Tag Archives: K-16

Information As Power: Digital Control of Learning in an Era of Superstudents. Or, Tale of Two Eras: Two Stories, Two Generations and Zero Change

1987:  There’s no doubt the learning game is changing, K-16. And the teaching game, in this digital age, is running ten steps behind, as usual. Even 30 years ago, Ivory towers attracted the brightest students. Unknown-1Even in that era students’ acumen threatened a well-established tradition of academia, and professors scurried to ensure their students paid a reasonable price for learning. In 1988 while teaching at a top-ranked university, I designed a scope and sequence of an introductory required Spanish Literature course. After all, I was a curriculum specialist! The course incorporated everything I had learned in my post-graduate work in Education. I wanted to motivate, prepare, teach for retention (in hopes that some students would continue on toward a minor or major). Since these students comprised the top 5% of college-age students, I thought it in their best interest to show them everything I expected of them, including the midterm, the final, the quizzes, an explanation and example of the kinds of papers I would require, rubrics for assignments and criteria for each grade they would like to achieve, the opportunity to submit any work early for my feedback, and much more. Although the course was “transparent,” according to the folder of required submissions of syllabi for every course, mine was more demanding than any other professor’s in the department:  more papers, more difficult criteria for grading, more quizzes and tests, more readings, a “literary theory” portion that is not even included in the course description itself, and more. The students struggled to understand the transparency at first, but as soon as they understood the challenge, most rose to the occasion, and some even submitted their written work to and were published by student publications across academia. As a result, I gave many A’s, and the department immediately chastised me and encouraged me to give less. UnknownSo… I raised the criteria required to complete for an A, B, C, etc., and the students met those expectations as eagerly as the year before. It happened a third year, and my students began to major and minor in Spanish. Unknown-2As they populated the Spanish National Honor Society, they began their own student publication in Spanish. The department, however, never ceased communicating to me their disapproval of my methods and how I am “inflating the grades” and not keeping students in their place by giving lower grades. It was the worst of times!


2017:  Several of my former high school clients approached me with matching issues. They spent time in high school learning to compensate for their dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD, relying on accommodations but learning to take full responsibility for their work. Every client had gotten into top-rated universities and they embraced the challenges they would be facing their Freshman year. They knew that, given their issues, they must orchestrate their time and resources when asked to read and write. But, all of them at their respective (and respectful? institutions) were struggling with at least one of their courses for the simple reason that the professor placed only the next class period’s readings and assignments on-line, with NO access to the reading material until their PROFESSORS released it. In short, they were finishing their classes, doing regular “college stuff,” and would not receive the next assignment to do until the next day or night before the assignment is due in class. And to make matters worse, they could not start on that assignment until they finished other classes for THAT day. 512718467-anxious-picturesThey had on the average 12-18 hours to read large passages and write large response essays. All of my former clients now lamented poor grades and frustration at not being able to budget their time and practice their compensation strategies that got them into the universities in the first place. It was the worst of times!


In the 1980’s, my colleagues believed that withholding information about how they assess their students and what content they will address keeps students guessing and “motivated” to earn that grade, with little consideration as to whether they are actually teaching well or their students are learning well. This information became the power to control every student who expressed any desire to earn a good grade. Unknown-3Almost in a childish or evil way, these colleagues seemed to throw out a vengeful assignment or pop quiz or grade papers very harshly, again withholding the proper feedback as to how the assessment was made. After all, these professors a generation ago had experienced the same hazing treatment in their own academic pursuits.

Yet, nowadays, little has changed. In my work with students who struggle with particular learning differences, I have seen the same harsh, unprofessional treatment in the digital age. I am speaking of the practice of PIECEMEAL online placement of content and assignments- such as Haiku, Bright Space, etc. Professors more and more are placing only the NEXT day’s readings and assignments online, leaving students completely unable to work ahead or work slowly and in their own time. Unknown-4While the digital tool is AMAZING, and truly streamlines many logistical solutions to academic needs, teachers use them as a “digital control” of student study habits, as a source of power over how much a student brings to each class. In my personal and professional opinion, professors who do this struggle with the insecurity that their students’ “learning something” too quickly might ruin that perfect teachable moment they had planned. Unknown-5Or, even more cynical, teachers fear being upstaged or exposed for not knowing something. In a world of Google searches, students can fact-check a professor any time. To illustrate, teachers might only post a reading passage and written response essay prompt one or two days before the class period it is due. With such shallow intentions, teachers like this at the very least deny students the opportunity to learn independently and in multiple modes. But, in addition and especially for those who need such accommodations, this “strategy” strips away the ability for students to budget their time appropriately and process things deeply. student-3176407__480And whether we like it or not, whether it is good or bad, the digital age has allowed our students to do more, have access to more information, etc. When students struggling with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, for example, receive a 20-page article to read and a two-page response to write the day before it is due, they cannot apply the compensation strategies needed to produce quality work with such short notice. Over and over again in my work, my client says, “I’ve got to read this 25-page article for tomorrow and answer these short essay questions, but I just got the article last night. My professor just posted the questions (“prompt”) this afternoon.” And yet, for the last two years these high school clients and I have been emphasizing “working ahead” to make sure their work has depth and quality.

With such limited time and learning issues, my clients don’t know how to ask me for help now that they are in college. I try not to show my Unknown-7attitude and ask them the obvious WTF questions. Instead I focus on what each client can do and needs to do. I might read the article aloud or do a pre-reading focus session to make sure they reconstruct the meaning of the passage in a way that both facilitates retention AND answers the questions efficiently. Sometime, as painful as it is, I ask them to read the passage aloud to ME after I make myself quite familiar with the questions. Then, as they read, I stop them at each juncture that addresses a question. We brainstorm a response on a digital document, and then they keep reading. In short, I maximize the short time they are given to process large chunks of information. Except for those verbally gifted (and usually female) students who can process quickly, this treatment is academic cruelty.

What are those WTF questions?                      Unknown-8

-Why aren’t all the reading passages for the course available from the beginning? Students (busy or with learning differences) can surely budget when they will have time to read.

-Why aren’t the response questions/prompts available at the beginning of the course? That way, students can create efficient ways to reconstruct the passages they attempt and attack them with quality. If a student can (and needs to) budget her time to do work, why can’t she do it with this course?

-Do professors really believe quality reflection can come in writing that is being assigned only days before? It seems pedagogically counter-intuitive.

-Do the professors really believe that doing the work on a limited distribution timeline will make learning “better.” What about the NON-linear learners or the ones that must see the WHOLE elephant before biting off one bite at a time?

-Do the professors believe their students might sabotage the class if too many of them already know what they might be addressing in class that day merely because they have done their reading and understood it profoundly? Does this mean professors are insecure or perhaps ignorant of how to utilize student input while they teach?

-Do the professors really mistrust the students to “dig deep” and therefore make sure students do some sort of busywork to prove they have been inspired by the reading material?

Online placement of content and assignments is an efficient communication tool, and students really do benefit from doing “prep” work before coming to class.

Especially in a college environment where some of the distractions are part of the total experience and classes do not meet daily, students need the autonomy and flexibility to decide how they must study taking into account all they value:  Unknown-9social interaction, learning differences, course load, obligations and other deadlines, distractibility, interest, quality of their work, anticipated grade, and so much more. But here again, just as I have seen in many high school educators, the constant, daily work load with surprise content and even more unanticipated assignments related to that content, discourages students to gage how they should spend their time. When those students (especially those with learning challenges) underestimate the work and time assigned to them, they end up turning in poor quality work or no work at all. Teachers, then, can assess that work with poor grades and blame everything on the students. Surprising students with online assessments, reading materials and assignments strips them of any joy of learning. And, in my professional opinion, the only kinds of students who “succeed” in this scenario are those that boast superb executive functioning skills or who have been groomed to do academic work to the exclusion of everything else (nerds). I encounter so many twice exceptional students every day whoseUnknown-10 intellect shines like the sun. But, the clouds of haphazard assignments over which they have no control to organize block the rays, producing discouragement in very capable students. In addition, outwardly, professors can simply absolve Unknown-16Unknown-15themselves of any professional responsibility by merely labeling such students and their behavior “disorganized” or “lazy.”

The big picture here is that in this current era, educators are using digital information to hold students hostage instead of assessing how students learnUnknown-11 in a digital age. Just like a generation ago, the issue is control. Did controlling students by haphazard grading and assignments, along with the threat of being “graded down,” help students learn best? And, today, does releasing content and homework assignments hours before the assignment is due help students to learn best? If these control strategies continue to be “best practices” at the university and high school levels, Unknown-12they will deflect the Unknown-13professors’ responsibility and place it on the students, allowing that ever UNcollaborative chasm between the ivory tower and student learning.


The digital age, along with the elearning platforms available, hold amazing potential for all kinds of students. But, these are still the worst of times! Zero changes have occurred between 1987 and 2017. The onus of learning lies on the student only. Professors seem immune to reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching. And, to make matters worse, the current environment merely attracts a population of students more and more homogeneous in the way they learn, slowly matching the information dump, hostage-taking strategies of current age higher education models. While the academic world relishes diversity, they subversively weed out all kinds of learners by their very adherence to a pedagogy of insecurity and pressure. The hyper-organized students and the unidimensional-thinking professor will survive in the current system, but they will both miss out on the beauty and diversity of thought from other kinds of learners. These students have the ability to learn and communicate and contribute ideas to academia, ideas that have passion, compassion, insight, depth, debate, inquiry and more. The “best of times” would embrace both the diversity of student learner and the diversity of instructional strategies. Digitally efficient does not make a teaching strategy effective. Providing all students the time, opportunity and dignity to learn and communicate that learning is possible, even in a digital world.



The Race to Nowhere: University Years Parte Deux

Now that I have two children accepted into colleges of their choice, I, like many of you, have rehearsed over and over again, “Remember, you’re not trying to get into the BEST school, but instead, you want to apply to schools that are the BEST fit! I’m grateful both my children are mature enough to understand that they will have to imagesfigure out whether their choice of university is the “best fit” for them personally throughout their entire college experience. Even with such a vague definition of “best fit” for them to perform well enough in high school to be accepted into college and even with “sage” parents in the Education field, the Race to Nowhere continues the longstanding tradition all the way through college. My daughter, now a senior at Duke, writes a terrific blog (wordsofhope.com), a small part of which exposes the harsh, psychological realities of living in an environment that has no clue it is even on the treadmill, selling the treadmill, recruiting students who only know how to run the treadmill. We were talking about my former blog post about frogs (please read if you haven’t), and she dropped a bombshell… well, actually, Unknown-1it was just a pithy statement I wanted to use as inspiration for this post. She simply said, “Dad, college success is 80% documenting your past, present and future and 20% learning.” I asked her what she meant, and here are the nuggets of our conversation.

Documenting Your Past?

I didn’t understand what she meant to “document your past,” but I wanted to see into the psyche of a rising college senior who purports, like most students her age, to know it all. Hope (that’s my daughter), told me that since she’s arrived on campus, she has had to make sure she can personally document what others consider necessary for success or inclusion. She’s had to go back and get her former recommendation writers to fill out even more paper work guaranteeing that her resumé is “legit for when [she applies] to all the clubs, programs majors, etc.” She’s had to prove her interest to be included in student organizations and living situations by handing over archives and artifacts and documents and assessments of her opinions and lifestyle. She’s had to show professors and administrators her transcript containing very high grades in two UPPER-LEVEL Spanish classes from another quite prestigious and very competitive university. This was for not for admissions but for professors and administrators in order to be eligible for classes and study-abroad opportunities. Thank goodness she just happened to order several copies of the two-course transcript “just in case” or she would have missed deadlines to go to Spain. Of course, she is my first-born, and, even better, imagesan amazing progeny of my wife. She possesses everything and anything necessary to organize, locate and/or “document” important events. If she needs it, she has it… stored or saved somewhere!

Documenting Your Present?

What? At college, aren’t we by default documenting everything we do? According to my daughter…. NO! In order to be “successful” in today’s “competitive” academic institutions, it is no longer enough to be there “just to learn.” Everything one does on the campus must have a tie to some future payoff, some trajectory, some nebulous trail of completing two majors, two minors, a certificate, graduating with honors, making the Dean’s list and much, much, more. Hope provided me with amazing examples. Students document the worst professors, the hardest classes, the easiest A on campus, and much more, thanks to social media. This, in turn, informs students to take classes in strategic ways so that they can get the easiest A on campus and, hence, the highest GPA. With proper documentation, students strategically delay taking the “harder course that makes one work for an A” and purposely matriculate in an “easier university” during the summer. Unknown-2Many universities allow such “transfer” simply because they do not offer (those strategically avoided) required core courses in the summer. “Who cares about learning and joy, I must get the highest GPA!” Scurrying for a 4.0 is like running a sprint with “record time” but with no finish line in front.

In the present, students must be savvy to organize and document any, 9b8678591b7c4a4a8de63549ef39ab33--reward-charts-for-toddlers-reward-charts-for-kidsand I mean any interaction or accomplishment or achievement they have done or are in the process of doing, in real time, because the race to nowhere throws students off the treadmill if they have not proven themselves or they cannot prove themselves in an instant. The only defense that one measures up is to have documentation of one’s personal value… and to present it to someone who values those documented credentials. So much for the joy of learning!

Documenting Your Future?

Quite similar to any institution of higher learning, the moment students secure some reputable internship or learning opportunity, they immediately push the “accelerate” button on the treadmill. They consider their achievement as helping them “stand apart”Unknown-3from other students, inflating their own egos and resumés, reinforcing the desire to keep running the Nowhere Race. Running faster means you document your future internship and then run even faster to the scholarship application process to make sure you get a reputably named scholarship to fund your travel, expenses, and in some cases, even the internship itself. You see, the scholarship is not just a way to help students financially, but it is another notch in the CV, another resumé-building activity that has no planned end to the construction. In my own sardonic perspective, students won’t wipe a dog’s nose if it doesn’t have a slot on their resumé! For AMAZING ideas to help students think about learning and their own interests, I recommend Katharine Brook’s book You Majored in What?

20% Learning?

Ultimately, Hope concluded that 20% of her time is devoted to studying, applying what she has learned, learning above and beyond what is being delivered in the classroom. Unknown-4Her study and organizational skills make her successful in that area, but, since so many are on the race to nowhere, she feels inferior with an A-! She feels helpless when she compares herself with other “runners” in the race. She loses focus and sight of what brings her joy and what she is designed to do and be! What charges her? Knowing she has something more to contribute to the world to make it a better place, to share with others and grow from a community of other altruistic heroes! What charges most Nowhere racers? Getting the prize before someone else! I can’t help but picture them running and narcissistically hogging the treadmill rails, making it harder for others to run ahead, blocking access for others to “succeed.” I really like this metaphor stuff!

Am I Whining? Isn’t This Just Competitive Academia?

Unknown-5In short, YES! I’m whining! Yes, this is the norm for anyone who needs to or wants to “get ahead.” And, yes, in many or most cases, “ahead” is enough to become another one-percenter! But, remember my son? He, too, has been accepted into an amazing institution of higher learning. And I fear for him! I truly believe it is THE BEST FIT for him! But, the apple does not fall far from the tree! My son LOVES being! Not doing…! He is present in the moments he deems important or meaningful… which are many but not necessarily traditionally academic! He applied to this university bravely revealing his true self in the application process:  academic prowess, stellar community-building skills, intellectual curiosity, independent thinking and… yes… overcoming learning differences that make it difficult to “run their (traditional) race their (traditional) way.” They graciously accepted him. He loves learning and soaks up more than the average information dump…  But, he does not document his life…! Comically, he DOES document his experiences and relationships with Snap-whatever, or Insta-thingy! But he does not behave like he is on a treadmill winning the race to nowhere! He would images-1rather make sure his friends are accompanying him, pulling them up to the front, where he will probably dwell most often merely due to his natural intellect without even knowing or caring that he is “winning.” Is this success? In the world of Race to Nowhere, turning around to help others succeed is a death sentence, a guarantee you will “get behind” or “get left behind.” Will my son have to metamorphose into something he is not merely to “succeed” at his university? He is mature enough to stay true to himself, but is he willing to document his whole life, taking him away from the things he loves and turning him into a competitive, arrogant, scheming, superficial monster? Will this university pose the same challenge/definition of success, upholding standards that don’t allow him and many others to demonstrate their learning? I’m afraid I’m the one worrying about this… which may be evidence that I am part of the problem and not part of the solution, that I want my son to “fit in” and “be successful” like everyone else. It may even mean I do not have faith that he will succeed if he doesn’t continue to go against his nature and run this pathetically exhausting and counterproductive race.

So, yes, I’m whining because I, like every parent, think my son is special. parent-clipart-proud-parents-hiHe may surprise me and jump again into Nowhere Race Training with gusto, just as he had to do for 12 years to get into a school that might bring him joy and meaning. Eighteen years old is too late to change a child or an entire system of Education. I am hoping he will rise above the dehumanizing manner in which academic environments “compete.” I am praying he will remember how to take the knowledge he learns and turn it into wisdom, compassion and servant leadership. I so want him to succeed and be self-sufficient and happy. Perhaps going to college, whether the institution espouses the Race to Nowhere or not, really is about growing up, maturing and becoming comfortable with oneself in an ever-changing society while also learning a “cultured,” predetermined curriculum prepared by an institution of higher learning.

images-2Do any of you have advice for me? Insight into how to guard ourselves and our children from losing their humanity in this crazy treadmill Race to Nowhere? I welcome your comments? I also offer you my own counsel if you so need. Together, we can learn!

Frogs on a Treadmill? The Race to Nowhere or Does Perspective Really Help Us Live Full Lives?

Imagine a sac of frog eggs in a pond, the kind of frogs that lives their “adult lives” on land. Toads? frogeggsI forget the difference. tadpoles-in-eggsAnyway, the tadpoles in the eggs grow, they develop, they hatch… into the water. Again, they grow, they develop, they absorb their tails and climb OUT of the water. They know the water! They jump into it. They play in it! They procreate in it! They know how to USE the water for their own good, but, their expertise of water comes from having lived IN it and having looked AT it from dry land. tadpole-with-tailTheir perspective from the water is just as valuable as their perspective from dry land. frogjumpingTheir goal in life is NOT to stay in the water thinking that the water brought them out of the eggs and gave them a pretty good life with a tail. Their goal is not to look incessantly for more water, better water, or the water most popular with all the other frogs! In fact, without the perspective of stepping out on dry land, the frogs would never know how to distinguish better water. They would not be able to respect those who have come from different waters. They would not even know that more water existed, and they certainly wouldn’t see that, in general, they are responsible to live their own life “happy,” not the life of other frogs. The distracting search for bluer water limits our capacity to grow into the frogs (or toads) we were meant to be. After all, a frog’s goal is “relationship” with other frogs in an exciting world into which we frogs may bravely step (or swim).

unknown-1Now, what does this have to do with My Education Education? Everything! Allow me to analogize. We Americans are born into a pond of free and democratic education. Like for tadpoles, our “eggs” are short-lived. They are called Kindergarten. Now, I wanted to say “the Elementary Grades Years,” but, truthfully, the innocent shell that protects young lives with humanitarian, humanistic “play” and natural, meaningful and authentic learning dissolves and breaks even EARLIER than Kindergarten. That is, the “baby tadpoles” have very little time to “develop” their “tadpoleness” in the egg before the egg is shattered for more “water”- the water of Outcomes Based Education, or “academic readiness,” or “customized curriculum” or higher ERB scores. Our tadpoles stay too briefly in the haven of “play is our work.” In the short-lived life in their shell, our children must learn what it means to play TOGETHER, to play SAFELY, to play ALONE, to SHARE, and many more things that seem like natural human behaviors for which any curriculum of their interest is a secondary excuse. Teachers and “better waters” will not ever be able to “dump” these kinds of lessons into children in such a short time!frogs-playing

Would we ever think of ejecting the poor tadpoles from their shells before they were ready to take on the “water” of education all by themselves? Certainly not! But we DO push elementary school children to read by grade 1, to write and spell with little meaning or purpose. We push them to get into the highest level of classes for which the school system has a label: AG, HAG, Explorers, Robins, etc. Parents begin to push their children to accomplish MORE Accelerated Reader stories. Instead of wondering why Johnnie can’t pay attention along with his advanced Math peers, his parents get him a prescription for ADD/ADHD medicine. Could it be Johnnie’s brain is fried? Could it be Johnnie’s teacher is not allowing him to process the Math in a developmentally appropriate way? unknownSo human tadpoles are pushed into the water (and out of their shells) way too soon and are literally and figuratively flooded with more and different and “better” water:  the next trend in Education promising the get the youngster “ahead.” Parents are told this new water is better. Their children will swim to the front of the pack if they just drink from the chalice of this next curricular or extracurricular panacea! chaliceAnd only the tadpoles at the front of the pack get to jump into the next best body of water, where the population of tadpoles is smaller and more “competitive.” This poses a threat to parents, as the tadpoles in this new body of water can all swim as fast as or faster than their own children. And so, parents help the tadpoles find more water to jump into, to “distinguish” their children from the others at the front of that pack. Some push the tadpoles to do sports, music, online classes, tutoring, “enrichment,” and more. So, our tadpoles never learn the world of any body of water because we parents are trying to push them through and out of one body into the “next best.” And then, by the time parents figure out their tadpoles are just like the other tadpoles even though their children had worked so hard at standing out, the tadpoles begin to lose their tails!

NOW, the parents must push their adolescent tadpoles even harder since the “teens” are now more interested in the tails of other tadpoles and even their own, again, literally and figuratively! parentpunishingchildIf you know anything about these creatures-adolescent tadpoles, that is- they stop eating and literally digest their own tails while they “go through the changes.” frogwithtailSo, in reality, adolescent tadpoles actually ignore the water in which they live and focus on “more important” issues. (Wouldn’t it be nice to navigate through FAMILIAR waters during this period instead of hopping into new waters every 3 to 6 months? In Middle School, we may as well say the same thing. Middle Schoolers stop feeding on the “water” of Education and focus on what they were put on this planet to do:  you fill in the blank here… individuate, move into Formal Operations Thinking, pick at their acne, develop a secure identity, etc.  Whatever it is, adolescent tadpoles need time to grow into their own bodies, lose their tails and connect with fellow tadpoles to muster the strength for their upcoming leap OUT of the water, physiologically able now to manage a bigger world with legs, breaking apparatus, new and stronger muscles, etc. Biologists say that it is usually hunger that drives a tadpole adolescent out of the water. Think about the “water” we humans dump on our adolescents, like drinking fire-hydrantfrom a fire hydrant! More classes, more tutors, more “extra-curriculars,” camps, etc. How often do we even know if our children are “hungry” for the water we pour down their throats? And, by this time, some of our adolescents have become quite skilled at a few things- through practice, drill, opportunity, privilege, self-motivation, parental threat, etc. frogsplaying-out-of-the-waterThere may or may not be the joy of jumping into the water like a young adult frog experiences or even the sense that frogs can and should hang and swing with other frogs with joy and by nature, but at least our children can jump into some of the “better waters” better than other frogs. Suzuki violin, the School of Science and Math, UNC School for the Arts, Governor’s school, “gifted” programs, rounding out our resumé to be eligible for the “best” schools and scholarships! Some of our young adult frogs can play in some really awesome water where others can’t. imagesAnd this pushes the parents and now the frog itself to seek out newer… but related… waters, a process which has now formed into such a rigid formula, neither froglings nor parents can see any other approach to going through life’s waters. You see, now, we don’t want to push the frog too much into new waters where she might get caught up in a relationship with the other frogs at that level, or, heaven forbid, she might disregard jumping into the other waters that now define her as “distinguished.” Pushing the young frog even harder distracts him until he can be pushed into the next best body of water. Ultimately, these frogs only know the waters because they have merely lived IN them. Without the perspective of living OUT of the waters, the only path of “life” for these frogs is to paddle in the water with a “select” group of other frogs who believe they are just as superior. Even though the analytic capacity is limited for the frogs who only live in/on the water, their own community of “fast paced” frogs considers them to be “the best.” At the very least, having a perspective outside the waters gives a frog a broader and more accurate assessment frogwithfingerand analysis of self and the world. Remaining on the treadmill for so long sometimes makes the frog lift that special middle finger in rebellion to the very academics that the community believes will bring him the best success and say “that’s enough” or even worse!

I’m sure you can finish the analogy all the way up to Post Graduate University level waters or Education. I’d like to, but my blogging coach tells me my posts are too long. The fascinating thing?  When during any of this process do we humans get out of the water with the goal of evaluating whether it is the right LIFE to live: constantly in the water with nothing to define us but the water itself and in constant, insecure comparison with others. We are not the water into which we were born, but this process, what educators so beautifully call “The Race to Nowhere,” ends up stripping us of our humanity while at the same time breeding a cruel arrogance, jadedness, blindness and even an obsessive/compulsive sense of entitlement in student, parent and academic/educational institutions. In short, we confuse the “best education” as that one and only tool that defines us rather than seeing an unknowneducation as ONE of many tools our children may use to live the happy and upright life they are uniquely equipped to live.unknown

I’d love to read your comments, reactions, and stories. I not only need to learn how to step out of the water (or off the treadmill) for my own children and the children and parents I serve, but I believe we can reconnect with our humanity by sharing our own stories. In my consulting work, I see administrators, teachers, parents and students alike who perpetuate… no, depend on… the race to nowhere totally blinded by the fact that they are even running! I, too, have found moments in my parenting when I realized I was on the treadmill and merely justifying my own circumstances and imposing an impersonal value set onto my child. This, like



any parenting commentary or recommendation, provokes resentment and defensive behaviors. Humility and transparency are in short supply in most of my educational consulting experiences. But, in an anecdotal contrast,



I had clients whose son would have been Valedictorian of his class if he had NOT taken band. He had played the game well and “won the race.” But, the parents and the boy battled whether it was worth it! He LOVED playing his instrument, but Band was not an honors class in this county. He truly wanted to take Band, not just because his best friends were there, too. His band director was an amazing role model for the boy. He and his parents chose to take band, and he was Salutatorian. What say you, readers? brokentreadmillDare we drop our guard, our pretense… and share? From pre-school to the finest of Ivy Leagues, we educators are ALL guilty of tuning the treadmill for the next wave of tadpoles! Which of we educators will be the first one to pull the plug!



Who needs a 504 plan anyway? Part II


Which would you prefer to do: memorize a long list of prepositions to then write them out for a teacher or use a list of prepositions to describe your room or your favorite place by writing in a way that the reader can draw that space, including everything in it? Your answer to that question may reveal your preferred mode of learning or teaching, but the latter, when taught with appropriate professional techniques, assumes you understand the former. Never, including in the 8th grade, did my daughter need a 504 Plan. prepostions-complete-1But she did need an awakening of her spirit, that verbal, happy, creative little girl that had acquiesced to a compliant vomiting mouth of information in the 7th grade. You see, in the 7th grade, I encountered my daughter memorizing a list of prepositions. I simply asked her, “What IS a preposition and why do you need to know more of them?” She could not answer, dismissed me brusquely, and stated that the test was to write the first half of the list tomorrow and the next half the next day. I walked away sad and silent.

In the 8th grade, however, my daughter was again studying prepositions, and I asked her the same question. She smiled and said, “Dad, if you’re trying to describe something in relation to something else, you’re always going to need a preposition. Look at my description of my room. I can’t describe one thing in my room in relation to another without using a preposition. My bed is next to my closet. My pillows are supposed to be on my bed, but they are either under it or out of sight!” Yes, you guessed it! I walked out of that encounter beaming with tears of joy! She was back! The humor, the voice, the redundancy and verbosity she so naturally gets from me, LOL! It was there, and all because of one teacher: Mrs. McNeer! Only a week later, I thought my daughter had gone to bed early or was sick or perhaps sad and locked up in her room. I knocked on the door to inquire if everything was OK.

She simply said, “I’m writing.”

Not wanting to pry too much, I said, “For English? For Mrs. McNeer?”

She said, “Sort of! She wrote me all these comments on my papers and said I can revise my writing any time I want. I’m not sure I want to turn it in for a grade, but she said she will always give me feedback about what I write. All I have to do is turn it in to her!”

[Silent, guarded weeping, LOL.] “Well,” I said, “She seems like a great teacher!”

Inside, however, I was screaming, “Did I just hear my daughter- the daughter who was so cynical about English that all she did was what it took to get an “A”??? Did I just hear her say the grade doesn’t matter?!?!?!? [More silent weeping]

ponderingLike Mary treasured in her heart all the angel had spoken to her regarding the Baby Jesus, I basked in the joy that a teacher is reaching my daughter and melting her hardened heart!! I would love to bore you with scenario after scenario regarding Mrs. McNeer, but I don’t want to lose readers (numbers, LOL) and I want you to know the effect she had on my son, as well! And, by the way, I probably wouldn’t bore you if I, personally, learned 8th grade English with Mrs. McNeer, but for now, you’ll have to settle for this ordinary writing style. So sorry!

Now, fast forward three years with my son’s 504 Plan! By the 8th grade, my son’s twice exceptionality and his compensation strategies for them had evolved into a mixed bag of attitude and charm with relatively high “academic achievement” in the form of grades. While he had brilliant ideas, he could not write them down without the help of speech-to-text dictation, which he gladly used when he could. When Mrs. McNeer joined “Team Matthew” to discuss the accommodations, I was confident all the teachers were going to rally as much as they were capable to make sure my son could accomplish as much as possible in relation to his potential.

sloppyI remember seeing my son’s first draft of his first writing assignment for Mrs. McNeer. I thought it was a 2nd grader’s hand-written word list. A week later, he was working on the same thing. When I asked him what he was doing, he matter-of-factly said, “Oh, Mrs. McNeer is going to try to have a conversation with me every time we need to revise so I can talk out my ideas before getting them on paper.” Wow! This one teacher is doing in her class, not as a mandated 504 strategy, the very thing I have been doing with EVERY one of his assignments, facilitating Matthew’s getting his ideas in a communicable format according to each of his different teachers’ expectations. For example, I would be his typist or he would dictate into his phone. She literally, in one gesture, streamlined his thinking and our evening home life! In the next weeks, I found my son on the couch writing on paper AND on his computer. I asked him about it and he said he was writing something else he really wanted to include in his portfolio for Mrs. McNeer’s class, that it wasn’t a requirement, but he had a great idea and he wanted Mrs. McNeer to edit it before he puts it into the portfolio!!!! [Yes, weeping and screeches of joy on the inside, a simple smile of gratitude and satisfaction on the outside.] childwritingWould that EVERY student have just ONE “McNeer” encounter along the journey of becoming a lifelong learner, writer and celebrant! My children carry Mrs. McNeer with them like a tattoo they can never hide nor will they ever choose to!

From the last post, I reiterate: Great teachers do not need a 504 Plan to reach every student! Matthew is currently learning rhetoric. When he talks about it, I know he is channeling the ideas, content, spirit and philosophy of Mrs. McNeer. Writing really is thinking on paper. For a twice exceptional student (dyslexic and dysgraphic with high academic potential), the physical act of writing on paper may not reflect the actual depth and quality of the “thinking.” A great teacher does not need a 504 Plan to help students reconcile these issues. Based on how Mrs. McNeer treated my daughter and my son, the 504 Plan was a mere inconvenient meeting to interrupt an amazing teacher’s gift to her students, the gift of inspiration, using English as a simple yet effective conduit! Forever, my wife and I are grateful!


-Clearly Stated Objectives: Not surprisingly, this story reintroduces the issue that students perform better and move off task less when they are clear about what they are being asked (taught) to do and why. Memorizing prepositions for the purpose of memorizing prepositions, with no opportunity to practice even the UNspoken objective of writing more clearly with them leaves students anxious with the wrong impressions. Yes, it is possible to memorize anything to regurgitate back onto a test. But, how does accomplishing the memorization task relate to the bigger picture? The students need clear, direct and authentic objectives that focus them toward realizing that bigger picture.

-Too Many Assumptions and Inappropriate Assessment: An issue related to the above is the following. Memorization of a list of prepositions does not help writer communicate more effectively using prepositions. Yet, teachers of every level and every content area make that kind of assumption regularly. Filling in the blank with the proper preposition in a set of cloze sentences (sentences with a word omitted and replaced with a blank) does not make a better writer. What makes a better writer by using prepositions is writing with prepositions. I DO mean to be crass and facetious here. It is the most common and most egregious error teachers make in education today. Easily fixed by proper teacher/lesson planning (one of my favorite and most anticipated blog topics), the blunder is hardly ever addressed at the teacher or administrative level because there simply is no time or expertise or context to offer the teachers the opportunity to change. Much of education is reduced to what Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (awesome educational researchers, authors and consultants) have coined “Teach-test-hope-for-the-best.” Dump material, give a test (many times not even in the same mode as students were taught) and move to the next “unit” with little or no regard for how the students mastered the material nor how they can transfer knowledge and skills to new and more complex contexts. Certainly and sadly, exceptional students, students with learning differences, cannot make the jump from “list of prepositions” to “write a descriptive essay that describes all objects in your room.” Mrs. McNeer professionally helped the students see the need for precise word choice in the form of prepositions when describing something personal. In addition, she let students explore the use of prepositions with an authentic form of feedback (the drawing of the room) and using authentic content assessment standards. Writers can explore and experiment in a safe, literate context. This issue is explained below.

-Risk-taking, opportunity to practice and fail: There is a reason the legendary 6-point lesson plan had a “Guided Practice” section! [The 6-point lesson plan will be a topic for a complete subsequent blog entry! I can’t wait!] Not only is it fair to the students to be able to practice the material to be mastered with little or no risk, but it makes sense pedagogically, metacognitively, bikeboyriskneurologically, and more. Learners need to rehearse what is expected of them to do with feedback regarding their success and with little interfering performance anxiety. In this story, memorizing close to a hundred prepositions with no idea how they will be “tested” is both stressful and counterproductive.

-Proper feedback: Penalty-free risk-taking and proper boyconfidencefeedback from the teacher interact in a miraculous way to build confidence in the learner. If Sally can’t draw Johnny’s room accurately by reading Johnny’s description with prepositions, then Sally and Johnny can talk it out, using the very prepositions they are studying. The teacher can suggest more descriptive prepositions or even objects of prepositions. The whole time, Sally and Johnny are sharpening their description skills in a meaningful, literate (communicative) context.

-Motivating students without grades: The above issue, I know, is much easier said than done. It takes a great deal of professional training and practice to encourage students by planning respectful lessons that do not depend on grades. There are many approaches to handling students who are accustomed to grades and who refuse to do any practice if it is not graded. motivation_smThe bottom line in this story? Mrs. McNeer assigned meaningful work and practiced the patience of Job. She let the students know she valued their thoughts, that those thoughts would compile a personal portfolio that not only displayed their writing skills, but also their personalities, that is, the part of their personalities they wished to reveal in their writing- their VOICE! Then, with the big picture always in the back of their mind, students took risks, sometimes with abysmal results, but never in a way that discouraged them to try again. For my daughter to get her groove back and for my son to write on his own, proud of his work before, during and after publishing it to his portfolio? Miracles!

Mrs. McNeer? The angel mastermind!

-Learning to write or writing to learn: I want to suggest this issue in this context because minimal lip service is given in Education today to “Content Area Reading/Writing Instruction.” Every discipline has its own writing style, but in every discipline, students learn more of a subject content if they can write about it. The body of research that helps teachers incorporate their discipline’s literacy instruction into the lesson plans is vastly available. Every content area teacher is a writing instructor, but, with pressures such as standardized testing, “English” is now responsible for teaching writing while the rest of the subjects dump information in the form of facts into students’ heads, assuming students will be writing-to-learn-pd-for-staff-1-728able to write coherently about the full breadth and depth of each subject area. Just because I can do a matching test on the dates of a History test doesn’t mean I can write an analysis of the chronological events leading up to the American Civil War. Content and literacy need to interact during every level  of a child’s education, K-16 and beyond. Growth in literacy skills waxes and wanes in life according to how people’s interests grow and change.


  • Yes, you guessed it! Mrs. McNeer rocks! I have told her multiple times, and I have nominated her 3 times for national teacher excellence awards! Every time I’ve had to write an essay to nominate her, and it has never “won!” I’m beginning to get a complex that maybe it’s my writing, LOL. nobelHow does an average writer nominate a great English teacher! I hope this at least legitimizes my expression of gratitude for her service to and compassion for my children!
  • I have not only seen teachers, departments and schools that do what is suggested in this story, but I have worked with traditional fact-dumping teachers who changed their focus. These teachers are set on fire when they realize they can “cover the material” in a way that helps students become “literate,” or at least a bit more literate, in their subject area. I’ve had History and Civics teachers whose students wrote politicians to ask them what their ideas are about Federalism. deltaI’ve had boring Spanish teachers inspiring students to listen to  news broadcasts in Spanish and tweeting what they heard in Spanish. Teachers and administrators can change, but change and this framework of teaching itself are both messy processes. If teachers  are not allowed to take risks, think what it is like for departments, schools and districts!
  • I would be remiss if I did not admit to a documented small percentage of students whose facility with language makes it seem effortless to memorize 100 prepositions and then to use those prepositions when she (and it’s usually a she) writes. I call these students Suzy and Sam Suck-up! The “go-to” students teachers know will answer any question posed in the classroom! All we educators know who these students are. “If only we could have 31 Suzies and Sams in our class, everything would be so much easier,” we silently verbalize to ourselves. To stay true to the “positives,” I’ll just say that my daughter is a Suzy. Mrs. McNeer not only brought my daughter out of the pits of discouragement and apathy from her 7th grade experience, but she taught my daughter the RIGHT stuff in spite of her verbal proclivity. My daughter can memorize vocabulary words like it’s following a waffle recipe. But, when I use big words in conversation with her, words I know she’s memorized for some grade-school teacher or the SAT, she does a double-take, trying to reconcile the difference between the memorization of such words and their use in everyday and academic communication. Mrs. McNeer did not let my daughter get away with a superficial memorization of anything. Whatever Hope learned from Mrs. McNeer was internalized to the point of use in everyday life! Hope still writes a diary, still can self-edit using the 6+1 Traits (a writing curriculum), and still searches for self-expression and deeper learning with everything she writes, including her blog: wordsofhope.com!


  • In order for a school or department to do what is being suggested here, there needs to be a complete paradigm shift: in grading, in commitment to literacy, is restructuring content instruction, in parent/teacher communication, and much, much mbuttingheadsore. It is possible, but only in an environment that is not constrained by local, State and Federal mandates that transform great teaching into the very antithesis.
  • Teachers like Mrs. McNeer are rare and frequently misunderstood. Parents are looking for a grade or “grammar” mistakes or something traditional. While from my professional point of view, the students benefit well and long-term from such instruction, parents and students may not be ready for such focused attention on such personal student work. This places undue burdens on the teacher tonotmyjob communicate frequently and carefully to the parents and students all along the way, an arduous process. Administrators may laud the efforts of a teacher like Mrs. McNeer, holding her up as an example of excellence in education, but the trickle down effect merely communicates that English teachers like Mrs. McNeer are now responsible for teaching the entire grade to improve in writing. A great English teacher does not absolve the teachers in other departments from teaching content area literacy!


My hope is that in this blog, important issues have surfaced whether the “Story” has been an auspicious one or a story not so propitious in nature. While I have not even begun to develop the numerous planned topics, I can already see how every story cast in a “positive” light will begin to reveal the profile of educational “greatness” or “excellence.” Likewise, the overlap of issues in every story, good or bad, indicates that even though there are pockets of “good” or “great,” improvement and change are slow. This is yet another reason to ensure each post has a focusing topic. In these last two blogs, we have learned how 504 Plans done well merely look like “great teaching.” I have consulted with families where schools and teachers have failed the student in implementing the 504 Plan. There is much to learn for everyone. The players involved in a student’s 504 Plan can be her saving grace or her fall from grace. Please let me know what you think.



“What works for me”: Words to live by, words to cringe by


For my very first blog post, I thought I would select a topic that might resonate with many teachers and administrators at many levels and in many different subject disciplines. I am speaking specifically of the collective wisdom I have gained in attending and presenting at professional conferences regularly since 1983. Whether at local, state or national conferences, I must first tell you that World Language educators are the most vibrant people with whom I have ever collaborated! At every teacher conference, the sponsoring professional organization schedules time slots for teachers to gather and share “What works for me!” The itinerary reads, “Learn the strategy today and take it to the classroom tomorrow!” In my 30 years of teaching and consulting with Second Language teachers, I must admit I have both presented strategies and benefitted from others’ strategies, but always with a critical eye. The ideas are numerous; the creativity is inspiring! The “packaged product” is welcomed relief for these tired but still enthusiastic teachers. Some teachers take the “lesson” straight to the classroom, and it fails miserably. Others experience moderate success. Even an untrained eye can speculate as to why “what worked” for one teacher may not work for another, but few teachers and administrators ask the more important questions. Why does the “lesson” work at all? Why does the lesson NOT work? What is the proper “adaptation” from one successful teacher another teacher that will ensure success for her/his students? Is this something I need to be doing in my class at all? Let’s examine some of the issues.


In this blog, I do not want to contrive issues within the context of “The Story,” nor do I want to elaborate on every issue contained therein. As stories unfold in this blog overall, there will be great overlap, an encouragement that many problems are solvable and related! So, what are some of the most salient issues I see in this “story?”

Eclecticism. Every, and I mean every, teacher with whom I have ever worked has told me along the way they “take a little from here and a little from there… whatever works ‘best.’” While it is quite a sophisticated skill to integrate and deliver such curriculum and instruction, it is also very dangerous for various reasons. First, most teachers and administrators do not agree with or do not know what “best” really means. The World Languages field is not the only one guilty of migrating to trends and easy instructional approaches in hopes that more students will learn more “stuff” in less time. Most fields cannot even agree on what “stuff” is necessary.

Confusing Success. Strategies and “lessons” work for a reason. The success may or may not overtly reflect the pedagogically sound, research-based effective instruction on which the entire lesson or approach is designed. So, successful teachers may naturally execute a lesson in the most effective way and not know it, but another teacher may “do the same thing” and not ground her/his instruction in a professionally appropriate manner. Even more disconcerting is that teachers and administrators may find a “technique” that “works for them,” but in accomplishing such “objectives,” students are no closer to the ultimate goals and objectives that have been professionally designed, adopted or assumed on a large-scale basis. This splinters the curriculum, making lessons piece meal- a formula for student metacognitive disaster. For example, at a professional conference “what works for me” session, a World Languages teacher finds a terrific pneumonic to help students learn the difference between preterit and imperfect. S/he gives the students a test after the lesson and “everyone succeeds.” S/he then moves on the subjunctive. “Success” in this case does not reflect the overall goals and objectives of World Language instruction: to produce (speak/write) and comprehend (listen/read) the target language. Does an “A” on the preterit/imperfect test indicate students’ ability to narrate a story in the past? This more professionally based objective is not only more difficult to teach and assess, but messier in all aspects.

Integrated Curriculum and Instruction. Finally, there are many issues related to how the approaches, techniques and lessons from these eclectic sharing sessions fit into the rest of the school and its curriculum. Are the teachers going to “What works for me” sessions learning the bigger picture curriculum and instruction items for creating a self-sustaining, synergistic program at the departmental or school level? Does the instructional approach reflect the school’s mission and purpose? Are other disciplines aiding and abetting the superficial nature of instruction by adopting similar piece meal, eclectic instructional methods? How do the methods and the content (and the goals and objectives) relate to each other within the school? These questions cannot be answered if the teaching staff continues to cling to “what works for me” without being given time and resources to explore the “why.” Sadly more often than not, administrators do not have the pedagogical expertise or jurisdiction to help their teachers professionally develop in a way that answers these questions. While the research exists to help schools, departments and teachers streamline an effective instructional program, it remains hidden in data bases and other ivory tower stores.


I am, by nature, slightly pessimistic and cynical, and my daughter, who writes a blog, herself, has challenged me to remain positive. (Her blog is wordsofhopeblog.com if you are so inclined… yes, this is an advertisement, LOL.) So, let me enumerate some of the positives here.

First, most teachers that attend a “What works for me” session” demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for helping students learn, attempting to find ways to make it easier for students to learn and easier for the teachers to save everyone, including themselves, time and energy. They are, in short, amazingly resourceful. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I celebrate the teacher!

Second, while ivory tower critique of lesson plans serves the very necessary purpose of streamlining education and educators, zealous teachers are the ones doing the teaching “in the trenches,” and they really do know “what works.” In addition, in my experience, any teacher willing to inconvenience her/his already busy life by attending a professional development conference will benefit also from learning and applying sound professional methods, approaches and techniques while at the same time learning how to mold the overall instruction of the whole “department” into a cesspool of best practices! This, in the long run, helps the teacher avoid burnout and inspire others.


I reiterate my praise for World Language educators as the most enthusiastic, most resourceful group of teachers with whom I have ever worked. In my work and life, however, I have always found it easier to identify the negatives (especially when I have already studied the bigger pictures in depth) and then to create solutions (potential for hope) for those negatives. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I cringe! Here are a few negatives regarding this “story” and its related issues.

First, because of human and organizational nature, teachers of ANY discipline neither have the time nor the inclination to explore why something works or not. They are rarely held accountable for reflecting professionally (and accurately!) on their performance, either because the administrator/supervisor is incapable of it or because they, themselves, like all of us, think what they are doing is perfectly acceptable already! This makes it quite difficult for anyone with knowledge or expertise to intervene with professional wisdom. (And, quite frankly, it explains why teachers migrate to “what works for me” seminars.)

Second, until the teacher, department and school coordinate articulated goals and objectives, students will be collateral damage. Students and parents alike will see the curriculum as irrelevant. Large discrepancies will exist in “mastery” of the content. (“Mastery” will definitely be one large can of worms I will be opening at some time in another blog post!!)

Third, whether it is time, logistics, resources or philosophical differences, parents, teachers and administrators are ignorant of the already existing professional reserves that can turn “good” instruction into “great.” As stated above, it is quite messy, especially when change is involved- change in attitude, resource allocation, parental education, externally validated measures, supervisor roles, and much more! The resistance to change is so great! I have, for example, consulted with a school whose resources were completely in place for creating a state of the art instructional program in a certain discipline area. They brought in national experts to evaluate the program and make recommendations of changes. Seven years ago, they had everything in place to make minimal changes to curriculum offerings and minor adaptations in instructional approach and staffing to become one of the most stellar programs in this content area with which I have ever worked. Today, they have changed nothing but adding one staff person who espouses the proper instructional approach. Change is hard, but denying teachers and students the access to the professional knowledge and practice that inspires and empowers is, in my opinion, a travesty, a waste of educational effort.


One story, MY story of attending professional industry conferences since 1982, has within it the traces of everything education. I still use many of the techniques and “lessons” I presented and learned in those “What works for me” sessions. It wasn’t until I studied Education at the graduate level that I began to realize exactly why I succeeded in some lessons and failed in others. In addition, I learned that succeeding in some lessons was not an end to a means, but vice versa, a means to a much bigger and professionally appropriate end. It wasn’t until I served on national committees to evaluate university Education programs that I began to see how interconnected every issue is in Education, but, specifically in this case, how teachers graduate from their IHE (institute of higher education) lacking professional expertise, relevant and sufficient experience and ability to reflect on bigger picture issues in their own field and in Education as a whole. Their only recourse is to survive, to find “what works for them.” Dare we blame the teachers? Certainly not! Dare we blame the administrators? Certainly not! Dare we blame the parents? Certainly not! Dare we blame “the system?” Certainly not! Dare we accept that change must be systemic in and for all of us, embracing what we know to be effective and appropriate? Certainly yes!