An Interview with Meenoo Rami


I recently read Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching Practice by Meenoo Rami. I met Meenoo a few years ago at ISTE and was blown away by her mix of boldness and humility. One of the things that strikes me about her approach is how it is inherently collaborative. That's true of #engchat and it's true of this book. Like #engchat she brings others on board, often picking up on the wisdom that others can offer. At the same time, she is a great writer, weaving in narrative and clear prose, being approachable and thought-provoking.

This is the perfect time for a book like this to come out. Teachers are worn-out. Some are even burning out. This is the kind of book that reminds us why we do what we do.


Meenoo Rami is straight-up awesome. If you didn't know that, it's probably because she is such a quietly powerful force doing amazing things outside of the spotlight. Here's a short interview with her.


1.  Mentorship is a key part of helping teachers to thrive. Can mentorships be scheduled and formalized by structures or do they need to grow organically?

I think while some formalized structures need to be in place especially to support new teachers or new-to-school teachers, the most beneficial relationships seem to come about organically. I think when teachers take charge and make effort towards their own growth and seek out their mentors, that relationship will be stronger and longer-lasting. No one knows better than you do about what you need, what you need to be the best you can be, and there are people around you who can support you on that journey.


2. You mentioned how fear leads to masking of our true voice. And yet there are parts of people’s true voices that are shaped by an identity that is often marginalized (because of gender, sexual orientation, culture, etc.). What does this mean for teachers who are expected by the power structures to wear a mask?

I think that is a deeply personal decision. A teacher in this position must determine how and when and if ever to take that mask off. I think when teachers expose even the parts of themselves that are marginalized by power structures in place, they are modeling courage for their students. If a teacher feels like she must hide a part of herself, I am sure there are students in her class who feel the same way. Are we continuing the masking by not stepping up? Perhaps, but again, this is a deeply personal decision and must be made with by the teacher alone. Thanks.

3. One of the things that struck me when I met you in person was your mix of humility and boldness. What are things that teachers can actively do to keep that kind of mindset?

I am not sure how to actually answer this question, I think even when it is scary or risky, I work towards being who I am in the world, in my work, and in my life. I am not sure if there are tips for this, I think this is more about a way of being in the world.

4. You mention the role of networks, both in the “connected” sense and in the in-person sense. How are these networks similar and different for you? How do the roles change?

I think both have a relevant role in my growth as a teacher and as a learner. The luxury of connecting with someone who is across the country because of the ease created by technology is great but also seductively limiting. I think it is just as important that I am connected to my colleagues in my school and in my own district. All these connections have the power to transform me as a teacher and my practice and I am grateful for this.

5. What are some of the ways teachers can keep their work intellectually challenging when they are teaching content at a lower grade level?

I think if you focus on the content alone, you miss out one of the greatest joys of teaching: teaching kids how to learn. Ultimately, we need our learners to move past our classrooms and find their own path of life-long learning. By paying attention to the way your kids think and learn, you can continue to find the intellectual challenge of always moving students forward and upward. If you’re deeply interested in understanding how kids think and learn, there is no better place for you than a classroom. The challenge will remain constant and you’ll always have new group of students to learn from and learn with.

6. You had a supportive principal and a quality school culture at SLA. What kind of advice would you give to someone trying to thrive in a toxic school culture?

You’re right, I am blessed to work with Chris Lehmann and my colleagues at SLA but I didn’t always work here. I have taught in all kind of schools, and one thing that has kept me going is thinking how I can continue to fine-tune my practice so I can be a better teacher to my students. This constant challenge has also helped me to get past the minutia that we all deal with and focus on what’s important and in front of us: our students.

7. You describe the journey toward empowering students. What are typically the biggest barriers that keep teachers from empowering students?

I think teachers may get stuck thinking about checking off every little standard that they may have to meet and miss out on the big picture that our real job is actually help our students become independent, self-directed learners. We have to help them find their passion and empower them to find the thing(s) they want to get totally nerdy about. Failure to do this may create a sense that you’re just playing school and not really empowering your kids.


This was part of a blog tour for Thrive, by Meenoo Rami. 
Check out the links below to see what others have written.

4/9/14
Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts
4/10/14
Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn at A Year of Reading
4/11/14
Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy
4/12/14
Kira Baker Doyle at Kira J Baker-Doyle, Ph.D.
4/13/14
Sarah Mulhern Gross at The Reading Zone
4/14/14
Christina Cantrill at Digital Is (National Writing Project)
4/15/14
Kate Roberts and Maggie B. Roberts at Indent
4/16/14
Beth Shaum Use Your Outside Voice
4/17/14
Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
4/18/14
Troy Hicks at Hickstro
4/19/14
Joy Kirr at Genius Hour
4/20/14
Tara Smith at The Teaching Life
4/21/14
Antero Garcia at The American Crawl
4/22/2014
John Spencer at Education Rethink
4/23
Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers

Quit Bashing Theory


Teachers want practical ideas. I've seen how a list of specific, explicit ideas gets higher post views. I've noticed that when I do a training, the best received ones involved teachers learning and practicing something that they can immediately transfer into a classroom.  I've been around teachers in a meeting who said, "At the university, all I learned was a bunch of theory that you forget later."

Teachers often bust on technical language and refer to it as jargon. Often, they cringe at being handed a journal article to analyze as a group. There's a certain amount of pride that goes into the notion that theory doesn't matter.

However, theory is the concept of both how and why something works. It's why we should be able to test a bogus claim in a cleverly packaged presentation. It's why we should be skeptical about when how or even why we should use a new practical strategy that we learn.

I don't want an engineer saying, "Screw the theory, just hand me something practical." I don't want a doctor saying, "Forget about why we do this, just tell me where to cut and I'll do it."

I realize that we are not doctors and engineers. We might be more like artists. But even then, artists think about theory. Notions of perspective and balance, approaches and philosophies that inform a movement -- all of these things shape how an artist works.

If we want to be seen as professionals and respected for our collective intellectual capacity, we need to quit bashing theory. In fact, we should know theory inside and out and perhaps even contributing to the research that is out there. We are already the contextual experts. Why aren't we also the theoretical experts on pedagogy?

I get it. Theory has to lead to practical application. However, the practical application is contextual. It's often something we can and should figure out on our own when we have a solid concept of theory. It's okay to learn a practical strategy, but when we do so, we should analyze all things "practical" through a sharp, critical lens of theory.

Easter Eggs and Jesus


Note: I rarely write about faith for a few reasons.  First, it often comes across as either arrogant or trite, given the limitations of this medium.  Second, I know it has the potential to alienate readers, given the broad spectrum of who reads this blog.  Finally, I believe faith is best discussed over a pint. I wrote this three years ago  and I'm re-posting it now.

Joel places the egg in carefully, watching the dye slowly stain it.   Once it turns an emerald green, he places it in the blue dye, halfway up and then the yellow dye.  His expression is serious, but the moment is all joy.  Joel examines the egg carefully, nods his head and counts how many he has left.  When it's finished, he cracks a smile and moves methodically to the next curvaceous canvas.

Micah drops three eggs in quickly, moving through his box with reckless abandon.  It's not that he doesn't care.  Rather, he cares so much that he wants to take in the full moment with absolute intensity.  Micah's all smiles and giggles when he holds up a bright orange egg.

Brenna doesn't really understand the process.  She spends most of her time trying to mix the dye with her spoons.  I watch her re-dye the same broken eggs five or six times, laughing at the splashing colors staining the table.  Brenna gets the ethos of the moment.

Joy.

All three of them get it, even when they lack the language to articulate it.

Easter eggs are all about Jesus.

I understand the history of the fertility rites and the "pagan" festivals (aren't we all at least a little pagan?) and the ideological orgy that gave us the Easter bunny.  I get it. Easter is pagan.  Jesus was Jewish.   He celebrated a Passover Seder, spoke in Aramaic and sang hymns in Hebrew.   Yet, he was also hung on a Roman cross in a world so cosmopolitan that the phrase mocking him required three different languages.

People treat the Jesus story as if it happened in a spiritual vacuum, as if somehow there is a pure story that shouldn't be corrupted by pagan traditions like fertility rites and the spring equinox or the, God forbid, chocolate rabbits and egg-shaped Whoppers.

The message of Easter is one of grace and of joy and of a story so outrageous sometimes I have a hard time believing it.   It's the story of redemption.   It's the story of hope.

So what does that have to do with dyeing Easter eggs?

Everything.

If you can't see God in three kids dyeing Easter eggs, you're missing something.  We cling to symbols and rituals and metaphors to make sense out of the inexpressible.  Some choose stained glass windows.  I'll choose stained eggs.

This Is Terrifying

I've always been drawn to the surreal, to the creative, to the mental spaces not confined to the rules of the universe. I just never realized that there was something wrong with that. 

When I first read the New York Times article, I figured it was an accident. I thought it was an article from the Onion. However, it turns out that there is a push for a new disorder called Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. In children, it is characterized by lethargy, daydreaming and slow mental processing.

I think I once suffered from SCT, or as I like to call it, "being a child."

Other "red flag" symptoms include things that were true of me on a regular basis as a child: skipping questions, failing to pay attention to detail, daydreaming excessively, frequently forgetting one's name on the paper, a thought process that goes off on different tangents, a slower mental process in basic computation.

And yet . . . that's why I can hold a fictional world in my head and write a novel. That's why I can comfortably live in my own mental space. I don't think I have a slow mind. I don't think many people would accuse me of it. However, as a child, I was often slightly behind and slightly . . . off. I shudder to at the thought that I might have been drugged for the very identity that enabled me to be creative.

A friend of mine responded with, "This is legitimate. You're not a doctor and you have no idea." He's right. I'm not a doctor. This might be a real disorder and the last thing I want to do is blame a child for something out of their control. There is already way too much stigma attached to mental health in our nation.

However, he also said something that I have heard in way too many parent meetings with a hyper child.  "A child shouldn't be diagnosed unless it is getting in the way of schooling."

That's what terrifies me. We're asking children to fit into school rather than asking school to fit the child. I'm concerned with the fact that so often instead of schools being adaptive to children, we create systems that are so narrow that children just barely on the spectrum of a narrow definition of normal end up struggling. It doesn't help when Big Pharma (in this case Eli Lilly) are the ones funding the research and will, no doubt, be helping fund the testing and implementation.

For what it's worth, I'm not all that concerned with the child who is excessively daydreaming. I'm more concerned with the kid that sits still for four hours at a time filling out packets and somewhere along the line stops daydreaming entirely.

If You Want to Build Grit, Don't Focus on Grit


I believe in grit perseverance. I want my students to persevere in a difficult task. I want them to approach learning with the same willingness to keep struggling that they feel when they try a skateboard trick or master a video game. I don't see struggling as a bad thing. I don't think it's wrong to ask students to keep going even when they don't feel like it.

However, where I break from the "grit" narrative is on the best way to develop this among students. I don't believe that the answer is to make the work harder and then tell the students to just keep working no matter what they think of the task.

Here are some of the conditions that seem to help students develop grit:
  1. Desire: If I want students to work hard at something, it has to begin with desire. It can mean tapping into a child's passion or wonder or joy. It can involve pursuing a geeky interest that grows into an area of expertise. However, I've seen that students will persevere when they are doing something that they love. 
  2. Agency: Students have to feel some sense of freedom. There has to be some level of permission to give up. I know, as a teacher, that this is risky. However, the more a job feels forced, the more students will fail to persevere. 
  3. Permission to Fail: The more students see failure as a part of the journey, the more likely they will be to take risks and keep trying. 
  4. Challenge: Here's where the "gritty group" gets something right. There's nothing wrong with something being really difficult. It's part of what keeps life from being boring. What's important is that kids know that it's safe to mess up and that a teacher will be there to help them back up and have their back in times when they really need it.
  5. Purpose: I see this as different from desire. This is the idea of doing something because it matters. It might be self-serving (in the case of a passionate self-interest) or it might be looking out for others. Or it might be the boring part that has to be done in order for something fun or exciting to work
  6. Scaffolding: I added this one later, but I think this matters. We have to provide certain supports that ensure success. It's the idea that an ELL student might need sentence stems and a chance to play around with language. It's the notion that some kids need calculators and simply saying, "Just keep practicing your facts" won't fix things. 
Sometimes this doesn't work. I have gone inquiry-based, project-based, interest-based and student-centered and yet there are times when a student gives up. I'm not always sure why. Sometimes what starts out as interesting gets dull. Like a song that's overplayed, a child tires of a topic. Other times, a student might be afraid of failing no matter how safe I try to make it. It can be even simpler. There are times when kids don't enjoy the discomfort of deep thinking or revising or dealing with mundane (albeit important) tasks.

Still, I believe that a single-minded focus on grit for the sake of grit doesn't work. Students are most likely to throw themselves into a task regardless of failure when they are consumed with passion and obsessed with a question, topic or idea.

photo credit: Darwin Bell via photopin cc

Character Education

A few days ago, I sat in a room filled with private school teachers meeting to talk about character education. Some talked about giving badges and rewards for students that are caught showing great character. Others described the need for teachers to model great characters and engage students in conversations about their actions.

I left the conversation overwhelmed by the questions. These teachers asked great questions and offered perspectives that I hadn't even considered. Aside from the occasional programs and posters, I don't often hear conversations about developing character in the context of the public school system. Most of our conversations involve raising test scores.

My first thought is that I'm not sure character can be taught so much as developed. I don't have the answers on how we develop it, either. I know that some kids respond well to praise, but that extrinsic rewards can get in the way of ethical thinking. Sometimes what it takes is a reflective conversation. I know that sometimes the natural consequences build up character, but sometimes it also teaches kids to lie and to hide. I know that struggling with a subject can build up resistance, perseverance and character. However, I also know that some kids give up way too quickly.

My second thought is that I've grown the most as a person in the spaces where I had the biggest permission for failure. I'm not sure what this means for schools, but I'm thinking that the policies we have typically don't allow for kids to be vulnerable. Our grading systems often punish kids for having the wrong answer and often places "getting it done quickly" above "master this over time." Our Zero Tolerance policies often tell kids that it's all about punishments and not about being restored. Our lists of rules often place compliance and rule-following about learning how to think ethically.

My final thought is that maybe what kids need the most is an honest, open recognition that we're all flawed. This includes every child and every adult on campus. The human condition is often the lingering, unspoken reality that gets in the way of our best crafted character education programs. The more we take this serious, the faster we are to be patient, to show mercy and to speak truth (instead of being in denial).

Changing What We Can Control

I love the fact that this space exists in my school.

While the opt-out movement continues to grow, I find it interesting that as I talk with kids, they often have a different perspective on the best and worst parts of school. As much as I hate the excessive testing, I am struck by the fact that there are often little things that cause a ton of anxiety. When I talk to people about their current or past schooling experience, here are some of the common things I hear:

  • Bad substitute teachers. I know that there are amazing subs, but I also know that to a young kid, a bad sub can almost be traumatic. 
  • Being forced to change out in P.E. in front of other kids. Or being forced to shower in front of the group.
  • Cafeteria food that tastes horrible. 
  • Bathrooms with stalls that don't lock. 
  • Excessive, meaningless homework.
  • Not enough of a chance to interact socially with peers.  
  • Uncomfortable desks and the fact that you never get to move around.  
  • Adults that believe they are above having to apologize when they screw up. 
  • Harsh words that cut to the core of a kid's identity. Sometimes it's as simple as "your problem is that you're lazy." Other times, it's insensitive statements that aren't even aimed at a particular kid. I remember a kid coming to class in tears, because a new teacher had used "that's gay" as a slur. 
I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't tackle issues like excessive testing or VAM scores or the use of too much lecture. I don't think the average student thinks to complain about a lack of critical thinking. It just becomes a general statement of "it's too easy" or "I'm bored." Similarly, I think the need for student choice might not be something kids vocalize even when it's a deeply human need. 

However, I'm struck that there are many human and environmental things that have little to do with pedagogy and everything to do with the school culture. I've never visited the schools of Tim Lauer or Curt Rees, but I can tell you that I would want my kids going there, because of how those places look and feel from the small glimpses that I've seen. 

We can create places where people want to be. 

And here's where I get a little more optimistic. We might not be able to change VAM scores or state testing in the near future (though we should fight like hell to change it), but we can make sure that the bathroom stalls have locks and the walls aren't all painted off-white. We can make sure that student artwork is framed on the walls and teachers are humble enough to apologize to students. We can ensure that classroom management is functioning at a baseline level so that kids feel safe. We have the power to do away with bad homework and offer more student choice and ask kids to think deeply. 

Even when it doesn't feel like it, there are a lot of things we can control. 

I Am Comic Sans

I used to hate Comic Sans. I hated the kerning. At a grocery store, our manager had once used Comic Sans and Hispanic Foods became His panic Foods. I hated the fact that something designed for kids was used for everything from flower shops to emergency signage (in our district, the blood-borne pathogens emergency sheet was in Comic Sans, because, you know, those pathogens can be pretty funny). I cringed at the "Hitler" and "Holocaust" in Comic Sans on our curriculum maps.

However, I've been thinking about the font. It's awkward. It's funny. It's slightly childish and never feels entirely grown up. It often feels awkward and out of place. But somehow, it became popular despite itself. Somehow it hit mainstream even when it's odd and quirky and childish.

And, on some level, I feel that way: slightly childish, a little out of place, over-reaching on what I'm trying to do and yet somehow being embraced despite my quirky spacing.

I am Comic Sans.

My failure to embrace this font is my failure to embrace that childish, quirky, spacey personality.

So, from here on out, I won't mock Comic Sans. It might be out of place when a nice, clean Bebaus Neue is easier on the eyes. It might feel un-grown-up when a solid Garamond or Minion Pro makes the most sense. But I'll take it as a reminder that we need the childish, the out-of-place, the quirky, the ever-out-of-place Island of Misfits Toys because, on some level, we are all Comic Sans.

April Fools.

I Would Totally Go See It


TED Talks have a distinct style. Say something provocative. Explain to the audience why everything they know about _______ is wrong. Use visual-oriented slides. Pause for dramatic effect. It's part of the branding of TED, even when people do TEDx events.

I'd love to see a TEDxHogwarts. I wouldn't want to see Harry Potter, either. Or Hermione, for that matter. No, I'd love to see Molly Weasley, slightly nervous, getting up there with a ball of yarn and you think she's going to talk about knitting or magic, but it turns out that the real talk is how you find a "happily ever after" when you've faced the losses she's faced.

Or I'd love for Neville Longbottom to talk about bullying and bravery and somehow weave it all into a geeky, fun, passionate talk about herbology.

Or maybe let Hagrid talk about animals. Nothing hidden and metaphorical. In fact, his might be the opposite of what you think: why everything you think about animals is true (that they're wild and safe and unpredictable and beautiful) and, being Hagrid, he'd cry halfway through it.

Then, it strikes me.

I want to go there. I want to meet these characters again. The story is finished. The conflict is gone. But I want to see the characters one more time talking about the things they are passionate about.

And more than that, I want my students to want the same thing -- not necessarily about Harry Potter, but about some type of fiction. I want them to get lost in the story until the characters feel so real that you miss them. That's why we do silent reading and read alouds and trips to the library.

photo credit: Sarah Ross photography via photopin cc

Good Things Are Happening


I realize that I can be critical about certain aspects of education. I hate the excessive testing and the way it is driving instruction in many schools. I am bothered by homework and by meaningless packets. I want to see more inquiry and deeper thinking. I'm bothered by all the punishments and rewards.

And yet . . .

On friday night, we went to a community event at our sons' school. They got to check out a fire truck and plant seeds and search for a book that they got for free. They met up with their classmates and raced to the science and math games. For two hours, they internalized a message that learning can be fun.

I was struck by the fact that the teachers put this on. They made phone calls. They planned activities. I'm guessing that in some cases, they worked outside of their contract time to put together activities that families would enjoy. They gave up their friday night, because they care about kids and they care about learning.

Our neighborhood school isn't the exception. On any night across America, there are teachers putting on musical concerts and plays and assemblies and art expositions. They're coaching sports and sponsoring clubs. They're meeting with parents and grading papers and tutoring kids. They're editing newspapers that take "student voice" far beyond a simple #chat. They're putting the final touches on yearbook layouts, because they know the power of memory and storytelling.

For all the teacher bashing and public school bashing that goes on in our culture, the reality is that there are thousands upon thousands of amazing, dedicated teachers doing great things. There are small stories that never make the news and never make it into the Twittersphere, but these are the stories that give me hope as a teacher and as a dad.

Take a good look at schools and you'll realize that good things are happening there.