Angels And Superheroes Compassionate Educators in an Era of Standardized Testing and Evaluation Mon, 24 Jul 2017 12:02:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Angels And Superheroes 32 32 104830958 Creating Change: Yes, We Can! Mon, 24 Jul 2017 09:00:05 +0000 Read more]]> An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.

 My students made that happen, and they did so much more.

As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes.  Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.

But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …

And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.

In fact the seed for this project was planted by a statement of its impossibility.  As we were wrapping up our second quarter study of racial bias, one component of our Weathering the Storm cycle, Tilesha, made this comment during our final seminar discussion:

“Ms. Taylor, it’s great and all that we’re learning and talking about this stuff, and you tell us that we can do something about it, but that’s not really true.  People only change if they want to change, and those people, those people who are really racist, well, they don’t want to change, so nothing we can do will really make a difference.”

What I wanted to do was yell.  “No!  You can’t believe that!  We can’t have spent all these weeks talking about the darkness of racism and have left you believing that change isn’t possible!”

But instead, I remained calm and launched into what I’m certain was a far too esoteric summary of Change Innovation Theory, and how what we were doing in our classrooms was the work of innovators and early adopters.

Then the bell rang, and students adjourned to winter break.  I’m not at all sure that they listened to a single word I said.

During third quarter, in alignment with our Enlightenment theme, we shifted our focus from racial bias to exploring issues of gender and gender bias.

Tilesha’s comment continued to haunt me.

Every chance I got, I reminded my students that they are Innovators and Early Adopters, and that they can change the world.  Their eye rolls were nearly audible.

I needed to prove to them that they really could effect change, but how?!

Of course, I had it all wrong.  I didn’t need to prove it to them, they needed to prove it to themselves.  I didn’t yet realize this, but Serendipity took over, and showed me the way.

Our fourth quarter cycle theme was Change, and yet even when I took on the task of planning our kick-off, I had yet to see that the connection was right before my eyes.

Typically our Change cycle theme focuses on the personal changes our students are experiencing.  They are growing up, moving on to the next grade level, yada, yada.  This is a lovely message, and I was prepared to roll it out this way again.

I was scheduled to kick off our fourth quarter cycle theme in mid-march.  Just 5 days before this was to take place,  I came across this video.  In it, strong data is cited about the lack of powerful role models for girls in children’s literature.  In response, two mothers in Sweden wrote a book called, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls; 100 Tales to Dream Big.  The book contains real-life stories of 100 remarkable women, and is described as, “true fairy tales for heroines who definitely don’t need rescuing.”

This video started my mind swirling.  It was focused on concerns about gender issues, but it wasn’t hopeless.  It didn’t just point out a problem.  It noted a problem and then documented a solution.  My students could do something like this.  They, too, could create change.

Just two days later, I had the privilege of seeing Nicholas Kristof give the keynote address at the American Montessori Society Conference.  He said this:

“There is no silver bullet, but there is a lot of silver buckshot – there are a lot of little things we can do that can make a difference.”

And this:

“The needs of the world today are so vast that anything we do is just a drop in a bucket, and individually, we can’t make a meaningful difference.

But we can put drops in the bucket; I’m a believer in the drops in the bucket.  

Drops in the bucket is how you fill buckets!”

How much more did Serendipity need to hit me upside the head before I understood what to do? I had to help my students put drops in the bucket, and see that, together, all those drops could make a difference.

That night, I sent this message to my team:

“I have been working on a Change cycle kick-off, and here’s the idea I have come up with.  It’s so much more than a kick-off; it will take up lots of time.   

We’ve been exploring really powerful social issues, which has been great, but what does it matter if we don’t DO anything about it?!

And I keep telling them that they can change the world, but I’m not telling them how or even providing guidance.

So what if we just do it?!  What if we just let them choose an issue, develop a way to create change related to it, and then help them to do it? 

I love this idea, but now you can tell me how entirely crazy I am.”

I know two things about my team:  they dream at least as big as I do, and their need for a structured plan is as least as strong as mine.

So, I was not terribly surprised when I got near-identical responses from each of them saying, “You’re not crazy.  It sounds like really good work.  But while I understand the big picture, I’m not understanding the parts – like how will it work day to day?  It makes me nervous because I don’t understand what it is we will be doing.”

The reality was that I didn’t know how it would work day to day either, and I, too,  didn’t understand what it was that we would be doing.  That was the terrifying part.  My plan was designed such that students would select the issue, determine how to tackle it, and then complete the work to do it.  We wouldn’t know what it was that we would be doing day-to-day until we were actually doing it.

This was so student-centered that we couldn’t “begin with the end in mind,” or even develop a big-picture plan or a structure to guide us in advance.

This was not how any of us like to do things, and the thought of it made all three of us very anxious, but we took a collective deep breath, and agreed to go for it.

We first invited students to generate a list of the societal issues that we had learned about this year.

This is the list they came up with.  It’s quite a list!

What we’ve talked about…

  • Gender Bias
  • Racial Bias
  • Racial injustice
  • Boys are thought to be better at math
  • Boys aren’t expected to show emotion
  • Unequal Pay
  • Police brutality
  • Gender based violence
  • Girls not in school
  • Racial Profiling
  • Human Trafficking
  • Poverty
  • Early and Forced Marriage
  • Violence
  • Consent
  • Drug Trade
  • Gay Rights/ LGBTQ issues
  • Modern Day Slavery
  • Diabetes and Obesity
  • Natural Disasters
  • Forced Labor
  • Women’s March
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Immigration
  • Refugees
  • Displaced People
  • Education (Lack of education around the world)
  • Global Health Care

We gave students ten minutes of silent reflection to think about and record which issues were most important to them and why.  We then asked them to discuss their selections and reasoning  with the rest of their table group.

Once this process was complete, it was time to vote.  We made it a blind vote to eliminate any possibility of embarrassment, peer pressure, or other external influences.

The top two vote getters were “gender bias” and “allowing boys to show feelings.”  It was particularly touching to look around the room and see that many of our coolest, toughest, most athletic boys cast votes prioritizing being able to openly show their emotions.

We decided that these two top issues were related to each other through the lens of gender roles and how they hinder all of us, and we felt that we could address them simultaneously.

This thought was reinforced by this powerful TED talk on the potential damage, for both girls and boys, caused by gender bias and gender roles, which I shared with students after,  yet again, just randomly stumbling across it.  Serendipity strikes once more!

So we had identified an issue to tackle; now what were we going to do about it?

Once again, we turned to the students, and let them brainstorm a list of options.  This is what they came up with.

Ways to Create Change. . . 

  • Go to elementary schools to promote change
  • Put flyers on lockers around the school
  • Hold a mini-march
  • Run a carnival to raise money for girls to go to school
  • Host a social event to test awareness of perspectives
  • Create a drive for school supplies in developing countries
  • Research gender bias and inequality and present findings via social media
  • Conduct community service where boys and girls do equal work
  • Design a skit or video to raise awareness about gender bias
  • Make informational labels to put on popular items in the cafeteria
  • Write a short story/children’s book with a female protagonist
  • Make yard signs to increase awareness
  • Design a t-shirt with a hashtag or some other type of message

Then it was time to vote again.  I’m pretty sure that as students cast ballots, all three of us were each offering up a secret prayer that sounded like, “Don’t pick carnival.  Please don’t pick carnival. Whatever you do, just please don’t pick a carnival.”

Well …

Oh, Serendipity, why must you fail me now?

Not only did they pick a carnival, they also chose to do locker flyers and to design a t-shirt.

What were we to do?  Fifty students were staring at us expectantly.  We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Well, you picked three things, there are three of us, I guess you’re on.”

And so it began.

Students researched gender related statistics for our building-wide morning announcements, revealing disturbing data like:

In 2015 there were only 21 female heads of state in the entire world

4 out of 5 victims of human trafficking are female

62 million girls are denied an education all over the world.

They looked up popular slogans and used them to design their own flyers, which they then decorated and posted on every, single locker throughout the school.

They created a beautiful original t-shirt design that addressed issues of gender equality, global gender concerns, and gender fluidity.

And they planned and carried out a carnival fund-raiser, which they held on the last day of school as a culminating activity for the entire building. 

Together, the money raised from the t-shirt sales and the carnival was nearly $1,000 — enough to send sixteen girls to school for a year.

My students knew that, globally, 62 million school-age girls are denied an education, and they knew, from videos like this one,   of the lasting, long-term, multi-generational and societal positive impacts that educating girls can have.  

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a highly-ranked non-profit organization.  One of their donation options is the opportunity to send a girl in Africa or the Middle East to school for a year at a cost of $58 per girl.  When my students learned about this program, they jumped on it immediately.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I think something like this was a possibility. When I originally conceived of this project, I thought that maybe they’d do locker flyers or write a short story.  Raising enough money for even one girl to go to school seemed like a long shot.

But my students dreamed far bigger than I did.  They believed in themselves far more than I did.  They made an impact far more significant than anything I would have planned for them.

If I had begun with the end in mind, I would have hindered their progress.

Giving up control in the classroom is a frightening thing to do, and yet it can yield tremendous results.  To be clear, this isn’t the same as an unplanned free for all.  While my teaching partners and I weren’t able to draft a unit plan for this work, and while sometimes we had to plan on the fly based on how things were evolving in the moment, we developed expectations, structures, and time frames as we went.

The entire experience was quite a roller coaster ride, and there were some moments where we really questioned whether the pieces would ultimately come together.

But they did, and the result was glorious.  This was like nothing I have ever done before.  I learned a lot about giving up control in the classroom and trusting my students.

My students also learned a lot. They learned about serious societal concerns.  They learned about how to communicate a message.  They learned about designing a logo.  They learned about organizing an event.  They learned about fundraising and profit margins.  They learned about working together.  They learned about  advocating for themselves and others.  And they learned that they could make a difference.

Although none of this will ever be on any standardized test (nor should it be), this very well may have been the most important learning students did all year.

This project took a leap of faith, but it was so worth the risk. The possibility of engaging in work like this isn’t unique to my classroom, or to Montessori schools, or even to secondary programs.  I believe it has value for any classroom.

Here is what I learned to make the process easier.

  • Expose students to real-world issues.  Adolescents in particular are hungry for this, as they strive to define themselves and identify their values.
  • Eke out time.  It will never appear on its own.  We cobbled small bits and pieces of available time together in the spring before state testing, and then used larger, more consistent blocks of time afterward.
  • If possible, find colleagues to help you.  I am blessed with two incredibly dedicated teaching partners.  I knew that no matter what happened, we’d be in it together, and one way or another, we’d find our way through.
  • Trust in your students.  They will be invested in what they design on their own.  They will rise to the occasion.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, as Barb Scholtz always says (and I seem to always doubt!) “Trust the process.”

Good Luck!

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7 Gateways: The Hunger for Joy and Delight Mon, 17 Jul 2017 09:00:14 +0000 Read more]]> originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17

by Krista Taylor

Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.

“Darling, I love you, please give me a smile.”

“Darling, I love you, but I just can’t smile.”

This is the script for the game — one of the most delightful and joy-filled activities of the school year. We play “Darling, I Love You” with our 7th graders during our Leadership Camp field experience each spring.

The rules are simple. The “it” person approaches someone in the circle, and says, “Darling I love you, please give me a smile.” The recipient of this declaration, must respond with, “Darling, I love you, but I just can’t smile;” however, they must do so without smiling or laughing.

That’s it. That’s the entirety of the game. Hilarity ensues. Some students break down in laughter as soon as they are approached; other students somehow manage, often with great facial manipulation, to remain stony-faced no matter how dramatically the declaration of love is provided.


I initially introduced this game at Gamble with tremendous trepidation. It seemed so silly; I was worried that it would flop terribly. However, each time we play, it never fails to elicit quite the opposite reaction. Students beg and plead to play again and again.

This game is non-competitive. There is no real skill involved. It does not include elaborate rules nor does it need special materials. It’s just good, old-fashioned fun, and yet students love it. The smiles and laughter that naturally accompany this game, remind me of the children that they yet are.

In my early days of teaching, Kim Bryant, a colleague and friend, and a junior high special ed teacher, used to regularly remind me that, “Special educators and junior high teachers get automatic entry to heaven.” Since the first half of my career was spent exclusively teaching high school, whenever I would hear this, I would think, “Well, one out of two ain’t bad, ‘cause there’s no way I’m ever teaching junior high!” It seemed that no matter where I was teaching, junior high was always a problem. Those kids were just SO squirrely, and their energy so hard to corral.

Then I took my current position at Gamble . . . teaching junior high . . . and I will never go back. There is just something so precious about this age group. Yes, they’re squirrely. Yes, their energy is hard to corral, but they are solidly standing on both sides of a great divide. They are desperately seeking maturity, but are still so firmly rooted in childhood. This is why they can have such fun with a simple game like “Darling, I love you.”

Rachel Kessler identified this desire for play as The Hunger for Joy and Delight, and she described it as follows:

“The hunger for joy and delight can be satisfied through experiences of great simplicity, such as play, celebration, or gratitude. It also describes the exaltation students feel when encountering beauty, power, grace, brilliance, love, or the sheer joy of being alive.”

 Like each of the 7 Gateways, she believes this hunger for joy and delight is essential for the adolescent, and yet joy and delight can be woefully absent from schools.

A post from the NY Times parenting blog states it like this, “Yet in all the talk about education reform, happiness rarely seems to make the list, even though there’s plenty of evidence out there about what an improved school environment might mean for learning and test scores, not to mention student attitudes and drop-out rates.”[1]

So how do we instill our schools with joy and delight, or, for lack of a better word, with fun?

My colleague, Scott Pardi, upgraded Gamble’s core values last summer. Mostly he changed the language that describes each of our existing values, but he also added a sixth core value, “Joy.” And, of course, it makes sense that alongside Community, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, and Respect, we should also have Joy.


However, filling our classrooms with joy and delight isn’t so easy to do. In preparation for writing this post, I have been brainstorming what we do at Gamble to infuse our teaching with fun. The vast majority of things I’ve come up with are things we do when we are out of the classroom on field experiences. While these can be hard to replicate, their importance is difficult to deny. Field experiences provide students with authentic opportunities to play.

I am reminded of fall camp and the sight of my students frolicking in the Little Miami River as I pulled my canoe up to the bank at our lunch spot. They were splashing each other, shrieking, and laughing – completely child-like in their absorption.


Just a few moments later, they realized that they could float in the water, and the current would pull them downriver. They did this again and again and again loving the sensation of being towed along.


On the beach in Pigeon Key, Florida students spent the better part of an hour burying each other in sand and giggling. Joy and Delight.


I love seeing my students this way. These are the same kids who often present as being “Too cool for school,” who bristle at redirection, who don’t want to be told what to do or how to do it, and who invest great time and energy into proving how little they need adults. They openly scoff at “being treated like a little kid,” or at anything that appears “baby-ish” to them.

Yet, when I watch them engaged in play, they look little different from preschoolers. Although their bodies are much larger and are beginning to resemble the adults they will eventually become, the pure delight reflected on their faces is reminiscent of that of the three and four year olds they once were.

It is all well and good to be able to witness The Hunger for Joy and Delight in these remarkable settings, but those are atypical experiences that don’t mirror the daily reality of school. How can we bring these experiences inside the four walls of the classroom?

Many teachers will be familiar with the classroom management adage: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” What?! Half of the school year gone without cracking a smile? I don’t think I could follow this advice for a single day much less for four months. I can’t imagine a better way to absolutely squash any possibility of joy and delight experienced in the classroom than to have a smile-less teacher. Fortunately a quick Google search yields a plethora of articles debunking this outdated advice, and yet it remains challenging to find ways to foster joy in the classroom.

The school accountability movement has snatched much of the joy out of teaching and learning. The pressure to perform is great for both teachers and students, and assessment and evaluation lurk around every turn – pacing guides and curriculum maps tell us what to teach and when to teach it, SLO pre-tests, post-tests, and growth measures tell us what our students knew before we provided any instruction and how much growth they should be able to demonstrate by the post-testing deadline. State standardized tests, which in Ohio have changed three times over the course of the past four years leading to untrialed and unnormed testing, are used as a near sole measure to identify the effectiveness of schools and districts.

Data and measurement have become king, but joy is immeasurable, and I fear it is being pushed to the wayside as a result. I don’t mean to imply that looking for indicators of academic growth is all bad; it is not. However, the sheer volume of these requirements, the seeming randomness of the bars that are being set for proficiency, and the high-stakes nature of the outcomes for students, teachers, and schools alike, have led to a pressure-cooker classroom environment, and joy has, in large part, evaporated. But as Andrew Carnegie said, “There is little success where there is little laughter.”

We can fight to preserve joy, and we can note its conditions when we see it. Just last week, a female student who insists that she hates math and is no good at it, looked up at me positively beaming, excitedly pointed to the solution on her paper, and nearly shouted, “Look, I did it! It’s right isn’t it? No, you don’t have to tell me. I’m right; I know I am!” Joy and delight. There it is. Right there in that moment. Lindsey’s joy and delight arrived only through perseverance and struggle. Her bright smile and exuberance came after many days of frustration that looked like this.


One of the regular ways we seek to bring joy and delight to our instruction at Gamble is through the implementation of group initiatives or games. These often intentionally create frustration for students, in part so that they can experience the jubilation that emerges upon successful completion of a difficult task.

Once a week, we suspend content instruction for a bell, and practice experiencing joy and delight together through some kind of team-building activity – These can be games, like “Darling, I Love You,” or “Four on a Couch,” or group initiatives – cooperative problem-solving tasks – like Peanut Butter River or Human Knot. These activities are fun although often frustrating, too. There is laughter, but there can be arguing as well. We always end this type of activity with what we call Awareness of Process questions, and these discussions are the most important part. Students explore “What?” or what the activity asked of them and what made it challenging. This leads us to “So what?” or what was its purpose and value — what did we learn from it? The final thread is “Now what?” an investigation of how we can apply these same skills in the classroom or in interpersonal relationships.


There are many important concepts that arise from this questioning. Students regularly note the importance of persevering through struggle, of being patient and listening to one another, of having a strategy and allowing leaders to lead, and of demonstrating grace and courtesy with one another. However, a frequent response to why we do these kinds of activities, is “to have fun.” That can be easily overlooked, but having fun together has inherent value. It’s said that “Laughter is the best medicine,” and modern science is, indeed, proving the health benefits of experiencing laughter. As Kessler said, our students hunger for joy and delight.


So encourage play, and make time for it as best you are able. Provide structures and activities through which students can experience joy and delight. Preserve and cherish fun.

Adolescents might say that they hate to be “treated like a kid,” but I’m not convinced. I can’t count the number of times on overnight field experiences that students have asked, “Ms. Taylor, will you sing us to sleep tonight?” Now, I am a mediocre vocalist at best; they aren’t asking because they love to hear the sound of my voice. They are asking because deep down they are still holding onto the need to be nurtured in this way. So I dust off all the lullabies and folk songs I can remember, and I sing them over and over again until only the sound of slumber fills the room. The joy and delight experienced is not just theirs – it is mine, too.

So treasure joy and delight. When laughter is brought into the classroom, it is not just students who benefit; teachers do as well. All of us need to experience joy and delight on a regular basis. We watch adolescents overtly struggle with the societal idea that growing up means leaving play behind, but perhaps we are all backwards in this. Perhaps growing up really means actively seeking out joy and delight and learning how to intentionally incorporate it into the fabric of our lives. So experience play, celebration, and gratitude. Encounter beauty, power, grace, brilliance, love, and the sheer joy of being alive. As we teach this to our students, so, too, shall we learn.







[1] Rowley, Barbara. “Why Can’t School Be More like Summer?” The New York TImes. N.p., 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.


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Let’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise) Mon, 10 Jul 2017 10:00:28 +0000 Read more]]> Let’s meet.

Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.

Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.

An unnamed executive blogged, “I believe that our abundance of meetings at our company is the Cultural Tax we pay for the inclusive, learning environment that we want to foster…and I’m ok with that. If the alternative to more meetings is more autocratic decision-making, less input from all levels throughout the organization, and fewer opportunities to ensure alignment and communication by personal interaction, then give me more meetings any time!” [Perlow, Leslie A., Constance Harvard Noonan Hadley, and Eunice Eun. “Stop the Meeting Madness.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, 26 June 2017. Web. 08 July 2017.]

Even this comment in support of meetings still manages to refer to them as a “Cultural Tax.” This is not a term of affection for an event that is eagerly anticipated.

I am a fan of a good meeting. However, bookmarked in my browser is another Harvard Business Review article with a flowchart of questions to ask before deciding whether a meeting is necessary.


Several years ago, I read Atul Gwande’s Checklist Manifesto and saw the implications it held for making things work better in almost every setting. At the same time, I learned of the book Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators, by Kathryn Parker Boudette and Elizabeth A. City. This second book built on some of Gwande’s concepts, and it is a comprehensive guide to having productive meetings. It has the added bonus of being a book about meetings that is NOT a book about business. As the title indicates, it is focused on meetings in education.

I mentioned the book to Krista, and she and I read it together, and started making some repairs to how we ran meetings. I updated my meeting agenda format for team leaders and ILT to match their suggestions. Krista saw the book as guidance on how to get better in her leadership role.  She chafed against the rigidity of the structure, until she saw the effect it had on her meetings. Now she has embraced the changes enthusiastically, especially some of the personal disciplines I describe below. And I am relatively certain that it was her preparation that guaranteed full attendance and participation at meetings where she was in charge.

The changes were positive and directly attributable to our work with the book. So this most recent school year, I decided to roll this out for the team leaders.

And before I go any further, I feel the need for full disclosure: this didn’t go great. In fact, by some measures it could be considered disastrous. So, I invite you to learn from our mistakes. Certainly there are always a number of factors involved, but this year three of our five team leaders abdicated their positions during the school year, all three opting to forego their stipends rather than remain in a leadership position. Two left the school at the end of the year, with one stepping out of teaching altogether. According to some, the quantity of meetings was one of the culprits, though this had not actually changed from previous years.

So this article is an explanation of what went well, and an explication of what didn’t.

Meetings are a necessary and important part of working with others. Making important decisions about key aspects of your work simply cannot be done in isolation, or through email or – worse yet – another app like GroupMe or Slack. Being face to face with other experts who can offer examples and arguments for or against proposals, or who can help you interpret the data you have gathered is a priceless commodity. One to be used wisely.

So while face to face meetings with experts in your cohort are priceless, meetings themselves actually have a price. And that is where the book Meeting Wise starts. A simple calculation of the time spent in meetings, when multiplied by the salaries of those involved, showed that our humble school invested nearly $100,000 in standing meetings alone in the 2015-16 SY.


Cost-effectiveness is one important measure of the importance of meetings, but not the most important. If team members leave meetings unsure of next steps, angry about a problem that was raised but not solved, or confused about why they were even present, then meetings have become a barrier to success and fulfillment, rather than a means to achieve them.

At Gamble, one of our regular meetings is a weekly team leader meeting. At these meetings we review key upcoming events, plan and review our semester team plans and data, coordinate the schedule for the school, manage whole-school conversations, write school policy proposals, and develop leadership skills.  These meetings are important because they contain our “official” building leadership – teachers who have stepped up into elected leadership positions and assumed the role of leaders in their community. These teachers receive up to $6,000 for serving in these leadership positions, depending on their own professional status in the district. Typically, these leaders are responsible for regular meetings in the school, usually for a team of teachers. It is obviously important that these leaders know how to lead meetings, because they are required to be at many of them, often in the position of facilitator.

With this in mind, I introduced Meeting Wise to my team leaders at the start of this school year and set up a plan to review the book together. My plan was that a short chapter reading each month, perhaps half an hour, with an activity (such as the chart above) which could be completed in 5 to 10 minutes, could likely have a positive school-wide effect. The plan was that we would practice together and all gain facility in directing and participating in meetings by implementing the solutions in the book, and a school-wide meeting renaissance would occur.

I built this plan around the structure of the book. These chapters and their specific work are outlined below.

Chapter 1: Why Focus on Meetings? Explores the importance of meetings, and the significance of doing them well. This is where the chart with the costs of meetings is explored. There is also a chance for the reader to reflect on the best and worst meetings they have attended.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the MeetingWise checklist. This is where the magic happens. Building from Atul Gwande’s Checklist Manifesto,  Boudette and City share a checklist to review the agenda for the upcoming meeting to make sure that it is focused and effective – and that they need to happen. These 12 questions explore every aspect of the meeting, from determining whether it should happen to making sure people follow through with assigned tasks.


  1. Have we identified clear and important meeting objectives that contribute to the goal of improving learning?
  2. Have we established the connection between the work of this and other meetings in the series?
  3. Have we incorporated feedback from previous meetings?
  4. Have we chosen challenging activities that advance the meeting objectives and engage all participants?
  5. Have we assigned roles, including facilitator, timekeeper and note taker?
  6. Have we built in time to identify and commit to next steps?
  7. Have we built in time for assessment of what worked and what didn’t in the meeting?
  8. Have we gathered or developed materials (drafts, charts, etc.) that will help to focus and advance the meeting objectives?
  9. Have we determined what, if any, pre-work we will ask participants to do before the meeting?
  10. Have we put time allocations to each activity on the agenda?
  11. Have we ensured that we will address the primary objective early in the meeting?
  12. Is it realistic that we could get through our agenda in the time allocated?

 Boudette and City propose a meeting format that forces/reminds the facilitator to address most of the 12 questions, including allocating specific time, making sure meeting preparation occurs, and clarifying who is responsible for taking the next step with each topic. We devised our own template based on this, which is available for download here: Blank Gamble Montessori Meeting Template

We all understand that our days in a school are packed with obligations, tasks, and unexpected work interruptions. The more I planned my team leader meetings, the more productive we were. The closer we adhered to this template, the better the meetings ran. First and foremost, the meeting planner has to make sure that the pieces are taken care of in advance.

I frequently failed at putting together every piece, and I found I had to improve at the discipline of preparation. That is where chapters 4 and 5 focus: meeting preparation and wise facilitation.

I feel the need for full disclosure: this didn’t go great. In fact, by some measures it could be considered disastrous.

In retrospect, these two chapters were where we should have focused our work, rather than dividing the chapters up evenly over the allotted time. Team leader meetings would have been well spent if we had worked together to review the agendas for upcoming team meetings. By making sure that they were adhering to the process, I could have helped where they were struggling, while getting a glimpse into the real work of the team. Were they spending time discussing important school-wide and team matters, or were meetings devolving into something less, perhaps sessions complaining about issues but offering no solution? Or was the team earnestly exploring something that ultimately had little effect on instruction, climate, and relationships? Was the work really too much, or were teams or individuals actually refusing to complete important work demonstrating that they were growing students academically?

Reviewing the meeting template together as a leadership team would have helped reveal these problems in real time, and would have helped make me aware of the scope of the problem.  The wise facilitator does more than follow the template, however, and Meeting Wise chapters 4 and 5 provide help for dealing with a wide array of struggles faced by a meeting facilitator. What do you do when the conversation wanders, or with someone who is late, or when a new topic comes up? For each of these common issues that plague meetings everywhere, the authors offer a practical solution, focused on the principles of protecting everyone’s time and doing only the most important work.

If I had worked more closely with the leaders, cycling through chapters 4 and 5, perhaps I could have anticipated what went wrong. I might have been able to determine that some of my leaders were struggling in their role. How else could missed deadlines and massive communication failures be explained? We know that people will quit or sabotage in response to unwelcome or uncomfortable change. We were all undergoing change together. I know that I needed to grow in this area, and I wanted to help out my teams and committees. Certainly none of us consider ourselves accomplished leaders. I assumed everyone wanted to get better at areas where they were not strong. I was caught off guard by the passive resistance I saw.

It is my default position to blame myself for struggles in the school, and at our key meetings. It is reflexive to blame those who quit, or accuse them of sabotage. So at first I dismissed the entire precept of chapter 6. Here, the authors lay out the work of the meeting participant. Participants, it is really no surprise, are also responsible for making a meeting effective. They have four important tasks, some of which mirror the facilitator’s work, and some of which they are actually in a better position than the facilitator to make happen:

  1. Keep to the agenda by being on time and understanding the purpose of the meeting. Tips are provided for the participant to make sure the right purpose is being served, and to address the elephant in the room.
  2. Support full engagement by following the norms, addressing people and ideas by name, being fully present, and building on the ideas of others.
  3. Manage conflict. This is one area where the participants can be in a better position to promote positive conflict and squash unproductive conflict than even the facilitator. Take on the people who are simply going along or playing nice, and those whose participation is for show and is not true engagement.
  4. Maintain awareness of the role you play by weighing your words, and providing constructive feedback to everyone in the room.

It was within this 4th task – maintaining awareness of your role – that I saw helpful advice for me in the role as principal. The fact is, I hold positional authority in every meeting I attend in the school. I have for years struggled with how to use this authority to promote vigorous debate. My common default was to withhold comment until the end of the discussion, sometimes only offering it just prior to a vote. I see now that this had the effect of giving my voice a sort of veto power in key discussions. Instead, the authors suggest that I tend toward inquiry rather than advocacy in the discussion.

Only later, after reading Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber and getting additional concrete suggestions for improving my skills, did I fully appreciate the wisdom in Meeting Wise chapter 6.

Okay, so here is where I went wrong in my planning for how to use this book with my team leaders. I scheduled the final chapter as a standalone chapter to be covered late in the year at team leader meetings. This was poor planning, as chapter 7 is a guide for how to use the book to improve your teams’ practice in leadership. It was also poor planning, ultimately, because of the unforeseeable circumstance of the leaders in the building stepping down from their roles. Had chapter 7 been my guide, rather than my last chapter, I would have known to structure my meetings as a review of the agendas, and to reinforce the practice of my leaders. I knew that these teachers had not chosen to lead because of the status, or even because of the stipend. I believed they wanted to get better at leadership, but I squandered an opportunity to help them do that.

Would this have prevented the struggles we faced? I don’t know. There appear to be as many interpretations of what it means to be a leader as there are people trying to become leaders. Would it have brought me into greater engagement with my leaders and their work as teams? Yes.

And I believe that strong relationships make everything better, and make learning possible.

Meeting Wise offers sample meeting norms, a sample meeting template (mentioned earlier) and other handy resources to make your meeting run more smoothly and to stay more effectively focused on the important work of education.

What questions do you have about meeting participation and facilitation?

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Take A Break! Mon, 03 Jul 2017 10:00:27 +0000 Read more]]> -by Jack M. Jose, originally published July 4, 2016, revised July 2017

I am bad at vacations. Really bad. Classically bad. I have trouble scheduling them. I dislike planning for them. I pack well enough, but I put it off to the moments before we leave. On occasion I vow, “This vacation will be different.” I claim I will get away from work for real, but it always creeps back in, usually through an open door. A door that I propped open. After sunset we return to the hotel room, and I sneak a glimpse at the computer. Or perhaps I take a quick look at my phone and handle an email discreetly while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I then look up into my wife’s disapproving stare.

July, 2015, I vowed to fix that.


We had a cottage on a Florida inlet for a week. “No email.” I swore. “No projects.” I drew an “X” across my heart with my index finger. And Sunday I was solid. I accessed the computer only to stream Netflix as the family gathered in the evening and sprawled on the couches in the living room. Monday and Tuesday I was still on the regimen. In the morning I wandered out to the porch with a guitar and left my phone on the dresser. I took a nap in the afternoon instead of playing a game on the computer. On Wednesday morning, however, I slipped up, and saw on my phone that I had over 150 unread emails. “Stay strong,” I told myself. “A promise is a promise.” But it was too late. I did the math. We had left on Sunday, and I had achieved Inbox 0 just the Friday before. Surely no one sent emails on a Sunday in July. Just over two days had generated 150 emails! In the summer! I played out a full week in my head, imagined the steady stream of notes requesting my attention, and added a weekend before I got back to the office … I was looking at more than 400 unread emails at my next log-in. It would take a week of just answering emails to get caught up, but I had other work to do. The tension became physical.

That afternoon when my family went to a local arcade and trampoline “Party Zone” to escape the heat, I felt like I had a softball-sized knot between my shoulder blades. I had to rotate my whole torso when I looked to the right, or else a sharp pain would course through my entire upper body. “Must have pulled something,” I explained as I bounced on the trampoline halfheartedly. I then walked to the dismount ledge and slumped off to play some fine-motor skill video games that didn’t require head movements. Later I excused myself from a game of laser tag and instead sat in the cafeteria watching CNN Headline news, eating a greasy slice of pizza and steadfastly refusing to look at my phone. But I knew the truth. My work anxiety had created this tension knot. And only working would fix it.

For the rest of the vacation, I took various over-the-counter pain killers while trying to enjoy “getting away from it all.” A part of me spent the second half of the vacation longing to return to the office. Finally, the vacation was over, and we returned home. (Who else says “Finally, the vacation was over?”) 

My symptoms disappeared Tuesday, our third day home. “You should go see a doctor,” my wife had suggested Sunday night, and again Monday night, because I had propped my pillows just right to keep my head from rolling, preventing a sharp pain from waking me in the middle of the night. She repeated this on Tuesday when I came into the kitchen in the morning. “No, I’m fine.” I rolled my neck around and raised my right arm, an impossible combination just two days earlier. “Huh,” she observed. “Like a miracle.”

“Something like that,” I agreed. It was really the result of a Herculean Sunday-Monday email binge that reassured me I was still on top of what had happened in my absence. No crisis here.

The vacation / anxiety spiral.

A Forbes magazine summary of a study by the Center for Economic and Policy research showed that Americans take far fewer holidays than the rest of the industrialized world. The vacation gap is even greater for lower income workers, where even unpaid vacations are frowned upon, and of course time away from hourly work means putting a dent in the family finances. Vacation is often optional here, where other developed countries require between 5 and 13 paid vacation days a year, with some countries paying a vacation bonus to cover unusual expenses, and the EU establishing a minimum of 20 paid vacation days for member countries. This is potentially bad news for those experiencing Brexit!

Vacation is often optional in the United States, and many workers let annual vacation days expire.

Research shows, however, that a vacation is truly good for you. Two widely-cited studies, the NIH Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial for the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease, and the Framington Heart Study, showed that non-vacationers faced a 32% greater risk of dying from heart disease and a 30% greater chance of having a heart attack. Non-vacationing women were 8 times more likely to develop these conditions than their vacationing counterparts.

Not only can a vacation save your life, it is clinically proven to reduce your stress level, and decrease depression. Both of these correlate to longer life.

But there is more. And I put it here because I need to hear it as much as some of you. Vacations actually improve your productivity. Among the European Union nations, Germany has the second highest number of required days of vacation, even as it serves as the economic powerhouse for the EU.

“Sharpen the Saw” – In his seminal self-leadership book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey touts the benefits of a good vacation. He uses the analogy of a person sawing wood. The lumberjack who labors on finds himself more and more tired, and he finds his tools are less and less useful. His vacationing alter ego is instead stopping to “sharpen the saw”, and when he returns to work he finds that the teeth bite through the wood at a new, more effective rate, and he is able to get more done more quickly than he was before.

In a profession like teaching, where science and art meet daily, and we find ourselves constant cheerleaders and emotional supporters of our students and co-workers, our “saw” that needs sharpened is our creativity and emotional resilience. Sharpening it, by allowing it to rest and reset, can lead to deeper understanding and better facility with our own emotions. The teacher or administrator who has not rested his brain risks being a victim of his own overstressed amygdala, and instead of being a nurturing adult, he may well turn into a saber-toothed tiger. Or he may just roar needlessly at a bewildered student or co-worker making a simple request.


That’s the why. What about How?

So we all know how to vacation, right? Well, maybe not. The fact is, there are many different types of vacations, from the one-tank out-of-town trip to a nearby attraction, to the week at a cabin, to an extended trip to a continent holding many mysteries and cultures. Our vacationing style was passed on to us by our own family, and is restricted by our incomes and work schedules. Here’s how to make the most of your time away.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree blogger Eric Barker passes on a suggestion that you plan a trip of 3 to 6 days, with a major highlight coming right at the end. I recommend you read his post Are There Easy Ways to Improve Your Next Vacation. This is one of the ways you can sort of psych yourself into a great vacation. The last impression of your vacation is often the strongest, and planning the emotional high at the end makes your vacation even more satisfying, and perhaps healthier.

We know that a well-planned lesson goes better than a poorly planned one, or that an unstructured field experience can often lead to strife between students. The human mind craves organization. Even in vacation. Especially in vacation. With organization, our sense of time passing slows down, and it allows us to savor moments instead of wasting them. So take time to plan your days. Perhaps not hourly, but quarterly. My wife Kathy and I start with the “big rocks” of the vacation – Stephen Covey’s language for “the most important things.” [Alright, she is going to read this and I will be forced to admit it: she does the planning. All of it. About two weeks before the vacation, which she has already planned, I see it coming up on my schedule and I engage by providing helpful suggestions: “I’ve never been to Kansas City’s Kauffman stadium,” or “California sounds beautiful.” I get a quick summary of airline prices, and we’re soon on our way to Florida, or New York City. Once there, I get to make daily suggestions to influence where we eat, or which attractions we visit. Sometimes we end up at one of those places. It works for us.]

Whether it is a tour of a bourbon factory on a purposeful weekend getaway, or long walks on the beach in a leisurely week-long trip, or a horseback ride through the mountains on an anniversary trip without the kids, the primary attraction gets planned first. When we are on location at our destination, we then plan the details of our vacation days by forming an idea of where we would like to eat, and scheduling the four periods in between meals. Pre-breakfast: work check-in, which can include email, reading blogs or books, and writing. Then breakfast. After that, together time: a walk on the beach, and a drive to a nearby attraction. Then lunch. Tour the attraction, return, perhaps a family swim or afternoon game time inside. Then dinner. And finally, we have an after-dinner wind-down, which might include a second walk, a movie, or a Netflix series binge.

Michael Hyatt, whose “This is Your Life” podcast has been downloaded over 10 million times, and who also writes a tremendously popular productivity blog, offers many vacationing insights in a recent post entitled How to Vacation Like a Pro. He suggests that before you leave, you work intentionally to get completely caught up. The vacationer with a big incomplete project looming over her head will not truly be vacationing. She will be hiding. More a fugitive than a tourist. Solution: Finish that first quarter unit plan. Turn in those last papers for your master’s class. Update your back-to-school letter to parents, and save it in a safe place.

Hyatt goes on to offer a series of tips that are controversial and nothing short of revolutionary – and which definitely benefit from his position atop his own company. His suggestion is to leave a message on auto-reply in your work email letting people know you’re away. He then takes it a step further – deleting those emails and requesting people get back with him later.

To quote Bart Simpson, “Aye Carumba!” Or, more accurately, “Oy vey!”  We do not advocate that particular position! That is not our style.

Instead, we leave lines of communication open. Being in communication does not have to be 24/7, however. My auto reply message for my next vacation will include information about when in the day people can expect a reply from me or can expect to reach me. Most of those people trying to contact us will gladly – and voluntarily – wait, rather than interrupt a vacation. It is my hope they will exclude me from a round of replies when an email discussion becomes a conversation thread. Krista, on the other hand, thrives on being in constant communication with her team, and will even manage a little work on Marathon Pool Day®. While Michael Hyatt will help himself get away by indicating who is in charge of making key decisions in his absence, this is a luxury not available to many of us, who are work teams of one.

A third suggestion Hyatt makes is to block out the whole day when you return to focus on getting caught up. Schedule time with you, for you. This way, you don’t have meetings and new business cluttering up your efforts to re-live the previous week. Tell people you will be back on Tuesday, but spend Monday in your office following your own make-up schedule.


Small Steps

This spring, with memories of my immobile neck fresh in my memory, I charted a new course for a brief getaway with my wife. A compromise position. I told her that each morning, before or after our walk on the beach, I was going to take 30 minutes to an hour – with the maximum of 60 minutes – to work. I was going to research or write an upcoming post, check email, make a phone call or text as necessary. I promised then that I would be present in every other moment of the vacation. This way, I knew I could stay on top of the things that had to get done, and work toward my own goals of what I wanted to get done at work, without guilt. I could keep my commitment to being on vacation, without the giant crick in my neck.

For her part, Kathy was willing to go along with this. She knew that I would keep my word about the rest of the time with her, and that being away from work really made me miserable. Additionally, she had a book she wanted to read, and could use a little time for herself. In many ways, it was one of our most enjoyable vacations – and not just because it was a rare getaway without the kids! We had structure for our time together, and rules for “solo time”. With these boundaries in place, we were able to be totally “in the moment.”

[Of course, in my typical fashion, I decided I would also stop drinking caffeinated drinks while I was away on vacation. I had read that it was easier to form new habits when you were outside of your usual patterns. So I had a misery-inducing headache the first three days of the trip. I am classically bad at vacations.]

Please comment by sharing your own travel tips, big or small, that help make the vacation a true rest and reset opportunity. Or, share your anxieties around vacationing. Can’t get your mojo back? Can’t even think about a long vacation without heart palpitations? Tell us about it!


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Getting Uncomfortable — Let’s Talk About Race In The Classroom Mon, 26 Jun 2017 08:00:59 +0000 Read more]]> During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.

My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?

Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.

My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.

I am always very aware of this contrast during our time at camp. Perhaps this hyper-sensitivity is just me, but I don’t think so.

I have heard many teachers express concern that when they take groups of students of color out of the building, they feel an uncomfortable shift. Docents or other organization representatives are a little more on edge. They are a little more wary, a little less open, and a little quicker to correct.

So that morning, when this white chaperone spoke to my students, my first reaction was to jump to their defense. I was concerned that they had been unfairly judged, and I wanted to protect them from this.

I went over and asked my students what she had said. They first told me, “Nothing.” When I probed a little further, they indicated that she had corrected them for making fun of one of their students with disabilities.

My heart sank. If there is anything that I take pride in, it is the cultivation of a feeling of belonging and inclusion among my students. The thought of them making fun of a student with disabilities was deeply upsetting.

They readily assured me, however, that she had misunderstood their words and actions, and that they had not done this.

I walked away contemplating my next steps. This just didn’t sound like my students.

I sought out the chaperone who had redirected them, introduced myself, and asked her what had happened. She told me that several of the parents with her group had expressed concerns, so she decided to observe my students’ behavior. She said she saw them whispering and laughing as one of their students with Down Syndrome walked by our tables. She indicated that she didn’t feel it was that serious, and that she didn’t see a need for any further action.

I shared with her that I couldn’t imagine my students behaving that way, but that I would address it with them regardless because I did think it was pretty serious.

As I returned to the group, Carissa, a student who had been sitting at the same table approached me and said, “I have to tell you something, Ms. Taylor. They told you that they weren’t making fun of those kids, but I’m not going to lie to you. They did do that. They were pointing at them and saying things like, ‘That kid’s your brother,’ or ‘That kid’s your cousin,’ and laughing.”

Ugh. It was true. Okay, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t good.

My teaching partners and I had an impromptu problem-solving discussion, and came up with a disciplinary plan. I would meet with the three students involved and share with them the many reasons why their behavior was a problem. They would each individually apologize to the chaperone who had corrected them, and instead of participating in the morning’s activities, they would provide restitution by cleaning up the cafeteria space that both groups shared.

I spoke to the other chaperone a second time, and prepared her for the apology that each of my students would be offering her. She graciously noted that she didn’t believe that was necessary, but I told her that I did think it was necessary as this was an important learning moment.

After speaking to my students in no uncertain terms about their behavior, they each apologized. I watched them from afar and was pleased that each introduced themselves with a professional handshake, as directed, and then provided what seemed a sincere apology.

They then got to work straightening up the cafeteria bathrooms and sweeping the floor.

But the issue of race kept bothering me. I didn’t know whether or not to share with them my concerns about judgment being passed not just because of their behavior but because of their race as well.

I knew why this concern was in the forefront of my mind.

For much of this school year, a group of my colleagues and I had engaged in monthly seminar discussions about issues of racial bias, institutional racism, and what this means for our students, and for us as teachers.

We hadn’t planned to do this work as much as we fell into it. The second quarter novel we assigned to our students touched on some issues of race, and this led us to assign a seminar reading about implicit racial bias. The students were so engaged by this topic that we assigned another one, and then another. And before we knew it, we had embarked on what rapidly became an entire unit about racial bias.

Several weeks into the unit though, I was feeling over my head. The topic was sensitive, students were engaging in difficult conversations, and asking hard questions. I didn’t want to inadvertently screw things up. I, and most of my colleagues, are white. Most, but not all, of my students are black. The topic of race in America is important and highly charged. As teachers, our words carry great weight and power for students. I worried that we might inadvertently say the wrong thing or send the wrong message, and that this could have lasting consequences.

Maria Montessori wrote profoundly about the importance of preparation of the teacher, “The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self. The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character, it is a preparation of the spirit.” (The Absorbent Mind) My colleagues and I had missed a critical step. We had failed to prepare ourselves for this topic.

I took my apprehensions to Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, and our resident expert on issues of social justice. Josh has done a lot of research, reflection, and discussion about race, culture, and class in America.  (Here’s a link to Josh’s published writing on this same topic.)  As I anticipated, he had excellent insight for me.

When we met I explained what we were working on with our students, and my concerns about the need for teacher preparation regarding these issues.

Josh confirmed several things. He first indicated how impressed he was that we were engaging in these conversations with our junior high students – noting that it is deeply important work. He also affirmed my belief in the need for teacher preparation, and he suggested that my team engage in a seminar about these issues in order to help us deconstruct our personal philosophies, challenge our assumptions, and explore how to guide students through the process.

He recommended that we begin with Bryan Stevenson’s video on Confronting Injustice. So, we did.

Stevenson’s lecture is powerful and provocative. None of us was able to watch the video without being impacted by his words. In it he identifies four critical factors to addressing the racist and classist injustice that is pervasive in America.

  • Get proximate
  • Change the narrative
  • Stay hopeful
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable

I believe that it was this call to action that inspired us to agree to commit to meeting monthly for the remainder of the school year to continue our dialogue on this topic.

Together we read (or viewed) and discussed:

Perhaps, more importantly, we listened to each other, challenged each other, and understood one another a little better each time we gathered in this way.

My team is made up of eight people – six of us are white and two of us are black, and we all come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences.

Each of our discussions was rich and heart-felt and honest, but there were three moments that resonated deeply with me. These moments were each examples of getting proximate and risking discomfort.

The first happened at the very start of our work together. We had just discussed Confronting Injustice, and I thought the dialogue had gone incredibly well. I wanted to continue the work. When I asked if others were on board with this, I received seven resounding yesses, including my own. Krista Mertens, however, responded more hesitantly.

She noted, “I am in-between. I wasn’t totally comfortable with some parts of the conversation. I’m wondering if we can do some pre-work before really diving into these hard issues to create a more trusting, knowledgeable, and strong community where everyone’s views and experiences are heard and honored.”

She and I met to discuss her concerns further, and I realized that I had, yet again, missed an important step. While, as a team, we already had meeting norms, these discussions on race were different. They required a different level of engagement, commitment, and trust. We needed to create a special set of meeting norms for these conversations. We spent our next meeting time doing just that, and came up with these; we read them aloud at the beginning of each of our seminars.

The second really powerful moment for me came when we spent some time exploring the personal history and experiences that had led us to our current understanding of issues of race. I learned things about my colleagues that I didn’t know before, and deepened my understanding of things that had impacted each of them.

Everyone had unique and interesting experiences, but Roz’s story ripped at my heart. Roz had been the only black student in a classroom for students deemed academically talented. She shared that, despite having the highest IQ score in the class, one day her teacher told her “Rosalyn, you will just be another statistic. I’d be surprised if you graduate from high school.”

Roz subsequently made it her life’s work to prove her teacher wrong, sending back notice of every achievement she earned — membership in the National Honors Society, Who’s Who in American High School Students, and Interact, as well as a Bachelor of Science and Master of Business Administration degree.

I, of course, had heard of stories like this before, but never about people I knew personally.   It was hard to stomach.

During a discussion about white privilege, I noted that I never even think about my race, and that I believed that this was a form of privilege. I was asked whether I think about my gender. The answer here, of course, is yes, all the time. Again, I believe this is related to privilege, or more accurately in this case, a lack of privilege. The discussion then turned to our students. What does an awareness, or lack of awareness, of their race mean for them?

Again, it was Roz whose comment felt the most powerful. She talked about how she speaks to her students of color. Unlike her own teacher, she insists that they will make it, that they will be successful, but along with this optimism, she tells them some hard truths. She tells them that they will be judged unfairly, that they will have to prove themselves more relentlessly than others, and that they will have to be more mindful of their behavior than others because of how they might be perceived as a result of race.

April, the other person of color on our team, agreed with this statement, and went further, sharing that she says these same things to her students, her daughter, and especially to her young, male family members – noting that not just their success but also their safety could be at risk.

It was this conversation that weighed heavily on my mind during the incident at leadership camp. I had three black students who had made fun of a younger, disabled white student from another school. I knew that their behavior could have served to reinforce stereotypes. Does this matter? Yes. Is it fair? No. Should I address it? I had no idea.

A year ago, I would have ignored that part of it. But this year, I had greater insight and greater courage as a result of the seminar discussions we had engaged in. I knew it was a relevant issue, I just didn’t know the proper way to handle it.

If I addressed it, was I sending a message that my black students had to demonstrate more appropriate behavior than my white students? Was I over-emphasizing the importance of race in how they are seen by others? Was I inadvertently blaming them for something that is ultimately the fault and responsibility of white people?

If I didn’t address it, was I missing an important teachable moment? Was I doing them a disservice by not discussing with them the potential magnitude of the situation and the ramifications it could have? Was I not telling them the whole truth?

I was fairly certain that both Roz and April would have addressed it. And yet, I had no idea what I should do.

So I called April, and shared my dilemma. A year ago, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing this. But because of our previous discussions, I knew we could have this one, and I trusted her to help me find the right course of action.  I was hesitant to make her my “expert on black people,” but she was also my friend, and we shared this group of students.  Based on this, I knew she would have all of our best interests in mind and would help guide my footsteps.

If truth be told, what I really wanted her to say was, “No worries. I’ve got this. I’ll just jump in my car, make the hour-long drive up to camp, and I’ll talk to them!”

Or at least, “It’s okay. I’ll talk to them about it later on when you get back to school.”

Of course, that’s not what she said.

What she did say was, “There is a prevalent stereotype that black teenagers are disrespectful, disruptive, and disobedient. Your students’ behavior reinforced that stereotype today. They need to know that. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair; it’s true. You should definitely say something to them about it.”

I tried the cop-out strategy. “But, April,” I said, “I’m white.”

“Uh, yeah, I know,” she laughingly replied. “You should still say something.”

“But what if I say it wrong?”

“You won’t say it wrong.”

“I might. Can I say it to you first?”

“Of course.”

So April listened while I practiced saying those uncomfortable words. She “approved my message,” and told me I could call her back if I had more questions or needed more insight.

I had already directly addressed the misbehavior itself. My students had already apologized and completed restitution. This conversation was the final step before we all put the incident behind us. I gathered up my courage, sat down with the three students, and started by saying, “What I’m about to say to you is hard for me to talk about. It isn’t fair, but it’s true, so I need you to hear it.” I talked about the stereotype, and I described how their behavior could serve to reinforce it in general, and how they are likely to be more harshly judged individually. They listened, but had little to say in response.

I don’t know that I did it “right.” I only know that I gave it my best shot. Racial bias is a hard thing to confront. It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to place responsibility on the right shoulders while still sharing the hard truths.

My words may or may not have been the right ones, but I am certain that engaging in conversations about race is a step in the right direction. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s hard, and we risk saying the wrong thing, but we simply must do it anyway.  We must break the chokehold of unspeakability that has kept us silent on this topic for decades.

We must break the chokehold of unspeakability that has kept us silent on this topic for decades.

What began as an intention to hold a single, isolated seminar discussion with my team on the subject of institutional racism has had far-reaching benefits. We understand each other better. We are more willing to have challenging conversations with one another. We are more forgiving of each other. And we are braver with our students. At the end of the year when I asked my team if they wanted to continue this work next school year, the response was 100% in favor. In fact, we are hoping to expand this practice to other teams, and perhaps, someday, to our entire faculty.

We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we are asking questions and seeking change. I like to think that we are following Bryan Stevenson’s recommendations. We are getting proximate, changing the narrative, staying hopeful, and being willing to be uncomfortable. Together we are working to effect change in our little corner of the world.

It is in each of our “little corners” where these conversations must begin.




What is this “Montessori Thing” and Secondary Montessori Mon, 19 Jun 2017 09:00:20 +0000 Read more]]> *This post was originally published as two separate posts in January of 2016.  Because both posts address the origins and philosophy of Montessori practice, we wanted to republish them together.

 Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Social-Emotional Learning
  • Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
  • Real-World Experiences
  • Rigor
  • High Expectations

These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?


Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.

Maria Montessori

She was a visionary, a pioneer, and a barrier breaker. It is only now, as much of her methodology is being embraced as research-proven practice in traditional, non-Montessori classrooms, that her brilliance is being fully revealed.

Breaking Barriers

Maria Montessori defied convention from the very beginning. She was born in Italy in 1870 during a time when women’s roles were restricted. Despite the discouragement of her father, she dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Initially denied acceptance to medical school, she was eventually allowed to enroll; obtaining admission, however, was only the first of the challenges she would face. She endured hostility and harassment from some of her classmates and professors. Additionally, because it was considered untoward for women and men to be in the presence of a naked body together, in order to do the requisite cadaver dissections, she was required to work alone and at night. Despite this adversity, she graduated from medical school in 1896 and became one of Italy’s first female physicians.


Her early practice involved working with children with disabilities, and it was this work that ultimately drew her to education. She was a keen observer and data collector. She deduced that children are innately drawn to learning and discovery. From this, she began developing manipulatives to support student learning. Anyone who has had the privilege of witnessing division of fractions using the skittles, or multiplication of polynomials using the binomial or trinomial cube (a material that is first introduced to three year olds) understands the magic that transpires when the “what we do” of mathematic algorithms becomes supported by the “why we do it” that comes with concrete comprehension. I have seen many adults become wide-eyed when the “flip the second fraction and multiply” rule for fraction division becomes clear once demonstrated using Montessori materials, or the complex algebraic concepts built into the binomial cube and trinomial cube is revealed.  One of the most quintessential Montessori materials is the moveable alphabet, which allows very young children to successfully tackle the complex tasks of reading and writing, and to find pride and joy in doing so.


In 1906, Montessori was invited to oversee a school for children from low-income families in Rome’s inner city. It was here that she determined that her educational methods were equally effective for children without disabilities. From this work, the Montessori Method was established. This, however, was only the beginning. As noted at the beginning of this article, many of the “newest” educational practices have roots in Montessori’s model. While Montessori education is far too complex of a subject to fully describe here, there are five fundamental components, which capture much of the philosophy. These were revolutionary ideas when Montessori first introduced them; today they are standard practice in most well run classrooms – traditional and Montessori, alike.

Beauty and Atmosphere

  • Natural or soft lighting
  • Conscientious use of color
  • Well-organized/not cluttered
  • Inclusion of plants and/or animals
  • Well-maintained materials and furnishings
  • Decorated spaces that do not create distractions
  • Variety of work spaces: tables, individual desks, floor, counters, etc.
  • Student supplies readily accessible

Structure and Order

  • Checklists/Work Plans
  • Clear expectations for academics and behavior
  • Directly communicated and reinforced routines and procedures
  • Structured assignments which provide models, rubrics, guidelines, and control for error

Freedom with Responsibility

  • Choice in assignments related to level of difficulty and/or method of presentation
  • Development of self-monitoring through use of controls,checklists,planners, etc.
  • Student-led conferences
  • Classroom jobs
  • Morning meeting roles

Reality and Nature

Grace and Courtesy

  • Classroom jobs
  • Responsibility for public space clean-up
  • Classroom Meetings which include Greetings and Acknowledgments
  • Character Strength Development (normalization and valorization)

Many of today’s best practice innovations aren’t innovations at all. The Montessori Method has been educating children this way for 100 years.

While Montessori elementary education has a long-history, Montessori secondary education has a remarkably short one.

The secondary Montessori movement was essentially begun in the mid 1990s with the formation of Clark Montessori School  (Cincinnati, OH) and The Hershey Farm School Adolescent Program. (Huntsburg, OH) Today there are an estimated 400 Montessori adolescent programs worldwide – this is miniscule in proportion to a total of more than 20,000 Montessori programs overall. Currently there are only three American Montessori Society affiliated secondary Montessori training programs for teachers – Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program, through which both Jack and I earned our credential, Houston Montessori Center, which is based in Houston, Texas, and Instituto Nueva Escuela in Puerto Rico.

It is exciting to be a part of something that remains in the process of self-creation. While secondary Montessori education was something that Maria Montessori envisioned, she did not develop a secondary program, herself, instead leaving it to future generations to do so.

Those of us working in Montessori secondary programs today are that future generation of whom Montessori spoke. Turning her philosophy into comprehensive practice is our “big work.”

Montessori identified four distinct planes of development: birth to age 6, ages 6 to 12, ages 12 to 18, and ages 18-24. Her work initially focused on the first two planes; however, during the 1920s, she began studying the needs of the adolescent. Her philosophy on the educational needs of children in this third plane of development can be found in her book, From Childhood to Adolescence, which was first published in 1948. In that text, she writes:

“The need that is so keenly felt for a reform of secondary schools concerns not only an educational, but also a human and social problem. Schools, as they are today, are adapted neither to the needs of adolescents nor to the times in which we live. Society has not only developed into a state of utmost complication and extreme contrasts, but it has now come to a crisis in which the peace of the world and civilization itself are threatened. More than to anything else it is due to the fact that the development of man himself has not kept pace with that of his external environment.”

It is almost eerie how resonant her words remain today.

Montessori had a vision for a more developmentally appropriate model of learning; she referred to adolescents as “Erdkinder,” or “Earth’s children” because she believed that they were best served by working outside the classroom in a farm-like natural environment. While this is unrealistic in light of the many requirements of modern education, the pioneers in the secondary Montessori movement have used this philosophy as a foundation, and have outlined curricula for effective Montessori programs that also align with state and district academic requirements. The fundamental elements are outlined below. Many of these overlap with what would be expected in any Montessori classroom, while others are specific to a secondary program.

Establishment of a peaceful community

  • daily student-led community meetings
  • fostering a sense of belonging through communal learning and collaborative work
  • multi-age groupings in classrooms
  • modeling and instruction in grace and courtesy

Emphasis on the Nobility of Work

  • implementation of over-arching developmental themes
  • cross-curricular integration
  • differentiation and choice of work
  • uninterrupted work periods
  • seminar discussions which explore big themes, differences in perspectives, and complex issues of our time
  • student-led conferences
  • intentional fostering of executive functioning tasks: time management, organization, decision making, self-reflection, and goal setting

Connections to Cosmic Education

In this model, the teacher serves as a guide to the community of learners. She supports the valorization (growth of positive qualities) of the adolescent, demonstrates wisdom, caring, and thoughtfulness, fosters cooperation and collaboration, and is responsive to the many needs of her students.

Secondary Montessori education is a burgeoning practice. One that by many accounts was initiated a mere 25 years ago, but which is rapidly gaining momentum. It is the type of instruction that so many of us have been seeking – teachers, students, and families alike.  Our forthcoming book will describe this in much further detail; perhaps you are waiting with bated breath for its publication!



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Discipline with Love and Logic Mon, 12 Jun 2017 10:00:09 +0000 Read more]]>

A few years ago teachers at Gamble Montessori and Clark Montessori combined to do our back-to-school staff PD day. The work we did together was led by CMStep founder Marta Donahoe, and it explored a concept – new to me – enticingly called “Love and Logic”. I was intrigued by an approach to discipline in the school that included the word “love”, and further interested in the novel addition of “logic”. I was far more familiar with the common two-word request of teachers and even parents regarding school discipline: “law and order.”

In preparation for this time together, Marta suggested that I read Jim Fay’s administrator version of his Love and Logic book, called “Creating a Love and Logic School Culture.” I eagerly dove in, highlighting and annotating, excited to see an educator who had been down the path of law and order, and found it lacking.

The gist of the Love and Logic seemed pretty simple. Marta led us through a couple of exercises where we clearly articulated misbehaviors that were common at school. Then we discussed our responses to these behaviors. Then we shared our answers, and made two alarming discoveries.

First, we realized that we independently held many different beliefs about what behaviors should draw a disciplinary response. Second, we held widely variant opinions about the appropriate consequences that those misbehaviors should receive. This was alarming because within the individual school groups we all had worked with one another for a long time, long enough that we felt we had an agreed-upon understanding of behaviors and consequences. We were ready, nay eager, as Marta then drew us into a thoughtful and provocative conversations about the nature of our work as educators and the role that intentional correction played in shaping the moral values and decision-making skills of adolescents.

These conversations produced a powerful product from that day: a list of our school’s core beliefs about discipline. These were not a new set of rules. In fact, they really had almost nothing to do with the rules, or even the consequences. Instead, they were the values we were to consider when enforcing the rules and determining consequences for breaking them. These values were the atmosphere in which the rules existed. They were a guide to conscientious implementation of rules.

We ended up with six Love and Logic core values, which pervade our everyday exchanges with students, from mundane daily business to rarer incidents of severe misbehavior.

  1. We believe that every attempt should be made to maintain the dignity of all parties involved.

Teachers see dress code violations frequently. It is not uncommon at any school. At our school, generally the issue is clothing that is immodest – revealing undergarments or more. A common example is the relatively modern issue of students, usually young men, “drooping” or “sagging” their pants. That is, letting the waist of the pants fall well below the waistline. I always try to approach the student privately and say, “Can you tidy that up a bit? There is no reason why I should ever see your underwear.” This can also be accomplished by looking at the student and pantomiming pulling one’s pants up. This is a far better approach than stating, as I have heard done, “Are you some sort of thug? Pull those pants up.” This second approach may get the same result, and may even sound stricter and more authoritative, but it gains its forceful heft at the expense of the relationship between the adult and the student. It can leave a child wondering if the adult believes he is, in fact, something less than a student with a bright future.

When we discipline students for a specific infraction, we are not having a battle or a single interaction to be won or lost. We are, instead, developing a relationship, and helping pass on to them the locus of control for their own behavior and decisions. Trying to change behavior by reducing their dignity, perhaps by shaming or embarrassing them, is ineffective and counter-productive. It may change the behavior, but if a residual effect is resentment toward the teacher, then the ability to affect permanent change has also been damaged.

So if a student is in violation of the dress code, how we choose our language is important. I maintain a student’s dignity if I have the conversation privately, and if I treat the offense as if it were an accident or an oversight to be corrected. In this way the student’s dignity is preserved, and the relationship can be strengthened.

This same effort to maintain dignity is important even if the offense is far more serious. We all know that adolescents are risk-takers in many aspects of their lives. Sometimes this means that they bring drugs or alcohol to school, or sometimes weapons. No school is immune to this kind of behavior.

In the case of possession of a weapon or drugs, it is common practice at high schools to do a “perp walk,” where the handcuffed student is walked out the front door into the police car, parked conspicuously visible to as many classroom windows as possible. In my second year as principal, this happened to a student of mine, and I had to have a difficult discussion with our SRO (school resource officer.) I explained that, in the future, if a student needed to be arrested, we would do everything in our power to protect his dignity. That included taking him down the back stairs to the car parked where no one could see it. This student, I explained, had to return to school. I wanted him to have the chance to return as a student, and not as a criminal.

Though this happened before the Love and Logic work, it illustrates why the L&L approach fit so well with our school: we always worked to keep the dignity and value of the student at the front of our thoughts and actions.

[Love and Logic logo removed at the request of the Love and Logic Institute.]


2. We believe that students, by doing most of the thinking/feeling, should be guided and expected to solve the problems they create without making problems for anyone else.

“How can we fix this?” is a question I often ask students when I am responding to misbehavior. Sometimes it is simple. When a student recently reported to me that he had broken a window, it was clear that he would have to help pay for the replacement, which he offered to do. Usually it is more complex. When a student has cheated, for instance, the teacher is tempted to address the problem by imposing one of a series of solutions, including perhaps taking a “0” on the assignment, or doing a version of the assignment again in a supervised place outside of the school day, perhaps in detention, or Friday Night School.

But in this second instance, there is more to be fixed. In the case of cheating, the relationship has been damaged. The teacher now feels a lack of trust in the student to keep her word, or to follow through and do work with integrity. This relationship is important, but a child needs support and instruction in how to win back this trust. This is best facilitated with a discussion that should have 3 components:

  1. The teacher needs to point out that trust, which is implicitly given to every student in the classroom, has been damaged by the student’s actions.
  2. The teacher needs to clearly state that this is not a permanent severing of the relationship. In fact, trust can be rebuilt. It is important that students hear that, figuratively speaking, they are in the “dog house” rather than no longer in a relationship with the teacher. (This is true for parents and bosses as well, and all relationships where there is a power imbalance.)
  3. The student needs to answer this question, asked by the teacher: “How will you earn back my trust?”

The student should not be allowed to be evasive in this last instance. She must be asked to come up with a full response and, importantly, it must actually satisfy the teacher’s needs as well. For instance, a student may suggest, “I just won’t cheat again.” An appropriate response from the teacher is, “I already expect that you will never cheat again. However, that is the minimum expectation. Trust needs to be rebuilt, and that will take effort on your part.” An appropriate response might be the student self-imposing a consequence or – better yet – providing some sort of service to the teacher during that time. “Maybe I could do a chore in the classroom during a detention?” The student offers. This suggestion could be met with, “You know, I haven’t been able to get my whiteboard as clean as I would like this week, maybe you could work on that for me and for the class?”

Ultimately, it is not for the teacher to restore the relationship, though providing periodic reminders remains the regrettably necessary responsibility of the authority figure.

3. We believe that students should be given the opportunity to make decisions and live with the results, whether the consequences are good or bad.

Early this school year there was an epidemic of forgotten school lunches. And, interestingly, a surfeit of parents willing to support and enable their children in maintaining this epidemic. Parents were calling the office and asking us to call down to a specific classroom to let their child know they were bringing them lunch, or that they had dropped off lunch. Our policy forbidding the use of cell phones meant we could not shift the communication burden back to parents. Worse yet, this “forgotten” lunch that the parent brought in was almost always fast food, or worse. One time an older sibling handed me a 2 liter of grape soda and a family size bag of Flamin’ Hots as the student’s forgotten “lunch.” I suppose if I had more presence of mind, I would have simply thrown that in the trash. This was definitely an example of a time in school where having nothing was better than having something.

Remarkably, this epidemic of forgotten lunches occurred in a school where we provide hot lunch to every child every day, for free.

To help parents and students develop the habit of better preparation, we changed our policy and told parents that we would no longer notify, deliver, or otherwise support the late arrival of lunch, and the active undermining of a student’s skills of preparation and planning. If a child forgot her lunch, she could eat in the cafeteria, for free, like most everyone else. Or she could miss a meal. I was confident that this would encourage better preparation in the future. I believe that this policy may have actually been a relief to parents of a few strong-willed students, for the protests I heard largely emanated from students claiming that their parents were really mad. The parent protests were minor and short-lived.

When a child chooses not to prepare for the day, the person who should feel the consequences is the student.

Similarly, students who are beholden to poor habits might also feel inconvenienced at school. Barb Scholtz, a long-time friend, mentor, and my son’s teacher, related to me a story about the parent who was reluctant to send her son on the 10 day marine biology study because he “only eats hot dogs.” Barb, of course, refused to provide hot dogs at every meal. She reassured the parent, “After three days he will change his mind. He will be fine.” Indeed, it did not take three days. He ate different foods their first night in the Bahamas, and never once indicated to the teachers this strange food dependence. He had to decide, perhaps on an empty stomach, to change this habit, or that it was not really worth holding on to. It would have been awful if the adults had conspired to make sure he could only eat hot dogs. How disempowering for the student! How much trouble for the adults! And how much less satisfying would this, or other future travel experiences, be without expanding his palate? Allowing him to feel the consequences of his choice opened him up to a wealth of future experiences, even if it did cost him a day of feeling hungry.

4. We believe that misbehavior should be handled with natural consequences instead of punishments whenever possible.

In my first year as principal at Gamble, I sat down at a table across from a defiant 7th grader who had been asked to move seats for talking, but then got removed from class for refusing to move and calling her teacher a name. I had brokered several of these sorts of conversations with other, older, students in years past, so I knew what to expect. The student would see that they had been removed from class and were facing a consequence. They would perceive that they had gained nothing from the name-calling. This student clearly wanted to be with her friends, and she would want to return to class, and pretty quickly realize that the fastest route was an apology.

It started according to the routine. “What happened?” I asked.

“She asked me to move, so I called her ‘horseface’ and so she sent me here and gave me a Friday Night School.” This perfectly matched the teacher’s description. We had already cleared an important hurdle. This was going to be a piece of cake!

“Why did she ask you to move?”

“I was talking too much.”

“Now, wouldn’t you rather be in class?” I asked, deftly setting her up, like an old pro.

“Yes,” she conceded.

“So don’t you wish you had not called her that?” I was moving in for the big finish. Set her up, get her to see the error of her ways, get her to think an apology is her idea …

“No. Why would I regret it? She has a face like a horse. She needed to know. Someone needed to tell her.”

Needless to say, I was not ready for that reply. At a loss, I asked, “And that person had to be you?”

“Yep.” She said smugly. “It sure did.”

What is the natural consequence for insulting someone? What is the natural consequence for being tardy to class? Sometimes the answer to these questions are not as simple as in the case of a forgotten lunch. While we could argue that the student who is late to class misses early instruction, or even warm-up “points” or practice, this is not always the biggest motivating factor in a teen’s life. This is especially true when the attraction in the hall is a girlfriend or boyfriend. There might, in fact, be rewards or incentives for the student to be tardy.

And what happens when, as in this case, the child feels no remorse, or at least conveys no feeling of remorse?

Natural consequences are powerful change agents, but sometimes the situation requires more than that. Or sometimes the natural consequence is unacceptable. This is why parents teach their children early not to go near the street, and not to play with fire. The natural consequences of these actions are too great to bear, and they must be prevented at all cost. This principle includes the important words “whenever possible” because sometimes it is not.

5. We believe that students should have the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

This tenet was baked into our disciplinary procedures from the very beginning, but it is an often overlooked part of the disciplinary process. I have shared the story elsewhere of the time when, as a beginning teacher, a student left my room in the middle of instruction. I was shocked!. This shock then turned to anger as she then had the gall to walk past my door not once but twice more – while I was still delivering the lesson. In addition to pointing her behavior out to the whole class, I very publicly filled out a Saturday School form filled out (in triplicate) and had it poised and waiting for her when she re-entered. She, with remarkable poise, explained what I did not see: a teacher had dropped her papers in the hall and, in the process, had spilled her coffee. The student helped with the papers, then ran to the restroom and back with some paper towels. She had left my classroom to help, not to skip and flaunt her absence. She also apologized for entering the men’s room to get the towels, since it was much closer than the women’s room.

How many times have we seen just a part of a situation, and made a snap judgment, only to learn that there is much more to the story? How many times has this happened to us; where we were accused of something, perhaps something that came with a consequence, when we know there was a reasonable and rational explanation for our own behavior? And how did we feel about the person who would not listen to our side of the story? It is likely that we held our grudge for a long while. We don’t want to be the person who gets this wrong.

Telling their side of the story does NOT mean that a consequence is not appropriate or is not assigned. In fact, many times the student tells the story and takes full responsibility for their actions. Admittedly, this happens a lot more when they trust they will really be listened to.

6. We believe that misbehavior should be viewed as an opportunity for individual problem-solving and preparation for the real world as opposed to a personal attack on the school staff.

“I would never let a student talk to me that way.” I have heard this many times, usually from a teacher or paraprofessional at the school, and usually after an angry middle school student has refused my directive to stop running in the hallway, or to get quiet, and had kept on going to their classroom. “Don’t talk to me, Mr. Jose!” or some similar response is returned as they storm down the hall.

I usually reply, “Wow, he’s pretty upset right now. I think I will walk down and talk to him.”

It would be easy in that situation, in fact it would be perfectly normal and appropriate, to see those words as an attack on me or my authority. It could even be presented as evidence that I am “soft” or “too easy” on the kids. In reality, I am not excusing the behavior, I am just choosing to deal with it when the student is ready to address it.

The student who is so upset that they talk to an adult like that is – clearly – not fully in their rational mind at the moment. They understand the roles of parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives.  It is truly the rarest of students who legitimately do not “know better” than to talk to adults like that. So I have to decide. Do I want to solve the problem I see on the surface – the disrespect? Or do I want to figure out what caused the disrespect? So, I calmly walk down the hall, direct a few other students to class on the way, and then poke my head into the classroom to catch the eye of the offending student.

Almost every time, she hangs her head, but then looks up again, and comes outside into the hallway. Perhaps because she knows that what comes next will be a question. “What happened back there? Because it is not like you to speak so disrespectfully to me or other adults. I know something must have made you pretty angry.” What almost always follows is an explanation of some conflict at lunch. And what usually follows that, sometimes with some prompting, is an actual apology. Not a forced response to a directive or a demand like “Call me ‘Sir’,” but an actual apology. Sure I may prompt it with a phrase or two, like, “It was just really odd to be talked to like that,” or “I was pretty sure I had not done anything to offend you.” Sometimes I even have to pull out the old, “When I definitely did not deserve to be treated that way.”

Some students take more prompting than others.

If I took it as an attack on me, I could easily miss the real issues going on, and the chance to solve problems that are more disruptive than just running in the hall. I would likely escalate the issue, and provide even more consequences, and perhaps lose the chance to teach this student anything in the future.

Ultimately, discipline will always be an issue at school, at least as long as we keep having students and we keep having rules and expectations. Making the transition from a typical “law and order” approach to a more attentive ‘Love and Logic” approach will find that building the trust of students takes time. Students will attempt to avoid consequences, and misrepresent the truth. This happens at every school and in most households. Students will not share important information with staff sometimes, and people will be hurt as a result. This is not a new behavior. Building trust takes time and effort on the part of the adults, too. We cannot assume that all students trust us from the beginning. Students will need to see that we are consistent, and trustworthy before their own change happens. It is important that teachers and other adults work to earn that trust in every interaction.

Just like with planting a tree, the best time to start a transition to a love and logic process is ten years ago. The second best time is today.

Commencement – A Celebration of the Individual Mon, 05 Jun 2017 10:00:53 +0000 Read more]]> -by Jack M. Jose

Originally published May 16, 2016. Updated June 2, 2017.

Graduation 1
In community, preparing for commencement.

It is commencement season, and our Facebook feeds and conversations with friends are filled with celebrations: hard-won degrees earned, and lifelong goals met. It is a joyous time of year.

Every commencement is special, but some years and in some locations, there is magic. In 2014 Gamble Montessori senior Michael Tucker reached a personal milestone as he crossed the stage and received his diploma. Michael was not just graduating from high school. He was confined to a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy – or at least he had been. Though this was his situation during his entire time at Gamble, he had expressed to his teacher and mother that he wanted to walk across the stage at graduation. For more than a year, he regularly left school twice a week to get physical therapy that was at times painful for him, but he had a goal. He had knee surgery to extend his tendons so he could stand upright enough to walk, and he engaged in extensive recovery therapy. He even started walking to different places around the classroom, practicing the commencement walk tirelessly.

On commencement day, we had a lift available to get him on and off the stage. This was a precaution, in case fatigue or the excitement got in the way of his plans. At our rehearsal he stumbled a bit, but assured us through sign language and his determined look that he would be fine for the big event. That afternoon, when his name was called, he started confidently across the stage … and did exactly what he said he would, walking independently toward me to get his diploma. Michael’s mother reported that, behind her, another woman exclaimed loudly, “It’s a miracle!” Certainly it was. We were crying at the celebration of a goal visibly achieved through hard work and pain over an extended time. It was better than a miracle: it was a hard-won victory.

This celebration of personal and individual triumph is, of course, why we were crying and applauding for every child. For each graduate, the obstacles are very real, if not as dramatic or as visible.

Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar. There is no more powerful reminder of the importance of a teacher’s work, and the value of our time spent in conversations with students about quality of work and matters of integrity and timeliness. I remind my students that this particular ceremony is an important gateway into society. Their diplomas, already earned, wield the real power to their post-secondary future. The ceremony, however, remains an emotional symbolic transition into adulthood.

Seated students Commencement 2017

The photos and stories in our Facebook feed reveal that, over time, every school develops its own traditions and ways of taking care of the important business of sending students out into the world. Some have mechanical, no-nonsense commencement ceremonies, appropriate especially for schools with large graduating classes, while others have developed odd traditions, like the Smith College Diploma Circle, where students are handed someone else’s diploma and seek their own in a method described here: . Almost all feature a speech by a student in the class, a dignitary or two, and representatives of the Board that oversees the school. Many feature music by the school’s choir, band, or orchestra, perhaps performing the processional and/or recessional.

In the spring of 2010, Gamble Montessori, in just our fifth year of formal existence, celebrated our first commencement, and faced a bit of a challenge. The Board of Education provided an outline of required events in a certain sequence (pledge of allegiance, conferring of diplomas, etc.) but these were not a graduation ceremony in themselves. There was no personality there, no recognition of what made us unique. So we turned to ourselves –a graduation committee consisting of teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, students and myself – to create an event worthy of our students.

Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar.

For our first commencement, Janice Dale, a paraprofessional who had worked with our students for years, and who our students intermittently addressed as Mrs. Dale and “Grandma,” offered a bold proposal: in addition to focusing on the achievements and development of the individuals, we would have a series of 3 commencements that would served to place Gamble appropriately in the timeline of public Montessori schools. Our school was the 7th public Montessori school in the Cincinnati Public Schools system, and the second high school. There is no public Montessori system like it anywhere in the world, but we often took it for granted. She wanted to give our faculty, students, and families a remarkable gift. She suggested we should honor those who made our school possible, in order to remind ourselves how we were special. More importantly, with Mrs. Dale’s help, we made sure that our commencement was a space for our students to celebrate their individual talents, whether it was reciting poetry, dancing, or singing.

[Author’s note: We followed her plan. Our first 3 years we honored: the beginnings of Montessori in Cincinnati including those who worked to create the first public Montessori elementary schools here, then the more recent past including those who broadened the number of Montessori elementary openings in Cincinnati, and finally we recognized those individuals who were directly responsible for the creation of Gamble Montessori 12 years after the opening of the first public Montessori high school, Clark Montessori.]

Commencement is best when the focus is a celebration of students’ talents and interests, and those define the ceremony to make it unique. It is crucial to honor the individual student, and to honor each and every individual. Just as a conscientious teacher builds choice into classwork and tailors assignments to match the strengths and interests of individual students, a conscientious administrator understands that to truly celebrate community, we must celebrate each of our individuals at commencement. We understand that when we share the responsibility and share the limelight, we make our community stronger. For this reason, students can be entrusted with several opportunities to make the ceremony theirs.:

  • Allow students to pick their student speaker, instead of having this determined by a GPA or by a committee. Many believe the valedictorian to be the student with the best grades at the completion of school, and that this person is required / entitled to give the main student speech at commencement. However, the accurate definition of valedictorian is less specific, simply the student chosen to give the main address at commencement. Rather than a formula or a committee deciding, our seniors choose this person internally. Often, as it was in 2017, students will choose the valedictorian, as this person has typically exemplified herself as a capable student who responds well to adversity and can be depended on to deliver a strong speech.
  • Allow seniors to invite to the keynote speaker of their choice. Given enough lead time, local politicians and activists, and even celebrities, are honored to be asked to speak at a commencement. Our students have historically chosen favorite teachers from their younger years at Gamble. This year they chose two current teachers to share the responsibility. In each case, they have selected teachers who were storytellers and who both loved and frustrated them.
  • Allow students to choose their graduation gown color from one of the school colors, instead of assigning them by gender. It creates an attractive and varied group picture, and avoids the discomfort and frustration that can come from mandating gown colors.
  • Have student videos featuring pictures and quotes, or even baby pictures. Another option is to have posters featuring seniors’ favorite photos of themselves. Finding a different way to honor the students, rather than merely having their name read aloud the moment they cross the stage, makes for a more engaging ceremony for the crowd of family members who might only know one of the graduates and will be pleased to see their familiar face in more than one place.
  • Allow students to choose which talented students will display their artistry at commencement. In five short years we have had singers, a praise dancer, and poetry readings. In 2017, our own band was able, for the first time, to perform Pomp and Circumstance.
  • Allow students the chance to – tastefully and within appropriate boundaries – decorate some part of their gown or mortarboard.
2015 Gamble Montessori Mortarboards celebrating the journey, the future, college, and life-long friendships!

In 2014 students asked if they could decorate their mortarboards, those flat-topped square hats that graduates wear. The traditionalists among us initially rejected the idea, but again, respect for the individual won out. We quickly created three simple rules for the mortarboard decoration and a new tradition was born: it had to be two-dimensional, it had to fit completely on the board, and it had to be school appropriate. What followed were dozens of decorations that compared their journey from kindergarten to commencement to a popular video game, touted their college choices and majors, and touchingly celebrated their friendships.

Certain parts of the ceremony have remained steadfastly the same, in place to make sure we honor each student individually. First, we remind our families early in the ceremony how important it is that we honor each student fully, but within the time provided. Many of our students have invited distant family relatives to this milestone ceremony, and they take the occasion of commencement to loudly exclaim their pride and love. Rather than suggest that it is not appropriate to applaud and cheer loudly (of course it is! This is a time of celebration!), we remind our parents that the child being introduced after their child is equally deserving of praise and applause. Then, as a cushion, we have built in a little extra time for each student. When a child’s name is called, she steps onto the stage to shake my hand, accept her diploma, get our picture taken together, and shake the hands of the Board member and other dignitaries. Rather than immediately calling the next name and being frustrated by continuing applause, we allow the student their full moment, only calling the next name when she reaches the top of the stairs to descend at the other side of the stage.

Gamble’s graduation has never been interrupted by cheering extending into another student’s introduction, or marred by silence as a graduate’s name was called and his small family’s applause was lost in the crowd and reaches of the conference center. Each year our families have honored every graduate, and demonstrated the sense of community we seek to instill in each of our students.

One year, the students asked Tara to sing a solo with the choir. She worked with the teacher to select the appropriate song, “Dare to Dream” by John Legend. Weeks of practice got her fully prepared, vocally, for commencement. Nothing had prepared her emotionally for singing in front of such a large crowd and – more importantly – singing to friends she was just starting to realize she might not ever see all together again. We cried with Tara as she stumbled through her solo, singing a prayer of hope as a gift to her classmates: “Hold on when hope is gone / Race may not belong to the swift or the strong / It’s given to the ones who can endure for long / I know we care.”

One year we laughed as teacher Jason Banks pulled the microphone free from the podium, jumped off the stage, and urged the graduates to leave their seats and sit Montessori-style in a circle on the floor. He reminded them of their marine biology study in Pigeon Key, Florida, and their whitewater rafting trip where they woke up to 4 inches of fresh snow. He prompted them with, “Always leave a place …” and they finished, “Better than you found it!” Then he read them key excerpts from Oh! The Places You’ll Go.

The best commencements are the ones where the crowd can feel just a little bit lost, but each student feels completely found.

Between our rehearsal and the actual ceremony, some time is carved out for students to be in community with one another. One year teacher Josh Vogt used the opportunity to read a short story to the seniors, one that challenged them to think about their relationships with one another an with the community. This year we used that time to open our gratitude box, filled over the past several years from various ceremonies around gratitude, and reflect on the people and circumstances that helped get us to this point. What is important is that you can take a minute to be, again, one last time, in community.

Each year, as we gather for graduation practice, I remind my students that commencement is an important ritual, yes, but also just a grand show. The hard work has been done. They have earned their diplomas with nights of hard work and days of concentration. They have raised and spent hundreds of dollars, and invested thousands of hours over 12 or more years of their lives. The big work of their lives so far has been completed, and everyone has gathered to honor them. They have earned this celebration, and we are so proud of them.


This is the time to pay close attention to each other, be patient, and be in love with the moment and with our students. We follow the child, hit our marks, and let the miracles happen.

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How Do You Measure a Year? Mon, 29 May 2017 09:00:30 +0000 Read more]]> By Krista Taylor

It happens every year, so one would think I would be used to it by now.  The school-year seems to move along, as slow as molasses, at times feeling somewhat interminable. And then, suddenly, it’s over. This catches me entirely off-guard.  And I’m not ready.

The curriculum has been taught, the tests have been administered, the paperwork is complete, the culminating projects are finished, and yet I am still not ready.

I’m not ready to let them go.  I’m not ready to say good-bye.

I am not ready to have my 8th graders move on to high school. And even though my 7th graders will return to me next year, I’m not ready to spend 12 weeks apart from them.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  It probably is ridiculous. But I don’t transition well.  Every year it takes me a week or longer after the end of the school year to complete the check-out process that somehow every other teacher manages to get done by the last day.  But I’m not ready.

However, this year, exactly one week before the end of the year, I looked around the circle at the faces of my students during morning meeting, and I suddenly realized that whether or not I was ready, my students were.

The seventh graders, who had entered our building in the fall looking for all the world like little lost lambs, were ready to assume the mantle of leadership.

And the eighth graders had become so strong, self-assured, and independent that they were ready to tackle the new demands and challenges of high school.

How had this leadership emerged?  It felt abrupt when I suddenly saw it staring back at me in black and white during that morning meeting, but I knew that it wasn’t.  I knew that their leadership had been cultivated and nurtured over time and through great dedication and diligence.  But how?  What exactly were the critical components that allowed that transformation to happen?

As I tend to do, when I saw them with new eyes that morning, I acknowledged it.  I told my 7th graders that I had just realized that they were ready – ready to fill the 8th graders’ shoes, ready to lead our community next year.  And I asked them how they had learned to do this.  Their response did not surprise me, but it did delight me.  They said, “The eighth graders taught us.”

And, of course, that is how it had happened.  This is peer transmission of culture, and it is a powerful thing.

Being social and engaging in peer relationships is the primary motivating force of the adolescent.  As a result, they can teach each other far more powerfully than any lesson presented by an adult.  This is why peer pressure is such a powerful phenomenon.

Teen-agers desperately want to fit in, to belong.  They crave this social inclusion, and while adults often fear its power to lead children astray, peer pressure can be positively channeled to guide students toward valorization as well.

“Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent … When most people think of the phrase ‘peer pressure,’ images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.”[1]

Students can reach each other more deeply than any adult ever could.  Who better to teach them how to be leaders than their peers?  This is the rich benefit of multi-age grouping in a classroom.  Older students model expectations for younger students, and this results in powerful learning.

Multi-age groupings, like those seen in Montessori classrooms among others, readily allow the transmission of classroom culture to occur through peer relationships.  And my students’ recognition of this was what I found so remarkable on that day when I looked around morning meeting and suddenly recognized their transformation.

Multi-age classrooms are a fundamental component of the Montessori model, but this philosophy is beginning to reach traditional education as well.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, “Multiage education … puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.”[2]

This is exactly how it happens.

This mentoring, leadership, and collaboration is very intentionally constructed in the Montessori middle school classroom.  At the beginning of the year, the eighth graders are asked to take on all the leadership roles.  They are expected to model what positive leadership looks like in our classrooms.  We overtly identify and discuss this – honoring the role of the eighth grade leaders. We also note that over the course of the year, the seventh graders will be provided with increasing opportunities to fulfill these duties, so that by the following year, they will be prepared to do the modeling for incoming students.

Initially, however, the eighth graders are given all the classroom leadership responsibilities such as: running morning meeting, helping new students manage a checklist of assignments, and reinforcing behavioral expectations.

Additionally, the language of leadership pervades our discussions with students. The poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart is displayed in each of our classrooms, and we use this as a tool to identify what leadership is.  On a near daily basis, we say things like, “I need a couple of leaders,” “Where are my leaders?” “Can I get some leader volunteers?” or “It doesn’t matter where we are, we always behave like leaders.” Leadership is always referenced as an expectation for all, not just a quality that a few motivated students will demonstrate.

This is why student reinforcement is so critical. Every classroom has students who are internally motivated to lead and are responsive to teacher mentoring. Sometimes we call these students the “good kids” or “the bright ones” or “teachers’ pets.” A shift in classroom climate occurs, however, when all students are expected to demonstrate leadership, and I suspect that this can only be accomplished through positive peer pressure.

At Gamble, peer leadership modeling begins in earnest with the closing ceremony at fall camp.  Camp happens early in the school year — within the first three weeks.  The 7th graders are brand new to us, and their official initiation to the community occurs on the final night of the fall camping experience.

This ceremony is entirely planned by the eighth graders.  In our community, it never fails that year after year, the eighth graders want to initiate the seventh graders by identifying and labeling their character strengths.  This practice was begun with our first group of students, and each year it is handed down as tradition.  This is a powerful example of peer transmission of culture.

So, invariably, just days before camp, a large group of eighth graders spend their lunchtime in my room frantically preparing certificates with individual names and character strength labels.

Listening to them discuss what they have observed in their seventh grade peers is so sweet.  It sounds something like this:

“What about Dahlia, what’s her strength?”

“She’s talkative.”

“Oh yeah, she is.  But that sounds kind of bad.  How can we make it good?”

“I don’t know.  Outgoing?”

“Yeah, that’s good.  What about Ramon?”

“Ramon, I don’t know.  He’s so quiet.  I hardly even notice him.  Ms. Taylor, what is Ramon’s character strength?”

“Hmmmmm … sounds like you need to observe him a little more.  Do you think you can do that and then come back tomorrow and have a character strength for him?”

“Yeah, we can do that.”

This work of identifying character strengths requires them to do multiple things.   They must review the various character strengths, intentionally observe their new classmates, and see them in a positive light.  What an incredible way to begin leading a group of new students.

This type of leadership is a responsibility, an expectation, and an obligation, but it is also so much more.  Because it is done by students year after year, it is seen as an honor, as something to be earned and entrusted with.

When treated this way, leadership becomes a somewhat revered role.  I believe this is why I typically have so many students willing to take on leadership tasks, even when they know that it usually involves additional work. All I have to do is ask, “I need a couple of leader volunteers.  Who’s willing to help?”  And every time, many, many hands go up.  It is an honor to be called on to complete these tasks, and the work is viewed not as a menial job, but as a responsibility to be assumed for the good of the group.

I giggled this spring upon overhearing the following exchange between two young ladies.  We were outside taking a break from the stressors of standardized testing, and Aaliyah began picking up pieces of trash.  Mi’Neasia looked at her and said, “What are you doing that for?”  Aaliyah’s response made me so proud.  “You know Ms. Taylor’s going to make us do it in a minute, so we might as well get started.”

Let’s be clear, no one likes to pick up trash.  But Aaliyah knew that “Leaving a Place Better Than We Found It” was part of what we always did as leaders, and she viewed it as an obligation.  She took the initiative before being asked, and then transmitted this expectation to a peer.

I am certain that if I, as the teacher, solely dictated the requirement of completing these types of extra jobs, I would be met with complaining and resistance, but when peers model diligent completion of the work, the entire experience shifts positively.

Of course, leadership doesn’t develop exclusively as a result of peer modeling.  There must also be opportunities for leadership development built into the curriculum, but I do not believe that we would get nearly the same results without the benefit of students leading the way.

And like all growth, leadership doesn’t develop in one neatly-graphable, continuous line, and it isn’t developed overnight, or even over a few weeks. Although I was startled by my sudden recognition during morning meeting that the students sitting before me had become leaders, there was really nothing sudden about it. My students had been working on leadership all year, and it was the consistent guidance and direction of their eighth grade peers that had steered them toward that readiness. They recognized this and were able to articulate it.

Each year, while the eighth graders are in Pigeon Key, Florida engaged in an intensive marine biology study that serves as our culminating middle school experience, the seventh graders prepare a celebration to honor them.  It is a bit of a mirror image of the fall camp ceremony, and serves to pass the torch of leadership.

This year, as part of the ceremony they planned, they wrote this:

“Dear 8th graders,  It’s been a long year with everyone.  A lot of things have changed with improved grades, behavior, and leadership skills.  It’s been a big transition throughout the year.  Everyone has shown growth tremendously, and I would like to thank the 8th graders for showing me the path to be an 8th grade leader.  Everyone will be missed.”

And this.

“I know not only 7th graders improved, but you did as well.  You were once in the same position as us, now look where you’re at.  You were such a big help to us because you taught us how to be the 8th grade leaders you are today.  We will miss every, single one of you, and hopefully you’ll miss us too.  Most importantly, as you go to the 9th grade, just remember that you’ll always be UL leaders.  P.S. Try not to make Ms. Taylor too emotional when you leave.”

They were ready to move on, and they recognized this in themselves, and in each other.

Just one week after that culminating moment, we said good-bye.  The seventh graders headed off into another long summer break, and the eighth graders did the same, prepared to engage in an entirely different academic adventure upon their return.

They had come so far, and, while they often tease me about being “too emotional,” I know that they, too, felt the bittersweet pang of farewell. For a full ten minutes after the bell rang on that last day of school, my teaching partners and I had students clustered around us for hugs and final words.

Lisa, who ended the year with beautiful grades, threw her arms around me, as I whispered in her ear, “You’ve worked so hard. Remember that first quarter conference when you had to tell your mom that you were failing? Just look at you now!” She burst into tears and hugged me even tighter.

Derek, an 8th grader, who was incredibly immature when he arrived at Gamble and who spent the better part of a year being the class clown, stood tall and gave me a tight hug, as he said proudly and confidently, “You know I’m gonna miss you next year in the 9th grade.”

And Astrid, a painfully shy 7th grader who has finally begun to find her place and her voice in our community. As is her way, she waited patiently and silently for her hug until all the more boisterous students had gotten a turn. I looked into her eyes, and saw such longing for recognition there. I told her what I know to be true: “You will be such a powerful leader for our new students next year. You know all the quiet ones? The ones who are so afraid to come to high school? You’re in charge of them next year, okay?” She silently nodded as her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me good-bye.

And even Andrew, who had a very difficult year and will be repeating the seventh grade, waited for his hug, and then shoved a crumpled post-it note in my hand saying gruffly, “Read that.” It said, “Thanks for helping me do better and have grit. I will miss you these three months.”

I was almost certainly “too emotional” when they left.  Because I was not ready.  But they were. They were ready to move on to the next level of challenge, and that is what matters. That is how you measure a year.


[1] “Peer Pressure.”Teenagers and Peer Pressure – Causes and Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.


[2] Miller, Stuart. “Inside a Multiage Classroom.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.


The Empty Chair – For Bridgette, with love Mon, 22 May 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Read more]]> -by Krista Taylor

This post was originally published on May 23, 2016, in memory of the one year anniversary of Bridgette’s passing.  

Our children aren’t supposed to die. Not the ones we nurture within our families, nor the ones we nurture within our classrooms.

It isn’t supposed to happen this way.

I wasn’t supposed to take a phone call while at my husband’s baseball game, telling me that I had lost one of my students – telling me that she had been hit by a car while crossing the street.

I wasn’t supposed to have to turn around within moments and make that same call to share the information with my young colleagues.

I wasn’t supposed to have to clean out her locker.

I wasn’t supposed to have to plan her memorial.

I wasn’t supposed to have to figure out how to honor her empty chair.

I wasn’t supposed to lose her.

But I did – exactly one year ago.

And my experience is not unique.

Every year, there are teachers who have students die. There are students who lose a classmate, and classrooms that become one less.

At Gamble, we experienced this twice last year — once in September and once in May – tragic bookends on a year in the life of a school. At the beginning of the year, we lost Michael due to complications from undiagnosed diabetes, and during the last week of school, we lost Bridgette.

There are no words to describe this situation. It is something I never expected to experience, and something I was entirely unprepared to deal with. I had no idea what to do.

The greatest burden I carried was how to appropriately usher my students through grief and loss. How to honor each of their responses. How to gather them together and help them lean on each other, while simultaneously protecting them from the potential insensitivity of one other. How to explain the depths of our loss without heightening, or conversely, minimizing, their grief. How to plan our days to honor Bridgette’s memory while providing the structure and routine that adolescents crave.   How to be a source of strength and compassion. How to be exactly what each one needed me to be.

That is, of course, not possible. We can only be the best we can be, with the resources and knowledge we possess at the time, but losing a student is perhaps something that we never quite overcome.

I am haunted by these comments made by my colleagues. Each reveals lingering guilt:

“I bet she was wearing those stupid boots that she always wore and could barely walk in. Why didn’t we tell her that she wasn’t allowed to wear them?”

“I don’t think I’ve really gotten over Michael’s death. I keep thinking about the day I sent him home sick with an upset stomach. I should have told his mom to take him straight to the hospital.”

And my own thought, “I couldn’t keep her safe.”

The trauma runs deep.

The night Bridgette died, one of my students called me on my cell phone. I remember the conversation almost verbatim.

“Ms. Taylor, it’s Shauna. Is it true? Is Bridgette really dead?”

“Yes, Shauna, it’s true. I am so sorry.”

“What are we going to do tomorrow, Ms. Taylor?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.”

“Can we make posters and stuff like they did for Michael?”

“Yes, of course, Shauna, we can do whatever you need to do.”

“Can we make great, big posters?”

“Yes, you can make posters as big as you want.”

“Ms. Taylor? . . . Are you okay?”

“Yes, Shauna, I’m okay. I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I love you, too, Ms. Taylor.”

Several days later, at Bridgette’s funeral service, I was asked to assist with eulogizing her. Just before I was to speak, one of my students slid up to my pew and said, “Ms. Taylor, we need you out there,” and gestured to the anteroom. I reassured the student that I would go there as soon as I could. After speaking, I slipped out of the chapel. In the foyer, a cluster of students was gathered around Iona who was lying on the floor sobbing. As I calmed her down, I was finally able to make out her words, “Why won’t she open her eyes. She needs to wake up. She just needs to wake up and open her eyes.”

As a teacher, how do you shepherd your students through tragedy?

Certainly, there is more than one way, and assuredly, I didn’t make all the right decisions, but with an absence of resources or experiences, this is what I did. While I wish this situation on no one, if the unthinkable should happen in your classroom, I hope you find this to be a guide:

  • Ensure that you have mental health personnel available to work with students
  • Be together – in our case, we offered the option to have students remain with their community teachers all day long
  • Tell students as much as you know as soon as possible – facts, however painful, are far easier to deal with than imaginings
  • Provide opportunities to honor, reflect, and grieve together
    • We held a community meeting at the start of the school day, which allowed us to share the information we had, and invited students to ask questions, and to share thoughts, concerns, and memories
  • Suspend normal activities and routines
  • Invite students to create a memorial
    • This was particularly powerful for my students as they chose to replicate one of Bridgette’s drawings as a mural above her locker (see above photo)
    • They also made posters, wrote letters,  and helped to plan the school-based ceremony
  • Remember that not all students will grieve in a traditional fashion
    • Some students may need to escape from the intensity of the situation
    • Some students may laugh or make insensitive comments as a coping mechanism – pre-empt this by instructing students about empathy, and reminding them that not everyone deals with upsetting situations the same way
    • Some students may not have known the deceased student very well, and may not feel the need to grieve
      • After an initial meeting spent together, some students chose the option to watch a reflective movie, rather than participate in memorial activities all day long
      • Other students chose physical work – digging the hole for our memorial tree
  • Find a support system – remember that you are grieving, too, and that you can’t do it alone. Lean on your colleagues, and seek out others who can guide you through the process and through your own sorrow
  • You will, of course, have to resume a normal routine within a day or so, but be prepared to have the loss continue to need to be addressed periodically for a year or more.

This year at fall camp, as we walked up the trail, underneath a starlit sky, to prepare for the initiation ceremony conducted by the 8th graders, Iona slipped her hand into mine, and wistfully proclaimed, “Oh, Ms. Taylor, Bridgette would have just loved this.”

Yes, Iona, Bridgette would have just loved this.



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