Are We Having the Right Conversations?

I came across the piece I wrote a while back. It is resonating with me today, so I thought I’d throw it out into the world again as I continue to think about these important ideas…

Closing the Achievement Gap: Are We Having the Right Conversations?

This year marks my twenty-second year as an educator. I’m hard pressed to remember a time when the phrase “closing the achievement gap” was not present in my every day reality. The phrase has compelled us to disaggregate data, examine curriculum, create programs , buy programs created for us, delineate the difference between “equal” and “equitable” and define how to insure no child is left behind as we race to the top. Some gains have been made. And, yet, we still have not closed the gaps between our white students and our students of color across the board.

As I ponder this reality and I talk to parents, students, teachers and school staff, I find myself asking “are we having the right conversations?” Often, when we talk about student achievement, we disaggregate the data, come to a conclusion such as “Our students of color are not doing well in reading.”. Then our response becomes ‘Let’s develop curriculum/buy a program,” which we do. Then we disaggregate the next year’s data only to find any gains made are minimal at most.

Over the last eight years of my career, I’ve spent less time worrying about what program to use and more time directly asking my students what schools can do to help them be academically successful. The students’ responses confirm what I found myself asking. We aren’t having the right conversations or drawing the appropriate conclusions. When the students share their insights, much of it focuses on school attitudes and environment. The classrooms where they feel successful and exhibit academic success are classrooms where teachers greet them at the door, know their names and something about them as individuals, connect learning to their lives and to the larger world and classrooms where teachers address issues of race. It’s only after students talk about these aspects of the classroom that they begin to address the topic we typically focus on- curriculum.

So, why aren’t we having the right conversations, then? Honestly? For me, it’s been about 1) not knowing what I don’t know and 2) being a little scared of the conversations. There’s very little in our teacher education training that prepares us to talk openly and honestly about race or to even understand we should be talking about it. And once we are in the profession, our professional development focuses on our specific content area or the larger initiatives mandated by governmental and institutional bodies. So, how can we be better prepared to have the conversations we need to have? As a literacy educator, I believe strongly in the power of research and reading! Here’s a list of some of the books that have helped me on my journey to a better understanding of what I need to do as an educator to insure the success of all of my students:

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children
by Gloria Ladson-Billings

We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools
by Gary R. Howard

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
by Lisa Delpit

Courageous Conversations About Race
by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
by Anne Fadiman

How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You: Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies
by Bonnie Davis

We’ve worked hard through the years to try and close an ever-present achievement gap for our students of color. We need to continue to work hard, but we need to shift our focus. Rather than focusing solely on what we teach in the classroom, we need to have open, honest conversations about race and what the implications of that are for us as teachers and for our students- all of our students. When we can do that, we can begin to focus on the environmental changes that need to occur to create learning spaces which invite and allow the success of our students of color.

A Port in the Storm

It is raining here. Okay, raining is an understatement. It’s pouring. It’s the proverbial cats and dogs out there. Every phone in the room just buzzed with a weather alert about flash floods. Yet, here I am at work this evening. It’s the last night of our twice a week evening tutorial for middle school and high school students. Our wonderful college volunteer tutors ended their year last week and are off pursuing their summer plans. So, I’m here filling in. I have to confess, I really didn’t want to get in my car and drive here tonight. It has nothing to do with the kids. The weather really is a little scary right now.

But here I am. And here I sit with 5 students who braved the elements. 5 high school students looking for a place to study. 5 young men. 5 Latino young men. I hear so much about achievement disparities. I spend my days looking at how to make our schools and our classrooms more culturally responsive. I hear from students who want to learn. And, honestly, from some teachers who don’t believe they can.

I look at these young men here tonight, I listen to their conversations with each other as they ask to borrow a calculator, check their answers with each other, confirm what they have for homework and laugh together. I realize we have created a safe place for them. This is their port in the storm, both the figurative one raging outside right now and the storm of schools and a society that often rage that they will not achieve.

I am grateful that we can create this place for them and for the many other students who have attended on Tuesday and Thursday evenings throughout the year. My greatest hope is that we will create schools which serve as safe places for students, places of high expectations and caring support which propel every student to reach their greatest potential.

What if….

A poem for Poem in a Pocket Day.


What if…

…every parent, educator, significant adult that touched a child’s life TRULY believed in their capabilities?

…a library card was easier to get?

…guns were harder to get?

…we sent every baby home with books of their own along with the formula samples?

…the public understood that teaching is a calling, not just a job?

…we paid teachers commensurate with all the jobs they really do?

…we learned to disagree constructively and work towards compromise?

…people voted because they understood the issues, not because of party affiliation or what someone told them?

…politicians stopped making educational laws and let educators govern themselves?

…we understood our implicit biases and how they guide our actions?

…we all laughed a lot more?

…we all hugged, high-fived and shoulder slapped a lot more?

…no teacher ever had to spend money out of their own pocket for classroom materials?

…school lunches were actually healthy AND tasty?

…no child ever knew what it was like to be physically, emotionally or spiritually hurt?

I won’t stop dreaming of no more “what-ifs”. I won’t stop hoping for no more “what-ifs”. I won’t stop working towards no more “what-ifs”. What if we all did?


Yesterday was a day of amazing amazements. I received a follow up email about a possible future project that was, well, one of those messages that just makes you breathless for a moment. Can’t give details (sorry! No specifics to give just yet!). I received 2 boxes of books from wonderful friends to share with teachers at a workshop later this week. And then an email arrived to tell me I was nominated for a Bammy Award. I have to be honest- I thought it was a joke. Then I clicked the link and was just stupefied by this honor. Me? Really?! I thought for sure they made a mistake. There are so many voices out there right now. So many people I respect and admire who have things to say that I think are so much smarter than what I have to share from my little corner of the world. And I had to laugh, because whoever nominated me doesn’t know that I am absolutely horrid at self-promotion, one of the things they encourage you to do as a result of this award.

I may not win. That’s okay. It just capped off a wonderful day that reminded how very truly lucky and blessed I am to get to do what I do and to know the people I know.

Building Bridges- A new start and a reflection on ASCD

I started out wanting to revamp my blog so that it would address the idea of teaching as rocket science. And then I went into a slump and did a lot of soul-searching. Who am I to think I have anything to add to the conversation? What would blogging accomplish? And so I tucked away my aspirations.

But here I am again. Because there is so much to say. And Ralph Ellison’s words jumped off the page and there was the title, the idea I was looking for. Education is building bridges. The bridge between the art and science of teaching, between students and teachers, between teachers and families, between content areas and time periods. A bridge connects. And connections are powerful in the learning process.

The power of connection became much clearer to me over the last few days as I have been here at #ASCD14. So much learning. My brain is full. The weather has been beautiful. And downtown L.A.- well, it’s L.A. Connections came in so many ways. One of the most powerful being  meeting educators from all over the world. Today 2 educators from Palau came to my presentation. And I rode the bus each morning with a contingent of teachers from Jamaica. We come from different places, but we are connected through our love and passion for educating kids.

Connections came as people I met online,who have become friends, this weekend made time in their busy schedules because I had travelled cross country. My friend, Aly, drove in to downtown to have brunch and hang out at an eclectic bookstore. We are connected through a passion for books and reading and a love of education and kids. I value that connection. And I am grateful for a friend who makes time in a busy schedule to foster that connection we have and deepen it.

And then there is my friend, Cathy.We are connected through books and reading and a love of watching kids learn and grow. And we are connected because we are moms ourselves.  Cathy,who was only able to attend the conference for one day-the day I happened to be presenting- and who came to watch me present and support me. A connection that started on the thin thread of tweets and facebook statuses and has deepened to a connection that would elicit such a gift of time and support.

So, I’ll look to build bridges between thoughts and ideas, between research and practice, between the culture of my students and the culture of school. Building bridges takes time. You’ll find me here for a while. Building bridges.

New Beginnings…

I need your help! It’s past time for a redesign of my blog. I’m ready to go in a new direction and this means my blog needs a new name! I’m hoping one of you creative geniuses out there has just the right one in mind. Share your thoughts below. For your troubles- if I choose your suggestion, I’ll email you some book titles you can choose from and I’ll send a book (or 2 or 3) your way as a thank you.


Where is my blog going? On two different coasts and in two different job settings I have had continuous conversations with colleagues in which we talk about common sense teaching practices (at least they seem like common sense to us!). Each conversation ends with “It’s not rocket science!” But then, wait, maybe it is! So I’ve come to the conclusion that great teaching IS rocket science. And that’s what the ed reformers and texbook publishing companies seem to miss. Rocket science isn’t about the rocket structure itself. I can take metal and create the basic form of a rocket ship. But it still won’t fly. What makes rocket science tough is all the minute detail. The wiring, the computer programming, the finite adjustments to the trajectory so that the rocket heads in the right direction,making sure there is enough thrust to lift the weight of the rocket, and knowing how to adjust any and all of it should something not work.

That’s what great teaching is all about. It may start with a standard, a lesson, a text… but the true art of teaching is in all the little details. Knowing your students, understanding how each student learns, adjusting for changes in weather which affect student behavior (you know it does! Now if science would study that phenomenon!), redirecting a lesson on a downward trajectory so that students walk away with a new learning. It’s all of those seemingly innate or little things that great teachers do that are hard to define and to quantify. But without them, learning falls flat for students. Great teachers help students soar, like rockets into the sky.

So, what would a blog that looks at great teaching in this way be called? I could call it “Great Teaching IS Rocket Science” but that sounds so cliche’. What title would draw you in and make you want to be part of the conversation? I’m excited to hear your ideas. And I’m excited to start this new journey. Thanks!  T

Celebrating in the Valley

This past Sunday our pastor shared a thought that resonated with me. Of course, my educator brain connected it to teaching. He talked about how we wait in life for those moments of inspiration, those mountaintop moments to define us and move us forward. He went on to point out the problem with that. Life is lived mostly in the valleys.


Our teaching lives, our lives in education are much the same. Isn’t the standardized test day nothing but a mountaintop (or mountainous!) day? Where is the recognition of all the days learning took place, all the questions asked, tasks completed, practice problems worked in order to gain the knowledge? And how did we get to this culture that focuses so heavily on that one moment, that one snapshot in time?


In thinking about that question, I came to realize that our society looks at mountaintop moments and memorializes them as what “good teaching” is and should be. Think about the movies about teachers, the books popular in the mainstream about teaching….I’m not going to list them because, well, you know them. But they memorialize teaching as these awe-inspiring moments…these great  stories complete with drama and success for all students at the end.  Not that these moments don’t deserve to be celebrated and applauded, but there are teachers every day doing good things, no, GREAT things, that will never make it to a movie screen.


We know that the real work goes on in the valleys of the school year. Those days we leave exhausted, wondering how we will get up tomorrow and do it all again. And yet, we do. Those days when we end the day thinking “that was a good day!” without being able to put our finger on exactly what made it a good day. Those days that end and we realize we didn’t have to send anyone to the nurse or write an incident report or a referral. Those days when our students begged us for “Just ten more minutes to read, please?!” Days when everyone had their pens or pencils on the paper and wrote for the whole 15 minutes of quick-write time and even after we told them to finish that final thought. Those days when a student sends us an email or slips us a note to tell us they appreciate us or love us or hope we have a good weekend. When we get a phone call from a student who just couldn’t wait to get to class and share their epiphany moment from that day’s reading. Those days when we look around the room at those young people we are charged with teaching and realize how much they have taught us.


Those days may never make it to the big screen or be the backbone of a best-selling autobiography. But they still deserve to be celebrated. So, I invite you to share your days in the valley. Come back here as often as you like. Share with us. We’re waiting to listen. We get it. A day with no broken pencils? Cause for celebration. A day in the spring semester when your entire senior class brings their homework completed? A reason to dance. A week with productive, thoughtful, meaningful meetings? Break out the bubbly! Drove to work without spilling coffee(or the breakfast you ate in the car) on yourself? We salute you! Live in the valley, my friends. And let’s celebrate.