Tag Archives: teaching

What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life


Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?

2,000 Hours

Through one of the many blogs I read – The Edublogger – I heard about this intriguing new project: 2,000 Hours. A fellow English teacher, Charles Ripley, is going to document his teaching-related hours for the next year, starting with the summer.

This could be a fascinating way to approach issues like teacher pay, and is a creative way to use the blogging platform – I can already picture students documenting their learning throughout the year with a blog…

Of course, after reading Mr. Ripley’s initial post, I cannot help but recall some of the great clips from the Daily Show a couple of months ago on similar issues.

In any case, I’m sure 2,000 Hours will be a fascinating site to follow over the next year.

Innovation in Education

When I found out that the Google Teacher Academy would be held here in Seattle this year, I decided that now was the ideal time to apply for it. I’ve been looking at GTA for a couple of years now and always hesitated because I didn’t want to make the trek to some distant locale for a one-day workshop. And with our district likely going forward with Google Apps in the next year, I started thinking about the application process.

Like a good English teacher, I’ve drafted and will revise my responses to the written questions, but I also want to plan out my video ahead of time. The written responses are fairly natural for me, but the video requires some serious thinking. There are two topics to choose from, and I decided that “Innovation in Education” would be a better fit for me than “Motivation and Learning.” But what do I do? What should I include in the video? What kind of video should I make? What the heck is “Innovation in Education”?Innovation

What is Innovation?

As is often the case, I begin with definitions. What is innovation? Webster’s defines it as “a new idea, method, or device.” Wikipedia points the word’s etymology to the Latin innovare, which means “to renew or change.” Good definitions, but innovation also goes deeper than that. Many inventions are new or changed, as are many theories. The difference between invention and innovation, though, is that an innovation is “put to use, is accepted by users and effectively causes a social or commercial reorganization(Wikipedia).

In other words, innovation is about taking something and using it in a new way – a way that changes the way we think about that idea, method, or device. The Chia Pet, for example, is an invention, but does it cause us to reorganize what we do? No. In contrast, the internet has fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world around us – it is an innovation. Microsoft Windows is an innovation. WYSIWYG editing is an innovation. Electronic fart machines are not.

Of course, innovation is more than just products. Ideas can be just as revolutionary as products. Based on the definitions above, republican democracy is a tremendous innovation – it has completely altered the world as we know it. Similarly, the assembly line was a tremendous innovation because it caused us to reorganize the way we did business in the 20th century.

Innovation is not change for the sake of change – it’s refining things that work and replacing things that don’t. Henry Ford saw the need for a specific change in his business, so he devised a new method that caused commercial reorganization. That is innovation. The Romans saw a need for change on the battlefield, so they devised a new method called the Testudo, which protected their legions and allowed them to move together as armored units. That is innovation. Knute Rockne and a small Catholic school called Notre Dame utilized something called the forward pass to upset powerhouse Army 35-13 and changed the way that football was played. That is innovation.

The Innovator

In addition to these definitions, there is also some research – specifically the work of Everett M. Rogers – about those people who are the innovators. In his work, Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers tries to explain how (and why) new ideas, methods, and devices take hold – how they become innovations. One of the key components in the process is the people involved in the process of adopting the innovation, of which he says there are 5 categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The innovators, he says, are the risk-takers – the people willing to try something out in the hopes that it makes their lives or work better. As risk takers, these are also the people who are willing to fail if it means they have a chance of doing something great. Typically, Rogers says, these people are young, often not wanting for money, and interact most frequently with other innovators. Comparatively, early adopters jump on board after innovators have done test runs, early majority take their time and watch what happens to the first two groups, while late majority and laggards are slow to jump on board, if they jump on at all.

Rogers’ work reveals one more interesting detail: innovators are not the group that make an innovation successful. They may be the group that tries something first, but the majority look at them as being something akin to mad scientists. It is the early adopters, however, that are also the opinion leaders; they are the group that the majority will look to and trust because they are taking a more responsible risk. While the innovators are often young and frequently considered naive, the early adopters often demonstrate prudence in the innovations they adopt and are viewed as more responsible because of it. They are typically the group refining and perfecting the ideas and methods put forth by the innovators. It is because of this that early adopters often make or break a particular innovation.

Innovation in Education

So what does this look like in education? What are the educational equivalents of the assembly line, the Testudo, and the forward pass? What does it mean to be an innovator in education? No doubt the Socratic Method was innovative in its own time and changed the way people learned. Surely inquiry learning is an innovative approach to teaching content and/or skills. And there are countless other innovations that have impacted education over time – the printing press, chalkboard, and more recently, the computer. These are all innovations.

While innovation certainly has to happen at every level of the education system, I’m not sure this is the sort of innovation the Google Teacher Academy is talking about here. I imagine they are looking for innovation on a smaller scale – individual teachers, departments, or schools that are utilizing new tools, methods, or ideas to change the way students learn about the content.

Without question, technology plays a critical role in this sort of innovation. But technology is only one piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of teachers (and schools and districts) that simply use technology for technology’s sake. And there are innumerable ways to use technology without being innovative. The question, then, is how we are using technology in ways that will change the way we teach and the way students learn?

In my experience, there is perhaps no more significant technological innovation in the Language Arts classroom than the internet. Even if only used for research, the ability to access nearly any material in the entire world is an unbelievable advance in education. Doing the research for this particular post, for example, would likely have taken months using traditional library research methods, rather than hours. Email changed how teachers communicate with students and parents – everything from quick messages to class newsletters can be sent via email. Web-based grading systems allow parents and students to track their grades on a regular basis.

Other digital tools have the potential to be equally innovative. This year, a few of us (probably “innovators” according to Rogers) have been piloting Moodle – an open-source learning management system. It’s a great tool that enables us to utilize a controlled digital environment with our students. We can use forums, wikis, online assignments, surveys, resources, quizzes – just about anything we might want. Using Moodle has helped us dramatically cut paper usage, given us opportunities to use a number of web-based resources in conjunction with activities, and changed the way I teach my classes.

Cell phones also have the potential to change how students learn. Access to the internet in students’ pockets allows them to quickly look up facts and information. Tools like PollEverywhere change the way teachers can formatively assess students. And combined with tools like Twitter, cell phones can allow students to get reminders and announcements anywhere, any time.

And while technology tools like cell phones and Moodle have innovative potential, it is often the simple adjustments or “tweaks” that become real innovations. For example, I discovered shortly after we began using digital projectors that I could simply project writing onto a whiteboard and make it “interactive” (rather than spending $5,000 on a big, digital version). This is an easily adopted change that impacts teaching directly and immediately without great expense or labor. This is the sort of change that is quickly adopted by the early majority and becomes innovation.

What About Me?

I suppose, since this is an application, there ought to be some explanation of how I have been innovative. I always hate this part because I worry about coming off as an arrogant braggart. Nevertheless, I do think that I would quickly be identified as an “innovator” by my colleagues, particularly around technology. I like to try new things, even when I don’t know if they will work out. I am quick to jump on pilot programs, such as our Moodle pilot (which has been very successful) or a Wiimote Whiteboard pilot (which failed miserably), and I’ll share my experiences with anyone who will listen. In particular, I enjoy experimenting with different technologies and how they can positively influence learning in my classroom. Honestly, even this blog is an extension of this mentality – I wanted to see what this blogging thing was all about and see how it could affect my teaching. I can live with (and learn from) failure, I enjoy taking responsible risks, and I fit Rogers’ general profile of an “innovator.”

But as an “innovator,” I also recognize that I am not an opinion leader. I am the “mad scientist” that many people will ignore. In order to turn an idea into a true innovation, I understand that I need the help of those that are opinion leaders – I have to identify and utilize the early adopters. This is why I teach workshop classes at our 10Tech Summer Conference. This is why I share things that I find to be successful (such as Moodle or Delicious) with people in my department and in my building that I recognize to be opinion leaders. I show them how a new tool, idea, or method has positively impacted my students so they can try it out and convince everyone else the idea is worthwhile. Of course, any innovation would be meaningless if it doesn’t impact the world in some way. Whatever innovations I may be trying to share will be utterly worthless if they do not accomplish one simple goal: help students learn.

3 Lessons from Coaching that Improved My Teaching

As I mentioned previously, my experiences coaching have given me reason to remain optimistic about teaching. One reason is that I’ve learned some valuable lessons from coaching young student-athletes that translate well into the classroom. To be honest, many of these have come from one of the most valuable professional development trainings I’ve been a part of – annual coaching clinics.

In particular, though, I think there are 3 lessons I’ve learned through coaching that have made me a better teacher.

  1. Yes, we are talking about practice. This year, I’ve taken a different approach to teaching reading and writing skills. I’ve adopted a simple model – show them what to do, help them do it, then allow them to practice it on their own and give them feedback (or, in edu-speak – model the skill, provide guided practice, then allow independent practice with ample feedback. And yes, I realize that this is already best practice in teaching…it just took coaching to help me realize it).
    For example, when teaching students how to improve their sentence fluency, I gave them a sentence, then showed them different ways to tweak the length and structure of the sentence [model]. Then, I gave them a different sentence and had them try it in their notebooks. I pulled a couple of notebooks at random and displayed them on the document camera and we reviewed them as a class, pointing out positives and also making additional suggestions [guided practice]. Finally, I had students pull one sentence (preferably a longer one) from the draft of their essay and revise it in three different ways. They turned this in on our Moodle site and I was able to grade and give feedback on these sentences [independent practice]. Has it worked? I think they’re better writers as a result, but that brings me to lesson two…
  2. Failure is ALWAYS an option. Sometimes, even when we’re trying, things go wrong and we don’t accomplish what we’d hoped. This is true of me as a teacher and coach, but it’s also true of students and athletes. In baseball, for example, there’s a saying that even the absolute best hitters fail 6 times out of 10. How we manage that failure is the challenge. I think this is true in school, as well, and even more so in writing. For example, in the sentence fluency activity described above, some students didn’t do well – they didn’t understand what I was teaching them. So what do we do about it? The same thing a baseball player does when he makes a mistake: reflects on what he did poorly and finds a way to fix it (with or without my help) the next time. In football, too, we watch the film, see what we did wrong, and fix it when we go back out to the field. In school we should look at what we did on the assignment, take in the feedback, and give it another shot. But do students do this? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there’s one big difference between sports and school, which is lesson number three.
  3. You have to COMPETE. There are many reasons athletes get better, but all of the coaching books I’ve read, from Vince Lombardi to Bill Walsh to Pete Carroll, agree on one simple thing – competition breeds success. However, that doesn’t mean that we want kids competing with each other. Rather, it is the individual competing with himself that breeds success. Pete Carroll says he wants to do things “better than they’ve ever been done before.” Great athletes – successful athletes – compete against themselves and try to do it better. Why? Because they have a desire, a motivation to be successful in their sport. The biggest difference I see between students that are successful and those that are not is this simple fact – the successful students are always trying to improve, while the others simply want to get by. There may be many causes for motivation, but that desire to become better, to improve, to compete, at writing, reading, or anything else is what makes students successful.

We practice, then we fail, so we practice even harder. It seems simple in theory. Why is it so difficult in reality?


I’ve been doing some research and thinking about Ubuntu. No, not the Linux operating system, but its namesake. I started looking into it a couple weeks ago. While watching the World Cup, I noticed a commercial that included this word and I wanted to know what it meant. As I read more about it, I became intrigued and had to wrap my head around it. This post is the result of that thinking.

Before sharing this, I’ll share my classroom application for this. I have struggled over the last couple years to find balance between enforcing the rules that I want enforced and giving students input into the class rules. I’ve set  my own rules, tried to create a class constitution, but haven’t found something really effective. This year, I’ll be trying something new – a class covenant. I’ll post more about this concept later, but the applicable part for now is that I will provide guiding principles and students will identify the outcomes of those principles in different contexts. After learning about Ubuntu, I have no doubt that this will be one of the guiding principles in my classroom this year.


What is Ubuntu?

“Ubuntu” is what it means to be human. A Zulu maxim provides perhaps the simplest definition of Ubuntu: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which means “a person is a person through other persons.” It is a philosophical belief that being human means recognizing and respecting the humanity of others. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong.” Tutu goes on to say, “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself.” It is, he says, the relationships between us that make us truly human.

It is not an uncommon philosophy. English poet John Donne, in “Meditation XVII,” opined that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” noting, as Tutu does, that being human means you are part of a greater whole. Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork on the Metaphysic of Morals, writes that all persons should “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” By treating others not as objects, but as people, we not only respect them, but respect and affirm our own humanity and the ways in which we are bound to one another.

What does Ubuntu look like?

While Ubuntu is a worldview, there are certain outward characteristics that reflect the internal belief that we are all connected, most notably the traits of compassion and justice.

It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream)

Tutu points out that respecting the humanity of others and having empathy towards others leads us to be positive and welcoming to other people. When we truly believe in the concept of Ubuntu, we realize that when someone else is degraded, then we ourselves are degraded. This leads us to a point where we are enacting justice on behalf of others

In addition to seeking justice, Ubuntu impels us to be compassionate and hospitable. “A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” (Nelson Mandela). Ubuntu, according to Mandela, puts our own personal gains in a larger context – the context of something greater than ourselves, some transcendent cause. Our own personal gains, whether mental gains (such as education) or physical gains (such as money), inevitably benefit the greater community and make it a better place for everyone. Thus, those with Ubuntu are more likely to share their gains of wisdom or wealth with their neighbors.

Of course, this is no different than the Christian ethic, which values respect and justice as the highest human good. In Leviticus 19:18, the scripture says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” commanding us to recognize the inherent humanity in each other. Again in the Gospels, Jesus reminds his followers not only to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” but also that the next greatest commandment is that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). In the scripture, loving God with everything we have leads to what Mandela and Tutu call “Ubuntu” – the respect and compassion that we have for each other within a community.  The end result, however, remains the same – people with Ubuntu are welcoming, compassionate, and affirming towards all people.

How to apply Ubuntu

With a basic understanding of the Ubuntu philosophy, the application of these beliefs should be somewhat obvious. Building meaningful relationships, treating people with respect, affirming people across cultural divides, and enacting justice on behalf of others should seem to be clear outcomes of Ubuntu.

Even so, there are some guiding principles that can help us become more adept at applying Ubuntu in a practical way. Stanlake J.W.T. Samkange emphasizes three maxims that give a sort of practicality to Ubuntu, much as Kant did in his Metaphysic of Morals. First, he said, “To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.” First and foremost, the application of Ubuntu requires us to appreciate not only with our words, but with our actions, the inherent humanity in each other. As a result of this appreciation, we are able to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Samkange’s second principle of Ubuntu is a practical application of the previous maxim: “If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life.” This particular statement emphasizes that respecting our humanity and the humanity of others should always be the primary motive for any action. Wealth, while useful for advancing the good of the community, should never be valued above preserving the humanity of another person. For example, even something as simple as an insult degrades the humanity of someone else, and given the opportunity to make money by insulting someone, we should always say no to the money, because that person’s dignity is more valuable to us.

Finally, Samkange provides a third principle: “The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him.” Those who are in power, he says, are only in power because the people have allowed them to be in power.  This democratic ideal, Samkange says, was a “principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy.” Consequently, the practical application is one directed at those who are in leadership: lead courageously. Those in power must continue to recognize the humanity in the people they lead, and must continually affirm the dignity of others. It is particularly imperative for those in leadership roles to develop Ubuntu because they have an impact not only on the people they lead, but on other whole communities. Thus recognizing that they are “a person only through other persons” allows them to work for a transcendent cause, lead courageously, enact justice on behalf of others.


Ubuntu is not a religious belief. Truly, it is not even an all-encompassing worldview. At its most powerful, Ubuntu is scarcely a moral imperative. Rather, Ubuntu is an underlying belief – it provides the “why” for actions that we all know to be good and just. By recognizing that we are all persons only through other persons, that I am human only because of the humanity of others, and that humans are intrinsically interconnected, I have a reason to treat others with respect. I have a reason to be affirming of others. I have a reason to be kind and welcoming and generous. It is this concept of Ubuntu that gives us the motivation to become real human beings and to treat others as such. Ubuntu gives us validation in our mission to accept responsibility, lead courageously, have empathy, enact justice on behalf of others, and work for a transcendent cause. Ubuntu is knowing what it means to be truly human.

How Do We Develop Expertise in Teaching?

Imagine two teachers. Both teach English, both are similar in age, experience, and the students they are working with. The only difference is that one teaches 5 periods of the same class (one prep). The other teaches 2 periods of one class and 3 periods of a different class (two preps). I’m wondering: which teacher do you think is going to be more effective?

I’m honestly torn between the two. This year was my first with multiple preps after enjoying 2 years with only one prep, and this year also felt like my hardest so far. Though I’m not averse to hard work, I felt like my teaching (and, consequently, my students’ learning) was negatively impacted because I had to split my attention on different curricula.

I certainly see both sides of the argument. On the “multiple prep” side, I can see how those who teach multiple preps (or even, as one of my wonderful colleagues did, multiple preps in multiple subjects) are more likely to identify pedagogy that is most effective because they have to try many different approaches. They develop a better understanding of those elements that make good teaching, which carry across different classes and content areas. In addition, they work with a broad base of students and a wide range of abilities.

However, I cannot help but wonder how much much time I spent worrying about the content of my two preps this year, rather than reflecting on what strategies and ideas improved my teaching. Contrast this with having only one prep – I feel like I had more time to spend improving how I am teaching rather than what I am teaching.

The other factor I cannot help but think about is the development of expertise. I wrote my Master’s thesis largely on how we develop expertise, and the absolutely critical element in doing so is logging many hours (10,000 was the magic number) of practice. However, it’s not just any practice. I can’t just go swing a baseball bat 10,000 times and suddenly hit like Albert Pujols or Babe Ruth. Instead, the focus is on deliberate practice – practice that is focused on improving specific small skills at a time. This is why great musicians always practice their scales – because it is a deliberate focus on improving the little things.

The question I am left with is this: do teachers get more opportunities for deliberate practice when they have multiple preps, or when they have only one prep? My guess is that one prep lends itself better towards developing expertise because of the focus on one curriculum and added time for reflecting on instructional practice, however, I have absolutely nothing to support this other than my own personal opinions/biases.

So I leave this open to you: which is most likely to produce “expert” teachers? I’d love to hear (and respond to) your thoughts on this one.

Note: For more information on research into expertise and expert performance, I highly recommend the works of Anders K. Ericsson. In particular, his paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, is quite good. A good primer on the subject is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Expertise and Expert Performance. Finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a great introduction to the topic of expertise, as well.

Standards-Based Grading Revisited

A while back, I posted some of my thoughts on how I might adapt our standards-based, 4-point writing rubric to fit the 100-point grading scale traditionally used in schools. That post turned into a great discussion – so much so that it has reached 30 comments (far more than any other post on this blog) and is now the 3rd result when you Google “standards based grading.” As a result of the apparent interest in the subject, I wanted to revisit the topic from a more philosophical perspective, share some updates on where we’re at and see where others are at in this process.

The original post evolved out of a department discussion on how to adapt our new 4-point rubric so that students were getting a more “fair” grade. Ironically, it’s a year later and now secondary schools in our district want to have the same conversation because our district reading and writing assessments aren’t being graded “fairly.” And that’s the rub. What is “fair” when we’re talking about grading? Here’s the basic summary of what I discussed previously:

  1. In secondary schools like ours, grading is typically done on a 100-point scale, in which 90’s are generally given an “A” grade, 80’s a “B” grade, and so on. Typically, anything under 60 is considered an “F” grade. 
  2. For many schools and teachers, there has been a shift  from this traditional 100-point scale to a simpler 4-point scale. On this scale, students are usually given a 4 if they “exceed standard,” 3 if they “meet standard,” 2 for “approaching standard,” and a 1 if they are well below standard. Our department now uses a rubric like this one.
  3. A problem arises when we try to take a standards-based (SB) score and give it a percentage or letter grade. If we were to directly transfer scores from a 4-point to a 100-point rubric: a 4 would still equate to a 100, a 3 score (“Meets Standard”) would now be a 75%, or a C. Moreover, a 2 score (“Approaching Standard”) would equate to a 50%, or an F. For most teachers, this grade equivalency does not seem fair.

The question, then, is twofold. First, what do we mean when we say, “This grade is not fair.” How do we define “fair”? Second, what other solutions can we implement that would better match our definition of “fair” grading? These are the two questions I want to address in this post.

The Problem: “Fair” Grading

The primary concern with converting SB grades to traditional letter grades has to do with the percentages involved. If all grades were given based on SB scores alone, there would be no problems at all – a 4 (100%) equates to an A, a 3 (75%) equates to a B, a 2 (50%) equates to a C, a 1 (25%) equates to a D, and a 0 (0%) is an F – that just makes sense.

Problems arise, though, when we use traditional 100-point grading scales. When I was in school, this is the scale we used, and it looks much different than the SB percentages. In our department, for example, a B is between 83 and 87%, while a 75% would be a solid C grade. Similarly, a student getting 50% would not get a C – he would get an F. Needless to say, a 0 on a 100-point scale is devastating to a student’s grade (read The Case Against the Zero for more on this difficult subject).

This is how grades have worked for as long as most of us can remember, so it is easy to see why the SB system is such a struggle for us to understand. Certainly the 100-point scale has its benefits. However, in order to fully convert to SB grading, we would have to complete a massive paradigm shift and reach a point where we essentially abandon the 100-point scale for grading. I don’t think many schools are willing to do that – mine certainly isn’t.

Thus we have a dilemma – we want to grade students based on whether they have met standards in our content area, but we also want to use the familiar 100-point scale and traditional letter grades in doing so. To borrow an analogy, we want to put new wine into old wineskins. The question becomes, can we do it? And if so, how?

Finding a Solution

The first step in finding a solution to this seems simple enough, but draws out a lot of underlying assumptions and beliefs about grades (as I discovered reading through the comments on the previous post). Very simply, a solution requires answering one question about what grades actually mean:

Where is the line between “below standard” and “meets standard”?

Does a SB score of 2 merit a C or an F? Is a 3 equivalent to a B or a C? Does a 4 equate to 100%? These are all questions that stem off from the critical question of where that line is between meeting and not meeting the standard. Dana Huff of Huffenglish put this problem a different way – we have to decide what an absolute zero would be. For example, if a student got zero on an assignment, what percentage would he/she receive? From there, you adjust the scale to fit the points available.

And here we reach an underlying difficulty – our expectations are different. And if our expectations differ, our beliefs are likely to differ as well. Here’s an example: I think that a student who is barely meeting standard earns somewhere in the neigborhood of a C+/B-. Some of my colleagues argue for a B, while others say that meeting standard falls in the low-C or D range. For some, failing to meet standard means a student should not be passing, which means a score of 2 should equate to an F grade. And all of these equally valid points of view factor into a discussion, eventually (hopefully) leading to some kind of consensus.

Even when we reach a consensus on where to draw the “standard” line, there are still lingering issues that must be addressed. I think one problem that will arise is disagreement from parents, who don’t think the same way about grades as we are trying to. Like us, they grew up with a more traditional 100-point letter grade system and that is what parents understand. We can certainly expect them to hold the same perspectives we are fighting within ourselves.

In addition, there is the matter of what to do when a student does not meet standard on a given assignment. By using SB grading, I am committing myself to getting students to meet specific standards. When I grade an assignment, it should be an assessment of whether students have met one or more of those standards. If they do, they can move on and attack the next standard. However, if they do not meet the standard, what do we do? Logic dictates that, if my goal is to get the student to meet that standard, I should reteach and give the student another opportunity to meet standard. But how often does this happen in most schools? How often do we simply move on and hope the student can catch up?

The final issue you’ll likely need to address on this topic is what we do when a student doesn’t meet standard all year. Again, basic logic seems to tell us that the student needs additional opportunities to meet the standards at that grade level. Unfortunately, that’s not usually what happens for students. In some sort of quest to soften the blow to students’ egos, we pass them on to the next level. Now, while they may be with students their own age, they are now expected to pass more stringent standards. Even though they haven’t been able to meet the lower standards, we will hold them accountable to higher ones. Isn’t this setting students up for a career of failure? The question we have to address is a tough one: do we hold back students that aren’t meeting standard?

In our district, we hold students back at the secondary level. A 9th grader in our building cannot move on to the high school without meeting a certain minimal set of standards. Unfortunately, by the time they get to us, many students have been below standard for several years and have been passed up through the elementary grades. Based on conversations with teachers in other districts, this is a common trend – pass them through elementary school, then start expecting them to meet standards at the secondary level.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve gained experience with standards-based grading, I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity and efficiency of the concept. There were certainly some difficult transitions – grasping the nuances between a 3 and 4 as opposed to an 86 and 87, for example – but it has been a positive process for me. I think the long-term evolution involves a complete overhaul of how we do grades and committing to a 4-point scale across the board (which in turn changes how we calculate GPA), as well as committing ourselves to requiring students to meet standards from day 1. However, I don’t see a complete overhaul of how we assess students from kindergarten through graduate school as very realistic in the near future. In the mean time, we must simply press on toward the goal of helping all of our students reach the bar we have set for them, and pray that we don’t let them down.