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A powerful sequence in Melissa Savage’s class

April 8, 2014

According to the org chart I probably shouldn’t coach teachers in my role as executive director.  Luckily ignoring org charts is woven deep in my KIPP DNA.  Seriously :),  spending time with teachers in classrooms where our kids are growing the most helps me learn what we need to do to move all our kids forward.

Melissa Savage’s students at KIPP Academy Lynn have out performed students in the ritzy North Shore suburbs nearby for the past two years.This closing sequence in Melissa Savage’s class illustrates many of the reasons her students love and excel in Science.  I posted my literal observation notes with a little play by play below.


 Aim The aim of the lesson:  Identify the name of each stage in the frog life cycle and describe the changes in each stage.
Time Narrative Analysis
8:50   Kids share responses to the questions they    completed for their independent practice.
8:52 Melissa:  Flip the page and start your exit ticket.  This class is a well oiled machine.  The exit ticket is printed on the back of the classwork so no time is wasted.  Melissa is monitoring the kids work habits with strategic stops around the room.
The kids attack the exit ticket with a flurry of annotations.
8:56 Melissa: Switch your exit ticket with someone next to you.
She reads the answers and kids check their partner’s right or wrong with no drama other than the occasional fist pump when a student knows he or she got a hard one right.Melissa: Stops at question #3 because she knows this is a common misconception: What does a tadpole have that a froglet does not have?  The tightness of this routine provides immediate feedback to students and allows Melissa to re-teach in class rather than waiting a until the next day.
Student A: Gills
What is the similarity between frog, a butterfly, and a plant?
Student B:  Metamorphosis
Student C: I respectfully disagree.  Not all of them go through metamorphosis.  The discussion habits she taught them improve the ratio of student: teacher talk.
Melissa:  Which one does?
8:58 Student D:  The butterfly Melissa: Smiles, waitsStudent D:  The butterfly goes through metamorphosis.Melissa:  What is the similarity of a frog, a butterfly, and a plant?

Student E:  They all reproduce.


Hearing the correct answer, she nods and smiles and moves on.


 She holds out for the complete sentence without saying a word. 


A student in the corner isn’t tracking.Melissa: Leander, this is your warning.
 8:59 Melissa (to the whole class) Stand and push in your chair.
Melissa: What was the most missed question?  The efficiency of other elements of her class allows Melissa to sneak in more feedback and re-teaching.  The question after wrapping up is actually a powerful summarizer (and under-used move in many classrooms).
Kids signal #4
Melissa:  I saw C says that they all have hearts.  What’s wrong with that answer?Student E: Flowers don’t have hearts.  They don’t have blood.Melissa: Smiles.  Doesn’t speak  This is one of many small ways she improves the ratio in her classroom-not responding verbally to all student answers.
9:00 As you line up for math tell me your  favorite stage of the frog life cycle.The kids exit quickly and quietly and almost all smiling as they name their favorite part of the frog cycle.  Melissa sneaks in a high five to Leander for his bounce back after receiving a warning.  Even the exit is used to get another tiny at bat with content and to build (or rebuild) relationships with each child.

The Micro Moment and the Stop the World Moment

March 19, 2014

I had a ball teaching the Match Teacher Residents with Scott McCue-founder of Boston Prep.

We did a Siskel and Ebert gig where I shared KIPP’s work with performance character and Scott modeled Boston Prep’s ethics curriculum.  My session was built  on the work of others especially Dave Levin and the KIPP NYC crew.

Character Strengths Gratitude Thank you Character Strengths Grit Mountain Character Strengths Optimism Sun   Character Strengths Zest Exclamation PointCharacter Strengths Curiosity Magnifying GlassCharacter Strengths Self Control MarshmallowCharacter Strengths Social Intelligence Hearts


As is often the case, teaching forces me to clarify and often truly learn for the first time what I am teaching.  Scott and I spent hours trying to nail down two key moves used by every teacher we know who is obsessed with character development. We called these moves the Micro-Moment and the Stop the World Moment.

The Micro-Moment (with nods to Daniel Kahneman and Doug Lemov) is a character focused variation of what Lemov calls precise praise.  The key principles of the micro-moment are:

•Positive Ratio: Aim to catch positive behavior often (2-3x a class)
•Describe behavior: Avoid the sermon and the sugar.  Instead give a quick one sentence description of the desired behavior.
•Connect the behavior to its impact
•What you praise is what you get: Does every kids’ strength get genuinely recognized?
•Avoid passive aggressiveness and sarcasm.  Be genuine.
The teachable micro-moment looks and sounds like:

Grit: “Jovan has tried three different strategies on #11 and is still going.”

Curiosity: “ I know Kayla is listening to her partner because she asked him two great questions.”

Self control-School Work: “Kris has his pencils and his readings and has done all of his homework thoroughly.”

Self-Control: “That beeping noise on the street really is distracting, I love how Shana and Johnelle are tracking and participating.”

Social Intelligence: “ Group C figured out how to assign parts with no drama.”

The Stop the World Moment is a 2-3 minute speech/sermon delivered to an entire class or group of students to address a uniquely positive or negative behavior.
–This move requires heightened attention so should be used very rarely. Signal you are at 8 on the intensity scale without raising your voice.
–The impact of the behavior you are addressing is beyond school rules.  This is about being a good person.  A Stop the World Moment refers to the school consequences as an aside and instead zeroes in on how a certain behavior if repeated will become a habit of character.  This might sound like:  if you continue to gossip about people they may want to hang out but they won’t want to be your friends because they can’t trust you.  
-Anytime a stop the world moment addresses negative behavior you are sending the message: I know you are a better person than your action and that’s why this is such an important conversation.
–Private is Private.  You don’t address a private individual behavior (a child who isn’t completing homework or who is sleeping with this move) with this move.
–The Stop the World Moment clarifies a question of character.  Is it right or wrong to laugh at someone when they make a mistake? 
–You don’t use this move when you are mad.  This is a strategic decision.
–Buy time if you need it.  The most effective stop the world moments can be planned in the moments when you ask the student who made the poor choice to reflect silently on what happened.
I am going to find some video of this because a script doesn’t convey the necessary tone and body language.
A few more thoughts about these tools for developing character
What you praise is what you get. One of the reasons we love the character strengths work from Seligman is that it forces us to praise a variety of strengths and not just the ones traditionally upheld as virtues of compliance.  While self-control deserves praise so does social intelligence.  The character framework we use helps us, as teachers notice and celebrate these more effectively.
The ratio of micro-moments to stop the world moments in a teacher or leader’s work should be in the neighborhood of 8,000,000 : 1.
Some stop the world moments are almost routine in the cyclical life of a school.  I encouraged the prospective teachers to script and practice these.  Kids hear from any teacher and any school that they shouldn’t laugh or mock one and other.  However many (most?) kids see mocking ignored or meekly addressed.  One of the ways we assure kids that life in our school will be different is the stop the world moment that happens the first time a student laughs at another student.  This sends the signal that this place is different; this teacher is going to make it safe.

What do the best vocabulary teachers do? Aspirationally, Part One of Several Posts on the Subject

September 16, 2013

bagoftricksLast week during dinner, my three year old daughter Tallulah* asked what firm meant.  Joanna and I immediately stumbled through a series of explanations.

Joanna:  Firm is hard.

Caleb:  Not like the table is hard though.  Think of something that’s soft but hard.

Joanna:  Can you think of something that’s firm?

Tallulah left the table to lay on the rug.

Joanna and I stared at each other stumped.  We didn’t think the rug was firm but we had idea how to escape from the lexical hole we’d dug.  Tallulah began to do somersaults.

Despite my pitiful efforts to develop Tallulah’s vocabulary on the fly, Building vocabulary is one of the central joys and challenges of teaching. It’s one of the highest hurdles between our kids and understanding the complex texts they will face.

Building a rich vocabulary doesn’t just give our kids a fancy way to say the same thing they were going to say; an ever-expanding vocabulary allows kids new ways to describe themselves and their experience.  Vague ideas become sharp insights. Burbling pools of feeling can now be shared and understood.  I see this in Tallulah’s day to day development as she finds a new word that leads to a new conception of her universe.

One of our schools is  tackling how to teach vocabulary more effectively.  In order to spread the right practices we examined what the most effective vocabulary teachers (inside and outside our schools) do. The “most effective” tag is based on the kids in their rooms demonstrating an ability to say, spell, define, and most importantly use the word independently in speech and writing.  These observations and ideas have also been hugely influenced by the work of Isabel Beck.  Many thanks to our good friends at KIPP NYC who turned me onto Beck’s work-which is thoughtful and practical.  Here are our early hypotheses:

 Effective Vocabulary Teachers:

Spend more time developing a kid-friendly definition and examples than creating activities.  Most of these highly effective vocabulary teachers had a stable of engaging games and activities (think charades, BINGO, Last KIPPster standing, etc) that they added to periodically but didn’t invest much lesson planning time on.  Instead these super vocabulary teachers used their time to to craft a kid-friendly, intellectually accurate, and honest definition.

Once the definition is built, they spend time writing excellent examples and close confusers or non-examples.  Beck’s very useful advice is to write or find diverse examples of the word’s usage.  Otherwise kids, like the rest of us, tend to latch onto the first example they hear.  The non-examples are essential.  Leaving them out is like fencing half the field and expecting the cows to stay put.

Obsess about cumulative review. Once a word is taught in the highly effective vocabulary teacher’s class it becomes part of the atmosphere.  There are daily quick practices with vocabulary on homework and do nows.  Old vocabulary words are woven into the classroom materials and in one case the teacher uses review of old vocabulary motions as a means of transitioning between activities.  While every teacher has a word wall, the highly effective vocabulary teacher is constantly encouraging/prodding kids to use it.

Give feedback about the usage of the word in speech and writing and make students revise.  The very common activity of having kids write vocabulary sentences can be diamond or rhinestone.  The effective vocabulary teachers give immediate verbal and/or rapidly turned-around written feedback.  These teachers press students to use the accurately and creatively.  For instance:

Teacher:  Let’s hear your sentences for frantic from homework.

Student: The frantic lady walked around the corner.

Teacher: How do I know she’s frantic?

Student: The frantic lady walked quickly around the corner, almost running into me.

Teacher: How do I know she’s frantic and not just excited?

Student Thee frantic lady walked around the corner, almost running into me.  Her eyes were full of fear.

If students derive a definition from context or examples, then the effective vocabulary teacher makes them return and tweak their definition whenever a new usage is encountered.

This list is not definitive.  As we observe great teachers I am sure it will grow.  I have a suspicion  that these teachers have habits of organization, planning, and assessment that will push our whole team forward.  In the coming year we will capture video and other artifacts of these vocabulary maestros.  As always I would welcome comments, questions, and better ideas.



* Tallulah’s resistance to rules and directions would appear karmic to many of my former students.

Two pieces of Elmore Leonard’s Wisdom Applied to Teaching

September 12, 2013

My dad is a huge Elmore Leonard fan.  I am recent convert.

One of his rules for writing is an awesome challenge to us to craft leaner, more engaging lessons.

Leonard writes:  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

The passage below from Get Shorty is a perfect description of what Lemov calls quiet power and a marvelous reminder that we, as teachers should aspire to talk less.

You never tell the guy what could happen to him.  Let him use his imagination, he’ll think of something worse.  In other words, don’t talk when you don’t have to.  What’s the point?

The fake cfu

August 16, 2013

Recently, I watched a few teachers  make the same mistake that I made half a dozen times in PD last week  It’s the fake CFU (check for understanding).

In the class I was observing the teacher gave a complex set of directions and followed it with a rhetorical question.

Teacher:  I need you to move the binders to the top of the desk and then take out a pencil for the exit ticket.  The exit ticket has five questions on the front, and two on the back, and I want you to use complete sentences for all of the.  Everybody good?”

The kids smile and nod.  Five kids ignore the back of the exit ticket, and eight don’t use complete sentences.

The danger of the rhetorical question is that kids (or adults)  develop a habit  of faking understanding.  Subconsciously, they start to believe that the teacher wants them to look like they understand more than face their confusion and misunderstanding.

My hunch is that breaking this teacher tic will require real time coaching.

Lemov has a nice related post here:

This sequence from one of Tallulah’s favorite books  shows a perfect example of the fake cfu.  The book is Lilly’s Big Day by the inestimable Kevin Henkes.



Classroom Design Thoughts from Robby May

March 11, 2013

Robby teaches 8th grade History at KIPP Gaston College Preparatory.  I never had the pleasure of teaching with Robby but he is much beloved in the peanut field.  Anyway onto his email…

About once a month, I take a moment to read your blog…. I wanted to share some thoughts to some of your questions on classroom design.

So after three years on a cart, I finally got a classroom this year……praise Jesus amen hallelujah! I feel like one of my biggest responsibilities as a teacher of Political Science is to prepare my students not only to understand their government but give them the tools and “umph” to actually work towards that piece of our mission that talks about community and social justice. I am crazy passionate about what I teach….I can’t imagine teaching anything else…..and I want that passion for government to be so infectious that every student become passionate about their government and interacting with it too. One of the ways I created my passion right away this years was through the design of my classroom……everything surrounds the central theme of the Oval Office. My room is literally designed as a replica of the Oval Office (attached picture). I want students to walk into the room leaving school and actually feel like they are in the heart of government. I am careful not just to have “stuff” in the room that is pretty but doesn’t serve a function. Everything in the room should serve some purpose in my teaching and higher goal.

One of my walls is what I call a “Unit Wall”. Basically I change the wall with each unit to match what we are studying. The purpose to do a couple things 1)  engage students curiosity, 2) bring “real life” into the classroom through the actual objects we are talking about, and 3) to push students thinking. I have attached to examples… from my Elections unit and one from the Civil Rights & Civil Liberties unit that I am finishing off now. I find myself constantly going to the wall to reference something and by the end of the unit the kids can explain every little detail on that wall and why it matters to our greater study of Political Science. This wall is meant to provoke my students to THINK about LOTS of civil rights questions. The tree is our “Bill of Rights Tree” (topped by James Madison) with our homemade ornaments illustrating the different amendments we are studying. (I do this at the beginning of the unit as a pre teaching method). Sorry…explanation of items: Boy Scout Uniform (can BSA ban gay members?), Pride flag for LGBT rights, paddle (can schools use corporal punishment?), football helmet (can students pray before a game?), chair (is the electric chair cruel and unusual?), burned American flag (is it free speech?), guns = 2nd amendment debate, happy holiday or merry Christmas, nuese (cruel and unusual punishment?), video game (violence regulated?), search warrant, banned books in school, tapping your telephone, abortion (when does life begin….when does it have rights?), should foreign nationals and terrorists be given judicial rights……and the list goes on!

Elections Wall


Additionally, in the back of my room I have created a “We the People Wall” of Americans from all walks of life who have made great contributions to our history as a people. The picture I attached is a little older, but this years wall has them grouped by our values. It seems strange, but I find myself constantly going back to different persons on the wall not only to teach a historical fact but often in cultural lessons that happen.

We the People Wall

Finally, in terms of your seating chart question……I do not use a seating chart in my class. My classroom is designed into four circle tables……I am really working on getting students to learn how to work together in groups this year. On day one I tell them to choose their seat keeping in mind where they learn best and who they should or should not be around. Additionally, while it rarely happens, if they decide at some point during the semester that they need to change seats they can do that without asking me. Ive tried to create an atmosphere of H of G in my room in which if a student is moving in the room, we both have the trust that they are taking care of something to make sure they are meeting their academic needs. Example: during the Do Now some students will move closer to the board. I have never had a problem with this in the two years I have done it. Additionally, in terms of my seating, I have only ever had two problems where I needed to actually move students and seat them.

Oval Office 1

Anyways, sorry to clog your inbox…..this is just something I am super passionate about.

What Not To Say

February 3, 2013

I had a ball co-teaching a session about character with Scott McCue (former head of Boston Prep) to the crowd at the MATCH Teacher Residency.  I used all of Dave Levin’s material on the dual purpose character/academic lessons and Scott shared key ideas from the ethics curriculum he helped develop.  Amongst other aspects of the session, Scott modeled an Aristotle lesson while I taught Dr. Seuss; it’s clear who the intellectual in this crowd was. 🙂

One of the great questions/requests following the session was:  The only thing I would add is I really would like a “top 10” document of things not to say to kids in serious situations, or at least ten things you should avoid saying when it comes to talking about character.

Scott jumped on the task and here is his list with two of my additions.

  1. Never use sarcasm.  Never.  It’s intoxicating—it breeds “fake intimacy.”*  But it’s corrosive and is never mission-aligned in the big picture.
  2. Don’t say, “I’m sorry, but…”  Your job is to be an emotional tone setter; communicating an apology in a challenging conversation about character sets the wrong tone.  BUT
  3. Don’t be robotic in a challenging conversation about character.  The style we’re going for is, “I care about you and because I care about you, I need to talk to you about this.”
  4. Don’t say, “I know exactly what you’re going through.”  You can use an anecdote to illustrate a point, but not to show a kid that you’re just like they are.  You’re not.
  5. Don’t ever say, “you need to do this because it’s our policy,” or “because the administration thinks it’s important.”
  6. Don’t use multiple metaphors to illustrate a point.  “This is just like climbing a mountain, or like the US women’s soccer team.  Or wait, it’s like that story we read about Yo Yo Ma.”  At most, use one.
  7. Don’t overshare.  You can tell a student that you’re trying to exercise more, but not that you’re trying to kick your alcoholism.  Finding the right sized anecdote illustrates a point and inspires kids.  The oversharing anecdote obscures your role as an authority figure.
  8. Don’t say cheating is wrong because “you’ll get kicked out of college if you cheat.”  It undermines a much deeper point.
  9. Don’t contradict a child’s parents or another teacher in your school.  If you disagree, than speak additively.  So, if a kid tells you, “My mom said gay people are going to hell,” you should say, “At our school, we respect everybody, no matter what.”
  10. Don’t compare kids in an angel/devil way.  Nobody wins in these comparisons, and it’s demotivating to everyone.

I would love to hear additions or objections.  Scott and I also worked on criteria for “Stop the World” character lessons i.e. those reactive and rare moments when you must effectively teach a major character lesson. I am still tweaking those and would love to hear ideas.

* Sarcasm=Fake intimacy and therefore should not be used in our classrooms is an idea that both Dave Levin and Jon Saphier are passionate about.


Great Expectations

January 3, 2013


High expectations is one of KIPP’s five pillars; it’s also a buzzword that fifty different people would define fifty different ways. Jon Saphier names three key expectations messages skillful teachers send out to kids constantly,: 1) This is important; 2) You can do it with hard work; 3) I will not give up on you. The fourth message, 4) We will help each other, was added to KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching to reflect our belief at KIPP in team and family. Kids need to believe that individual success and collective success are not only possible but work together to form a virtuous loop. The key messages are better sent through actions than words, so exactly how does an excellent KIPP teacher send these messages to students?

 This is important (Keys 1-3)

 1)      Framing

It’s hard to believe “this is important” when you can’t articulate why the day’s aim matters anywhere outside the scope and sequence.  Framing the lesson in the first ten minutes of a class ensures kids know what they are learning, how they will know they are successful, and why they are learning it.  Super skilled teachers often get students to read, respond, and react to these .  However it’s a marvelous start for a newer teacher to simply plan and state these three pieces with methodical consistency.  Here’s a great video example from Jesse Coburn, formerly of KIPP King framing his AP World History lesson on Hiroshima.

Teachers sometimes neglect framing because they think it will dampen student curiosity.  Framing is not the hook or motivation; it’s making the map of the class apparent to students.  Second, as Daniel Willingham and the Heaths point out, curiosity is created by small gaps between what we know and what we want to know.  Rampant confusion does not foster curiosity.

Framing the lesson can extend to framing the unit and framing the course. Alison Drake of KIPP Believe used to begin her eighth grade Math class with a unit called “Algebra is a Civil Right”.  The two week unit created a reference point for Alison and her kids throughout the year when the math got hard and the connection to day to day life felt tenuous.

2)                  Long-Term and Unit Planning

Build the neural net and Seriously please do it! are planning behaviors that send the this is important message powerfully.  Melissa Savage (KIPP Academy Lynn 5th Grade Science) asks kids to summarize the lesson and the unit by making connections to prior units.  In a recent summary sheet she has kids compare/contrast the lunar and water cycles building the net between units that might appear very different.  Meticulous long term planners (Seriously please do it!)  are also better able to send the this important message by referring to future lessons that will require mastery of today’s aim. You will need to learn this because next month when we start fractions you will have to multiply fluently.  While this in and of itself isn’t uber-motivational to the average fifth grade student it does lend credibility to the teacher.  Part of why I (as a student) believe this lesson/course/education is important is because I believe this person knows where we are going*.  Both of these behaviors should also be reflected in physical design of the room (word walls, trackers) and the cumulative review (daily).

3)       Right is Right

Right is right is one of the most effective ways to send the message that this is important.   What you say and how you say it matters enough that I (the teacher) warmly demand that your answer rise to those standards.

You can do it with hard work. (Keys 4-8)

4. Modeling matters. 

KIPP teachers model hard work beautifully.  However I didn’t always model the hard work of thinking, which sends the second key message: You can do it with hard work.  Model think alouds to show struggle and fixing mistakes before finding the right answer.  Videotaping yourself doing these can often make them more engaging for kids.  This resource from the Skillful Teacher illustrates components of an effective think aloud.

5. Know your kids.   When kids question whether or not they can do something, it helps to name the times and ways they have grown.  You grew ten points the last time you stayed after for study group sends the you can do it with hard work message well.  Also, know the kids well enough to know where they have worked hard and experienced success outside the classroom. Whether it’s choir, Pop Warner, or Call of Duty there is something that the student is interested in that taps into this belief in the power of hard work.  Katherine Cushman’s Fires in the Mind has some lovely examples of this.

6. Feedback. I can do it with hard work seems like a platitude when I have a red 45% at the top of my test. If the 45% is replaced by or at least includes standards I have mastered and ones I need to work on then I know the way forward.  Feedback can send the hard work message more powerfully than any other move, and   makes a massive failure into a series of actionable steps. Feedback is a spotlight that illuminates a piece of student work or behavior, and a flashlight that shows the way forward.

Spotlight           flashlight



Your thesis was great Your thesis was clear, arguable, and relevant.
You aren’t listening well. You aren’t tracking the speaker.
Where’s your effort? Your nose isn’t touching the ground when you do push-ups.

7. Independent Practice as sacred time.  Mitch Brenner of KIPP Academy Bronx  argues one of the best ways to teach character is to help kids “feel it”.  If kids are working every day on their own for 15-30% of the class time, they feel the effect of hard work.  Not to sound all Communist, but the hum of labor is beautiful and empowering.  One of the most common barriers to independent practice happening is a do now or opening routine that sucks up time like an out of control vacuum.  The other common pitfalls during independent practice are teachers interrupting too often to make whole class adjustments and, taking questions throughout rather than chunking.

I will not give up on you (Keys 8-10)

8.  Close the circuit is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to send the message that I will not give up on you.  When a student answers a question incorrectly we need to find a way to circle back to them and have them demonstrate improved understanding. KIPP Excellence in Teaching Award winner Sally Winchester has a great video on KIPP Share demonstrating this.

9) Feedback is steroids for the expectations messages.  However feedback works only if students have Multiple Opportunities to Demonstrate Mastery.  This means that independent practice ideally is chunked so students receive feedback and then apply it.  You see this as a result of skillful reading conferences, math lessons where the teacher flashes the answers on the board, kids grade themselves, and kids attack another problem set, or PE where the teacher freezes a dodgeball game asks students to make the call as if they were the referee and then they apply the new strategy/understanding to the rest of the game.

10) The Follow-Up Conversation is crucial to sending this message when it comes to discipline.  When a student makes a mistake or a poor choice we have to be comfortable with hard conversations and tough consequences and we have to relentlessly follow-up to re-establish a positive relationship.  It’s hard to see the connection between time management, organization, and relationship building but the first two often allow the third to happen consistently.

We will help each other (Keys 11 -14)

11) Many excellent KIPP teachers send this message by creating a mix of class-wide, individual, and school goals and making sure goals big and small matter to kids (KFET 2.2D).  At KIPP Academy Boston individuals who have mastered the most standards on Accelerated Math are recognized on a giant poster in the hallway and the advisory with the most standards mastered competes for a movie night.

12) Honesty and openness about student achievement data goes a long way to sending the message that we can help each other.  Tracking charts on the wall and individual growth goals help kids see where they share struggles and strengths with teammates.  Some very thoughtful people object to public display of student data.  It needs to be planned carefully and reinforced regularly but done well public achievement data embeds the expectations message in the walls of the room.

13) You don’t need an intervention time to intervene sends the we will help each other message.  Instead of remediation and acceleration happening in small groups hidden during tutoring blocks or lunch times, the remediation and acceleration happens in the room, often through the simple act of pulling four students to the front of the room for a review session during independent practice.  This creates an opportunity to further invest the class in independent practice.  If you stay focused and independent then I can help some teammates who struggled with fractions yesterday.  In class intervention also fosters more flexible groupings.  The students see that everybody needs small group attention at different points throughout the year.

14) Structured partner and group work is essential to sending this message.   There are lots of resources for this but the simplest question to ask is: does the structure of the partner or group talk ensure that each person talks and each person listens?  Eveleen Hsu does a simple assignment of roles Winnie (kid near the window) and Wally (partner on the wall) and then asks two questions, one where the window partner talks and one where the wall partner talks.  Shauna Mulligan recently assigned this partner talk: One of you is John Steinbeck.  One is Malcolm Gladwell.  Describe how they feel about Oscar Wao.

Besides demanding loads of evidence based thinking connecting prior reading to a new text, this structure demands attentive speaking and listening.

Common Pitfalls when Sending the Key Messages

  • All of these expectations messages are better sent with actions than words.  One of the least effective ways to send the this is important message is by saying how important everything is all the time.  This is important also doesn’t get relayed by saying it louder.  Your reasons why it’s important have to be paired with reasons why the kids find it important.
  • You will need this in college is a close second in the race for least effective.
  • We will help each other is not tutor the kids who struggle and forget about your own need to be challenged.

P.S.  I wrote this as part of a monthly “How Do I…” essay KIPP sends out to instructional coaches.  I am reposting with only a few edits.

The power of Querencia in the classroom (or for non-Hemingway fans-Martha Stewart)

November 1, 2012

Wikipedia tells me querencia is a Spanish phrase describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want.  In bullfighting, when the bullfighter prepares for the kill that will end it, a bull may stake out turf—querencia—a place in the ring where he feels strong and safe.

This idea (except for the part about the bull being killed at the end) captures how I want kids to feel in our classrooms-safe and powerful.

Teaching is such an engaging and demanding craft because it demands our minds (and hearts) to work in so many ways. We have to to be artists, scientists, psychologists, and interior designers. We have to make efficient and aesthetic and maintainable use of space whether new 800 student home at High Rock in Lynn and or our single hallway of classrooms overlooking a construction site in Boston.

In the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching (2.2D) the specific behavior is designs the physical space to make it inviting, purposeful, and a reflection of the students in their room (Their Happy Place).

There’s a fierce irony that I am talking about design.  I am actually not allowed to hang anything on the walls of my own home because an almost pathological inability to work in straight lines and because I once proposed that a Pearl Jam poster would add to the decor.

Five thoughts about the querencia of a classroom

Sparse and neat trumps messy and over-packed.  There is an attachment amongst many of us in education to the  rumpled professor archetype.  Wallpapering the room with quotes and stuffing the cabinets with materials is nice for some of us but it’s bad modeling for the many kids who need to develop stronger organization skills in order to thrive in school.  One of our favorite guiding principles is if a student in the room can’t explain its purpose, it probably shouldn’t be on the wall.

Fight entropy.  Many classrooms start beautiful and decay.  It’s helpful for schools to build in regular refresh, reset moments for classrooms.  It’s even better when teachers have a plan for how and when they will update their classrooms. This can be as simple a student job to make sure no papers are falling off the walls and that the tracking chart for mastery quizzes is updated.

Big beats small.  I lost my glasses about a year and half ago.   As an observer in the classroom I am often squinting to read to read what’s on the board and the walls.  It’s a safe bet to say that there’s always at least one kid who needs them and doesn’t know and one kid who should  be wearing them but isn’t.  The little inspiration quotes are often unreadable (not to consider incomprehensible).  It’s also important to remember that our perspective as teachers is constantly flitting around the room, experiencing the space from all angles.  In most classrooms kids spend a bulk of time anchored in one spot.

Create curiosity gaps with your design.  Above the bulletin board Ryan Weaver of KIPP Academy Boston creates a series of visual anchors to preview the units of study for students throughout the year.  This is a marvelous example of dual purpose design.  It builds curiosity (one of the character strengths key for future success) and it makes long term planning evident.  This builds students’ confidence in the teacher and makes the process of learning more transparent to kids who often feel like they are lurching from subject to subject without any clear path.

The simple touch on Elizabeth Vetne’s Visual Arts I board is used in many classrooms across KIPP Massachusetts.  Giving each lesson a title makes the content stickier and also draws reading skills across the content areas.  Much more to come about this classroom and the mind-blowing power of great arts teaching.

Find dual purposes for your design.  Fernando Acostas’s bulletin board for problem solving is a lovely example of tying math problem solving strategies to the character strengths the school is working on.


Some questions for the designers out there:

I am also curious about how classroom design enables or prevents the classroom routines from becoming a well-oiled machine.  Any thoughts?

Doubly curious to hear about people who have taught their kids flexible seating arrangements well.  This is a missing tool in many teachers’ toolbox including my own-how to get kids to efficiently move from pairs to groups to to seminar circles to testing rows.  I have imagined a room where the teacher calls out a signal and the students know how to quickly rearrange the room even in the space of the period.  I know the arrangement impacts kids success at many activities (i.e. just try doing groups in a traditional college lecture hall).

What helps a messy teacher?

The greatest sportswriting ever

October 23, 2012

It’s been almost a month since I posted so I wanted to share two emails from our high school team that may be un-hyperbolically the greatest recaps of charter school sporting events ever.  They also speak to the staff and student culture in a marvelous and goofy way.

Today the cross country meet(ing) schedule called for a footrace at Sheepfold. Last week was Breakheart. Now Sheepfold. It is almost like the universe is daring us to be epic.

Be comforted by the fact that your dear Panthers never, ever fold. And they are quite decisively NOT sheep.

The bus was scheduled to pick us up at 2:30. At 2:45, we decided that the bus being late was really a great opportunity to take a team picture out in the drizzle. Spirits were high. At 3pm, the coaches began to wonder if things were amiss. Sheepfold, they were told, was at least 40 minutes away if traffic wasn’t too bad. At 3:15, after they had missed all of 7th period, the team gathered to commiserate over the needlessly lost instructional time and to discuss the possibility of not making it to the meet. Prayers were said silently, and Edivan shook his fists at the rain.  Coach Bertrand(The coach of today’s Middle school champ, Tayjuan), assistant coach DoBell, and Head Coach (he told me I had to capitalize it) Lindemann discussed the question: If the bus pulls up right now, do we get on it? Smoke was seen coming from the ears of Coach McClendon.

The cross country season is 5 meets long. If we miss a race, it is 20% of the season. That’s like two tenths of the season.

At 3:25, we boarded the bus, Panthers, unsure of what would greet us on the horizon. Coach DoBell was very nervous.

I’ll say this, our driver drove like we were trying to get somewhere.

And thank God she did, because somewhere is where we got.

At 4:00 we were pulling into the Sheepfold lot and the Panthers were pulling off their warm-ups (mismatched hoodies and pajama pants). Coach DoBell sprinted heroically to where his impressive instincts told him he would find a man holding a manilla envelope containing our team’s bib numbers. As he rounded a turn in the trail, his heart sank. The other teams were already on the line. These gutless wonders were about to run without us. Cowards!  — I was told we had about 60 seconds to get on the line.

Behind Coach DoBell trotted the mighty panthers, safety pins in hand. (Lindemann actually thought to bring safety pins. Who is this guy?) Numbers were distributed and pinned as we walked/jogged to the line. Someone fell and became muddy. Did I mention it was still raining?

A note about this: going straight from a bus ride to an all-out 3 mile race with no warm-up is a bad idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is risk of injury.

The gun (whistle) went off and they were off. The coach for the falcons and the coach for the other panthers made a wager about how many kids would fall in the mud. Chuckles were heard. Chuckles. As though this event was simply diversion.

At the mile mark Edivan was about 5th, followed by Nick, Sheneil, Jose, and Andres. Anaidys was up near Sheneil about 40 yards behind the girls leader, who looked a bit like a deer. Anaidys, luckily, had the look of a predatory cat. Precious wasn’t far behind, running alone and running strong. Then Jacob, followed by Roody, Eric F, Gilda and Olga, Ernesto, Amilcar, Es, and Ann came through. Most had a mixture of alarm, pain, and exhilaration in their eyes. Then Amayrani came through, looking like she was having no fun, but perhaps doing what she wanted to be doing.

Then Brendan and Mercedes came through. Mercedes was quite muddy. As they passed by, she said, “I fell in the mud, but I’m OK.” What a great example of what we want our kids to say about a challenge!

Then all of them returned to the woods to complete a big loop. We didn’t see them until they finished.

Times (unsure of the exact measurement – The guy in charge said 3.09 miles. He was wrong.)

Edivan 16:02

Nick     17:26

Andres  18:20

Sheneil   18:24

Jose      18:40

Jacob     19:45

Roody     19:50

Eric F      20:41

Ernesto   20:46

Amilcar   22:55

Brendan  32:15

Anaidys   18:45

Precious  20:46

Gilda       22:00

Olga        22:40

Ann         24:17

Amayrani 29:21

Mercedes 32:33

Finish line highlights:

Taking the final turn into the finish, Jose screamed a primal scream and, with a blistering kick, caught a Falcon and white guy in green. He may have been a spartan.

Anaidys came out of the woods with a large lead on the girl who was leading earlier and who had won the first meet. Anaidys was ROLLLING, kept the lead and finished with the sort of kick that is not possible with regular sized heart. Then she congratulated the second place girl.

Sheneil who limped by me with 80 yards to go, broke into an impressive limp-sprint, holding on to valuable team points, holding a few guys off.     (Cross country is scored like golf. Low team score wins. 1st place is one point. 50th is 50 points. Each team scores 5 runners)

Precious. In the last straight, Precious was behind a couple girls and got passed by a guy. Then she kicked. She dusted them. Precious says NO! Awesome. Later, on the ride home, she and I would spend about 20 minutes debating whether chili is a soup.

Amayrani came out of the woods with her glasses in her hand. She was running alone with feet that were muddy and eyes that were asking the big questions.

Then the Middle School race, where our own Tayjuan CRUSHED everyone. This kid is the man. After his victory, a limping Sheneil, probably the only guy present who could make Tayjuan look like a middle schooler (because he is a big strong dude), put his arm around him and raised his other fist to the sky in shared KIPP victory and glorious team and family-ness.

As was the case last week, our kids were the major cheerers for the middle school race. Other high schools are apparently too cool to cheer for them. COWARDS!

Seriously, all of our kids, tired, muddy, wet, and bloody (3 of them) were cheering for all the middle school kids that came by. Anyone want to be happy? Enter the middle school race and run by Olga and Ann. Our kids are the coolest kids in the world.

A great detail: After hearing from Coach Lindemann about the exfoliating properties of mud, Olga became excited and led a charge toward the mud bog, yelling, “Mud Party, WHOOOOOO!” No one followed, but everyone agreed that it was very funny.

Dobell’s efforts inspired our sophomore counselor and soccer coach Liz Faira to write the following:

Panthers 1, Salem Academy 0

While the level of sheer epic-ness reached by KALC cross country is hard to attain, girls soccer reached new heights of skill and guts today, well worth a recap.  DoBell, thanks for the inspiration to document the greatness of our scrappy little athletes!

Big win today.  Huge.  A 1-0 victory over Salem Academy, who were rumored to be a pack of trash-talking thugs.  Coach was on hand and gamely volunteered to step in if anyone got crazy and amped up their vulgar language to 11, but that proved irrelevant, as the new mouth-guard requirement makes it impossible for anyone to say anything at all.  It also prevents our girls from breathing, but that’s another story.  Egbe’s mouth-guard protrudes past her lips to such an extent that I’m fairly sure she’s holding an entire helmet, two retainers and some bubble wrap between her teeth.

As for Salem, several of their players were thought to be carrying nunchucks, which mercifully turned out to be shin pads.  Their goalie was a seventh grader who made Dulce Gonzalez look like the Incredible Hulk.  The intimidation factor was minimized by the sheer wee-ness of this goalie.  Not that our girls seemed particularly intimidated at any point.  Indeed, the main focus of the pre-game “warm-up” (a term I use lightly) was the fact that Tarra frantically needed to get her hands on some Vasoline because, oddly, she had just showered and was not properly moisturized for the game.  She was ashy!  This dilemma trumped all other physical concerns, including Alex’s bad ankle and the fact that Amie was in need of an iron lung.

Our girls were forced to play shorthanded (down between 1 and 3 players all game, varying based on the revolving needs of our asthmatics).  MiKayla, sick to the point of pinning her eyes open with clothesline pins, pulled off an impressively gritty game, playing every minute without respite and playing hard.  Being threatened by a screaming Helen at sweeper may have helped this commitment along.

Alisha, who just days ago collided with a rival player and was subsequently examined by 8 EMTs and the cast of Grey’s Anatomy under the glaring lights of Manning, was back in action and taking hit after hit.  This either speaks to her tenacity or to the fact that her previous injury perhaps didn’t warrant the attention of the entire Lynn Fire Department.  Nonethless.  That kid is like a brick house on the field.  Her back is composed solely of steel rods.  This makes airline travel difficult but makes her an effective defender.

It’s hard to pick the biggest star of the game, the contenders being Mariangeliz (with the lone goal!), Alex (totally controls the field!), Helen “The Wall” Maldonado (nothing gets past this kid – unless it’s a faster kid…but that’s rare!) Briana (10 saves in goal, one amazing save in the final minutes!), or Bekemeh.  “Wait a minute!” you may be saying to yourself, “Bekemeh is in my class and is not eligible to play!”  That is correct.  Bekemeh, affectionately known as “The Mouth,” is a contender due solely to her sideline commentary, which is typically a hybrid of ecstatic and completely insane.  Bekehmeh is often shrieking at a decibel only dogs can hear, but periodically peppers her screams with completely random tidbits  For example, my personal favorite from today does not *entirely* relate to soccer.  And by that I mean it has nothing to do with soccer in any way.  Rather, as I am focusing on the field and trying to coach (since I am the coach), I am distracted as all I can hear behind me is the following gem:  “Do you know in NYC people can volunteer to be castrated??”  This is followed by Zinara asking me if I can give Bekemeh a demerit for being annoying.

In any event, the girls picked up a well-earned win today, holding on to the lead from Mariangeliz’s nicely placed goal late in the first half.  That kid has wheels!  Our defense, led by a stellar Briana (Player of the Game) in net and Helen as a take-no-prisoners sweeper, played tight all game.  So we are now 3-2 on the season, but keep in mind that one of the losses was a forfeit due to the elements (“the elements” being light rain, yes).  But rain can turn into thunder and thunder to lighting and lightning to imminent death.  So, I think we made the right call.  In any event, the KALC Panthers are now officially 3-2 which is amazing for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that just weeks ago over 75% of our team was catching the ball with both hands repeatedly during practice, arguably our best player was wearing moccasins to scrimmages, and I had to physically usher players to their respective positions, as they had no idea what any of the positions were.

As an aside, we should be very ready for basketball season – just today Nicole got called for an illegal throw-in after doing a basketball-style push pass into play, rather than the traditional (read, legal) overhanded soccer throw-in that we have gone over at least 100 times at this point.  Nat, Riley, B-Ball fans everywhere – start your engines! (in a month or so).

Go Panthers!
Coach Faria