For the past few weeks, I’ve been consumed by stories of the Charleston shooting and conversations about race in America and symbols of hate and the government’s role in ending oppression.  All of it makes me incredibly sad, to be honest.

One thread that I think has implications for educators are the stories of the radicalization of Dylann Roof.

In his online manifesto, Roof identifies the shooting of Trayvon Martin — and America’s reaction to it — as his entry point to the hate that consumed him.  More importantly, he identifies the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens — an organization identified as an active hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — as a source that defined his core beliefs towards African-Americans.

What breaks my heart, however, is that after killing nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a misguided attempt to start a race war, Roof confessed to police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  His entire worldview — developed by consuming hate easily found on the internet and by isolating himself from anyone who might openly test that hate — was challenged in the moments right before his decision to kill.  Had more of those moments happened — had he surrounded himself with diverse thinking and a diverse community of friends willing to push against his flawed notions — lives would have been saved.

What’s troubling is that today’s new media ecology makes it possible for EVERYONE to live in intellectual echo chambers if they want to. 

In fact, look carefully at the results of the annual TV News Poll conducted by Public Policy Polling and you will see that even Americans in the mainstream rarely look for diverse viewpoints when consuming current events.  From the summary:

You can really see the disparate ways in which Democrats and Republicans consume news by which outlet they say they trust the most. 56% of Republicans say Fox to 10% each for ABC and CNN. There’s really no competition at all. For Democrats on the other hand there’s a pretty wide distribution of outlets winning ‘most trusted’ honors- CNN gets 21%, PBS 18%, ABC 14%, and CBS and Fox 11%.

You see the problem, don’t you?

While Fox News and CNN may claim to be “fair and balanced” and committed to “moving truth forward” — and while they are nothing like the hate sites that Dylann Roof frequented — they are undeniably biased, determined to advance ideological agendas.  Despite that bias, they remain “the most trusted news sources” for the majority of Americans.  In fact, I’d bet that the stars of both networks believe that they have a moral imperative to give voice to takes on the news that best represent the individual views of their audiences.

I literally squirm whenever I watch either network.  Their hosts regularly demean guests with different perspectives.  Sarcasm is common.  Scorn is the norm.  Conversations about controversial issues quickly become an ideological version of Mortal Kombat with speakers trying to score points by destroying — rather than openly considering — ideas that run contrary to the positions regularly advanced by the networks.

That’s frightening, y’all.

Being exposed to diverse thinking is the key to successful compromise.  When we can actively surround ourselves with singular perspectives, our core notions — about race, about religion, about politics, about other people — are never challenged.  And in a world where accessing ideas aligned only with our core notions is easy, it is more important than ever that we teach students about the importance of seeking out dissenting voices and welcoming intellectual challenge.

So what are YOU doing to teach students about the dangers of intellectual echo chambers?

Do you encourage diverse thought in class?  Can your kids find examples of bias in popular news sources?  Are you forcing your kids to look at multiple perspectives when wrestling with controversial topics?  Have you taught students the difference between collaborative and competitive dialogue?

The simple truth is that surviving and thriving in a world where intellectual isolation is becoming the norm rather than the exception to the rule depends on citizens who are willing to remain open and able to recognize — and potentially reject — sources that are intentionally representing only one perspective.

Nothing is more important for us to start teaching the kids who are in our classrooms.  Nothing.


Related Radical Reads:

Bill’s Instructional Resources on Collaborative Dialogue


Are Our Schools Safe Places for Kids Who are Different?


Saying Goodbye to the #sugarkills Gang

Three years ago, the kids in my sixth grade classroom were wrestling with the implications of the New York City soda ban.  While they understood the notion that consuming too much sugar was dangerous for individuals and damaging to an economy due to ridiculous medical expenses, they weren’t certain that letting the government control what people can eat was a good idea at all.

So I pitched a simple idea:  Why don’t we start blogging about the amount of sugar in the foods that people eat on a regular basis?  Raising awareness is a way of taking action, too — and it’s something that we can do from our classroom.  That was the genesis of #sugarkills — the most successful classroom blog that I’ve ever had.

Dozens of kids started coming to my room at lunchtime to write and we quickly built a pretty impressive audience.  We wrote comparison posts, gave readers recommendations, and began to distinguish between natural and added sugars in our writing.  We started a war on Girl Scouts, argued for readers to make healthier choices, and helped struggling writers to make contributions to the conversations we were starting.  Through it all, my kids felt like they were making a difference in the world — and that sense of empowerment and agency felt good.

When the year ended, the core of my #sugarkills team — Daniel, Ried, Joel, Dylan, Christian and Conor — stopped by my room to make plans for continuing our blog.  They were adamant that the blog couldn’t be given to a new group of students because it belonged to them.  The hitch was that we had no time during the day for the boys to work on our blog and they were too busy after school to turn #sugarkills into a club.

“Can we come up to work during our lunch period?” they asked.

And they did, churning out almost 70 posts over the course of just a few short months.  Imagine that, would you?  How many seventh grade boys do you know who are willingly giving up their lunch period and recess time to work on a classroom blog?


Those same boys were jazzed at the beginning of this year when they found out that our school had a built-in enrichment period because it meant that they could continue to write for #sugarkills without having to miss their lunch periods — and continue to write for #sugarkills is exactly what they did.

Ried has been churning out pretty remarkable content pieces like this one clarifying the different numbers that health organizations put out around sugar consumption.  Joel likes to look at the medical impact that sugar has on people — and he often teams with Christian to write the kinds of pieces that make up the bulk of our posts.  Daniel has written and rewritten the most popular bit on our entire blog.  He’s also the unofficial proofreader of the bunch, polishing bits until they shine.  And Conor and Dylan add their voice most often by creating really cool graphics for our site (see here and here).

The boys have also taken on a leadership role in training their replacements!

They have faithfully served as official and unofficial mentors for a whole new crew of #sugarkills writers.  They’ve taught kids how to make posts, to insert slides, to check our statistics and to respond to commenters.  Most importantly, they have proven day after day that blogging can be cool.  As a result, there are several hard-core sixth graders who stand ready to take over when Daniel, Joel, Ried, Conor, Dylan and Christian move on to high school.

And that move is coming all too quickly:  Tuesday is their last day in our school.  So I wanted to say goodbye.  Publicly.  Here on my own blog.  

I’m going to miss you, boys.  You’ve made me proud time and time again.  Thank you for proving that middle school boys can be powerful and intelligent and committed to making a difference in the world.  You’ve been an inspiration to me and to dozens of other students who have followed your lead and written for our blog.

Goodbye and good luck,
Mr. F


Related Radical Reads:

Introducing Our Newest Cause – #sugarkills

Daniel Learned that He Had Power Yesterday

Daniel Learned All About Audiences Yesterday

What are You Doing to Encourage Curiosity in Your TEACHERS?

In a response to my recent bit on the importance of encouraging curiosity in the classroom, an undergraduate education student going by LaurenUSA made an important point that I hadn’t considered.  She wrote:

“Ironically, I also see that I will have to use my own curiosity and creativity alike to come up with the actual assignments that will engage students in their own curiosity! However, I feel that as an educator this will be an important part of my job.”

That’s legit, isn’t it?  Learning spaces that value interesting questions over correct answers are most likely led by curious teachers.


(Original Image Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock)

But here’s the hitch:  We do next to nothing in most schools to encourage curiosity in our faculties.  Instead, we develop rigid pacing guides and require everyone to work through them in the same order without question.  We provide highly structured sets of instructional materials that require little in the way of imagination to be delivered.  We set predefined learning requirements for professional development that everyone is expected to master regardless of their current levels of experience or expertise.

Sadly, learning for the adults in our school buildings is rarely inspiring or creative or self-directed.  Teachers aren’t free to explore and experiment their way to new discoveries.  Our work is heavily governed by decisions made by people in positions of power.  If we want to wonder or imagine, we do that on our own time and our own dime.  Curiosity becomes a subversive act — a risk taken by those who simply aren’t satisfied with the scripts that we are expected to follow.

Can we REALLY be surprised, then, when those same practices define today’s classrooms?

Why would teachers who are rarely encouraged to take intellectual risks make intellectual risk-taking a priority in their classrooms?  How can we expect teachers who spend their careers learning to follow paths created by others to design learning experiences that facilitate multiple paths to mastery?  When will we realize that every choice that we make for the teachers in our buildings sends explicit messages about what we value as a learning organization — and that the work happening in our classrooms is a mirror reflection of the work happening in our professional development sessions?

So here’s a challenge to every principal and district level professional developer in Radical Nation:  Start your next school year by asking individual teams of teachers to develop sets of three or four learning-centered questions that they are curious about.  Then, commit regular time during faculty meetings and inservice professional development days to the exploration of those questions.  Ask teams to share what they are learning.  Push them to take their questions further.  Celebrate every discovery regardless of how small those discoveries may seem to you.

You will have to be patient and prepared to provide differentiated support to the teams in your building.  Teachers — like students — haven’t had many opportunities to set their own direction.  Some will struggle to get started.  Others will stumble along the way.  All will benefit from targeted and timely suggestions about new directions worth considering AND your ability to marshal resources and opportunities uniquely suited to individual needs.

I promise that there will be moments where you question whether anyone is learning and whether the time that you are investing in the entire process is “producing tangible results” or “having a direct impact on student learning.”  In those moments, remind yourself that the outcome that matters most ISN’T testing results.  Instead, it is giving teachers first-hand experiences with the excitement that comes from asking and answering interesting questions.

The simple truth is that teachers who see learning as a joyful act are more likely to create joyful learning experiences for their students.




Related Radical Reads:

Is Learning a Joyful Act in YOUR School?

Rethinking Teacher Professional Development

The Teacher Professional Development Fail


Do YOUR Kids Think that Being Right is More Important than Being Curious?

What worries me the most about today’s students is that they’ve learned that being right is more important than being curious

Need proof?  Stop by my classroom sometime and watch my kids wrestle with questions that have no one right answer.


(Original Image Credit: Kozini/Shutterstock)

First, they will double-check their work just to see if there IS a right answer that they inadvertently missed in their initial thinking.  Then, they will turn to peers to see if anyone else has found the right answer.  The feeling in the room will change as time goes by and more and more students start to realize that there isn’t something obvious to write down.  Kids will fidget.  Noise levels will rise.  Extra sources will be checked.

At that point, some exceptionally brave group will approach me to check their work.  “Did I do this right, Mr. Ferriter?” they’ll ask.  Pulled by the intellectual gravity of the moment, other groups with gather close, waiting to hear what I have to say and hoping that I’ll share the right answer with everyone.

“I’m not really sure either!,” I’ll say.  “Why don’t you explain your thinking to me.  Maybe there’s NOT a right answer.”  That’s when pure terror runs across their twelve-year-old faces.  The notion of a question without a right answer is literally crippling to them.

And that breaks my heart, y’all.  

It is evidence of my failure as a teacher — and our failure as a profession — to prioritize curiosity in our classrooms.  Moments where there is no clear right answer should leave students ENERGIZED — not PARALYZED.  Questions with no clear right answer should be fun to think about and wrestle with.  They provide opportunities for discovery — and discovery has always been the lifeblood of kids.

What my students have learned after years of traditional schooling, though, is that answers are more important than questions when you are trapped in a classroom.  School is about making good grades, NOT being curious — and making good grades means forgetting about anything that leaves you wondering and figuring out what it is that the teacher expects you to write down on your flippin’ rippin’ paper.

No wonder 70 percent of the kids in our classrooms are completely bored.




Related Radical Reads:

The REAL Bored of Education

Problemitizing the Curriculum

Where Have All the Beautiful Questions Gone?

This is Why I Teach: They Care Enough to Make Cards!

It’s no secret to regular Radical readers that I often get worn down by the grind of teaching.  Wrap the public criticism piled on teachers at every turn up with the crappy policies that have stripped the joy out of the public school classroom and you have a profession that leaves me wondering more and more every year.

But there IS joy in teaching — and this week, it came in the form of a pile of birthday cards from my students:


Such a small thing, right?  But to me, it meant everything.  

The kids thanked me and teased me and joked about my hairline and the fact that I’m apparently older than dirt.  Some snuck the cards into my room and left them for me to discover on my desk.  Others came in groups of two or three to share creations that they had worked on together.

They worked on their cards during homeroom, during our schoolwide enrichment block and during their classes.  My guess is that they missed a ton of content, distracted by the simple act of celebrating one of their teachers.

I missed a ton of content, too:  At the end of the day, I ignored the four thousand email messages sitting in my inbox and smiled my way through a pile of special memories from a group of kids that I care about.

While those memories won’t pay the bills or take away the sting of criticism that I feel every time I read the paper or listen to the radio, they do serve as a tangible reminder that this profession really IS rewarding.

This is why I teach.


Related Radical Reads:

Teaching is a Grind

The Straw

This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter


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