Caught in the Middle

Life in the Quarantine Zone for Middle School Students

Online learning is a solution to a new problem facing America’s schools. COVID-19 has caused most schools to close down in order to stop the spread of the virus. Students, teachers and parents have all been forced to shift how they socialize, and how they conduct the business of teaching and learning, especially with online learning.

School is a developmental process. Although every grade is different, middle schoolers are unique in terms of the social challenges they face as they go through puberty into adolescence. The rapid wholesale adoption of online learning has created numerous new hurdles for them as they try to adapt. Yet adapt they must.

Distance Learning represents a FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT in how we educate students and how we support their academic and social development

Collected thoughts: What teachers know

What do we know about middle schoolers?

Middle school students are social in nature. Friendships are essential to their identity, and to how well they learn.

Middle school students like to hang out together
Middle school students like to hang out together.
Middle school students help each other learn while developing socially.
Middle school students help each other learn while developing socially.

Food for thought – Research findings

“Humans are an exquisitely social species. We are constantly reading each other’s actions, gestures and faces in terms of underlying mental states and emotions, in an attempt to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they are about to do next.”

“Adolescence is characterized by psychological changes in terms of identity, self-consciousness and relationships with others. Compared with children, adolescents are more sociable, form more complex and hierarchical peer relationships, and are more sensitive to acceptance and rejection by peers.”

Source: “Development of the social brain in adolescence”, Journal of the Royal Society  of Medicine, 105(3), pp 111-116.

Middle school students learn from each other, and share in each other’s discovery. They become engaged and retain what they learn when they share.

STEM in pairs
STEM in pairs: Middle school students reinforce each other’s learning

Food for thought about Online Learning – Insights from Research

“There’s an evolutionary reason for this social learning: Figuring out how to get along with others is key to flourishing in life.” 

“Schools can help by providing real-time instruction online, opportunities for teacher-student interaction, and efforts to help students feel part of a group, even when they are working at home. But studies show that many students aren’t being engaged in this way.” 

“Teachers say they can see the toll social isolation is taking on their students.”

Source: The Hechinger Report, June 19, 2020.  “Middle School Is Often Difficult” by Steven Yoder 

Middle school students learn best when they can collaborate. It strengthens their social bonds. They give each other both reason and reinforcement to show up, learn and perform. This applies to online learning as well as in-person learning.

Group Of Middle School Students Collaborating On Project In Classroom


When you engage middle school students, they are much more likely to be healthy and to learn. That means connect with them, check in often, create a space where they can be social and collaborate with classmates, even if it is online learning.

Quick Links

Related articles by Rick’s Blog


The question I always ask myself is: How do I engage and connect with my students? They are a tricky audience. Each one is unique in their background, personality, interests and academic skills. The question is even more pressing as online learning plays a major role in education.
Read the full article: Connect with your students (Opens in a new browser tab)

Reviewing, communicating and feedback

When learning is the goal of any project, then teachers and students enter a constant feedback loop. How – and how often – that feedback is structured is essential to success. Educators refer to the importance of formative assessments that provide mid-course corrections rather than relying on final assessments. How mid-course feedback occurs determines whether students actually understand where they are in the learning process. Regular feedback is absolutely essential in the world governed by online learning

What is Good Feedback?

  • It is targeted. That is, it is linked to learning objectives.
  • It provides specific guidance to students.
  • It is timely.

Read the full article: The Classroom Feedback Loop (Opens in a new browser tab)

Education of the Whole Child

Social-emotional learning for the whole child

Over the past decade we have demanded that students become more focused on academics. Yet we may have forgotten about social emotional learning. As a result we have bypassed the important aspect of schooling: the education of the whole child.

Kindergarten used to focus on creative play and thematic activities. It now emphasizes preparation for first grade reading, writing and math. As the demands on students have increased, the place for play and self-directed learning has decreased. It has affected learning from elementary through high school.

Do kids get depressed?

THE WHOLE CHILD: Different teens; different emotions; different learning

Some modern researchers have blamed student isolation on increased screen time by students. Other negative effects are cited as well. Cyber-bullying has also become a serious concern. Whatever the causal link, social isolation among preteens and teens is real.

Trauma-sensitive schooling and health of the whole child

Preteens and teens feel emotionally overwhelmed at increasing rates. Rates for depression and attempted suicide doubled from 2007 through 2015.

Schools and teachers can do only so much although most work to create safe, healthy learning spaces. Safety is a reflection of the larger culture. Current research suggests that many students experience trauma, and it affects their performance in school.

Nearly half of all U.S. children have been exposed to at least one traumatic event, according to the latest federal data, and more than 1 in 5 have been exposed to several. There are things schools can do.

Nobody Learns It in a Day

Although many teachers and other experts focus on barriers to learning, there are problems that a school could help solve.

For example, in a poor, violent neighborhood, children tend to miss more school. They may have anxiety or stress-related illness, … or they may lack safe, reliable transportation.

A number of other approaches have been effective. That includes creating safe spaces and mindfulness practices. They allow students a place to vent, to relieve pressure, and to re-center. It can help reduce in-house suspensions and referrals. However, the most important idea is that trauma-sensitive schooling is a process, not a program.

Exploring wholeness. Students practicing meditation and mindfulness

Parents are stressed. It takes a village to raise a whole child

Raising children has become unceasingly demanding, both economically and socially. Childcare has become prohibitively expensive. A sick child can force a parent to make difficult choice for taking off from work and losing pay. Active school shooter drills emphasize that the world is a dangerous place for children.

Many times an older sibling is forced to take over the parenting role. When I taught high school, a number of my students would confide in me that they had to stay home to watch a younger sick sibling while their parents were at work. Many families cannot afford to miss a day of work. Stress is not just on the parents, but it includes other family members.

Importance of the family unit in the health of the whole child

What is childhood? What does it mean to be a whole child?

Have we ruined childhood, as Kim Brooks suggests? Does it have too much structure and too little play? The trends are concerning, but the world has changed. We face new challenges. One of those challenges is how to bring social-emotional learning – and that includes play – back into a dominant position in our hierarchy of importance.

When we think of the whole child, we have to think holistically. We need to include family, school-wide culture, the neighborhood, and a whole range of attributes that constitute well-being.

Education of the whole child addresses well-being in all its aspects

The joy of eating paste, and other kindergarten experiences

When my eldest daughter entered kindergarten, my wife and I had to rearrange our whole life. It certainly wasn’t the only time we had to accommodate change since we had a total of four children over the years. It is easy to forget that children like my daughter experienced eating paste in kindergarten. She also built things, painted, acted and danced in kindergarten. Paste was not the most nutritious part of her diet, but it was a reality of the times. She survived, and she learned not to eat paste.

Other activities outside of school – like dance and sports – helped build a well-rounded whole child. We provided a wealth of experiences for her and for our other children who came after. They engaged in critical and reflective thinking. We taught them how to be independent thinkers.

Field Trips: Extending learning into the community

In my first few years of elementary teaching, I was fortunate enough to have funds for buses so that we could explore the world outside the school building. Our first field trip was to a local weather monitoring station, and the kids loved it. Over the years I have taken students to parks, to zoos, to aquariums, to local marshes and more.

We went to Marine World where we had a machinery room tour to find out how roller coasters worked, tying it into middle school physical science curriculum. In some cases I had to write grants to pay for buses, but I was blessed with plenty of parents to chaperone. We had adult experts come into the classroom to give talks and share experiences about their jobs, and/or their expertise. All of that coincidentally strengthened our classroom culture. It helped counter isolation. It was education for the whole child, and it helped build a stronger, healthier community.

In search of the whole child: What to do and why to do it

Making connections between emotions and behavior is not an easy thing. In schools that do provide discussion in class, a smaller number of students often do the heavy lifting in the class. Others go along for the ride. Furthermore, many teachers feel overwhelmed by the demands of incorporating social-emotional learning into the academic curriculum.

SEL Core Competencies Wheel: Looking at education of the whole child

In the Gates Foundation Primary Sources 2012 report, over 60% of teachers say that student behavioral issues interfere with their ability to teach. 69% of teachers say that in-school behavioral support from therapists and psychologists has a strong or very strong impact on student achievement. A classroom meltdown by a high school student can really make teaching and learning disruptive for everyone. Having alternatives for these students – instead of suspension – is critical.

Relationships and Wholeness

In the classroom, relationships are paramount. As much as I believe in the beauty of pure intellectual endeavors, I have realized that the feeling and connection that underlies it that makes learning real for students. It becomes an experience for the whole child.

When I reached out to my students as individuals, they responded. If I focused on who they were and what they needed, then they blossomed. My experience as a teacher and their experience as students flourished and became more whole.


Becoming Human: Why social-emotional learning is important

Empathy is the social-emotional foundation for learning

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch reminds his daughter Scout of the importance of empathy. He is trying to teach Scout an essential life skill.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee,
To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 3

The role of schooling is to educate. Although we study subjects in school, we also study people. We learn to read, write and calculate. We learn facts, but we also learn how to think. To do this, we connect previously unconnected facts to each other. We empathize, and we weave knowledge. One might call this deep learning. To put it another way, we develop context as we discover that nothing is ever truly isolated.

Empathy is a social-emotional skill. In other words, it helps us understand other people. It helps us understand the context in which events occur. This is critical in a world in which social media plays a dominant role in communicating. As a result, teachers must incorporate empathy and social values into content knowledge.

Dr. Brené Brown reminds us of how to create a genuine empathic connection with someone else in this beautiful animation.

Social Skills in School

I would like to see a mandate for social learning absolutely mandated in every state

Goldie Hawn

Kindergartners with good social skills turn into successful adults. Research shows a strong relationship between social competence in kindergarten and future wellness. Wellness includes improved academic skills and employment opportunity. It also means less criminal activity, better mental health.

Any parent or teacher knows that social skills are essential for success. That leads us to ask: How do you define them? How do you measure them? How do you teach them? As a result, positive classroom environment is essential for social-emotional learning.

Researchers found that kindergarteners’ social skills, like cooperation, listening to others and helping classmates, provided strong predictors of how those children would fare two decades later. Judy Woodruff speaks to Damon Jones of Pennsylvania State University about the findings.

Teaching and parenting resources

Focusing attention

Separating what is important from what is not

Attention is the currency of human existence, our social selves. It is how we bond with our environment and each other. At times we want to escape its control. At other times we desperately need to be held in its embrace. Give me a hug, please. Or yell when I act out. It’s my way of demanding that you truly acknowledge me.

“Pay attention!”
When is the last time you heard that command – or plea?

Teachers and parents know that garnering attention is the secret to success in communicating with children or teens. Without focus, no amount of logic or reasoning gets through to them. Our voice becomes a continual hum of “blah, blah, blah.” Sound without meaning. So what is the secret?

Engagement is the way we focus the mind

Think of the foreground of an image versus the background. It is called the figure-ground relationship by psychologists. All of the information is present in the image, but the foreground stands out.

Parents begin developing attention with their children by pointing. Babies learn to connect pointing with importance. Eye-hand coordination is an early example of how we connect perception to objects.

Scaffolding instruction

Scaffolding and ladder of education

Engagement is like a staircase. It is built step by step.

Passive versus Active Processes

This fascinating new study raises questions about the efficacy of video and animation versus static images in learning. In many cases, a less cluttered field and less movement make retention and learning easier. The questions Cris Castro raises in the research are well framed and worth thinking about.

pay attentionNeed some concrete teaching ideas?
Keep students engaged and focused with these discussion strategies for increased student engagement.

How long can we concentrate/

Is it really only 8 seconds? This article by Pattie Shank debunks the research behind the myth of declining attention span. She explains the multi-step model originally developed by Sohlberg & Mateer:

  1. Focused attention (easiest level)
  2. Sustained
  3. Selective
  4. Alternating
  5. Divided attention (most difficult level)

Attention and curiosity

Let’s think deeply for a minute and ask: Does learning require curiosity?

Curiosity is as much the parent of attention, as attention is of memory.
Richard Whately

Curiosity is essential to the teaching and learning process. Therefore, we need to keep our conversations and instruction engaging and genuine. We need to encourage discovery. It is at the heart of motivation and strong, positive relationships.

Connect with your students

How to Connect Conundrum

The question I always ask myself is: How do I engage and connect with my students? They are a tricky audience. Each one is unique in their background, personality, interests and academic skills.

On the flip side I also explore my connection woes: Failures to establish relationships. Having favorites. Failure to listen. So many problems could be solved by just listening.

Ultimately, success in teaching is based in learning how to connect with students. Perhaps that is the secret to all things. Here are some tips to improve connections:

  • Say hello by name
  • Attention is the currency of interpersonal relationships
  • Attention for bad behavior is functionally the same as attention for good behavior
  • Make a point to spread the wealth (attention): recognize all students
  • Ask open ended questions, that is, questions that have multiple right answers
  • Emphasize the value and practice of sharing ideas
  • Listen, and restate what you hear
  • Have students listen, and restate what they hear
  • Ask students. Find out what students are interested in

Here is a question:
How often should a teacher connect with each student? And what does each connection look like?

  • If you are an elementary teacher with 32 students?
  • If you are a high school teacher with 180 students?
  • If you are an administrator responsible for a whole school?

Connectedness is a state of mind and a set of behaviors. Underlying it is the idea that diversity exists within our organizational self, our group, our relationships. However, our connectedness needs to be reinforced on a regular basis.

I remember when I was a first year teacher in Ithaca, New York. I often looked to my mentor teacher, Irma. She was  master of her trade, full of warmth and wisdom. If I had had a child in second grade, I could have thought of no better teacher.

One day I was plying her with questions about classroom management. After each idea, I replied, “That is great.” After several of these exchanges, she looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You know, if both of us think exactly the same, then one of us isn’t necessary.” I clearly knew who was expendable in that scenario.

In my first year of teaching I had 25 unique children in my third grade class. To know each one was a challenge. Years later, when I was a high school teacher, connecting with 180 odd students was an even greater challenge. I always started with their names. Then their interests. I always tried to vary my interactions.

Years later I became a high school English teacher. We had to teach specific core novels. One of them was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved reading and re-reading it each year. In the novel Atticus Finch explains to his daughter Scout that one ought not to judge others, as she had been doing:

To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus explains to young Scout how we never really know people until we walk around in their skin.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it

I have never forgotten that quote. It still resonates with me. In this particular case, it really speaks to the importance of empathy, of how we connect to other people, and ultimately of our ability to think critically. Each year in 10th grade English class we would explore that concept with what seemed to be hundreds of variations by students. Students tied it into their own lives.

Adapting to the unexpected

Lesson planning is essential, but there are always times when things don’t go as expected. Effective teaching requires the ability to hear what students are saying, whether verbally or non-verbally. In other words, sometimes a lesson tanks.

Responding to the unanticipated requires flexibility, lack of ego, but also a connection to one’s students. The lack of ego is critical. We can never take lesson failure personally. If we do, then we miss a learning opportunity for our students. That is what teaching is about: learning.

Sharing ideas to make them better

I was particularly inspired recently with a drawing by teacher and artist Sylvia Duckworth. It is called “The Anatomy of an Idea” (see below). I found it on Twitter since I follow her – which by the way is a method I recommend to developing personal learning networks.

Share and connect an idea

Empathy: What is it?

The importance and nature of empathy is explored in three videos embedded below. For those who want to know more, check out the Edutopia article by Keyana Stevens from January 2016.

Enjoy the animation on empathy by Brené Brown. It could be used with professional development and it could also be used with students to stimulate discussion. It is deceptive in its simplicity. It illustrates empathy, and what it is not.

Then explore this video interview, What is Empathy? with students at varying ages. It goes well beyond how to spell empathy (which the interviewer apparently asks). Children and teens offers deep insights into how we connect with each other on a deep level.

Are we the only species to experience empathy? Some jaded folks might say not all humans experience it. Some scientists say that empathy is a human concept even though there is ample evidence on how animals comfort each other. I leave it to you for your consideration in the following video, Do Animals Have Empathy?

Connect: Crucial skill for all ages

The World Economic Forum presented an article entitled, The one crucial skill our education system is missing. It focuses on the worrying decline of empathy:

young people are becoming less empathic than ever; American College students showed a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% drop in their ability to see other people’s perspectives

The study makes a pointed observation that our students are disengaging. Distraction may be a part of the cause. For example, 87% of millennials admit to missing out on conversations because they were distracted by their phones. The effect on the ability to focus can be significant.

Ironically, in a world that is increasingly connected, we as individuals, as families, as a society, are becoming less connected.


Teaching and learning is about more than skills. Academic development – including critical thinking – should include social-emotional awareness. That means that developing empathy is a core trait to be nurtured and developed. It is the core of our connectedness. It is our anchor with what is humanly important.

Classroom Management in Age of Relationships

What is Classroom Management?

I have taught and administered in K-12 schools for 25 years. I have evolved over time, becoming more confidant, perhaps no more so than in the area of classroom management and learning how to maintain strong student relationships. It was natural for me to also teach graduate school at some point since virtually all teachers in California are required to obtain 30 graduate hours. I have taught Teaching of Reading, ESL/ELD/SDAIE, Educational Technology, and Educational Research. Yet one commonality had to do with the questions my students asked me on the first day of class.

Almost all of them were employed as K-12 teachers, and they wanted to know about classroom management. They did not want the theory. At least not at first. They wanted the nuts and bolts, the how-to, the step 1,2,3 of it all. So I built it into each course. What did I teach them about managing students? First, a little history and context….

Classroom management: engaging student inquiry

Classroom management is about actively engaging students

Some History

Prior to my own first day of teaching, I had planned for days. I barely slept that night. In college I had been a psychology major, and I had take very few education courses, thinking them extraneous. However, on my first day in teaching third grade, I found I only had 15 minutes of usable material. 25 eight-year-olds sat calmly looking for instructions on what to do next. I was up in the ethers, and they were on earth. What I also discovered on that day was that teaching is a living, breathing process. Yet one needs to plan everything.

Iteration #1: Just as no battle plan in war survives first contact with the enemy, in teaching no lesson plan survives first contact with students.

Plan, plan, plan, and be ready to discard at a moment’s notice. Yet teaching is about students and relationships, not just content. In Ithaca, New York, it all boiled down to a single needy boy in class named Ethan [name changed]. I had 25 students in that third grade classroom, and every one of them was unique. Some knew how to read, but others struggled with sounding out words. Some could write a full paragraph, but others could barely write letters without reversing them. Yet whatever they knew or did not know academically, they were young children looking for bonding, guidance and relationships.

Ethan was a lively, extremely impulsive boy in my class. He could barely contain his enthusiasm in all things. Sometimes his actions were entirely inappropriate. Yet as I learned more about him, I learned of a tragic family history that had altered how he behaved forever. His mother was murdered by his father right in front of him. He was now being raised by his grandmother.

I remember a class field trip I had arranged to a local meteorological station. As students began to get off the bus, my wife – who had volunteered to be a chaperone – jumped up. Someone had put their hand under her dress. We were both young and took it in stride. After the tour of the station, the children climbed back on the bus. Ethan ran up to us before boarding, “Do you want to know who did that to your dress? It was me!” He laughed gleefully and scampered onto the bus. My wife and I couldn’t help but laugh as well.

Ethan and I touched each other’s lives over the course of the school year. He was extremely bright, yet the trauma of witnessing his mother’s death was not something that would easily fade. He needed acceptance as a person, yet clear guidance in behavior. Both took time.

Other students in the class were nearly as complex. I learned over time that teaching is about developing relationships, not just about subjects and standards. If there is no meaningful relationship between teacher and student, then engagement in the learning process is severely diminished.

Iteration #2: In the classroom, the teacher and students learn together. They learn to move together as a single organism.

Some Management Guidelines

Many books and articles have been written about management. There are some good resources that I list below. However, my own approach can be stated simply.

  • Be authentic, be consistent, and be caring
  • Everyone can learn, but you have to make lessons engaging.
  • The classroom is a learning environment. Set high standards.
  • Develop relationships. Treat students with respect, and expect them to treat each other the same.
  • Keep rules simple. If you have more than fingers on your hands, it’s too many.

If you would like a useful article, try this from NEA. It is called Discipline Checklist: Socializing.

If you are a visual learner, then watch Classroom Management Techniques, a series of videos from Edutopia. You may also find this article very useful: Classroom Management: Resource Roundup.

Sharing and Content Curation in Education

The Evolution of Sharing and the Explosion of Content:
Mash-ups, Citizen Journalism, Citing Sources and Original Thought

Education offers multiple opportunities for taking sharing to the next level. The Internet gave birth to the World Wide Web in the early 1990’s with Mosaic and the Netscape web browser. The visual Web in turn gave birth to social media when Mark Zuckerberg first created Facebook. Social media and its many cousins are now an omnipresent part of the lives of most students and many teachers.

Using Social Media to share and curate content

The Sharing Wheel of Content Curation

For many years the emphasis in K-12 has been on obtaining information and then often regurgitating it or, as in the case of Common Core, testing for mastery.

The model of information sharing and curation appears to have shifted from linear hierarchy to a more organic or circular modality. How does this communication evolution impact the classroom?

What is the challenge for modern students in the 21st century? Will creativity and originality survive in a world of sharing, clones and wannabes?

A. Content Curation

Content curation is the first challenge of the 21st century communications shift. It has developed in response to the vast store of information now afforded by the Internet. If one looks at the various job boards, one can now find employment positions for content analysts. These are different folks than database administrators who manage the technology that underpins content and learning management systems.

Why you must curate content in 2015 is a well done article by Julia McCoy. It appeared in Search Engine Journal. McCoy clearly explains the necessity of managing the explosion of web content. She also provides free, cloud-based tools to accomplish that goal. However, one point that really grabbed me was her conclusion:

Though many new tools are appearing on a daily basis and making the job of content curation experts simpler, human involvement is still the most important factor for success.

Curation is only one aspect of managing vast information stores. In fact, the dilemma may be in the compulsion to manage and share as opposed to the creation of novel ideas or original analysis. We need a mental model. One of the most lucid is KQED Mind/Shift’s 4-part series by Justin Reich and Beth Holland (they are co-founders of EdTechTeacher).

The Mind/Shift Model of Curation, Creation and Connection

B. Levels of Sharing

Sharing is the second challenge of the 21st century communications shift. It needs to be seen as a gradient of experiences and interactions. Let’s differentiate between simple sharing (I found something cool); task-related sharing or collaboration to achieve an objective of goal; and the building of community.

  1. Simple sharing: little evaluation other than “liking” the item. Oftentimes there is little annotation. Current studies show that a large number of people typically share (for example, re-tweeting via Twitter) without even completely reading the article. This content surfing rides just above the surface waves of the content. A fascinating article by N. Bakshani entitled Binge Reading Disorder notes that the typical American reads more than 100,000 words a day. But does he or she actually understand even a fraction?
  2. Collaborative work: Sharing for the purpose of achieving a common objective is probably the new model of 21st century work. It is made possible by the “cloud.” Google Drive (often called Google Docs) has become a de facto standard for a collaborative workspace. Of course, there are other Apps as well. The point is that distance is no longer a limiting factor in work. Sharing at this level is more meaningful and typically produces a persistent product.
  3. Community: Over time the ability to share and collaborate can lead to persistent connections. One might call these communities. For example, it is interesting to see how Twitter Chats like #caedchat have evolved to become communities. Facebook friends and family setting has, for many, become the way to keep community alive when distance would otherwise prohibit regular interaction.

C. Creativity and Originality

Creativity is the third challenge of the 21st century communications shift. What is creativity? What does it mean to be original? In the context of the current blog, does over-sharing interfere with originality? Several issues and strategies offer some insights.

Project based learning

The movement to Project Based Learning (PBL) may offer some help into a higher level use of educational standards. The foundation of PBL might be said to be the driving question (sometimes called an essential question). The key point that differentiates it from lower order thinking is that a driving question is open-ended. It is not simply the search for one right answer. Because PBL admits to multiple right answers, it fosters greater creativity in inquiry as well as more original content creation.

Citizen Journalism

One might make the argument that citizen journalism began when the first user reported a breaking story on Twitter before the news rooms could put together their stories. It leads us to ask: What is journalism, and how does it relate to the world of high school students? Can a preconceived narrative interfere with an uncovering of facts? Is it more important to tell or story, or to tell the truth? Journalists put a lot of emphasis on getting the story first; yet more important is to get it right.

Given that many of the younger Millennial generation get their news from Bing, Yahoo, Twitter or an aggregator like Digg, it is important for educators to start developing lessons around standards of content curation and content creation.

Mash-ups, Paying Homage and YouTube

Kids love their music. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams produced the hit song Blurred Lines in 2014. The family of Marvin Gaye said they had copied the guts of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit song, Got to Give it Up. Thicke and Williams said they were paying homage to Marvin Gaye. However, the jury found in favor of the Gaye family, and Thicke and Williams were ordered to pay $7.3 million.

This raises the question: Where does homage end and infringement begin? Copyright has a long history. Many educators and others use short sections of copyrighted work under the doctrine of fair use. But can it survive the 21st century? By extension we can ask the same of sharing. There are excesses for sure. Yet where does sharing start, and when does it become simply copying?


We live in a rapidly changing world dominated by a flood of information, multi-leveled communication, and a wealth of sharing. It is an interwoven phenomenon of both process and content, and it is evolving rapidly. Teachers need to explore and understand how this evolution affects student behavior, student thought and classroom practices. The explosion of information as a practical matter requires both teachers and students to learn how to curate and to evaluate content. It requires that we explore models of sharing in education. When is an idea ours? When and how is it derived? Equal value has to be given to creativity and to one’s ability to use analytic skills.

Case Study in Narrative Seeking

The Rolling Stone case of errant reporting. The issue of sexual assaults on college campuses has been gaining quite a lot of traction recently as the public becomes more aware. In November 2014 Rolling Stone Magazine published an investigative piece about a purported gang rape on the campus of University of Virginia titled A Rape on Campus. The report outraged many. However, others dug deeper. After the Washington Post discovered many inconsistencies in the story – and after an in-depth investigation by the Columbia School of Journalism; and after an in-depth investigation by the local police department  – Rolling Stone Magazine retracted the story. The Columbia School of Journalism concluded:

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking

In psychology the phenomenon of seeking out information and sources that confirm our previously held beliefs is called  “confirmation bias.” As such it definitely has a legitimate place in teaching students to cite and evaluate evidence to support their arguments.

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Reveal is produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The CIR originally produced the I Files. Check out some of their previous work.

The Shift in Privacy

This topic is really an extension of Levels of Sharing explored above. What people know about us has increased with the explosion of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media. What are the boundaries between you and me? Can we have any reasonable expectation of privacy in a world of ever present social media and the powerful algorithms of Google? It will have to be the topic of a future blog.

World without walls: Privacy may not be dead, but it has certainly altered. Most communication about which we are talking occurs in the cloud. The cloud, by definition, is somewhere out of our control. Transparency rules the day

Teaching inspiration

What if

Teaching Inspiration

I am a longtime educator. I have worked in K-12 for 25 years as both classroom teacher and administrator. I have taught college graduate course in educational technology, teaching of reading, action research and more. Over the years I have seen two repeating themes in young teachers: the need for classroom management strategies, and the almost insatiable appetite to believe that it would get easier.

I am also a parent of four children and grandparent to four more. That happens if you hang around long enough, and your children are inclined to repeat some of the same mistakes you made. I see how the nature vs. nurture dialectic plays out uniquely in each generation. The English literature teacher in me sees it like one of Shakespeare plays, a theme in variation, ever the same yet with stylistic differences.

The older I became, I have found that younger adults would often defer to me. Whether it is kindness or respect was sometimes hard to know. However, I definitely remember several adults who asked me if they should go into the teaching profession. My stock reply:

There are two things in this world I never suggest people do unless they feel called to it: having children, and teaching.

Perspective and Context

I entered teaching before I ever had my own children. I always knew I wanted children ever since I was young. I do not know if that is typical for a young man, or was it just an understanding that I had with myself in one of those intimate conversations in the mirror? When I was a teenager, I pictured myself becoming a doctor; maybe a surgeon. When I was even younger than that, I thought of my future self becoming a “scientist.” It seemed to wrap up all that I thought was important in “becoming a man.”

Fast forward to college. I became a Psychology major and English minor. It took six long years with multiple deviations on my path; I ran away from home at age 24 to get married. Then I took my first real job as a third grade teacher in Ithaca, New York. I made a staggering $6350 my first year. At least now I can say that was last century’s wages.

I remember that I came home and cried after my first two days on the job. Literally. I realized that my four years of college has not prepared me to deal with a room of 25 eight-year-olds. (Yes, class size was smaller then.) My wife told me I could not quit no matter how I felt. I had to stick it out for the year. I had signed a contract, and that contract spoke to my character.

My wife was finishing her four-year degree that Fall. We had one source of income. We had just settled into a life in snow-belt country. I stayed on the job. After the brief tears and doubts, I embraced the challenge.

Moment of Truth

I realized that I knew virtually nothing about how to teach reading. That was easily my first order of business The other was organizing the days into manageable chunks of instructional time. So one evening a week I got in the car and drove one hour to a Teaching of Reading class at Syracuse University. Because I had an actual teaching position, I found myself in the same class as “experienced teachers.” I was ever aware of the irony, yet I knew I had found my calling. I just desperately needed to know how to fulfill it.

Searching for Inspiration: The Not Yet of Mastery

Yes, we all need it: teachers, students, administrators, parents. Board of Education members and perhaps even a few politicians might need it – along with some backbone. But what is inspiration? Why do we need it?

Human beings are complex creatures, and teaching is one of the most complex acts of human engineering conceived. Taylor Mali lets us know what teachers really make.  Daniel Pink’s video explores what motivates us. Carol Dweck explores the growth mindset and the power of “not yet.”

We have free will, the ultimate in growth mindsets. With the ability to win big comes the chance to fail miserably. Our goals and objectives may be different, yet we have the near universal need to believe we are doing the right thing – regardless of the reasons. Doubt is a necessary part of human nature. We aspire, we choose, and we doubt. THe surest motivation is that which comes from within. We seek inspiration more than we seek answers.


Creating an engaging learning environment can be arguably said to be the teacher’s most difficult task. However, engaging students is a function of hard work by the teacher. It is not just exuberance. For example, Buck Institute of Education is a leading force in Project Based Learning. Projects are meant to invite participation. They typically begin with entry events. “Entry events should engage and intrigue, and provoke students to want to know more.” Feedback and tasks are thoughtful, genuine and have a linkage to that entry event. What a great philosophy of learning!

Imagination, Play and Control

Imagination is inspiration’s cousin. It often requires a period of fermentation. Sometimes it requires a certain amount of playfulness. It gives voice to our emotional nature. Like it or not, school is place where we learn to play and interact as well as solve problems and master content.

Google’s 20% genius time approach to stimulating engagement and achievement is based on the premise that if you allow your talent pool – whether engineers or students – some choice and control in what they create, they will turn out superior results. In Google’s case, they allow their engineers one day a week to work on projects of their own choice. Both Gmail and Google Talk were developed in this way. ESchoolNews writes a fascinating article about how two English teachers adapted this approach to their classes.

What if

Imagine what if. What if learning were inspired and engaging? What if students were motivated to learn? What if they could follow their interests? What if teachers felt supported, valued and had all the tools they needed? What if a child’s education were the most important thing in the world?


For further reading, check out “Half the World is Not Enough” by Lev Grossman. This Time Magazine article explores and dissects Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to get every human online.

Problem and Solution

Problems with Solutions

Many times we are faced with what is clearly a problem, but we fail to find solutions. It often results from a failure to ask the right questions. As often happens, we confuse the metric with the causes of the problem.

The Nation’s Report Card

The United States annually administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is nicknamed the nation’s report card. It assesses what students know and can do in critical subject areas. The Christian Science Monitor recently released the results and analysis for the 2013 NAEP report card. Below are two selected quotes:

A full 25 percent of 12th-graders in 2013 scored below basic, compared with 20 percent in 1992, and just 37 percent scored at or above proficient, compared with 40 percent in 1992. Those scoring at the proficient level could answer questions requiring them to recognize the paraphrase of an idea from a historical speech and the interpretation of a paragraph in such a speech.

Scoring well on NAEP was strongly correlated with students who reported that reading isenjoyable,” said they “learn a lot” when they read, and said they regularly discuss what they read in class. [emphasis added]

The first paragraph clearly represents an educational problem. The second paragraph indicates a possible path to a solution. It is natural to ask, what are the root cause? What is going on here in these classrooms with these students? It might be the underlying instructional practice, it might be educational funding, it might be too much television and media consumption at the expense of reading, or it might be the result of shifting cultural-economic patterns in society. I am sure other options could be hypothesized as well.


Let’s concentrate on one problem reported in the findings: students have difficulty recognizing the paraphrase of an idea from a longer text. Instead of “paraphrase” we could easily substitute other words such as summary, main idea or gist. The natural question to ask is, what is the cause of this inability to synthesize knowledge into a paraphrase?

Then we can ask, how do we fix it? What is the solution? The key may lie in the second quote: scores of proficient and above were associated with enjoyment and value placed by students on reading. Just as importantly, they regularly discuss what they read in class. Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis; Monday is around the corner.


On the road from problem to solution, there are some pitfalls.

  • Blame game:
    Unfortunately, once we think we have found or named a cause, we often look for someone to blame. This type of “accountability” finds much of its strength in sanctions and punitive responses. It finds it strength in fear. Blame is so unproductive, and it rarely leads to a solution.
  • Paralysis by analysis:
    Ok. Let’s think about this. Then let’s think some more. Too much analysis can lead to a failure to try to solve the problem. Sometimes empiricism is the best method for exploring solutions to complex problems: hypothesize, try something, observe results and then evaluate. Repeat.
  • Someday/ Monday:
    Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis: someday someone will find an answer. However, on Monday all those students will show up in your classroom. The Someday/Monday dichotomy captures one of the core challenges in teacher professional development around education technology, but it also applies to general instructional strategies as well.


In first looking at the Nation’s Report Card summary, I must admit that it is easy to get overwhelmed. I decided to focus more on reading since it is a core skill. I have been a Reading Specialist and a high school English teacher during my career, so I have a natural interest in language and reading. In the elementary grades I found that teaching main idea was extremely challenging. It was no less so in high school. Why? I have learned that it does not exist as a discrete skill, but it is a set of thinking skills that are highly influenced by context.

The light went on for me as I thought about this. Main idea – or summary – was an analogue to Noam Chomsky’s theory of transformational grammar. (Don’t run! Let me explain – briefly!) I read Chomsky in my studies as a reading specialist. He was a linguist who posited that there was a deep structure to all grammatical structures within our brains. It reflected it self in multiple ways as part of the surface grammar – which always seemed to be in flux. That is why trying to teach grammar has been such a bear of a task.

When I taught English Language Learners in what were then called ESL classes, I learned that students acquired language. Through multiple variations in context and comprehensible input, they started to master the underlying grammar. In the same way, students learn to summarize or grasp the gist of passages through discussions of what the gist is. You might call this collaborative summarizing. In educational psychology one might call it the social construction of knowledge.

I had the opportunity to film some instructional practices in the classroom that offer instructional strategies that target the ability to summarize. It is not an innate ability. Rather it is a learned set of skills that require clear instruction, time and repeated practice. I learned a great deal as I filmed collaborative summarizing – in a third grade classroom and in a 7th grade classroom. The methods could easily be applied to high school. They are posted on YouTube; see below.

Comments on Coal Miners and Teachers

Many are familiar with the story of the canary and the coal mine. It is derived from actual historical practice. Coal mining has always been a dangerous trade. Early on the miners learned that a canary could be used as an early warning system, as a way to warn of deadly gases that had no smell. If the miners found that the canary in the cage had died, they then knew the air was bad, and it was time to get out or put on respirators.

The coal miners were practical people. They knew that some unseen thing existed below the surface that might kill them. They probably did not know that it was carbon monoxide. They used an empirical method that worked and saved lives. If a canary died, they did not blame the canary for not being strong enough. I taught for 25 years, and I believe that teachers are like coal miners: They show up everyday, mining minds, looking for practical methods that work. Like the miners, they make connections based on their observations.

When I reviewed the Nation’s Report Card, I connected the findings to the video work I had done as well as to my own teaching experiences. Collaborative summarizing works because students are social, and they want to learn and share. However, they need an instructional strategy to guide them. That is what good teaching is about. It is complex. It is empirical. It is a solution to the problem.

Education at the Crossroads of Humanity and Technology

Learning Redefined

Robert Gardner of Harvard has written extensively about multiple intelligences, a theory he developed in 1983. There is not just one way to be smart. There are many. The same might be said about learning. Is there one best way, or multiple ways? How is it that we define and measure it? The answers to those questions profoundly affect how we approach teaching and learning.

In what has been called The Second Machine Age, innovation has exploded exponentially. Globalization has continued to proliferate, and the world has become flatter. Robots do more and more of the work we once did. Big data has dramatically increased in its scope and dominance while privacy has been marginalized. As a result, the calculus of how we create, manufacture and implement has evolved. We find ourselves at a crossroads between technology and our humanity.

The modern classroom has become ground-zero for many of these changes. Before children ever even think of entering the work force, they enter our schools. Our teachers have been tasked with making sense of it all while managing the daily life of classroom activity. It is somewhat like the challenge of building an airplane while flying in it. Yet teachers persevere.

The students, of course, are the native inhabitants of the present. The future they face is partly the result of what we continually create for them in the classroom. Pedagogy has now become a proxy for social policy as we write the script for tomorrow.

We need the right questions

Pablo Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” He had an unusual way to looking at the world. He inspired “Cubism,” an art movement that put a premium on subjective expression. He could portray the horror of war in Guernica or the tender bond between Mother and Child. Both paintings (shown below) might be asking deep questions that start with “Why?” Why is there war? How strong is the bond between mother and child? Why is it that both can live side by side in the same world?

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Mother and Child (1921)

Mother and Child by Pablo Picasso (1921)

Learning is not just finding the answer. It is essential for students to learn how to ask and for teachers to learn how to guide them. Inquiry is both a skill-set and a mind-set. That often means that we challenge conventional wisdom. One of the goals of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), now adopted by 46 states, is to shift thinking. KQED’s Mind/Shift also provides a scaffold of ideas and research for transforming our thinking about learning.

Just what can machines teach us?

David Brooks wrote a fascinating article in the N. Y. Times, What Machines Can’t Do. He cites the changes in technology that appear to be propelling us into massive societal change – whether we want it or not. Yet he transforms that analysis into the often unasked question: What is it that we humans can do that machines cannot? The answers to the question yield significant consequences for educational practice.

What humans can do is pose questions. Perhaps the act of inquiry and choice is a necessary expression of our humanity. It was Socrates who once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  If we adapt that reasoning to the modern classroom, then we might derive these corollaries:

  • To know without doing is not understanding.
  • Higher order thinking without the “higher” is just a “lot” of lower order thinking.
  • To become a lifelong learner requires personal responsibility and internal motivation.
  • To pose relevant questions can be taught and learned.
  • There is no such thing as a foregone conclusion.
  • True inquiry must always admit to more than one right answer.

To think is to be.

It is the foundation of all knowledge. It is a paraphrase of what Descartes concluded when he said, “Cogito ergo sum.” It literally means, “I think. Therefore, I am.”

Learning by Inquiry: What is it to be human?

Let’s postulate for a minute that modern education should be driven by inquiry. We might additionally posit that “projects” are one of the most efficient methods for integrating raw knowledge into true understanding. We could then pose a series of “essential” or “driving” questions built around a scaffold of core questions relevant to a particular discipline. The questions could be a substitute for the traditional textbook “units.” We might then ask the essential question: “What is it to be human?”

An “essential question” is the foundation for a project-based learning (PBL) unit. It is important to understand that PBL has a great deal of specific content. Questions help organize the mind, and information that is unorganized quickly flees its home in “working memory” into the vast wasteland of something once memorized for a test. Inquiry based learning integrates perfectly into Common Core State Standards. (To learn more about PBL, visit Edutopia and Buck Institute.)

Let’s assume that we wanted to be somewhat practical in terms of adapting K-12 education to our changing world. Technology and the rise of digital materials are clearly impacting the modern classroom. The Second Machine Age (2014) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT delivers an intriguing hypothesis regarding this digital revolution. If the first machine age (that is, the “industrial revolution”) began with the steam engine, then the second machine age has begun with the computer, cheap digital goods and globalization. We are at the cusp or “inflection point” – a period of exponential change – in our economy and society.

Implications for education

1. Implications for learning

It is clear that that the digital revolution has reached the classroom. One of the historical trends that The Second Machine Age describes is that of “lag.” After any new technology – whether electricity or computers – we have a period of time during which new “complements” or processes get developed. In this case, teachers have LCD projectors, students have tablets, and the schools have the Internet, digital textbooks and learning management systems. Learning is becoming more individually differentiated simply because it can become more differentiated.

Secondly, higher-order thinking (including the ability to innovate or be creative) have taken on increased importance. Project-inquiry and problem-solving are part of the trend. Because of the shift to analysis and inquiry – and the requirement that students defend their reasoning (cite from text or orally explain logic and connections) – students are often reaching different conclusions. That is because they often begin with different open-ended questions. This is the world of multiple right answers.

The increased use of collaboration by students has helped create a more “divergent thinking” model of teaching and learning. Believe it or not, the introduction of Common Core State Standards has provided a superior scaffold for inquiry and divergence because it focuses on standards rather than prescribing how things should be taught. As students collaborate, they share perspectives and broaden their own horizons. With modern technology it is even possible to easily collaborate across broad geographic boundaries. Indeed, collaboration and globalization is the current economic trend.

2. Implications for teaching

Schools now have the Internet, digital textbooks and learning management systems. They and their students increasingly store documents, resources and student work in the “cloud.” As personalized learning becomes more of a de facto reality, teachers have to shift to using technology as a matter of survival. Educational technology provides a set of tools necessary to master large amounts of content in their disciplines. It also allows teachers to manage learning, assignments and assessment in a way that was inconceivable before the current revolution

Having been in education for more than 25 years, my experience is that teachers deeply care about the children and adolescents in their class. If they don’t, then they generally find themselves in a different profession. However, it creates a dilemma when they see many children struggle. They can be caught between being a social worker and an instructor; between the art and science of pedagogy. Humanity meets policy in the classroom.

3. The implications for standardization and assessment

Taken together, the insights of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) and Picasso (“computers … can only give you answers”) offer a philosophical foundation of inquiry-based learning. To question is an essential expression of our humanity. What does it mean to be educated?

How we answer it has profound implications for our schools. It is important to note that a case of cognitive dissonance occurs. The question, “What should schools teach?” does not always correspond to the previous one, “What does it means to be educated?” Therefore, we need to ask, “Why not?”

The answer may partially lie in the convoluted and complex relationship between various stakeholders in K-12 education: teachers, parents and students as well as government and community. The incredibly passionate battle over Common Core State Standards (CCSS) may provide a living case history in the making. 45 states have adopted CCSS, and the battles in those states are far from over.  It is partly a battle over the role of assessment. Some refer to it as the runaway dominance of testing in controlling what happens in the classroom.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch railed against the over-emphasis on testing in Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010). (Check out her current blog about the difficulties in the New York rollout of CCSS.) The newest assessments for CCSS are computerized. That then spirals back to the questions: What will be the role of machines in our education? Where do we humans and our penchant for creativity fit in? Does everything need to be standardized?

Bill and Melinda Gates take the view of many in the business community about Common Core. That is, as a country we need to get our students ready to compete on the world stage. They say there are three myths that confuse the debate over America’s schools. Here they are:

  • Myth 1: parents haven’t been involved.
  • Myth 2: students need to take even more high stakes tests.
  • Myth 3: Common Core will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.

At the risk of having the reader believe the myths are facts, you may want to read the article. What is the final answer? Well, it depends on your question.

Do we belong to the whole?

American education has stood apart from society as a separate institution, often insulated from the outside world. Forces such as politics, the economy and “progress” have crashed at the sea walls of the schools, ebbing and flowing like tidal changes. Institutional change in school has lagged, but it has been steadily growing. The new machine age – our technological and economic revolution – is inevitably sweeping us all into its metaphoric bosom.

There is an implied “social contract” between educational institutions and society. The youth of today are tomorrow’s adults, business leaders, scientists and politicians. They are the fabric that will bind us. Yes, we belong to the whole. Like every generation before us, we need to do cherish what makes us unique. How we educate our youth today will define how humanity manifests itself tomorrow.