Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Other Side of Culturally Responsive Teaching

I have spent a lot of time working on achievement gaps and culturally responsive instruction.  Most often this means addressing the needs of lower quartile students.  But what if we look at these issues from another perspective?  What if we consider the needs of students at the top?  Here in Silicon Valley that often means students who are children of immigrants, often from India, China, Korea and Eastern Europe.  In the bubble of Silicon Valley, particularly in its private schools, these students often achieve at amazing levels.  They go often to Cal, the Ivy League, USC, the University of Chicago and other elite institutions.  What will they encounter?  Will their backgrounds be respected?  Will they be prepared for a different sort of diversity in Chicago, Manhattan or New Haven?  How will they react the first time someone assumes they’re Japanese or Latino or African-American?  What will these experiences mean to them?  How can we better prepare them for diversity and adversity?  Will they be prepared to appropriately interact with peoples they’ve only seen on TV?  What stereotypes do they harbor that we must address before they take the next step to adulthood? 

The I, Too, Am Harvard project highlights some of the issues students of African-American backgrounds experience when they reach Harvard.  What issues might our Silicon Valley students encounter?  How can we help them navigate the minefield of race, culture and ethnicity?

I don’t have the answers, but I am spending a lot of time thinking about it.  What thoughts do you have?   

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eating with Class

Published simultaneously at It Takes A Kitchen and Let's Improve Schools Now

I spend most of my time here discussing the intersection of food and family.  But it is my career that has kept me from writing much over this past year and now brings me back.  In fact, I am coming back to write in both blogs, one single entry that bridges each topic – food and education.  Over the last four years I have had the immense pleasure of working with a group of nine high school students as they navigated high school – beginning to end, through AP classes, college apps, prom, spirit contests, assemblies, team building activities, anti-drug lectures, and even learning how to breath to relieve stress.  I firmly believe that a formal education is fundamentally a human endeavor based upon relationships and communication between people.  A deep, meaningful education cannot be replicated online or standardized.  Working with nine teens over four years’ time validates this belief. 

Furthermore, I firmly believe that relationships of all kinds are best formed over food.  Stop and think about it… Have you ever lead a group of community volunteers?  Offer food at meetings and people might show up.  Watch the conversation after church over a donut.  Think about your romantic relationships – I will bet they all included quite a bit of time over meals.  Want to get strangers talking?  Feed them something delicious.  Food brings people together and uncovers layers to relationships that will go unnoticed until sharing food. 

Over the last four years my group of students, my advisory (they call themselves Janda’s Pandas) have met weekly and food was key.  Truth be told, it was almost always junk food, but food nonetheless.  Without food, they were lethargic and bored.  Throw a gummy bear at ‘em, and it was like throwing a match into a box of dynamite.   However, in their junior and senior years we started making waffles in class.  The smell filled the building attracting the appetites of kids from other advisories.  Chocolate chips, whipped cream, and fruit all made great toppings and the leftover chips became quick snacks for them as they wandered by throughout the week.  Eating these waffles almost did as much for team building as the ropes course their sophomore year or the ocean kayaking their junior year. 

However, the culinary coup de grace for this group did not come until the end.  During their senior class trip to Laguna Beach last week we all ate at Mozambique.  Not knowing much about East African cuisine I cannot say much for the authenticity of the experience (they had pasta dishes and burgers?) but the authenticity of the meal was not at all the point.  The point was camaraderie, family.  We laughed about memories, we dreamt about college and we shared our food.  A couple kids shared a gigantic plate of seafood, working up a sweat to finish it all while the rest of us marveled.  They all left in a flash while I collected their desserts only to deliver them at the start of their class kumbaya moment.  Just a couple nights later, back home in San Jose, they all wanted to do it again after their Baccalaureate ceremony so we grabbed dinner in Santana Row.  I am left wondering if they would have liked to go out to eat every week. 
We already know that food quality is a major selling point for colleges today.  Some schools are approaching food differently (The Edible Schoolyard and Appleton, Wisconsin’s Central Alternative Charter High School are great examples) and seeing real behavioral and cognitive results.  But our efforts do not have to be so vast.  Simply sharing a meal with our students can make a difference in their level of commitment and joy in the process. 

“My kids” are now off to college – from coast to coast and from north to south – they are off to discover independence, test boundaries, live dreams, and seek wild success.  They will do phenomenal things, each in their own way.  But none of them will do it alone.  They will be supported by friends, professors, mentors and new advisors.  Bonds with these new people will be formed, often over food.  I hope they will tell me about it.  I hope when they return we will eat together again.  I miss them already.

Next year I start another four years with a new crop of freshmen.  We will eat together sooner.  We will build our bonds earlier…with waffle batter.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Does going private hurt our community?

The start of every school year sees the media filled with articles and editorials about the quality of American schools, teacher preparation and the latest in school redesigns.  This year is no different.  The first of the super-provocative articles I noticed this year had a title to grab all - If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person at Slate Magazine.  When I first saw the title I anticipated a humorous satire for no other reason than the use of the simplistic word, bad.  Any time a student of mine uses the word I circle it and write WC for “word choice.”  High school kids can find more advanced, expressive and eloquent vocabulary than that.  Then I read the article.  This really wasn’t satire.  And it wasn’t all that funny.  But it sure did make me think. 

It made me think about my love and appreciation of public schools.  They were created out of a commitment to our democracy.  A democracy depends on an educated populace.  A democracy depends on a collective commitment of all to each other.  Public schools are our greatest manifestation of our democracy – or they could be.  Sadly, we have allowed far too many public schools to sink.  Of course we can look at funding formulas and property taxes as one source of the problems, but we have too many examples of poorly funded schools in low-property value neighborhoods that do succeed.  What’s the difference?  I suggest one major determinant of a successful school is parent and community involvement.

What would happen if all the families that send their kids to private schools chose instead to send their kids to public schools?  Where would those families’ energies go?  Would those parents commit themselves to volunteering and funding the best programs available for their neighborhood schools?  Would they insist on best practices for all students?  Where would their $58 billion in tuition and fees go?  (in 2010 according to the National Center for Education Statistics there were over 5.1 million students in private schools at $8549 each and more than 2.2 million students in Catholic schools at $6018 each)  How might our public schools be transformed?  How might our communities be transformed?  How would our democracy be transformed?   

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


As we all embark on another school year, it's worth thinking about the meaning of our work as educators.  I found these two items today that I think are important and timely. 

From The Atlantic an article about college choices - or rather school choices.  I think its time to really ask kids what sort of educatio they are looking for.  And it's time we ask ourselves what sort of education we are providing.  And that leads us to...

From the Wall Street Journal an article about why many great teachers are looking at other careers but why they are exactly the ones best suited to create the change we need in our schools and communities.

A few things to ponder....

Monday, March 25, 2013

World Class Education: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students

On three occasions in recent months I have had the pleasure to see Dr. Yong Zhao speak about creativity and education.  Dr. Zhao is a professor at The University of Oregon and director of Zhao Learning and ObaWorld Global Education.  His new book is World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.   Zhao was a great speaker, filling his presentations with self-deprecating humor, gentle teasing, and incredible research on creativity and learning.   He is also delightfully charismatic.  If you have a chance to see him speak, do so.

Here are my many take-ways:
1.       We need to first consider what the purpose of an education is.  Until we can decide on that, we will be hard-pressed to change anything.  Furthermore, comparing ourselves to other countries with different purposes is to compare apples and oranges.  As Dr. Zhao put it…We are racing to the top of what?  We have a Common Core for what?
2.       We also need to define success.  By virtue of having a college-age son, he now defines educational success as that which keeps you from living in your parents’ basement.  To put it more academically, that means you know how to do something that others wish to pay you for, you’re psychologically independent, and you are socialized and nice enough to become part of a community.  Sure sounds different than a test score!
3.       There are certain “known knowns” – Human nature is diverse, curious and creative.  The economy has changed.  Information is everywhere.  The world is more globalized than ever.
4.       Schools as we know them are like sausage makers…we do our best to take diverse and disparate inputs and grind them down into a standardized product.  We take individual differences, multiple intelligences, cultural diversity, curiosity, passion, and creativity and squeeze them through schooling to spit out employable people.  We are in essence, in the business of channeling and narrowing creativity.  I am sure this sounds cynical or depressing, but seriously consider how much room we allow for individualization and celebration of unique talents, interests and skills.  To what degree are our evaluations focused on individuality?  Do we celebrate rebelliousness?
5.       At the age of 5 most kids measure in the genius levels for creativity through tests of divergent thinking.  Then we give them some formal education and these levels plummet.  They recover after people retire. 
6.       The total value of manufactured goods produced in the US has been increasing while the number of manufacturing jobs has been decreasing.
7.       We are in the midst of a re-setting of the economy, not a recession.  We are dealing with a hollowing out of the middle class, but have growth at the ends – high income and low income jobs are growing, while middle class jobs are being lost.
8.       So who will be a new middle class?  The Creative class – Entrepreneurs – Business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, Intrepreneurs, and Policy entrepreneurs.
9.       Somebody at Google or Apple apparently said, “If you want to be managed you are not employable.”  We are entering an economy demanding creativity, flexibility and fast learning.  Row with us or get off the boat.
10.   Entrepreneurs are those with creative solutions and abilities to see them through to fruition.
11.   Good entrepreneurs are confident, passionate, have global competency, have friends, are creative, unique, risk-taking, empathetic and are alert to opportunity.
12.   Schools should come with warning labels – sausage making has side-effects!  Great test scores do not equal creativity.  Consider the following…
a.       China was #1 on all three areas of the most recent PISA test
b.      60 US independent schools took the test also
c.       Arne Duncan found the results appalling.  Obama called it our Sputnik moment.
d.      These test results also gave rise to a book, Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems. 
e.      But….if George Washington had used an existing international model he would have never envisioned America!
f.        The Chinese actually are not happy about these results….see below.
13.   Historically, the US is not getting worse based on achievement test scores – it has always been bad…since the 1950s.  Why?  American kids are confident and enjoy school but don’t test well, whereas Asian kids lack confidence, don’t enjoy school, test better than anyone else – and are not creative.  As one Chinese Premier apparently said, the next Steve Jobs will not be Chinese.  
14.   There is a direct negative correlation between math scores and entrepreneurialism.  The greater our focus on math and science (and their test scores), the more we are sacrificing confidence and talent – the key elements of entrepreneurialism.
15.   The new paradigm in education must be a new sausage maker – one that enhances human capacity rather than diminishing it, as our current system does.  Though it is to be pointed out, US schools clearly are not as successful as sausage-making as we continue to turn out entrepreneurs and inventors at far greater rates than the rest of the world.
16.   In other words, we are not as effective at killing creativity as other countries. 
17.   We have local control and that allows for variety, creativity, some individualization and ultimately a variety of students with wide ranging talents.  The Common Core and a growing obsession with testing is only going to stifle what we do well.
18.   58% of Apple’s revenues go to US-based employees even though the vast majority of their employees are in China.  The creative class is in the US.
19.   Pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is the wrong way to go, particularly if it is at the expense of creativity and questioning.
20.   The best education trains you to ask questions.
21.   This new Age of Abundance has finally made the right side of the brain useful.  In prior times, survival was key, therefore a limited numbers of skills.  But creativity is needed now.
22.   We must shift from training future employees to training future entrepreneurs.
23.   I really need to read a few more books, The Rise of the Creative Class, The Innovator’s Classroom and The Disruptive Classroom, and Loren Katz’s The Race Between Education and Technology.
24.   Dyslexia is not a problem, it is just different brain wiring yielding different visual perception and a great ability to be creative, artistic and to see patterns.
25.   The quicker you give kids answers the more you kill curiosity.
26.   Schools and grades discourage risk-taking.
27.   US Schools are good because we are local, decentralized and open.  We are forgiving, gender neutral, separated from church and state and publically funded.

Throw any of these ideas into conversation with teachers, administrators, human resources professionals, or parents and I assure you, you will start a conversation.  I found his points validating, inspiring and provocative.  If you do too, make it a point to grab Dr. Zhao’s book and find a place to see him speak.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Great PD Speaker

Remember when you started teaching and you had to go to all sorts of professional development sessions when you really needed to spend time planning and grading?  Remember how few of them spoke to your needs?  Remember feeling frustrated that you truly wanted to learn and think about these things but you were just trying to keep your head above water?  I remember those days…barely.  I consider myself fortunate now to be skilled enough in planning and teaching that I get to go to PD sessions and enjoy them.  Recently I had the opportunity to attend PD sessions by two speakers who were excellent.  Rather than attempt to tell you everything they said, I would just like to share my take-aways.
The first speaker was John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School . First, let me say that Medina was a wonderful PD speaker.  Speaking to a crowd of teachers – on a Saturday no less – is not an easy task.  Medina brings charisma, humor and ease paired with engaging, provocative content.  There’s your recipe for success as a speaker.  So what did I take from him?

1. Read his book ASAP

2.     The brain is designed to solve problems outside while moving in varying meteorological conditions.  Certainly begs the question…Why do we have schools designed as we do if we want to maximize learning?
3.      We really don’t understand much about how memory works.
4.      It really takes 10 years of thinking about and re-encountering information to truly learn it.  Stop and think about this and consider how fast we cover curricula in schools.  Consider how quickly young teachers frequently leave the profession.  Consider how little support we give young teachers over the course of their first decade.  Consider how proficient we expect any professional to be after just a couple years.  Being good at something takes a while.  Being great?  See Malcolm Gladwell and Outliers.
5.      The brain doesn’t really allow multi-tasking; the medial parietal lobe doesn’t allow it.  I don’t actually know what this means, but I like knowing the brain doesn’t allow multi-tasking.  Now I can focus on one thing and have evidence to support me!
6.      A 26 minute nap begun 12 hours after the midpoint of the prior night’s sleep helps your brain reset itself, and you can then be more aware, better rested, and ready to learn.  I really like this idea for everyone.  And you don’t even have to sleep…simply getting horizontal helps.  Rosenkind at NASA measured the effects of this and saw a 34% increase in performance. 
7.     Generally speaking, we are all either larks, hummingbirds or owls – morning people, day people, and night people.  This is hardwired for most of us.  What would happen if we aligned students’ types and their school schedules?  What if we did the same for teachers?  Imagine lark teachers, teaching lark students from 7 to noon.   
8.       Longevity, youthfulness and aging are determined by your degree of being sedentary.  You can change this.  Regular aerobic exercise for 16 weeks can improve executive functioning of the brain.  However, it takes three years of aerobic exercise to see improvement in memory.  And anaerobic exercise has no impact on brain function.
9.      The single greatest predictor of academic success is the emotional condition and stability of the home.
10.   Stress isn’t the problem; it’s our ability to handle it.  We all have stress.  Improved brain functioning allows us to handle the stress better.   

My greatest take-away was more of a validation.  The way the brain learns and the way we organize school are in opposition.  We could improve schools, learning and over-all achievement if we applied what we know about the brain and child development more effectively.  

In my next post I will share what I learned from three sessions with Dr. Youn Zhao, author of World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.