Life Learnings: 2011

Another year down and it's time, once again, to reflect on the things I've learned, both in teaching and in life. In 2009, most of my learning was about the corruption and disgusting nature of gritty inner-city politics. In 2010, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what constitutes real(,) valuable(,) meaningful knowledge and how we go about acquiring that and passing it on.

In 2011 I finished teaching in New York, spent the summer looking for a job, and finally moved out to Washington State to work in the Highline School District just south of Seattle. And this is what I learned along the way:

1) No matter how long you've taught, being new to a school will always make for a stressful year

Here I am in my sixth year of teaching. You would think I'd be starting to get a hold on it by now, that I might be halfway decent. You know, have a few tricks up my sleeve. But here I am, once again, in a new school feeling like a novice. It's true; I'm not completely oblivious to the fundamental things that make the classroom work. (Thank god I'm not a new new teacher, one of those who's new to the whole idea of teaching.) But I'm still stuck back at square one when it comes to developing curriculum and ordering my classroom. I'm better as a result of all my previous experiences, and I have a lot of ideas that I think will really make a difference. But most of them cannot be implemented until I understand the school's politics, culture, and systems. Here's hoping for a dramatically better beginning for the 2012-2013 school year.

2) If we want public education to be democratic, we have to allow students to practice democracy

Democracy is a long, hard, draining process. You have to let it take its time. You have to rethink its processes with different groups. And you have to believe in it. When you do, it's powerful.

I'm afraid we do a relatively poor job teaching our youth about the power and importance of democracy in this country. Democracy is about so much more than just voting. (I've always thought of voting as the least democratic of the democratic things that you can do.)

If we infuse democracy in schools in as many ways as possible, we'll empower students and parents, and we'll build meaningful community and culture. Why doing this is often considered to be part of some uber left-wing educational ideology is beyond me. (More on this learning here and here.)

3) When the odds are stacked against you, sometimes you have to redefine success

My idea of success with my sophomore world history class this year included: making meaningful strides in all of my students' abilities to read social studies texts, introducing all of (and hopefully instilling some) of the historical habits of mind, exposing my students to the all skills required in the social studies, and asking them to all think deeply about hard questions about history.

Three months in to this year, I came to the conclusion that I would have to redefine success. The class has refused to cooperate and the energy in it is toxic. I accept part of the blame. I'm far from perfect. But I doubt there are many teachers out there who could have accomplished the goals I set with this group of students without a very strong previous relationship with them. This is not to say that these students are incapable of learning. Every single one of them can make immense academic progress. But the system and its lack of resources have failed them. And, of course, many of them have chosen to fail themselves for they perceive as a lack of more desirable options.

4) Stress can affect you without you even knowing you have stress

I felt a strange pain surge like a lightning bolt through my forehead and something strange move in the back of my head. I was sitting at my dinning room table in my apartment in Washington Heights working on a blog post. I looked up from the screen and asked myself, "What the hell was that?!" I looked out the window for about three seconds wondering if everything was okay when my heart rate shot through the roof. I had no idea what was going on. These symptoms accompanied with bouts of vertigo and strange feelings in my chest had me in about ten different specialists' offices on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for about two weeks in the beginning of May. After tons of tests by family doctors, cardiologists, and neurologists, I was finally told that I was "stressed out." And I didn't even know that I'd been stressed.

All this made me decide that I was doing too much at work, spending too much time blogging, and attending too many education related rallies and protests. I decided to leave New York and move back to the West Coast. I learned I have to be more careful about the effects that my work and lifestyle might be having on my body.

I include this story on this blog only because I think it's indicative of many similar experiences that passionate urban teachers have and provides a warning to others entering the profession.

5) The importance of working together

In July I went to the SOS Conference in Washington, DC. I met hundreds of amazing educators there, all rallying together to fight the stubbornness of corporate reform, and I learned the impact that people can have when they come together. My experience there in combination with what I've read over the past year about the Arab Spring and similar protests across the world has reminded me that for all the reasons so many have to complain about this world that we live in, I am happy to remember that it truly is the people who have the power, and that we really do have the government we deserve. Perhaps we might soon deserve something better...

6) Small schools all the way

After now having worked in three large traditional comprehensive high schools and two small schools, I am an adamant proponent of small schools in underprivileged communities. Their size facilitates the teaching of real democracy; they seem to attract a larger percentage of brilliant and dedicated educators; they allow a staff to think and act outside of the box more often; and they allow staff to build phenomenal relationships with students and parents in ways that's simply not possible in larger schools. There are plenty of real disadvantages. But when it comes to creating powerful schools in poor communities, you'd be hard pressed to convince me that large schools are preferable.

7) The importance of bilingualism

When I started teaching I was nervous that I had no idea how to educate English language learners. I saw them as an obstacle and their background as a hindrance.  Now I embrace them and understand their background as a strength, something I can use to enhance their educational experience (along with that of their classmates).

It is frankly easier to learn English when you have another language to support your English language development. My own learning of Spanish has taught me amazing things about literacy instruction. It has also reminded me that the more language you learn (and the more languages you learn), the more the world opens up to you.

For this, I largely have the International Network for Public Schools to thank, one of whose schools I worked at in the Bronx.

8) Schools are NOT scalable

As much as every edupreneuer (a stupid word if there ever was one) would love to believe that a highly functioning school should be able to be replicated elsewhere by following the strategies of the original school, it's just not that easy. Public education is not the corporate world, and teachers and students are not widgets. It's all about context, context, context - and intelligent, passionate educators at each and every school setting thinking about their specific challenges and unique solutions to them. See this post for more.

9) I think authentic knowledge is easier to cultivate in low-income communities

This might be more of a learning for a coming year. But recently I've been wondering if authentic(,) meaningful knowledge is more easily built by capable teachers in low-income schools, where students and community members are less trusting of authority. Although I've never taught in a high-income community, I've visited such schools. I notice that students in these schools seem to believe that real knowledge can only be real if it's in a book, comes from a teacher's mouth, or has been reported on by a institution of higher education.

Although Patrick Finn suggests otherwise in Literacy with an Attitude (amazing book - READ IT!), I tend to think that helping students question the world (and authority) and create their own knowledge is probably easier in a low-income community, where many students are already used to doing it. Thoughts?

10) Learn, relearn, and relearn.

I am continually frustrated when I realize I've made a mistake I've made already and forgot to apply the lessons I learned. The second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth time I do it, though, at least I apply those lessons more quickly. This happens so often in the classroom. A teacher has so many variables to consider in creating a lesson, it's often quite easy to leave out an important step that you should have remembered to include. You're halfway through the lesson, you look at your plan, you see the blank stares on their faces, and you think "I can't believe I forgot to give them a visual!"

I'm learning that learning is often a lot more about relearning.  The mistake is made over and over because so many things have happened in your brain between the last time you made that mistake and now - and because you applied to appropriate lesson to a number of lessons in the meantime, you sort of forgot to make a point of remembering it. The nice part about this whole relearning process, however, is that the mistakes always occur in new and different contexts, which allows you to see some different nuance to the lesson you hadn't noticed before. You add this to your understanding and create a new equilibrium. You've grown; you've learned! It's frustrating, but it counts.


I notice that my learnings, once again, are about authentic knowledge, but this year that's been coupled with a lesson in the power of democracy and democratic practices in schools. As I say every year, some of these learnings are things you've always been told and sort of always "knew," but didn't really understand in a meaningful way until you had that experience that conveys their importance with clarity and power. Despite their power, words can often be very inadequate conveyors of truth.

That's all for this year. 103 posts. Thanks for reading. Happy New Year!


  1. I just happened to google "urban education" and your amazing and insightful blog popped up! I'm a new teacher without a job (imagine that!) I completely agree with everything you've posted on this blog! You are a wise teacher and I hope the best for you and your students this year!


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