dark story, but for sake of time and space I’ll just focus on the schools and children that were left behind.

Dr. King told us the following.”Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Dr. King’s words were slow to take root. In fact, twenty five years after his words rang out over the multitudes in Washington D.C, racism was still full-blown within many of our institutions. Schools were one such institution that clung desperately to their separate but equal philosophy. While desegregation finally began to more forward, it was hardly in the manner Dr. King had envisioned or described.  Although some attempts were made to level the playing field in schools, the results of racism still closed doors of opportunity, especially below the Mason Dixon Line.

The school in which I worked was a “magnet” school hoping to “attract” the predominately white students who left at the time of desegregation in that county. It was a Montessori magnet and did indeed pull in a few children from outside the area. However, there was no real integration in the truest sense. Desegregation barely met the letter of the law. In the Montessori classrooms, filled with mostly wealthier white children, one would find thousands of dollars in equipment and supplies, lots of parent involvement, frequent field trips and multitudes of hands on experiments and activities. It also embraced the philosophy of following the child and creating the best conditions for their learning.

These students ate together at lunch and played together at recess. They often had special family events as well. While the principal tried to integrate school-wide events and activities as often as possible, it was painstakingly obvious that we housed two separate, but not so equal schools, within the  larger school building. Most of the teachers who chose to work together were there because they genuinely cared and wanted to provide the best education possible. However, the non magnet students had less supplies, old books, worn desks, and a fewer field trips. They ate lunch together, played at recess together and shared an occasional game of ball with the magnet students. This magnet school was an awkward attempt at integration and everyone knew it.

Watching this all play out with daily regularity, I couldn’t help but think of Dr. King’s speech again and in particular his analogy of cashing a check.

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

Now over fifty years since Dr. King’s poignant plea, not all, but many of our beautiful children of color are still looking at that bad check. They are often trapped in inferior and substandard public schools within their cities. With millions of federal dollars pouring into our most needy schools, we know our children are still shortchanged. White flight still exists and so does deep rooted racism.

Those who seek to right these inherent wrongs are often led by their ideology and elitist altruism. Government must right the wrong – translated to mean more funding directed to the “failing” public schools. The premise here is that any money diverted from public school will make them fail even more than they already have.

Others believe that funding students/families directly to attend the school of choice will right the wrong of inequity. Unfortunately, neither of these conditions will take care of ingrained racism. Wealthier white families will still take flight when children of color show up at their school of choice.

Children of color will also remain trapped in poor performing public schools regardless of how much funding they receive. One of the main reasons for this lies in how that funding is spent. Typically schools seek out proven track records of success peddled by predatory publishers of books and programs promising increased test scores.  So they buy more books, shining and new electronic devices, and maybe some teacher training to go with them. Some initial success may be noted in these cases, but long term educational benefits are not apparent in the relevant research. Most notably, the last administration’s efforts with the federal school improvement grants showed in a report that we are still failing our children even when we provide more targeted funding.

When children are able to enroll in their school of choice they feel a bit more empowered, but this choice must be a good one. Schools in general, whether public or private, charter or magnet, typically don’t do a very good job of facilitating real and lasting learning. It’s a factory that groups children in age batches. It produces compliant consumers who often find themselves bored, bothered or bewildered. Students pick up a few basics, regurgitate facts on tests, and then move on to the next grade level. Sadly, they don’t often retain much of what they’ve crammed into their short term memory. As school years pass, many students can no longer think for themselves, problem solve for themselves, or create and invent. This is not surprising since most of their school existence is scripted, contrived and controlled.  To many this is incredibly baffling and very concerning.

For some, school works as designed. For others it is a bad check that can’t be cashed now or later in life.

Simply put, school has to be re-imagined to honor and value the unique ways in which every learner learns. It can’t be prepackaged education delivered in a one size fits all box tied with a bountiful bow of good intentions. As a nation we must confront the reality that exists and stop patting ourselves on the back for dropping the ball. We must stop insisting that we are doing the best we can and start doing what is right. We must acknowledge the statistics that tell us our schools are not working for so many children. We must find the will and the way to create conditions for learning that actually result in real learning, the kind of that lasts a lifetime, not just for a test.

Much like Dr. King’s earnest desire for his own children, we must go from dreaming to acting now. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Keeping children of color in substandard schooling conditions sentences them to a life of inequity and oppression.  Keeping any child oppressed in this manner is a travesty and counter productive to our core beliefs of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

At various times in our lives, we will encounter tests that judge our character. These tests may come in our individual families, our schools, our work place, or our government. These tests are not simple multiple choice or true and false. They are performance-based requiring us to clearly demonstrate our understanding of Dr. King’s call to action in his 1963, I Have A Dream speech. They call on us to clarify and validate the principles of equity and freedom for all.

With regard to schooling, children need the freedom to learn without sanctions, punishments, threats or coercion. We need to usher in a new school paradigm based on the principles of liberty. This a doable and urgent. In the quote below, I respectfully borrowed some of Dr. King’s words to formulate the deeply held commitment that many brave educational freedom advocates believe.

“And when this happens, and when we allow educational freedom to ring, when we let it permeate every school district and every school in every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of the children, black and white, rich and poor, different faiths and ethnicity, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual:”

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

We are witnessing this freedom already in alternative schools, democratic schools, good charter schools, and even home-schools. The freedom to learn is a fundamental human right. Many schools in their present form, and often unknowingly, rob children and young people of this basic right by taking away choice and substituting it with compulsory compliance and a canned curriculum.

When will life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness find its way into the schoolhouses of America? How  much longer do we have to wait?








Brilliance Without School – A Tribute to My Father

Scan-8 (3)

My father taught me how to ride a bike and how to roller skate. He also taught me how to fish like a real fisherman. He took me on several worm expeditions and showed me where to find the fat and juicy ones in the darkest black soil – the best ones to use for bait. He taught me how to be thrifty by cutting them in half or threes so we’d have plenty of bait. He modeled the art of fishing showing me how to slip the bait on the hook, cast my fishing rod and then hold it with just the right amount of tension so as not to lose a catch. To my surprise, I caught several bluegills, (more than five) fish in one day.  Knowing that I had perfected the art of fishing, my father released them every time so I might have been catching the same fish over and over but neither I nor the fish seemed to mind.

Dad taught me how to build a fire and pitch a tent at our summer camping site north of our city. I had to make several trips through the woods to gather all of the twigs, but I never complained because I knew it meant golden roasted marshmallows for a treat. He demonstrated the proper way to build a safe fire, big enough to last late into the evening and then made sure I knew how to put the fire out before heading in for the night.

Although he had three daughters, it did not stop him from teaching us just about everything he would have taught a son. We learned the name of all his tools as well as what they were used for, which frequently comes in handy even today. He encouraged me to use the tools so I would understand their importance while also teaching me how to put them back in their proper place – more than a few times.

My father constructed the most utilitarian and modern outhouse we had ever seen on our summer camping grounds. Imagine an outhouse designed with free flowing air, bright colors, pictures on the wall, a bug repellent light fixture, a built in air purifier, and of course, piped in music. It was considered the most attractive outhouse in the entire camping area. All outhouses after that one were/are a huge disappointment, and I avoid them at all cost.

From my father I learned that whatever your mind’s eye can see, it can create.

The second home I remember living in was a rented three story house two blocks from the first. Our new washer and dryer were in the basement or what we called the “cellar.” To make chores a bit easier and more pleasant for my mother, my father built an intercom/music system so that when she was down in the basement she could listen to music and send or receive messages without walking three flights of stairs. He also built a laundry shoot. In addition to doubling as a fun pastime on a rainy day, when on occasion I tossed a toy or two down, the shoot served a family of five quite well on laundry day.

At a very early age, I discovered that my home was a beautiful canvas, and my father was the artist. I watched him painting rooms in our house, building wooden cabinets for the stereo equipment and installing the newest bathroom fixtures that included sliding glass shower doors and modern wall mounted lights. I was completely drawn into his ability to create something in his mind, transfer it to paper as a sketch or draft from which to work, and then build it.

My father was not an artist by trade and most of his masterpieces were only displayed on the walls of our kitchen, bathroom or living room, but he was a master nonetheless.  I wanted to be an artist like he was. He showed me how to hold a brush, how to carefully cut into the corners, how to mix colors and how to prepare and then clean the materials afterwards. He often allowed me to paint with him, fond memories that I cherish and skills that I still utilize.

From my father I learned the power of authentic participation. 

My father taught me pride in a job well done and gave me confidence to do things myself.  He created many innovative and useful products for our home that made me realize years later how ahead of his time he was. He could do or make just about anything. He designed drapery hangings for our living room, hung artwork, pictures and lighting with precision and perfection. He designed and created various pieces of artfully crafted furniture and frames that we proudly displayed in our home.

Our family was the benefactor of his great expertise, particularly my mother who never had to call a plumber, carpenter, electrician or handyman. Dad was quick at math and had a keen sense of how things worked. He taught himself the inner workings of whatever he found himself doing. He made everything he touched much better than how he found it.

My father also had the most beautiful handwriting. He taught me how to sharpen a pencil, use an eraser and sketch a drawing. Whatever he sketched was simply amazing. He appreciated the beauty in a painting, a drawing, a sculpture and shared that love with me.

From my father I learned how to make the world more beautiful.

My father’s parents divorced when he was a child. As a young adolescent he lived with various relatives, moving more than a few times. He attended school when he didn’t have to work and he managed to finish eighth grade. Most of what he learned about work he gleaned from observing masters in the various trades. What he learned about life was out of necessity, mostly teaching himself.

Even with a difficult upbringing,  a ravaging WWII, and a few disappointments in life, he maintained his keen wit and incredible sense of humor. These qualities along with a desire for his remaining years on earth to count for something; endeared him to family, friends, neighbors and even total strangers.

As an adult, I came to realize that my father was brilliant and that schooling had little to do with it. I learned that each of us has brilliance waiting to be released. Schools don’t typically do a good job of tapping into our brilliance. Many young people have a story like my dad’s. They may not know yet how to channel their disappointments, fears, and challenges into something productive. They are however, waiting for someone to notice their brilliance. Look for it, it’s there. They’ve already learned a lot about life, now they just need someone to show them how their creativity, participation, and brilliance can make the world more beautiful…just like my dad did!




Two In One – An Important Lesson



When my youngest son was in second grade, I was his teacher. This was my second year of teaching. There was only one second grade at the school, so he got lucky, I suppose. After all, who wouldn’t love to have their own mom as their teacher?

He was filled with many questions about what to call me and if I would still help him with his homework. He wanted to know if I would treat him just as I would all other students in my class. Once we sorted through all these important details, we agreed it would be an amazing year just as our first seven years together had been.

The school year was not without its interesting moments. Like the time when he held another student in a headlock hoping I wouldn’t see, or the day I saw him smiling from across the room at a certain young lady in the classroom. I watched him grappling with the urge to joke around when it was time for more serious discussion. I heard his wonder and curiosity in the many questions he asked. I also saw his compassion and thoughtfulness as he assisted others. Observing my own child, while serving in this capacity, provided me with a never ending supply of humor, insight, and much needed patience.

Towards the end of the school year, I asked all the children to write a book about a topic that was important and special  to them. I provided very little direction as I wanted this to be an authentic effort, free from the typical teacher oversight and corrections. I felt confident that they had learned enough to spell, write, and successfully convey their important message. They were allowed to help each other if they chose to do so. Occasionally, a student would seek me out for assistance on spelling a particularly pesky word.

They were given a hardback, blank book and the appropriate materials in which to illustrate and write their story. The only guideline was to have it done and ready to share with the class the last week of school. There was no grading involved.

My son’s book was called, Two In One – My Mother is also my Teacher. As he read the opening page to his classmates, I wondered if this was a good idea.  He read, “My mother is also my teacher.” “Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.” Swallowing my pride, I allowed him to continue reading, hoping that the story would have a happy ending.

Turning a few pages he read…”the worst thing about having my mother as my teacher is when I get in trouble. “She seems to notice me more than others.” The illustration showed several empty desks except for his, where he sat smiling. He continued the story sharing his favorite subjects and activities ending the book with, “I really like having my mom as my teacher, but next year I want someone new.” With a huge smile of relief on my face, the class and I congratulated him for such an interesting story.


This year long adventure is now part of our family history, full of notable and humorous “remember when” stories. Admittedly, for both of us, it also required an extra dose of patience and respect.  We found a way to make that happen even though it was not always easy. I often struggled with the dichotomy of being Two in One. Observing the actions of my child, I became very thankful for this struggle as it forever changed my perspective as both a mom and a teacher. From that point forward, I purposely tried to view my students’ strengths and challenges from a parent’s lens.

Before children enter formal schooling, parents help teach their children how to walk, talk, eat, dress, do chores, take turns, express ideas, and hundreds of other important tasks. They may even teach them to read, count and write. They know their strengths and challenges, their personality and behaviors. For the most part, they know what makes them tick.

When children arrive in our classrooms we rarely know them at all. We see them in only one setting and with only one lens, that of teacher. How much time do we spend talking with students and their parents before or at the beginning of the school year? What kind of communication exists during the school year besides report cards and the obligatory parent conference? Does a Friday folder suffice as a communication device?

As a teacher, talking with parents frequently gave me greater insight when working with and assessing my students. Parents are indispensable learning/teaching partners. Teachers who possess the lens of “parent” and work closely with parents seem more likely to better know and understand their students. They observe learning and behaviors differently by appreciating the uniqueness of every child/young person with whom they work, then plan their interactions and lessons accordingly.

Teachers who are Two in One by choice,  nurture, guide, and encourage their students through a parent lens. Their students know they care and so do the parents. It is the school connection that matters most and the one that will yield lasting results. 

As this adage aptly suggests…


For all the great teachers out there, thanks for being Two in One in your classrooms! It makes all the difference in the world. Kudos to all the home school moms and dads, you are two in one all the time!



Follow the Child

When I wrote my book, Learning Unleashed: Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools, I knew that readers would fall into several camps. There would be those who enthusiastically agreed with the proposals that I presented, those who could wrap their heads around one or two ideas, and those who vehemently disagreed with the entire premise and intent of the book. I am totally okay with that. It mirrors the diversity of thought that fuels our collective engines, hopefully to produce better results for all of our school-aged children.

As I wrote in the preface of my book, “My desire is that everyone who reads this book will find a reawakening of passion, a morsel of hope, a willingness to think out of the box when it comes to the world of formal schooling.” That is still my hope.

In various capacities, over thirty years, I have participated, observed, and led others in the quest for an excellent education on behalf of thousands of young people in our schools. I care deeply about learning and find that most teachers do as well. I will continue to reiterate that teachers have one of the most difficult and rewarding jobs in our country.

I can hear the naysayers. For their benefit, I do not assume that other jobs are not challenging, demanding or difficult. They are as well. However, from my vantage point, teaching requires a level of consciousness that rivals a surgeon during an operation. It takes critical decision making, expertise and incredible skill to assess and respond in a way that increases the likelihood that the patient will survive. Great teachers do this everyday.

I know and have observed great teaching and learning in public schools, charter schools, private schools, religious-affiliated schools, and home schools. Great teachers are everywhere! In each instance, I noticed that choices were made by parents and students based on what they needed most. This makes sense to me because I am a mother and grandmother. I would not accept or tolerate inferior schooling for my children or grandchildren. Would you?

Why is it then that critics of school choice seem to know better than the parents and students who want to make these choices? Are these parents not capable of deciding which school choices are better than others? Do they need to be shouted down, harassed and intimidated as anti-public schools because they may choose a different course for their child? Where is the civil rights outcry when the right to choose something as basic as an education is vilified and demonized?

My book does not bash teachers,  principals, or superintendents and school boards. It is not anti-public schools or pro-religious or charter schools. It does not espouse the best route for schooling at the exclusion of others. I would not claim to know what is the best schooling choice for every child in this country. I would defer to a child’s parents on this determination. Apparently, there are many voices, (mostly teacher unions and those who support them) claiming to know what kind of school is best.

Unfortunately, as a nation we are not on common ground when it comes to the purpose of schooling. Some believe that it exists to promote and further our democracy. Others hold fast to the notion that it prepares students for college, careers and life in general. There are some who believe that it exists for the benefit of the social order as seen here below.


Until there is common ground and consensus on why we have schools to begin with and what purpose they serve, we will surely encounter division and discord. Do we consider schooling a moral obligation, a right, a necessary requirement? Do we believe that the federal government is the sole directional compass, mandating body that ensures educational equity? If so, does equity  include ALL kinds of schools or just the ones deemed appropriate or acceptable and who makes that determination? Do we believe that how one decides to become educated is a basic human right and should be unaffiliated with any governmental agency?

Given that there is vast disagreement on the “why” of schooling, we would do well to honor and accept these differences and stop trying to promote one over the other. If we are a country of diversity in thought, ideology, culture, religion, politics, etc., should we not embrace diversity in schooling rather than control the options and narrow the choices?

Maria Montessori espoused a wonderful philosophy of learning; “Follow the child.” She became keenly aware that “children absorb knowledge from their surroundings, have an endless interest in manipulating materials, and given the right tools, they can teach themselves more than anyone realized.” 1

Considering that every child learns differently, at different times, and through different approaches, maybe we should frame our educational policies, funding, and support to FOLLOW THE CHILD!

Alas, perhaps it’s not really about the child at all. Perhaps its more about  control, intimidation, or narrow-minded allegiance to an old school paradigm. The same thought that brought us to the one size fits all model of learning, will lead us to the same destination – mass production schooling where casualties are inevitable.


  1. Follow the Child




A Different Kind of NOISE


Communication is the process of transmitting information from one person to another. Noise is any type of disruption that interferes with the transmission or interpretation of information from the sender to the receiver.1

Semantic noise in communication is a type of disturbance in the transmission of a message that interferes with the interpretation of the message due to ambiguity in words, sentences or symbols used in the transmission of the message.2

Psychological noise results from preconceived notions we bring to conversations, such as racial stereotypes, reputations, biases, and assumptions. When we come into a conversation with ideas about what the other person is going to say and why, we can easily become blinded to their original message.3

There are other types of noise such as physiological, cultural and organizational. More information on these can be found in the sources cited below. However, the most important take away in this blog comes in the following sentence.

The efficacy of communication is impacted by how much noise there is in the communication channel.4

There is noise all around us, all of the time and it is not just physical noise.

Given  a typical school classroom, where communication from one person to another/others  is the main vehicle of transmitting information, understanding the impact of various noises can be helpful. Teachers and their students are not immune to noise and distractions. In fact, as a former teacher, I can attest to the constant efforts teachers make to keep distractions to a minimum. However, those are obvious noises like talking, managing books/materials, doors and windows, office interruptions, unannounced classroom visitors, and school bells and alarms.

Less obvious noises are those described in the opening paragraph. For young people, multiple noises are competing with one another as they attempt to “pay attention” in class. They may be distracted by unclear or unfamiliar words they hear. They may be distracted by facial expressions from the teacher and fellow classmates. Their memory may distract them as they recall past learning experiencing both successful and unsuccessful. They are most often distracted with their perceived failures. They are trained early on that making their teacher happy is the goal – getting the right answer is the goal – being smart is the goal. That is quite a bit of NOISE to overcome.

Teachers often repeat directions, rephrase questions, and redirect students to the lesson at hand. Some students appear attentive, yet when questioned regarding the presented material, they struggle to understand. At times, teachers assume that their students are not really listening, or perhaps they are just under-performing. Whatever the teacher diagnoses, students are hoping for a personal breakthrough that will suddenly illuminate the embarrassing darkness of not being able to properly respond.

Good teachers spend hours preparing and gathering materials for their lessons. They may even jot down great questions that ask students to think more deeply. They stand/sit and deliver with the best intentions and yet there are still many students who respond with a blank stare. If one were to ask a teacher the percentage of students who “get it” the first time they present or ask about the learning objective, the number would be quite low. From years of observing students interacting with teachers/lessons via responding to questions posed, I would venture to say that 5-10% of students demonstrated enough “attentiveness” to provide a correct or thoughtful response. Why is this the case?

When teachers frame their understanding of learning with the “other kind of noise factor” in mind, they will be better prepared for what can/will happen. Below are a few important questions teachers can ask themselves.

  • Do all of my students know that I genuinely care about them?
  • Do all of my students feel safe with me?
  • Are my words clear and precise?
  • Am I talking too much?
  • Do I allow frequent student talk?
  • Do I use other forms of communication besides my voice?
  • Do I model cognition?
  • Do I engage my students with thought-provoking questions?
  • Does it appear that I only want the right answer?
  • Do I consider and honor the individual learning differences of every student?
  • Do I demonstrate respect and attentiveness?
  • Do I refrain from bias labeling of students based on their performance or behavior?
  • Am I committed to facilitating the learning of those students in my care, whatever it takes?

Please be mindful of the noise that we may not hear -the kind of noise that has the potential to hijack real learning.

Worth repeating and food for thought: The efficacy of communication is impacted by how much noise there is in the communication channel.


  1. Communication
  2. Semantic Noise
  3. Psychological Noise
  4.  Communication Efficacy

Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners. – John Holt


If you follow my Twitter or Facebook posts you might find my wildly enthusiastic references to PRAXIS. I simply love what Issac Morehouse and colleagues are providing young people by way of their apprenticeship program. It is a simple idea with impactful and dynamic results. See here: Praxis Homepage

After listening intently, to a quick 3:40 minute video that Issac produced on the two biggest takeaways of the apprenticeship model (posted on his Twitter page below), I had a revelation of sorts.

Isaac’s Tweet


What if K-12 learning was  built on the apprenticeship model?

Foundational to this model would be a few non negotiables. I have listed them for your consideration.

  1. Exploration
  2. Flexibility
  3. Observations
  4. Student directed
  5. Student interests
  6. Ability to create value
  7. Ability to demonstrate value
  8. Non graded
  9. Working with varying age groups

Imagine highly sought after learning coaches (more than one) working with their apprentices in this manner. Imagine children and young people learning from doing, thinking, questioning, experiencing, observing and making redeemable mistakes free of evaluation or grades. Imagine how far they could go in this environment.

We as a nation, mistakenly equate test scores, report cards, and GPA’s as evidence that learning has occurred. That kind of learning fails to last beyond the end game. We hold young people to a very low bar of consume and regurgitate on demand. Sure kids can remember a few basics and appear to have successfully navigated the K-12 system. However, businesses, potential employers, and a hungry market for innovative entrepreneurs can see right through the facade of resume data. They are looking for bright ideas and we are giving them burned-out light bulbs.

Real and authentic learning lasts a lifetime. It adds value to the world. Learners with bright ideas don’t typically come from old light bulb factories.

Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of the learners. Think about it!