This is Why I Teach: Watching Kids Learn

Over the last few days in class, my students have been working on an activity designed to introduce them to the similarities and differences between elements, mixtures and compounds.  It’s pretty dry stuff, to be honest — and the chances are that no matter how successful you’ve been in your life, you probably couldn’t tell me much about the concepts that my kids are expected to master before the end of our matter unit.

That’s the worst part of teaching a subject like science.  

While sixth graders are naturally curious about the world around them and FULL of wonder questions worth studying, much of what we are required to teach — and what our students are required to learn — are handfuls of isolated concepts and vocabulary words that will be forgotten before we even begin our next unit.

But something happened today to remind me that teaching is remarkable even on the days when it can feel like a complete and total grind.

It started when a boy I’ll call Mike* — one of the happiest kids on our learning team — rolled into my room during our school-wide enrichment period.  I could tell that something was bothering him because he didn’t even say hello to me.  He just sat down behind a computer, opened up our elements, compounds and mixtures task, and stared at the screen.  He was stuck on the second task:  Brainstorm a list of three metaphors for elements, compounds and mixtures.  Explain the strengths and the weaknesses of your metaphors.

I wasn’t surprised that Mike was stuck.  Thinking metaphorically is a complicated task for many kids.  But I knew that being stuck was driving Mike — a confident, capable student used to succeeding at darn near everything — completely NUTS.  I could see him wrestling with his own ideas, with his confidence, and with what to do next.  Asking a question would be a vulnerable act for a kid not used to feeling vulnerable in school.  But NOT asking a question would mean earning a poor grade, something that Mike couldn’t handle either.

A few minutes later, he called me over for help.  “Mr. Ferriter,” he asked, “I’m having trouble figuring out how to come up with a metaphor for a science concept.  I’m not sure I know what you mean.  Can you help me?”

Together, he and I reviewed what metaphors were.  Then, we looked at several of the sample metaphors that other students had already generated for the class.  I could see Mike’s confidence building moment by moment — and knew that he’d “gotten it” a few minutes later when I asked him whether a Lego set would best represent a homogeneous or heterogeneous mixture.  “Heterogeneous!” he answered correctly with a sense of both amazement and relief in his voice!

Mike spent the rest of the day brainstorming metaphors — and it was so much fun to watch.  When he found a good one, he’d come up and quiz ME:  “So how about this one, Mr. Ferriter:  How is a screwdriver like an element?” or “Why is a raindrop in a thunderstorm a BAD metaphor for a mixture?”

My favorite moment:  Finding several new metaphors written in Mike’s handwriting on our classroom brainstorming list at the end of the day.  “Mike — have you been writing on my board?” I asked.  His answer:  A HUGE smile that warmed every corner of my heart.

Stew in that story for a minute, would you?  Can you see the beauty in it? 

I had the chance to help a boy who was wrestling with his self-confidence today.  I had the chance to prove to him that he COULD work through a challenging task and succeed no matter how hard it seemed.  I had the chance to witness the moment where the concept clicked AND the pure joy that came along with learning something new.  I had the chance to see him refining his understandings through repeated practice and playing with ideas in a way that he hadn’t ever played with them before.

THOSE are the moments that I live for, all y’all.  

I don’t teach because I’m passionate about compounds, mixtures and elements.  I don’t teach because I’m convinced that every kid has to leave our schools with a strong understanding of the chemical and physical properties of matter.  I don’t teach because I believe that mastery of scientific concepts is essential for success in tomorrow’s world.

I teach because there’s nothing like watching kids learn something new and knowing that you played some small role in helping them to get there.




*Blogger’s Note: Not his real name.


Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach: The #SugarKills Gang

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

This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter


The Most Important Interview Question I Bet You’ve Never Asked

Let me start with a simple truth:  There is no single decision made by the principal of a professional learning community more important than who to hire to fill vacancies on individual learning teams.

After all, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty – working with students, influencing colleagues, shaping decisions, impacting public relations – for years to come.  Heck, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty long after you have left for a new position.  That means every hiring decision that you make has tangible, long-term consequences for the families and the students that you are responsible for protecting and serving.

That’s obvious, right?  Then why is it that the interview questions we ask are so terribly, horribly wrong?

Why do we keep asking candidates to tell us about their experiences with integrating technology into their instruction or their strategies for managing difficult students?  Why are we interested in what a candidate believes about grading, homework or parent communication?  What is the point of asking candidates to tell us more about their unit planning process or to describe the worst lesson that they’ve ever taught?

Every one of those questions is centered around an individual teacher’s decisions and choices – and those individual decisions and choices are almost always made together by collaborative teams in professional learning communities.  When you are hiring for openings in a PLC, you have to recognize that you aren’t trying to fill a roster with remarkable individuals.  Instead, you are trying to build a team full of people who are willing to work together in service of student learning.

So what kind of questions WOULD we ask if we recognized that collective strength mattered more than individual talent? 

That’s easy.  The ONLY interview question that you have to ask to identify the best candidate for a position in a professional learning community is, “Describe a time when your instruction was deeply influenced by a colleague.”

At that point, ANY candidate that you are considering should be able to light up and tell you about a moment in their professional career where collaboration made them stronger.  Maybe it was a time when they developed a series of lessons that they refined and polished with a peer.  Maybe it was a time when a learning partner challenged a practice that they believed in.  Maybe it was a time when they became a better teacher by borrowing a strategy from someone on a learning team.

Whatever answer they give, look for enthusiasm and animation in their voice and in their body language.  The story should come easy to them and they should be excited to tell it.  They are likely to smile a lot and to lean forward in their chair.  They may talk faster and ask rhetorical questions.  They should be incredibly proud of the experience – and most importantly, they should be convinced that they are a better teacher as a result of the experience that they are describing to you.

And if they can’t give you an answer – or if their answer seems forced or false – thank them for their time and keep looking.

If you are convinced that collaboration between colleagues is the key to improving learning for students – and you should be – then it is time to start hiring people who have first-hand experience with the power and the promise of professional learning communities.




Related Radical Reads:

Out of this World Hiring Lessons for the Principals of PLCs

Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers

Simple Truth:  Collective Strength Matters More than Individual Talent


When Was the Last Time You Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

I’ve been doing a ton of thinking lately about the communications that parents receive from their children’s schools and classroom teachers.

Now my perspective could be skewed because I’ve spent the majority of my career working with groups of 100+ students in middle schools, but it seems like most school communications — grade reports, weekly phone messages, email and/or blog updates, newsletters describing upcoming functions — are impersonal, designed to deliver one message to a large group of readers.  And most of the direct contact that parents DO receive about their children is negative — phone calls, emails, or notes written in agendas about missing homework, poor grades, or behavior problems.

Stew in that for a second.  And then ask yourself one simple question:  When was the last time that you wrote a positive note or made a positive phone call or sent a positive email to the parents of a student that you work with?

My answer to that question was embarrassing.  Outside of the kind words that I share in front of parents at quarterly honors assemblies, I rarely initiate a positive interaction with parents.  My rationale has always been practical:  I’m completely buried by the day-to-day demands of meeting the needs of 100+ students.  My planning periods are filled with preparing for lessons, going to meetings, filling out required paperwork, and responding to the never-ending pile of email in my inbox.  Reaching out to share positive words with parents gets pushed aside as I try to keep up with the “more pressing needs” of my professional life.

What’s even worse is that I’ve come to realize that the positive interactions that I DO have with parents about the kids in my classroom are almost always interactions with the parents of students who already get a TON of positive reinforcement from schools.  I’m more likely to celebrate kids who are making great grades or turning in great assignments or asking great questions than I am to celebrate the squirrely kid in my classroom who can’t sit down, who struggles with assignments, or who is a distracted chatterbox.

I haven’t been able to shake the shame that comes from realizing just how harmful my unwillingness to carve out time to reach out to parents with kind words about their kids really is.  

Isn’t it possible that there are parents I’ve served over the past twenty years of teaching who feel hopeless or angry or skeptical simply because the only time that I ever contacted them directly was when their child was struggling academically or behaviorally?  Worse yet, isn’t it possible that there are parents who have completely given up on schools and teachers — and maybe even their sons and daughters — after YEARS of hearing nothing but the negatives about their kids?

So I made a simple commitment this week: I’m writing handwritten letters to the parents of two students every single day between now and the end of the year.

Some days, the notes I write will be based on specific things that I’ve seen a kid do in my classroom.  Maybe I’ll celebrate a question that they ask, a pattern that they find, or a remarkable task that they turn in.  Other days, the notes I write will be based on the character traits that are worth admiring but often overlooked in the kids in my classroom.  Maybe I’ll celebrate their willingness to be polite and respectful in all situations, the kindness that they constantly show to their peers, or the persistence they show in difficult circumstances.  My hope is that by the end of the year, I will have written to the family of every kid on my learning team.

I’ve only been writing for a week, but I’ve already learned a few important lessons:

Writing doesn’t take me long at all:  I’ve chosen to write my notes during my lunch period — which is 23 minutes long.  I’ve had no trouble writing two notes AND eating lunch AND shooting the breeze with my colleagues for a few minutes during that period.  That means “finding the time” isn’t an excuse for me any longer.

My kids dig the letters that I’m writing:  I’ve also chosen to leave the letters that I write unsealed and to tell the students whose parents that I write to that they are welcome to read what I’ve written before bringing their note home.  Almost every kid has done just that — pulling out their notes as soon as I hand them out and reading them immediately.  That matters, y’all:  Kids crave praise from the important people around them.  Especially those who struggle academically or behaviorally as compared to their peers.

I had to explain the purpose of my letters to my students so they wouldn’t panic:  The first day that I handed letters to students, both kids said, “Did I do something wrong?”  Talk about a stinging critique of my communication patterns, right?  Letters home from Mr. Ferrriter = Someone’s in trouble.  So I took a few minutes in class to let my kids know that I was sorry for not taking more time to send positive notes home.  Now, my kids are almost always surprised when I hand them an envelope, but surprised in a good way instead of nervous about what’s inside.

Writing letters has made ME feel good, too:  My original goal for writing to parents was to make THEM feel good about their children.  That’s an easy win, right?  Every parent likes to know that others see special things in their kids.  What I didn’t realize was just how good writing to the parents of my students would make ME feel.  The few minutes that I spend identifying and articulating the things that I value the most about the students in my classes — including those who struggle academically and behaviorally — serve as a daily reminder that EVERY kid sitting in EVERY class really is wonderful in their own way.

There’s nothing remarkable here, y’all.  In fact, it’s hard to believe that I’m JUST coming to the conclusion that I really SHOULD make more time to say positive things to parents about their kids.  My guess is that EVERY teacher knows that saying positive things matters.

But sometimes, we let important habits slip by the wayside because we are convinced that we are too busy.  My challenge to you is to prioritize positive interactions with parents during your daily schedule.  Not only will it make your parents feel better about you, your school, and their children — it will make YOU feel better, too.

Acts of kindness warm the hearts of everyone.



Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  They Make Cards

This is Why I Teach:  Individual Moments Matter

This is Why I Teach:  Inspiring Jake


New Feedback Activity: Unit Analysis Forms

If you’ve been reading the Radical for any length of time, you know that I’ve been wrestling with the role that feedback plays in my classroom.

What you may not know, however, is that most of that work was inspired by a single quote from this article written by assessment experts Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappuis.  They write:

Thus, the essential school improvement question from an assessment point of view is this: Are we skilled enough to use classroom assessment to either (1) keep all learners from losing hope to begin with, or (2) rebuild that hope once it has been destroyed?

Stiggins and Chappuis are right, aren’t they?  In traditional classrooms, our feedback strategies — think providing a single grade for every handout, project and test that comes across our desks — leaves struggling students feeling hopeless simply because they rarely see evidence of their own successes.  That breaks my heart.

The solution is a simple one:  Any grade that you give in your classroom should be paired with structured opportunities for students to spot the progress that they are making regardless of the final marks that they earn on an assignment.

What can that look like in action?

In my classroom, it looks like this Unit Analysis Form, which students fill out after a unit test has been passed back:

Handout – Scientific Method Unit Analysis Form

Unit Analysis Forms include three essential components: (1). A list of all of the outcomes that students are expected to master during the course of a cycle of instruction, (2). A list of the specific tasks completed during the course of a cycle of instruction– quiz questions, test questions, classroom assignments – that students can use as evidence of mastery, and (3). An opportunity for students to reflect on the progress that they have made over the course of a cycle of instruction.

Unit Analysis Forms also ask learners to decide whether their struggles are a result of conceptual errors or simple mistakes.  “Typically, we make mistakes through lack of attention,” write Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, “But once they are pointed out to us, we immediately recognize them and usually know the corrective action to take…Errors, on the other hand, occur because of lack of knowledge.  Even when alerted, the learner isn’t quite sure what to do to fix the problem.”

Unit Analysis Forms are powerful tools for helping students seek and effectively deal with feedback primarily because they make it possible to spot differing levels of mastery across all of the outcomes covered within a unit.  That means students can see exactly which outcomes they have mastered and which outcomes they continue to wrestle with.

For students who struggle, this kind of targeted feedback can be a source of encouragement. 

Instead of feeling like failures after earning a low score, they are likely to spot concepts and skills that they were successful at mastering.  More importantly, Unit Analysis Forms can help struggling learners and their classroom teachers to be more efficient, spending time revisiting genuine errors instead of wasting time correcting simple mistakes (Fisher & Frey, 2012).

So let me ask you an uncomfortable question:  How often do your students get to examine outcome specific feedback after completing major assignments?  It really is the first step for rebuilding hope in struggling learners.



Related Radical Reads:

New Feedback Activity:  Not Yet/You Bet Lists

New Feedback Activity:  Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

New Slide:  Turning Feedback Into Detective Work


Are YOU Standing Up for LGBT Students?

Blogger’s Note:  Last spring, I wrote a post here on the Radical asking a simple question – Are our schools safe places for gay, lesbian and transgender students.  Response to that post surprised me — no one read it!  

Given the recent developments in my home state — where the legislature recently passed a set of regressive, discriminatory laws that stripped basic rights and protections away from gay, lesbian and transgender citizens (see here and here) — I’ve decided to repost that entry today.  

The simple truth is that whether the old white men making laws in places like North Carolina like it or not, there ARE gay, lesbian and transgender people who are working to find their place in our communities.  More importantly for Radical Nation, there ARE gay, lesbian and transgender students who are working to find their place in our schools — and it’s OUR job to make sure that they feel safe and accepted no matter what.  



Are Our Schools Safe Places for Kids Who are Different?

Originally posted April 25, 2015

Like many, I’ve been transfixed by the the story of Bruce Jenner.  

My hope is that his willingness to transparently share his experience as a transgendered person will make it safe for others to live openly and to be accepted for who they are.  Awareness is the first step towards acceptance — and if Bruce’s journey builds awareness in a respectful way, it has the potential to radically redefine the conversations that we have about gender identity in America.


But what I’m wrestling with this morning is whether or not we have worked hard enough to make our schools safe places for students who are different.

To put it more simply, do the gay and lesbian and transgender students in our schools — who deserve the love and support of the important adults in their lives — feel like they belong in our buildings, too?  Or are they forced to live a lie, pretending to fit in because they are afraid of the consequences of standing out?

It’s impossible to underestimate the consequences of living that lie, y’all.

Need proof?

Then spend some time reading about Leelah Alcorn — a transgendered student in Ohio who committed suicide by walking in front of a semi on a Cincinatti highway in December after being rejected by her parents for not being “the perfect straight little Christian boy” that they wanted her to be.  Sadly, students like Leelah aren’t alone:  41 percent of transgendered people attempt suicide at some point in their lives — a number that is NINE times the national average.

Here’s another question I”m wrestling with:  Are the teachers in our buildings prepared to lead open conversations about gender and identity and sexuality that are based in facts?  Or are we, too, hiding from the truth — avoiding difficult conversations about a potentially controversial topic because we are afraid of the shade that will be thrown our way if we even suggest that the students in our building who are different have actually been normal all along?

I only ask because I know that I am afraid of the shade.  

After years of seeing teachers and schools eviscerated by Evangelicals for even suggesting that global warming might be real or that animals adapt to their environments or that homosexuality might be a part of who a person is instead of something that a person chooses to be, I often catch myself dancing around controversy instead of giving it the respectful space that it deserves.  I waver in my commitment to the truth — and to people who are counting on me to speak the truth for them — because I’m afraid of what will happen to me if I speak it.

Heck, if I’m REALLY being honest, this post has me sweating.

If the wrong person reads it, I’ll end up buried in accusations of pushing a liberal, left-leaning, gay loving, anti-family values agenda.  Ultra-conservative whacks and hacks will turn me into another example of the “brainwashing” that happens in public schools even though conversations about gender issues almost never surface in my middle school classroom.  Not kidding:  I’ve been torn apart on local talk radio — and called on the carpet for “being controversial” — for a LOT less than suggesting that gay, lesbian and transgendered students deserve respect.


What’s TRULY frightening, though, is that If I’m the norm rather than the exception to the rule, that means our schools remain anything BUT safe places for kids who don’t fit into the neat, clean boxes that we want to place them in.

Can you imagine how lonely it must be to live in a world where no one openly talks about who YOU are?  Or worse yet, can you imagine how lonely it must be to live in a world where the only open talk about who YOU are is filled with hate?  My guess is that’s all too often the truth for gay, lesbian and transgender students in our schools — and for that, we should be ashamed.

Our job as educators is to create safe spaces for every student to thrive — not to perpetuate a culture where some people win and other people lose based on nothing more than how closely their gender identity aligns with “traditional values.”  Just as importantly, our job as educators is to create learning spaces that are defined by respectful dialogue and critical thinking.  Our society becomes stronger when our students learn to see value in the thoughts and opinions and experiences of people who are different.

Hiding from the conversation helps no one.



Related Radical Reads:


Are YOU Standing Up for Tolerance?

Lesson: Would YOU Stand Up to Injustice?

Lesson: Learning about Collaborative Dialogue