All hell can’t stop us now

It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?
Rage Against the Machine, Guerrilla Radio

I have a inferno raging in my belly.  It’s been growing steadily stronger.  The time has come to wrest control of our schools away from corporations and educational nihilists and make them oases of learning.

It has to start somewhere…

Our schools CAN change.  It’s not too late.  Our schools CAN become everything they should be.  The movement has to start somewhere.

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

It has to start sometime…

Why wait?  Every day you wait is another child lost to boredom, apathy, drop-out, or failure.  Round up the like-minded educators in your school and get the ball rolling.

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
Lao Tzu

What better place than here?

I  believe that my dreams for our schools can be realized.  I have to believe that we can transform into student-centered, democratic schools where students come to learn and want to stay.  I have to believe that we can lower dropout rates, increase graduation rates and send young adults out of our doors ready to enjoy productive, satisfying lives.

“The only place where your dream becomes impossible is in your own thinking.”
Robert H. Schuller

What better time than now?

We’ve come to a crossroad.  If we as educators stand by and watch the show, we’ll be steamrolled.  On the flipside, could you imagine the power that would be wielded if a small group of committed teachers in every school decided to be the change?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

…all hell can’t stop us now!

10 things I hate about school

10. grading
I’ve always felt icky about sitting down by myself and placing value in the form of a letter or number on the work of a student.  I would much rather write them a short note with feedback and no grade.  Better still, I’d rather sit down with them and have a conversation about their work and their thoughts about it.

9. interruptions
Bells. Announcements. The phone ringing. People coming into my room needing something. Every time I’m in the midst of something meaningful and valuable with my students and it is interrupted, I feel like the spell is broken.  I often ignore my classroom phone but the ringing still distracts the students (“I’ll get it Mr. Rice!”).

8. “don’t fly too high”
Teachers often resent those who get accolades. They snipe at them behind their backs; bring them down. I’ve seen it at every school I’ve been involved with and it’s ugly.

7. parents who aren’t involved with school
This is hard one. I want to approach this as respectfully as possible.  Maybe the correct label is “things that school systems do that makes parents not want to be involved.”  We need to break that mold, somehow.  Parents, families and students are the primary stakeholders in the system.  If it’s not working for them, we need to adapt.

6. politics
I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t sit on the sidelines in school and avoid the politics. They still affect you and your job even when you try to stay out of them. That being said, there is honest politics and there is the other.

5. meetings
I honestly enjoy collaborating with my colleagues, especially when we are working on something that directly impacts student learning. Too often, however, meetings have little or nothing to do with learning. Too often, they become a pulpit for those who love to hear their own voices.

4. hoop jumping
This is related to #5. I have come to passionately resent wasted time. My time is precious. I spent way too much of it at school, rather than at home with my family. Anything that I am being asked to do that does not impact student learning is a hoop and a waste of my time. Meetings, paperwork, dog and pony shows and the like fall under this category.

3. adults who work at schools and forget why they have a job
Schools do not exist to employ adults. The one and only purpose of a school is to educate children. Everything else must take a backseat to that goal, with the obvious exception of safety (both physical and emotional).

2. feeling like I care more about my students’ education than they do
This is another hard one. I don’t blame the students for this. We’ve brought this upon ourselves with the way we’ve mis-educated them. Still, it’s hard when I see in their eyes that they have no faith in the system to give them what they need. It’s hard to hear the apathy in their voices.

1. grading
If you’ve read my blog at all, you were probably wondering why grading was only #10 on this list. I love teaching but I hate grading. Grading is the bane of my teaching existence.

A safe place to fail

“Leap and the net will appear.” – John Burroughs

Credit: Torbein Rønning via

Credit: Torbein Rønning via

One of the greatest things we can establish in our schools and our classrooms (not to mention in our homes for our own kids) is a culture of failure.

Chew on that for a moment.  Is that un-American?  We live in a success driven culture.  Many of us walk around every day terrified of failure.

So, what do I mean by establishing a culture of failure?

I mean creating a space where it is safe to try and fail.  A space where one can make mistakes without fear of repercussions, learn from those mistakes and try again.  What I don’t mean is giving students failing grades.  I also don’t mean failing in life or causing irreparable harm to anyone or anything.

Teachers need the freedom to try new and different things in their classrooms to ignite authentic learning.  Many of those things have the potential to result in failure.  How is a teacher ever going to become great by staying in their comfort zone?

We need to model failure for our students (here is where I really shine – I model failure for my students really well).  Try and fail in front of them.  Do it with grace and class.  Explain what you were trying to do.  Don’t make excuses.  Ask the students for feedback.  Ask them how to improve for next time.  Genuinely listen to their feedback, go back to the drawing board and try again.

Make your classroom a safe place for students to do the same thing.  Encourage them to shoot for the moon.  Let them fail, dust themselves off, learn from their mistakes and try again.  Don’t let the fear of failure impede greatness.

You gotta take off the training wheels at some point, right?

Chemistry, condoms and the Colosseum

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

One of the most successful inquiry activities that I did this year wasn’t successful because of my careful planning or my skill.  It wasn’t successful because of expensive equipment or great lab space.  It wasn’t successful because of technology integration or guest experts.

It was successful because I took a chance.

It was successful because I said, “yes.”

I had wanted my Chemistry students to test the effects of acid on various materials.  I demonstrated for them the effect of sulfuric acid on a pop can (if you’ve never seen it, here’s a good video of it).  They read about acid rain and brainstormed a list of possible materials to expose to acid.  The students came up with things like wood, plastic, copper, aluminum, etc.  We brainstormed our scientific question as a class: “what is the effect of acid rain on different materials and why does it affect them differently?” or something like that – this question really isn’t important.  What’s important is what happened next.

I asked them to come up with their own subquestion under our class question and then gave them time to brainstorm.

When they called me over and said can we do _______? I said, “yes.” (Okay, so I asked a few clarifying questions first and made sure they had a clear idea but the gist of the conversation was, “yes.”)

One group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on different types of building materials, using major world landmarks as their guide (the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Great Pyramid, etc.).  I said, “yes.”

Another group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on metal that had been painted, clear coated, both or neither (because they like cars).  I said, “yes.”

Yet another group decided to test the effects of acids on condoms.  That was a hard one to agree to, believe me, but I said “yes” anyway.  Nevermind the pile of open condom wrappers in the garbage, Mr. Custodian, it’s all in the name of science!

By saying, “yes” to their ideas, to their questions, I said yes to a lot of other things:

I said, “yes” to student engagement.

I said, “yes” to authentic inquiry.

Most importantly, I said, “yes” to LEARNING – both mine and theirs.

Inquiry is…

Inquiry is loud.

Inquiry is messy.

Inquiry is perfect in its imperfection.

Inquiry is when my 7 year old son asks, “how are babies made?” in response to my wife’s expanding uterus.

Inquiry is NOT, “Chapter 12 in your biology textbook is about human reproduction, read the chapter and then answer the questions at the end.  There will be a test on Monday.”

Inquiry is when my 4 year old son picks up a beetle, looks him in the eye and says, “he’s waving those things at me!  Are those his arms or his ears?”

Inquiry is NOT, “look at the preserved insect specimens pinned to the board and use this dichotomous key to identify each.”

Inquiry is when my 2 year old daughter puts a pebble in her ear just to learn what it sounds like.

Inquiry is NOT “read step one then fill in the box on your lab sheet.”

Inquiry is loud.

Inquiry is messy.

Inquiry is perfect in its imperfection.