Blog Post

Nobody wants to be racist (and yet unconscious bias is a real thing)

Nobody wants to think of themselves as a racist. And yet, many research studies reveal that we all hold unconscious biases, or hidden racist ideas. When left unchecked, these harmful ideas can perpetuate racist actions and reinforce racist systems.


An excellent illustration of this phenomenon is a recent exchange that repeated Clark’s classic 1954 doll study. In a video, completed by a 17-year-old film student and disseminated through the media, a young black child clearly reflects society’s prejudice: The child describes the black doll as looking “bad” and the white doll as “~nice” (Edney 2006). Children internalize our society’s biases and prejudices, as have all of us; they are just a little less able to hide it” (Moule 2009).


I am always on the lookout for rich teachable moments to use with my students to highlight issues of equity, power, and privilege. So while I had known about this idea of unconscious bias for some time now, it took me teaching reading for almost a decade to see the perfect moment to uncover our collective unconscious biases as English students.


With our novel study of The Chrysalids, we began by exploring the core habits of highly successful readers. One of the first habits we dove into was visualization. After we had a class that explained how good readers have a “movie camera” on in their minds, I asked the students to “cast” the characters that we have met so far in the novel. “Imagine that you are a director and you need to find actors to match what you are seeing in your mind.” Students loved that their independent learning at home centred around Google Image searching terms like: “old man farmer” and “sweet little girl with pigtails” and picking the images of the people that fit their mental images best.

“I guessed that students wouldn’t have even considered the race of the people they saw, seeing “white” as “neutral” or the default.”

My assumption was that most of the actors casted would be white. Even though our Grade 8 classes are not solely comprised of white students, I was guessing because most of the media my students consume has white people in central roles, students would primarily reproduce this depressing lack of diversity. My guess was that most students would sadly just see the sea of white faces that Google presented to them as “normal” and not specifically search for people of colour. Moreover, I guessed that students wouldn’t have even considered the race of the people they saw, seeing “white” as “neutral” or the default.


Well, I printed out all their “actors” and posted them on the bulletin board on the first floor of the Middle School. Before I had a chance to explain this mental exercise or have the students digest what they were seeing, a number of students stopped in the hallway, observed the board, and then promptly inquired with their teachers why there were so many white people on the board! While some students of course had cast people of colour in the roles of this novel, they were correct that most images were indeed confirming my hunches. I will say that I was rejoicing internally that the students who saw this board on their way to class actually noticed the stark lack of diversity!

When I brought the Grade 8 classes to the board and took them through a “see, think, wonder” routine, it didn’t take long for students to start to wonder why there were so few people of colour, why we chose so many actors that look the same, and what the author imagined when he wrote the book.

After the students were given a mini-lesson on unconscious bias and watched this video, I gave them permission to visualize characters that don’t look like them, that don’t look like “typical Hollywood actors”, or that aren’t just by default white. When we just assume that white is the default race, it is one subtle way that we recreate racist biases and limit the possibilities for people of colour.


While this was one lesson as part of a larger unit about reading skills and habits, the theme of questioning what we assume to be “normal” has been showing up in our novel The Chrysalids quite prominently. While I aim to explore rich literature with the students that exposes themes around othering, inclusion, equity, and justice, I also recognize the benefits of finding all the little teachable moments that inch-forward our collective awareness of anti-racism ideas. Seeing the anti-oppressive moments in the everyday experience of how we picture characters in our minds is one small step towards how we might challenge the racist status quo in our daily lives.


Works Cited

Moule, Jean. “Understanding Unconscious Bias and Unintentional Racism”. The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 90, No. 5 (Jan., 2009), pp. 320-326.


Building Equity in the Middle School English Classroom

Everyday, I step into my school and see pictures of white women on the walls: old-timey white women from the 1850’s when my school was founded, middle-aged white women who are alumni and doing impressive things in the world, scores of white women who graduated in years past. These faces greet me as I walk towards my classroom and affirm my place in this building. Everyday, I walk past fellow white teachers. Walking quickly with their heels clicking against the old wood, walking with purpose and power, assured of their status in this building. And everyday I walk past classrooms of students learning of and through well-known white figures like Shakespeare, Sir John A., Pythagoras, Deb Ellis, Bill Nye, or Darwin.


It is time to challenge this racist status quo in my teaching practice.


This year, my goal as a teacher is to de-centre whiteness in the English classroom.

But first, let’s hear a little about racism from the always-entertaining and informative Francesca Ramsy of MTV’s Decoded, so we can get closer to being on the same page about racism.

So what does “de-centring whiteness mean”?

If you are white, which I am, it is not difficult to look around our institutions and see white-culture reflected back at you. When I was a young person in school in rural southern-Ontario, all of my teachers were white, all of the books (Every. Single. One.) that I read had white protagonists in them, and most (I’m estimating 99% until high school) of my classmates were white. My whiteness was held up in front of me like a mirror and validated.  

In the classrooms that I teach, my students do not represent the larger diversity within the city of Toronto. As a teacher in an independent school, this is not surprising considering how much it costs families to send their children to my institution. That said, as more independent schools are waking up to how important it is to be inclusive spaces for families of all backgrounds, there is a shift within the student population to be more racially diverse. This is one reason for de-centring whiteness: not all of my students are white.


But it’s also for the white folks in the house.


We do all of our students a monumental disservice, you could even say a human rights violation, if our hidden curriculum is only valuing and validating whiteness. All students need to see more than just the single stories of groups of people in order to enter the world post-graduation a responsible citizen of the world.

So what does “de-centring” whiteness entail?

Well, at its most basic, it includes me providing and teaching books with racially diverse characters and exploring the voices that are not included in any text that we read. Who is present and who is silent?

It includes exploring and discussing concepts such as implicit bias, micro-aggressions, single stories, white supremacy, power, and privilege.

It involves ensuring that each student in my Middle School has the ability to investigate all aspects of their identities.

One of my favourite partners in crime at my school, a fellow provocative rabble rouser, proposed that we bring this question of identity investigating forward to our Middle School at a December faculty meeting. We asked:

How might we ensure that each member of the Middle School has access to opportunities in which they can share and investigate all aspects of their identities, especially those aspects that may be marginalized, difficult to understand, or not widely represented in our community?

And ran a protocol with about ½ of our Middle School faculty, collecting beliefs and doubts about the possibility of running student affinity groups.


As I write this, I can hear the voices of Cohort mentors coaching me to keep it manageable, to remember my sphere of influence, and to design something that I actually have the power to control. So my action plan is not to run affinity groups (as it might not be until next year that such a project is ready to launch…if ever), but rather, this is what I think I can bite off reasonably this year:


  • Collect data and research about launching affinity groups
  • Meet with key stakeholders about this possibility, sharing findings from first preliminary MS Faculty protocol
  • Run at least one protocol with stakeholders outside of MS Faculty (parents, students, board members?)


While I serve the Cohort 21 community as a facilitator, every year I chose a project focus to research, blog about, and experiment with in my classroom. Why wouldn’t I leverage the collective hive-mind power of many CIS Ontario teachers together in one space, with one purpose? With so many people to ask questions to, and so many school experts to be connected with, I have always found that connecting my school goals with my Cohort 21 action plan research is the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone.

So, Cohort hive-mind, my question for you is: how do you support your students of colour? What opportunities do you provide your students to explore their identities? Do you / have you used affinity groups in your school and, if so, what has your experience been?

How to Hack Learning Conferences

Since going back to teaching after having a baby, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to save time, places to become more efficient, and strategies for better managing my workload. Well this fall, I may have designed my ideal intro-unit to Grade 8 English that I simply cannot keep to myself.

“What possibility am I creating for myself this year?”

We began the term with this provocation. I like it because it gives students the moment to pause and realize a few things:

  • Oh, I’m in control of the kind of year I have
  • I can be creative not just with the arts or stem or steam or steamy art, but with my life design
  • All of this feedback that professional people have been telling me about myself might actually become relevant in a whole new way

Essentially, the unit builds towards students drafting a one-page statement about themselves, articulating what their English strengths, challenges, and next steps are. While it is not their report card, it is written in the same format as one (albeit a much longer one). Here is what students do in the first few weeks of school:

  • Over the summer, students read two novels: one from a list of 10 books and another free choice book
  • We start school by doing some surveys about ourselves: a reading survey, a writing survey, an interest survey, a survey about our mindset, a survey on multiple intelligences, and a survey about our character strengths. We spread this over a few days.
  • While we are debriefing and discussing our summer books, we use these personality surveys to better understand ourselves, but also the characters we read about (“Ah yes, Katniss does have a strong naturalistic intelligence and her character strengths are persistence and bravery, but she could really work on her interpersonal intelligence, as well as perhaps forgiveness.”)
  • We also take a class and learn to read our report card from last year and reflect on our learning skills
  • Within the first few weeks of school, I like to take a few baseline assessments. This year, I had time to do two quick reading assessments (a letter essay on their summer reads book as well as an in-class site reading assessment).

With all of this data collected, students organize their data and start to look for trends, patterns, highlights, challenges, successes, and trends in their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. They draft their one page statement, get feedback, and then revise and redraft (sometimes adding in insights gained from the revision process). Their statement becomes the cover of their writing portfolio website.

But here’s the best part:

Students distilled their self-report down to a few key points and ideas and shared this with their parents in their learning conference.

Our learning conferences are 10 minutes. Traditionally, I would usually talk for about 7-8 of those minutes and then we would have some questions at the end. But this year was so much better! I started with the student sharing their insights in the first 2 minutes. I would pepper in observations, specific successes / challenges / next steps when I thought the student needed to go a little deeper, and then parents shared their observations and questions from home.

“I did the least amount of personal prep for these conferences and they turned out the most productive learning conversations I’ve ever had.”

What I noticed this year was that students understood this process and seemed more prepared. I never felt like I was putting them on the spot when I asked them about themselves and their learning. On top of this, I was able to prepare by printing out a report from FreshGrade and making a few short notes on each student. I did the least amount of personal prep for these conferences and they turned out the most productive learning conversations I’ve ever had.

That said, there were some drawbacks that need to be acknowledged:

  • Not all students have parents that come to the conference: We have a healthy population of students who live at my school and their parents often do not come to the interview and are not able to Skype in. For these students, I am asking that we schedule a similar conversation with an important adult in their life (e.g. their homeroom teacher, a boarding advisor, a coach
  • Not all parents wanted their children present at the conference: for parents that gave me some heads up, I tried to explain my different approach through email, but some just showed up and said their child couldn’t come. The conversations, I find, are just not fruitful when everything about the child is going through middle management, so I plan to have the students do a separate conference, similar to the boarders.
  • Telling the students that they were being evaluated in the conversation may have freaked them out: I want my students to know that everything is fair game for assessment and this actually increases their chances of success. That said, I think some students were taken aback that I would insert my red pen into the sanctity of a conversation with their mom.


Despite those challenges, I do feel like I know my students on a deeper level this year and that I am well situated to start writing report cards shortly. When students share the insights themselves of their learning challenges and their own next steps, it seems that hearing other ideas from their teachers may be more welcome and possibly even understood once they have done that work themselves.


Looking forward to future years, I would still use this intro unit, but I’m wondering:

  • How might I more deliberately weave reading literature and drafting more pieces of writing into their learning?
  • How could I better prepare some parents for a slightly different learning conference?
  • How could I loop back on this learning through the year and create more accountability for the things students said they want to get better at?

Cohort 21 Saved My Life

Cohort 21 Saved My Life.

You don’t hear that every day about professional learning, I’m willing to bet. Sure you might have taken a few tidbits of useful ideas back to your classroom, but actually fundamentally changing the way that you think about teaching and learning is a life-altering experience.

I started Cohort 21 in my first year of teaching. I can’t think of a better formative experience to have as a new teacher, other than teaching in the most incredible school imaginable. I can look back on how I have been learning and growing with the Cohort over the years and it is undeniable that my life as a teacher would not be nearly as rich, as fulfilling, as powerful, or as effective had it not been for the magic of the Cohort.

To start with, learning how to engage in real action research in my classroom has meant that I see problems in a completely different way. When I am faced with a challenge in my practice, instead of wishing it would go away, complaining about it, or just talking about this problem, I have the tools now to invent projects, possibilities, and prototypes to move me towards different solutions. When I started to learn about Design Thinking and how just by asking questions that start with “How Might I…”, I started to realize that I actually had the power to be the architect of my teaching life and I didn’t have to be beholden to the myriad of metaphorical paper cuts that too often break our spirits in this profession.

Instead, I’ve found a community of keen, eager, inquisitive teachers that extend beyond the walls of my own school. It’s kind of the reverse silo effect with Cohort 21…I have found over the years that my doors and walls have opened up to the point where I know I can send out a question to my fellow teachers from Cohort 21 and I will find an answer that I could never have imagined in my own bubble. The fact that once you do Cohort you can be involved for life (kind of like the mafia, yes) means that the expertise, the collective wealth of knowledge, and the bar of excellence just keeps going up!

While I would still have a pulse had I not done Cohort 21, I would not be the positive, problem solving, empowered teacher that I am today without the tools I gained through my time with the Cohort. I got my life as a teacher, the question is, what are you going to get from doing Cohort 21 this year?


Changing Goals into Habits

Does it ever boggle your mind how some students seem to have developed healthy learning habits and yet others perpetually struggle with the basics, like checking their email regularly, cleaning out their backpack, following through on assignments, or showing up for appointments?

While I know that the lives of young people are busy, hectic, and often over scheduled, as a teacher, I am often wondering what I can do to better scaffold those essential “learning skills” that often get overlooked. While I assess these skills come report card time, many years I have pondered what more I could be doing to explicitly teach these skills, especially since I am explicitly giving students a grade.

So when I saw Art Markman’s Smart Change book show up in my Instagram feed from a friend, I had to dive in and explore what this book was all about. How could I use habits to better teach my students how to find success in not just my course, but in all of their academic learning.

Markman’s book unpacks five essential tools that anyone can use to create lasting change in their life:

  1. Optimize your goals: be really clear with what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and how you will know you have succeeded.
  2. Tame the Go System: figure out how to replace old behaviours with new, beneficial ones.
  3. Harness the Stop System: while our brains don’t like stopping things, we can figure out how to tame the factors that make it harder to start new, positive habits.
  4. Manage your environment: change the stimulus around you to create the outcomes you desire.
  5. Engage your neighbours: leverage the social power around you to influence your behaviour in a good way.


In past courses, I have experimented with goal setting with mixed results. Since reading this book, I have a more clear––and perhaps more possible––vision for how to do this aspect of my course differently. I would love to have students craft a learning skill goal each term (our learning skills are organization, independent work, collaboration, initiative, self-regulation, reflection), as well as a curricular goal related to our course. Based on those learning skills, I would love to create a bank of possible habits that if students practiced regularly (as in everyday), they would likely improve that learning skill.

For example, Alisha sets the goal to improve her organization, as she is always forgetting important appointments, her belongings at school, and the deadlines to her assignments. She decides that this term, she wants to narrow in and optimizes her goal to be: “I will remember to hand in all my assignments before the deadline” and focus on her belongings and the appointments part with a different goal. So, Alisha consults the bank of “organization habits” and chooses which habit best aligns with her goal. Her habit options are:

  1. Review my agenda every morning and evening
  2. Add every homework item and assignment in agenda before leaving each class
  3. Consult a checklist for stuff I need to bring to school every morning before packing my bag
  4. Cross reference my agenda with a friend every day
  5. Schedule time every day to work on upcoming assignments

After considering her goal and her needs, she decides that habit #1 is the best start for her and Alisha commits to practicing this habit every day for three weeks, until this habit is automated, and she can move on and chose another habit to help her achieve her goal.

Personally, I think the idea of breaking down a goal into actionable habits is very digestible and manageable for young people. One of the challenges I found when students set goals with me in the past was that they either set outcome goals (“I will get a level 4 in every class”) or they didn’t have a clear path for how to get where they wanted to get (“but how can I remember to hand in all my assignments on time?”). By focusing on process goals (and allowing the good grades to be the byproducts of that process) and giving concrete steps for achieving that goal, students––I hope––will have a more clear path for how to get where they want to be.

I also really appreciated the idea of finding supports within the classroom community. If students are setting goals related to the Learning Skills, it would be prudent to connect all the students working on organization and gather up all the students setting goals related to self-regulation in another group (except that would be a mighty interesting group, no?) and allow students to share strategies, successes, tips, and challenges with each other as a way to spread “goal contagion” as Markman puts it.

Once students are well-versed in using these habits and setting goals, I would like to translate this practice into a curricular goal…perhaps in January once students have had one report card already, have a clear sense of their academic successes and necessary next steps. It would be ideal to remove a scaffold here and have students develop their own habits and focus on one every three weeks or so to help them get closer and closer to their desired end result.

I envision learning conferences to look a lot different if students were really working these habits and reflecting more with their parents about how they can support them harnessing their Stop System, managing their environment, more deliberately celebrating their process rather than focusing so much on the products.

For anyone who wants a different take on setting goals with students and better supporting their process of change and growth, reading Smart Change is a fantastic habit to get into.

Thirteen Reasons Why Not

A few days ago, I posed a question on Facebook about including the fiercely trending Netflix series Thirteen Reason Why on a future course syllabus. When I asked this question to my fellow parents and teachers, I was only on the 7th episode of the series. I thought about how students in my class had read the book before, how it was likely being widely consumed at home, and how important it is to talk openly about difficult subject matter.

And then I saw the brutal graphic scenes in the last episode and something shifted for me.

The criticisms of this series are many and well-documented: it could be triggering for some, inspire copy-cat behaviour, it glamorizes suicide, could serve as a “how-to” guide, and depicts revenge more than an honest portrayal of mental health.

And yet, I still think that young people need to watch this.

There are so many reasons to consider including Thirteen Reasons Why in a course (here are 13 of them):

  • It demonstrates the concept of social justice in a relatable manner
  • It doesn’t assume that young people cannot handle difficult content
  • It could inspire copy-cat behaviour…in that people might copy Clay’s character and start to look for ways to make his school a better place
  • It gives young people a clear depiction of how all actions have consequences
  • It reminds teenagers, at a time when we can feel the most alone and isolated, that we are all deeply interconnected
  • This book is a page turner and makes young people want to read
  • It could show suicidal teens how traumatizing suicide is for the people around them
  • It highlights how simply not “saying no” doesn’t mean someone is consenting to sex
  • It opens up discussions between parents and young people
  • It could push adults to be more aware of the media their children are consuming and perhaps even consume along with them
  • It brings to light the many pressures and challenges that young people face and opens up a dialogue between students and schools
  • It could show young people the potential dangers of keeping secrets from adults
  • It gives adults an opportunity to step up and be better for the young people in their lives

But I will not include it on my course syllabus next year.

This is what I would do instead:

Since becoming a mother, I have been reflecting more and more on the importance of trying to allow my child to be a child for as long as possible. One year, a mother spoke to me at the beginning of the year and said:

“Celeste, I have a lot of respect for how you let your students chose their own books to read. I love that my daughter can bring her interests and passions to your course. But can I ask of you one thing when you are suggesting to her books to read? Can you keep in mind that she is only eleven? I know that some of the girls are reading books with mature content. And I know that she will eventually read those books as well. But as a parent, I want her remain a child for just a few more years.”

I don’t remember what I thought at the time of this request. I can’t recall if I felt like this parent was trying to shield her daughter from reality or was just genuinely trying to do her child a favour. But now that I am a parent as well, I totally get it.

Putting Thirteen Reasons Why on my summer reading or course syllabus may push some students towards reading it before they are ready. This being said, I know full well that when a student is interested in a book that they will find a way to read it. So when that time comes, great, read the book and let’s talk about it.

Instead of having class-wide discussions about the book, I would schedule book-club discussions over the lunch hour and after school. This gives students the venue to process, dissect, critically analyze, and vent about the book (and obviously the series…I’m just assuming that consuming one would likely go hand in hand with the other).

In this same vein, if there was a cohort of students that were participating in these co-curricular book talks, I would want to host the same for parents before school or after dinner. I know the reality of parents having the time for these chats is hopeful at best, but to open up these possibilities for adults to discuss mental health topics could be an important trend in a school community that inspires further support and awareness. If I was planning these parent talks, I would host a Google Hangout on Air to allow for some actual experts, authentic parent voices, students contribution, and questions from the outside to archive the discussions through a YouTube video for later and allow for more people to access this resource on their own time.

If there was a groundswell in my classroom and many students were reading and talking about Thirteen Reasons Why, I would create critical literature circles that would pair Asher’s novel with other key texts that take on themes of suicide, mental health, social justice, or revenge. I might include texts such as Romeo and Juliet, All The Bright Places, The Bell Jar, Speak, Girl Interrupted, Hyperbole and a Half, or The Program. I would hope that by having students analyze different depictions of mental health, they could go deeper into the issues and themes of the stories and rise above the shock factor of Asher’s book towards the deeper messages that do have redeeming value.

It is a tricky dance to balance the need for honouring what is trending in the lives of our students with the greater needs of an entire classroom community. I don’t think the answer is to ban this book or ask students NOT to read it (anyone who has hung out with young people knows how that will turn out), but in my experience, the middle path typically offers the most mindful and compassionate way through something difficult.

Book Review: “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor

Considering happiness in school, to some, might be akin to considering the colour scheme in the building or what flavour of juice is served in the cafeteria: a nice idea, but completely superfluous to the point of education. Sure it might be nice to pick the perfect shade of eggplant purple for the walls, but it doesn’t really matter on a fundamental level––certainly not as much as say, assessment, learning goals, or test results. Happiness is just not rigorous enough to pay attention to.

But we are starting to discover that supporting the emotional lives of students can actually make them smarter.

However, is being “smarter” really and truly the goal of school?

Did anyone go to teacher’s college with the sole purpose of making children smart? Probably not.

Most of us get called to this profession with a deep rooted desire to help young people flourish.

Enter “The Happiness Advantage”.

I’ve been curious about positive psychology for a number of years now. I’ve read a few books, followed a few folks on Twitter, and dappled a little here and there with some strategies in my homeroom class. “The Happiness Advantage” is without a doubt the most enjoyable read on the subject I’ve discovered to date. Achor’s writing is imbued with a charming sense of humour that opened me up to receiving the ideas and considering how the seven principles of happiness could relate to my own practice.

I think many parents who chose to send their students to an elite independent school, believe on some level that they are helping to give their child a competitive advantage. That by exposing their child to outstanding teachers, fantastic resources, and a classroom of high achieving learners, they will boost their child’s chances of success. I think if we probe parents a little more about why being successful is so important, after enough cycles of toddler-esque “but why”, we will eventually burrow down to the idea that being successful will allow their children to be happier.

But what if we’ve all gotten it backwards?

For untold generations, we have been led to believe that happiness orbited around success. That if we work hard enough, we will be successful, and only if we are successful will we become happy. Success was thought to be the fixed point of the work universe, with happiness revolving around it. Now…we are learning that the opposite is true. When we are happy––when our mindset and mood are positive––we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it. p. 37

I want my students to be happy. Not because it is fun, not because smiling is my favourite, and not because I don’t want my students to work hard. I want my students to be happy during their middle school years because their lives depend on it––emotionally and academically.

As Achor explores in his very digestible read, happiness (pleasure + engagement + meaning) is what helps students work through difficult situations, it is what makes learning sticky, it is what helps them be connected to those around them, and what helps them innovate and see new opportunities. In short, it is what will make young people successful.

Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things. p. 44

As I was reading this book, I scribbled enthusiastically in the margins different applications to my work in the classroom: both through the social-emotional component in homeroom and academically as an English / Social Studies teacher. Things like:

  • Giving students a quick jolt of happiness before an important assessment (could be as simple as candy or an inspirational YouTube clip) to help them perform better (studies show it actually works!)
  • Remembering that the brain needs 2.9 positive comments for every constructive one in order to best absorb the feedback
  • Giving students more control over tasks in their lives, both with jobs throughout their classroom and school, but also academically to allow them to know their “sphere of control” and have more engagement in their learning
  • Reframing their portfolio to prime students to see how their setbacks allowed them to grow or improve in their learning


While “The Happiness Advantage” is not explicitly designed for teachers and education, the application is obvious once you start in on this joyful read. I think personally, the idea that resonated the most with me was around managers. Studies have found that when managers (or in our world, teachers) themselves are happy (experience pleasure at school, are engaged in their work, and find meaning in their profession), students perform better and enjoy their learning more.

We all get into those slumps during the year when we rarely see daylight, we are buried under a pile of marking, and we are feeling more than a little oppressed by that looming report deadline on the all too near horizon. But what if during those times we could try a happiness boosting exercise to dial up our pleasure, meaning, or engagement levels?

What if during the drudgery, we played the “meaning assessment” game? Take the worst, most loathed part of the profession––say, writing reports––and we write that task in a column on a piece of paper. Then we drew an arrow into another column and wrote what the purpose of the task was and what it will accomplish. Keep repeating this until you arrive at an answer that gives you meaning. Even this simple reframe has the power to transform your relationship to most frustrating aspects of our profession.


In the aftermath of Trump getting elected to office, it has become even more clear to me how important a well-educated, critical thinking, and socially conscious population is if democracy is going to work. School is not just about ensuring that students graduate knowing how to do long division, can use a comma, and rattle off a handful of facts about the days of yore. School should be designed as a lab of future thinking, an incubator for dreamers, a nursery of potential, a bank vault of promise. We have a responsibility to design school so our population can not only find a job that pays enough to keep their debt collectors at bay, but so that our population can chart a course to thrive and flourish, making the world a little brighter than they entered it.

The magic to get your blog on

When thinking about what to write for your teaching practice, it’s natural to think you have to wait until your big aha moments, out of this world insightful observations, or hitting it out of the park lessons to merit writing a blog post. But one of the best parts of Cohort 21, I believe, is the opportunity to take a step back and write about your teaching practice…and in the process actually think about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what other opportunities might exist for you. Writing is a form of thinking (can you tell I’m an English teacher?) and couldn’t we all use a little more time to be mindful and contemplate this profession adventure we have found ourselves in?  

We know that good writers don’t have some bag of magic that makes their words just melt in your mouth. We know that good writers just write more. It’s actually kind of boring. If only we had a genius that would help us say all the things for us and make our work sound as brilliant as we wish we were. The only way to become a good writer is just by writing.

(this is not actually my baby)

A real life example: Ambrose just started swimming splashing lessons. We are in the kiddie pool and the class is just about getting used to the water. Laying in the water, getting dragged through the water, having water go up your nose…you know how it is. At the end of the class, each of the babies got dunked under water to get used to the water and see that even though going under is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you scary, you just have to do it. The more you are dunked, the less of a deal it is.

This year, I’ve just created a new folder on my personal Google Drive and I’ve started to write up some blog posts whenever I have some time when my baby is napping and this way I can tinker with them a little bit before getting them ready for publishing. So, if you are feeling stuck in your writing, you might unearth some fantastic insights by just choosing one of these ideas below and writing. Don’t worry about publishing it yet. Just write it and decide what to do with it later.

15 Ideas for What to Write When You Are Stuck

  1. Your philosophy of education in 3 paragraphs or less (and update it as often as necessary)
  2. Five big questions you have about teaching
  3. The biggest frustration you currently have in your classroom
  4. If you had a magic wand, what would you change about education
  5. Your response to the last article / video / TED talk you’ve seen about education
  6. Who you look up to as a teacher and why
  7. An incredible strategy that you have seen in a fellow teacher
  8. Review a powerful book about teaching / learning
  9. Who has influenced your teaching practice the most
  10. The one thing that has transformed your teaching practice
  11. A highlights reel of the last conference, workshop, PD session you have attended
  12. A problem or struggle that you have observed your students have this year
  13. A review of the best app you have ever used in your classroom
  14. Write a response to a fellow teacher’s blog post that you were especially moved by
  15. Explain a project that you want to try in the future with questions for feedback

Getting your feet wet in the world of publishing your writing is one way to just get over yourself already and start to make some insights about your profession. From my experience, the more you write, the more comfortable you become, and thus the more you write, and then the more insights about your practice you will have. It’s a delicious feedback loop of excellence!
I’m curious if there is anything specific that hinders you from getting your words out into the world?

Top Ten Ways You Know You Are An Edu-Nerd


Every trip you take, every documentary you watch, every TV show you indulge in has connections to the curriculum you are teaching and you are over the top excited to share these insights with everyone in your class the next day.


Sometime around the middle of August you start actually getting excited to be back in your classroom in the regular swing of things and start counting down the days until you finally can end this silly thing called summer vacation.


Pretty much all of your friends just so happen to also be teachers.


You find ways to weave the terms “growth mindset”, “grit”, “executive functioning”, “learning goals”, “enduring understandings”, or “big ideas” into your everyday vernacular with regular folk.

My wife has such a growth mindset, the other day we were talking about our learning goals for the weekend and she said that she wanted to try making a new recipe from scratch, and I was all like, ‘babe, that really shows some serious executive functioning skills. I’m so impressed with your grit…you are really demonstrating one of the enduring understandings of our relationship!!!’


You become giddy when you meet edu-celebrities at conferences (move over Madonna or Bono…I met NANCIE ATWELL) .


You actually leave parent teacher conferences feeling excited, energized, and inspired.


You surprisingly like writing report cards because it reminds you how incredible your students are and how much they have grown.


You experience a felt sense of excitement and wonderment whilst walking through any bookstores or office supply stores and subsequently spend way too much money on all the things.


You read books, read articles, and scroll through tweets all about education when you are on your “down time”. Down time? What down time?


You write top ten lists about teaching just for “fun”.


What my baby has taught me about learning


“What’s it like to be off from school?”

“What do you do all day now that you are not working?”

“Do you miss teaching?”

“Don’t you just love watching Netflix all day?”

Anyone who has taken any time off from their regular career to care for their children might feel the same twinges of irritation at these questions. As if caring for a young person was just a frolick in the fields all day long. Oy! While my wife goes off to work each morning, I consider my “work” to start the moment that squishy boy wakes up. As a teacher though, I see this role as just a different kind of teaching. So no, well meaning auntie or stranger in the park, I don’t miss teaching because my classroom just transformed from 23 giggling girls to one bouncy boy. And as the diehard edu-nerd that I am, it is impossible for me to not constantly be contemplating how a baby’s learning can teach me more about teaching. Here are four things my baby has taught me about learning:

  1. Repetition (and purpose) is Kind of a Big Deal

Hey baby, great skills getting that thing into your mouth. Great progress. Next time, try to bite on something that won't completely harm your sweet baby self, kay? Glad we had this talk.

Hey baby, great skills getting that thing into your mouth. Great progress. Next time, try to bite on something that won’t completely harm your sweet baby self, kay? Glad we had this talk.

I will say this, I loathe drill like work in class. I detest hammering in basic facts. I am deeply irritated with having to re-explain / teach / remind my students how to use a comma for the 18,000th time in the school year. But if watching Baby Kirsh has taught me anything, he just does the same thing over and over (and over and over) again until he masters it.

Right now, he’s pretty baller at getting toys (or hands, or hair, or our dog’s fur) into his mouth. But this “skill” took many months of repetition for him to master it. First he was just batting at things, then he was grabbing, and then he was just bringing the object around his face, and now he is fairly consistently getting the thing into his mouth (much to my horror when a second ago that sock was sitting in a puddle of pee on his change mat). He didn’t mind going over this same skill a bagillion times because he wanted to master it.

Teaching Translation:

You have to care about the skill / concept / thing you are trying to learn and then you will happily go over it again and again until it’s solidified in your knowledge bank. Moreover, if you really want to understand something deeply, you have to examine it many times, from many angles, and in many different contexts to “own it”. This doesn’t mean hammering basic facts in, but rather (I believe) parsing down the curriculum to key concepts / ideas and using content to keep coming back to these enduring understandings.

2. Novelty is the Sparkle of Life

Every few weeks, I change up the books in our little chair-side baskets by the couch and the rocker in Ambrose’s room. Every week or so, I switch the toys dangling overhead on the little baby play mat. And every couple of weeks I do a rotation of the toys on hand and see what might be interesting now given his age and stage. Should I have been a kindie teacher? Maybe (except totally not). But I’m also keenly aware now how new things bring a clear sense of wonder and curiosity. You can tell super quickly when a baby is losing interest and conversely it is clear as the midday sun when a baby is totally digging a toy, a book, or the new way the wind feels on his skin as he is drinking in the sight of a big oak tree in the park.

Teaching Translation:

Change things up! Take the children out of the class, bring them on a scavenger hunt through the school, stage a role play in the yard, lead them into new ways to discuss / debate / debrief their reading. Find new ways to deliver the same idea (*cough* comma lessons, anyone?) throughout the year. Get out of your own comfort zone and change up what your students are expecting. That “novelty” means that new synapses are firing together in the learner’s brain and because it is novel they will remember it better…it just stands out better!

3. And Yet Consistency is Key

When we were trying to get Ambrose to sleep a little longer through the night, we came across great “sleep training” advice from a friend. Basically, it doesn’t matter what “method” you try, just be consistent and your child will eventually figure out how to get more shut eye. Some methods may work more quickly than others, but if you find something that works for you, be consistent and you will eventually see results.

For the record, we have been using the “pick up / put down” method and for the first few nights, there was–how shall we put this–an ample amount of screaming time. But then, as we stuck to it, Baby Kirsh started to get the hang of putting himself to sleep solo (not sleeping on us) from awake. Now we are sleeping more at night and much more confident about our choices, since we are seeing some positive changes.

Teaching Translation:

It is tempting to change up everything you are doing everyday (or every year) to keep things sparkly or perhaps as new research and fads come out in the edu-scene. I think it is important to be clear on your own teaching philosophy so that the bedrock of your pedagogy reflects this. Yes, you should dress up and take your children on that role-play simulation in character to teach them about the plight of the Acadians, but it is equally important to be consistent with your routines, expectations, classroom management systems, and overarching philosophy governing your everyday choices in your classroom. I like to think that students feel safest when the routines in the classroom are consistent so that when those novel experiences do happen, they truly stand out in the best way possible.

4. Sleep is More Important Than Homework

This is 100% not baby Ambrose and also is 100% the cutest thing ever

This is 100% not baby Ambrose and also is 100% the cutest thing ever

A confession: having a baby has made me obsessed with sleep. How do I get more of it? How I teach Ambrose to find it on his own? What is the best way for encouraging my boy to sleep? And why oh why does my child constantly wake up from his naps screaming? My quest for juicy naps and chunky night slumber has made me realize that sleep is the bedrock to mental health. When I don’t get a good night of sleep, I’m a severely unhinged mother. When baby Kirsh doesn’t sleep, he is a deeply troubled demon.

Teaching Translation:

As a teacher, I wish I could somehow tuck each of my students to bed at a reasonable time. But since professional boundaries thankfully prevent me from being that crazy teacher, I would gladly trade in nightly homework for the agreement that students read every night for 20 minutes and go to sleep at 9:00pm. In every teaching conference moving forward, I want to start by asking parents how sleep is going. If the student is going to bed at 11:00om (and with Google Docs, it’s so much easier to see when students are staying up too late to work on their assignments), talking about study habits, learning skills, or extension work comes secondary to getting their sleepy head to bed!

For those of you teacher-parents out there who have taken time to be with their child intensely, what insights have you gained (or have been re-solidified) about teaching by watching your babe learn?