Category Archives for "ILDR"

Roundtable John Eller


Working With Difficult & Resistant Staff

About John F. Eller PhD.

Dr. John Eller works with businesses, educational organizations, and government/non-profit organizations in the areas of strategic planning, project management, employee evaluation, meeting facilitation, dealing with difficult people, conflict resolution, professional learning communities, conferencing skills, coaching skills, school improvement planning and implementation, differentiated instruction, employee recruitment, selection, and induction, supervisory skills, and effective instructional strategies

John has his PhD. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Loyola University-Chicago and his MS in Educational Leadership from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. John wrote Effective Group Facilitation in Education: How to Energize Meetings and Manage Difficult Groups, and co-authored So, Now You’re the Superintendent, Working with and Evaluating Difficult School Employees, the best-selling, Energizing Staff Meetings and Creative Strategies to Improve School Culture all through Corwin Press. John co-authored Working with Difficult and Resistant Staff, and Score to Soar: Moving Teachers from Evaluation to Professional Growth through Solution Tree Publishing.Dr. Eller has also developed training manuals and courses on productive leadership skills, project management, strategic planning, performance evaluation processes, conflict coaching, and peer coaching for businesses and government/non-profit

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Roundtable Zaretta Hammond


Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

About Zaretta Hammond

Zaretta Hammond is an internationally renowned teacher educator, curriculum developer, and consultant supporting schools in doing deep instructionally-focused equity work. She is the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.

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Roundtable: Sean Precious


About Sean Precious

Sean Precious is a Regional Superintendent with the Denver Public Schools. In his role, he supports 17 K-12 schools in Southeast Denver and oversees nearly 11,000 students directly. Previously, he has served as a classroom teacher in Los Angeles and a middle school principal in Washington, DC. He is a proud graduate of the The University of Virginia School Turnaround Program (UVA-STP), Leverage Leadership Institute and the AASA Urban Superintendents Academy. Learn more about Sean’s recent work in Denver by reading this blog post here. In the 19-20 academic year, the schools Sean supported achieved an average of 7% growth for students of color while concurrently, his team retained 100% of his principals for the 20-21 school year.

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Roundtable: Daniel Bauer


About Daniel Bauer

Daniel Bauer is founder of Better Leaders Better Schools, where he helps school leaders create a winning culture, focus on the essentials, and lead with courage and integrity. He’s also the creator the Leadership Sprint and the founder of the Better Mastermind, a hybrid group coaching program and leadership development community for school leaders.

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Justin Baeder: Welcome everyone to the Instructional Leadership Directors’ Roundtable. I’m your host Justin Baeder and I’m honored to welcome as our October 2020 guest Daniel Bauer of Better Leaders Better Schools. Daniel is a prolific podcaster who has interviewed both practitioners and authors and many thought leaders in our profession. And I asked Daniel to be our guest for this particular Roundtable because I think he has a perspective and a wisdom and a sense of compassion and a commitment to equity that really drives us to the right questions and to framing those questions in ways that are ultimately going to be helpful to our school systems and the students that they serve. So Daniel thanks so much for doing this and welcome to the Roundtable.
Daniel Bauer: Anytime I get to connect with you Justin is a big win for my day so thank you so much for inviting me to this webinar.
Justin: Well thanks I’m honored to have you here and look forward to getting into it so we’ve titled this Designing Anti-Racist Systems K-12. And there’s been a lot of talk in the U.S over the last couple of months about anti-racism and the differences between simply being not racist and being actually anti-racist. I think you and I probably both read Ibram Kendi’s book on becoming an anti-racist. What is the difference between not racist— I mean almost everyone in our society would say well I am not racist—but what’s the difference between that and anti-racist?

Daniel: Yeah I think at least from what my study has shown and this is just my perspective and this is my journey that I’ll be sharing today, but it’s is that you’re active—if you’re anti you’re doing something that you’re taking ownership over and you’re taking steps to make sure that racism doesn’t exist within the system. Saying I’m not a racist is a very comfortable and easy thing, and probably 99.9 of people would agree. Even racists would say I’m not racist—and that’s almost like what I’m sure we’ll get into like why being silent is a challenge and a problem. But to answer your question again just to rephrase, to me, it’s about being active—taking ownership over, dismantling those systems that are creating inequitable opportunities and outcomes for your population.

Justin: Good deal. Yeah I appreciate that active role and the idea that being a silent bystander—being a person who sees things that are not okay happening and says nothing and does nothing is not okay. And I think we saw that most clearly this summer when we saw a number of police killings. And I think that prompted a lot of white Americans, in particular, to start taking this seriously for the first time and start reading some of the books and engaging with some of those ideas that maybe do make us uncomfortable at times, but are really conversations that we need to be having. Welcome, John and Lorraine thanks so much for being here, and feel free to chime in in the chat, or if you’d like to come on camera and ask a question just let me know. So let’s talk a little bit about the difference between—I think there are a lot of differing definitions out there right now and I think that’s got a lot of people kind of up in arms for various reasons—differing definitions of racism and what that means at the personal level at the institutional level at the systemic level. But one that I think the research base is really solid on and has been for a long time is this idea of implicit bias. And you sent out some tools in an email I’m a big fan of your email list and you send out to your subscribers some tools and some kind of self-assessments and other resources around implicit bias. What is implicit bias and how does that differ from what we would consider the kind of personal animosity that we would associate with the word racism?

Daniel: Yeah well when it comes to bias you know we all have it and we got to start there. The fact that just because of how we’re brought up don’t put any judgment on there but all the experiences that got you to this point is going to inform biases within your experience in your life. So I think that email that you were describing I was citing some resources I found and so I’ll just show the book cover and highlight this for everybody watching, but this is a great book called Overcoming Bias and so I know that there are things that I prefer right and other things that just sort of rub me the wrong way. And when my self-awareness is high and I note those things then I get curious about what’s going on there and how that might impact my relationships right. From a systems-level whether it’s the superintendent or principal or somewhere in between those biases inform our actions right and we have to be aware of that because again getting back to racism and anti-racism. We’re creating systems that drive inequitable outcomes. so let’s start with just saying hey we all have biases let’s get curious, let’s explore them, not judge them, and then be very reflective on how they might be impacting the outcomes we create in our systems.

Justin: Yeah very very well said. And I think probably most people’s first introduction to the idea of systemic bias or systems that maybe need to be redesigned as educators at least for me based on when I came into the profession the term in those days and this is in the very early 2000s was disproportionality and we had pretty good measures thanks to the flawed law of No Child Left Behind, you know, at least for all the things that No Child Left Behind did that may or may not have been helpful, at least it gave us data for the first time and we were able to look at what we at that time called disproportionality. I suppose I don’t knoIw if people can let me know if that’s not a good term anymore, but feel like there was a concept that was captured there that’s helpful in identifying both what was happening in measurable ways in various different aspects of how we serve our students, and describing it as a consequence of the systems that we have in place. What are your thoughts on disproportionality? Because I want to make sure we talk about the evidence-based side of this.

Daniel: yeah well the hard part with that question it has a few too many syllables for me to track with you but you know uh i was i was interviewing a friend marcus campbell dr marcus campbell and he’s an assistant superintendent principal he has a really interesting role in evanston illinois and i don’t remember if you uh recall that conversation or podcast justin but you know one of the things we talked about there was just uh access to classes right and so um in terms of honors in ap his uh students of color uh just didn’t have the access and so that would produce disproportionate outcomes in terms of uh you know ability to earn college credit right the type of colleges you might be uh able to get into um and just access past uh secondary level education so if that’s what you mean by disproportionality you know i think that’s what’s going on there and so what marcus did is just again get curious about the bias that existed in the system why are my brown and black kids not in the same classes as their white peers and if if we can’t find a solid justification for why they’re not in there let’s open up the doors right and uh if there’s any needs right in terms of catching folks up or or just supporting in a way and providing interventions that might be necessary let’s do all that as a school to wrap around the students and help them be successful and what he found and i think most schools that look at systems like this if we provide the right support and we provide access kids meet the challenge you know and if you say the bars up here they’ll meet that and and kids are really great at sensing where we think that they’re able to achieve or if they uh fit in the space or not so back to kenny’s book and not to get too deep into that but you know he talks about spaces quite a bit right and the spaces we create and are they welcoming and open and inclusive to all students uh or when somebody steps in that’s not a part of the majority do they automatically feel excluded right one thing that i’ll never have to experience at least i don’t think as a white male my friend demetrius was describing to me a principal in northern california he’s uh he’s a black male principal and he says every day when he leaves his house he does like a body scan almost like a mindfulness like checking in on his emotions and thinking about how he shows up in public because he said i have to show up in a way where i’m not threatening at all every space that i walk into it’s a predominantly white space as a school leader in the school that he serves and if i come off as threatening for whatever reason i mean trouble is behind that door and so that’s something that he’s constantly i’m not you’re never going to have to do that justin i’m never going to have to do it uh and so i think that gets to a little bit of the root of things that we’re talking about.

Justin: yeah yeah certainly and i’m i’m thinking about a uh a software developer friend of mine in seattle who has said some of the the same things about just that like the level of vigilance and self-awareness you know if he’s taking the garbage out he has to think how do i make sure that i when i come back into my house it doesn’t look like i’m trying to break in like i live here my neighbors sometimes still don’t you know he’s lived there for years and years and says you know his neighbors still you know don’t know him well enough that you know that he can count on them not calling the police and causing some uh some sort of deadly situation so yeah i totally agree there’s a level of self-awareness there that it’s easy for us as you know as white men to really take for granted that we don’t have to think about those things uh and yet our our students do have to think about those things they are weighing on our students on a on a daily basis um and i wanted to get back to what you said about access to classes because i think they’re in you know into advanced programs into our most uh you know most advanced uh you know kind of college prep uh you know kind of programs that we give students access to and i think the the 1.0 version of this problem was of course segregation right just just full-on exclusion separate and unequal systems of education then in the uh you know starting in the the 60s and 70s we had integrated schools but then we also had tracking and we had uh you know and i know in some places we still have what we would describe as tracking and you know hopefully we’ve we’ve made some progress in minimizing tracking because i think what tracking for you know to a lot of people tracking it just looks to a lot of people like serving students where they are you know giving them what they need and there’s the sense of kind of inevitability right and you know that there are students who are on the path to college and of course we would give them what they need and there are other students who are on the path to uh you know to more of a vocational program or entering the workforce after high school and as we as a profession started to to unpack tracking and say well wait a minute is this just meeting students where where they are or are we actually producing some of these outcomes that are unequal that are unfair that are uh you know advantaging some students over others we’ve started to see those tracking systems kind of maybe formally get dismantled um but but how are some of those living on today and what’s kind of like the 3.0 and 4.0 version of you know it used to be segregation it used to be uh formal tracking how do you see some of those unequitable systems uh showing up today?

Daniel: i’m not going to remember the guest’s name which i feel terrible about it uh just met the guy um but he he’s a former principal he’s not a principal anymore and he talked about the problems of um what do you call them uh kind of like that honors level sort of in the middle between uh regular right and then but not ap not ib right and he called them fake college prep so i can’t remember like what the the real the real school type of name is but he said they’re fake college prep i said tell me more what this is all about um his name was dave i can’t remember his last name and uh he said well really this was this was um in my community his community right uh it was white parents way of separating their kids from black and brown students this this is just this how i re he read it and but those kids weren’t ready for the ap right but they wanted a separate class and so they created these uh these honors or accelerated you know english and algebra and etc etc and they really weren’t doing anything different just uh they looked different when you walked into the classroom okay and so once he saw that and became principal leader of his his local school he put an end to it just because it it made no sense to him. so i think that’s one version of 3.0 i can i can share my experience in chicago i told you about too the last school i served at was a selective enrollment and at the time i think there was there was 12 or 14 schools where the cream of the crop your your highest performing students would go through a sort of hogwarts sorting process and would end up from the elementary schools into these really high achieving high schools and as long as they perform well on these tests uh did okay with their elementary grades and that kind of thing um they jumped through the hoops and they were able to get in these these uh high schools uh it was open to all right if you qualified for the test then you took the test but then there were all sorts of hidden rules that uh families of privilege knew about and families from more challenging backgrounds had no idea existed so for example one really easy one is that there was a ranking system so payton college proud is the best best north side college prep second best whitney young and then on and on and it’s it’s the kids had a desire to get into the harvard of what cps offered right that was payton uh but they might not have the matching score and the problem is if the student filled out their rankings incorrectly and their score didn’t match what the the school could receive in terms of enrollment then they were locked out of the system completely so essentially what happened was students who had proved through the first you know uh eight grades that man they are high achieving like the best that chicago has to offer just because they put their rankings wrong they got locked out and then went to a poor performing school. that seems absolutely ridiculous and again the privileged families knew all that stuff they hired tutors so that their students could do well on the assessment uh and and you know students from the south and west side of the city had no idea how the system existed and a good portion of them got locked out so that that was one piece of it. secondly i always thought it was crazy that we would go on these you know recruitment fairs and uh when i would try to collaborate with peers and say what’s working what’s not are there kids interested in your school that you know will never get in ever like how can we collaborate and help help each other win because after all it’s for the kids? it drives me nuts in some public education circles that it’s more about the competition and keeping up the ranking and the prestige as opposed to doing what’s right for that young justin who might get locked out completely so that was a that was the second part of uh you know bias and racism 3.0. and then the last part too you know and this is just sort of a personal fun uh story is i got involved in creating a website that put out the information of how to navigate the system uh correctly and formally from the district level you know i told you i was shut down right i received like a cease and dissist letter like you’re gonna get fired and sued if you continue to put out the information in a transparent way and so that that was really interesting when what you’re trying to do to to help out right to create a more equitable environment bumps up into this system like you said at the beginning of this round table perfectly designed to get the outcomes it wants.

Justin: yeah and i i really that blew my mind when you told me that story that the the system thrived on secrecy really on you know there being an official public published set of directions for for how to apply for these selective enrollment schools but the parents who were in the know knew that there was really this kind of second tier of information that if you didn’t have that your kid who was equally well qualified or more qualified compared to the kids who were getting in your kid did not really have a shot because the process was so confusing and there were some some really arbitrary things built into it that were i mean really intentionally kept secret so that the system could serve the students that it was currently serving and exclude others i mean is that is that a fair way to characterize it?
Daniel: yeah i think so and who knows what happens behind closed doors right and i do want to give people the benefit of the doubt and the folks running the program at the time there was only two in the whole department to serve the entire city so i’m sure they were overloaded with questions. but then you think about just access and opportunity as well and so if they held a parent night and it’s in the evening when a bunch of parents that have quote unquote normal nine to five jobs and can make it or you know one income right and one of the partners can stay at home and be more focused on childhood they can make those workshops versus people that are working graveyard shifts you know or single parents and how they’re going to get to those information uh sessions too? so then that’s that’s i think where bias you know comes in as well and one of the interesting things that the pandemic has done to us in the forced disruption is you see kids and you see um adults thriving who weren’t thriving in the normal setting because it’s become a little more fluid and flexible so i find that very interesting

Justin: yeah for sure you know so much there it seems to me to come down to communication right the just if we if we can you know share accurate information with everyone in a way that’s accessible to everyone and an obvious example to me uh comes down to electronic communication you know i’m old enough that i remember before we really had good ways to text people you know before remind 101 or remind before you know all the different kind of texting systems there were many schools that were relying pretty heavily on email even though many parents did not have email and we would you know still send flyers home and things like that but i think that’s just one concrete example where you know if if our system is designed to communicate with parents who have certain preferences who have certain work habits you know maybe at their computer uh they’re at their computer all day at work and they can check email and send email to the principal and reply to emails and and read about parent nights uh that are coming up and happening in the evening when they happen to not be working and other parents are working and they don’t have email they maybe only do uh you know text and things like that you know the uh you know the the result of that is somewhat predictable and i think we’ve got to take responsibility for that as leaders and and say to ourselves you know how can we redesign the system to stop producing these predictable inequitable outcomes so thank you for that uh those three concrete examples and i want to invite heather to to jump in here with a question uh so heather feel free to unmute if you’re ready.
Heather: great thanks it’s wonderful to talk with you today thanks for having me um i’m blown away as well i’m i’m thinking of those examples that you both gave around your friends and colleagues and particularly the gentleman who had to think about the perception when he was coming in from putting his own trash can out um yes so i’m completely blown away by that um and the idea of the hidden rules and the tears you both mentioned self-awareness justin you mentioned it at the beginning around or sorry danny about awareness when my awareness is high and i’m self-aware i get curious and justin you mentioned self-awareness how do we my questions related to parents of kids in my predominantly white school um i thought i have an incident last week with a with a student she was who made some very very um inappropriate comments to a child from a different race and the mom was very um you know well we don’t have a lot of uh folks from different races around here and you should do more at the school to teach about anti-racism those kinds of things and so i’m wondering how i can raise self-awareness in the parent community what are your thoughts about that.

Daniel: you know at least one thing that i think about initially is just a model you know great leaders are not only on casting vision about where we need to head right but they walked the walk as well so i would ask you heather you know what are you doing to talk about your own journey understanding these these issues and i know that uh people love you i’ve been able to interact with you a number of times i know you’re wonderful and so i think uh i think you could have big influence in that way um the reason we’re having this this roundtable right now is like justin said he saw the overcoming bias email i put out and i tried to be transparent you know through the podcast and the blog posts and coaching and all of that and just describing my journey you know i get i i think one of my weaknesses i can take things personally right and it’s really hard for me to take emotion out so i think about that a lot um i should have my wife probably right uh communication that might be emotionally charged because she’s so objective she’s a scientist she’s great at it. but if you can communicate in an objective manner but most importantly just sharing your story here’s what i’m learning you know and inviting people to a conversation i think a lot of times especially with schools and and the principalship uh it feels like i’m the expert and i’m gonna tell you parents how to parent uh what you know how kids learn and what you need to do to set up a uh you know an environment conducive for them to thrive but how can you elevate them so that they’re on the same level and you can have a discussion as peers as colleagues and again with curiosity at the center because isn’t that about you know um just design thinking and and what’s at the root of empathy uh and i i think that would be a good route to take.

Heather: thanks for that um that that’s very helpful very practical um we we have our own you know every community or every region would have their own set of circumstances where we’re biased some of it racial some of it other issues comes out and i was chatting with justin earlier today around the notion of a situation that’s brewing here between indigenous fisher folks and non-indigenous fisher folks in the eastern coast primarily in nova scotia right now but that would be a great example it’s in the news there’s lots of opinions on all sides of that so that would be a great example to use when i’m chatting with parents and it would be very relevant to start a conversation about what i’m learning in that context so thank you

Daniel: the other thing i want to add to that too heather you know what what’s the opposite or antithesis of like curiosity you know and mindedness might be close-mindedness and ignorance right and so i think a lot of times um at least in my lived experience when people hold on to a view that just is like off-putting and hurtful to me that’s because they don’t have any experience uh dealing with people that they’re making these claims about or whatever um and they’re only getting these ideas passed down right through family or maybe from the media and that kind of thing and so that’s my way of saying i know some principals who have had great success running restorative circles within the community i don’t know which parent right because there was the parent of the kid who said something inappropriate and the one that was harmed i’m not sure which parent was the one on who communicated with you but can you imagine um on the best situation right the parent of the student who said something inappropriate and could hear how that really impacted them right and see them as a human being and understand where they’re coming from i would hope that that would soften their hearts and help them be more open-minded to how they show up how they communicate you know what comes out of their mouths how they treat people
Heather: that’s great that’s taking me back thank you let’s take me back to the training many many years ago about restorative justice circles and all of that thank you for the reminder

Justin: Yeah. Thank you, Heather, for that. Lorraine you want to jump in. Thank you.

Lorraine: yeah i would like to jump in um i think one of the biases that we have right now and i’m i’m struggling of how i’m going to address this um with our district office and it’s the bias of access to technology and internet in in particular um i’m at a high poverty school um i’m going into classrooms connect like collecting data and we have about 130 hot spots out but the or dreaded orange triangle is severely impacting their access to even teaching and learning but the biases about what we provide our kids that are on this spectrum i i’m trying to do it in a way that is advocating for kids but when you’re going against biases well that’s their problem um i i i’m trying to get it solved do you have any suggestions as to um how to even address their unconscious bias because that’s what it is it’s unconscious bias it’s not that they don’t want to help provide the internet for our kids but i think it’s more along the lines of well um internet is out there they’re free to get it without realizing that it could be the difference between food and internet what are you gonna choose. i mean it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that’s just the bottom line. but the biases that surround that and then the um the plan for how do you make it work and what are the options that are out there working around the biases that they’re not even aware that they have

Justin: so if i understand correctly lorraine uh you’re saying that um there’s there’s just limited support among staff for this idea that we need to provide these hot spots and that that we need to take that seriously as as part of our responsibility if we have students who are not able to you know to get online um yeah

Lorraine: i think what it comes down to is that the hot spots are not sufficient but because we have provided the hot spots we have done our due diligence for ensuring that they’re getting education and and it’s more than that the hot spots that we’re using do not have enough data capacity and so it what it’s doing is creating another layer of disenfranchised students and students who are not receiving an education that they need yeah and deserve yeah well

Justin: and it strikes me as an issue of you know who are we designing this experience for are we designing this experience for the students that we imagine that we have you know do we imagine that we have you know 100 students who have unlimited high-speed internet at home and can just watch you know anything that we send them and participate fully uh you know if everything depends heavily on that internet access or are we designing the experience for the students that we actually have who do have a limited access to the internet uh are we providing things that they can actually be successful with you know and i think at at heart you know and and danny feel free to jump in on this you know every educator knows that they would not teach something that their students were not ready for right you know. if you’re going to read a novel you’re not necessarily going to change the novel just because your students aren’t ready for it but you are going to pre-teach the vocabulary right you are going to scaffold. and and to me this seems like an issue of scaffolding as as you said at a very maslow’s level right like. if we’re just you know like if if students cannot even get on the school bus because the step is too high well we’re probably going to fix that problem before we blame the you know the student for not being able to step up on the school bus um daniel thoughts on that?

Daniel: get more data how can you you know get them hot spots and it’s not enough data so i don’t know i don’t know what uh the district’s doing and if um your position and if you’re able to bring in uh you know somebody that could help this central office understand what people are going through right well

Lorraine: i think yes well what danny one of the things that that we did um figure out is that the the hot spots have two gigs of data total and if a student is online for two weeks they have used up all their data right just two weeks and so um but i i ran across i tried to bring it up to our our director and it was just like hey we’ve given what we can give but it’s not enough and so you’re right it’s the kids that we have not the kids we wish we had because i i compare and contrast my granddaughter experience what she’s doing with high speed internet compared to what my kids are getting here at school right there’s a huge difference and and it comes down to well we’ve done what we can there’s nothing else we can do but we can’t do that because we’re all virtual

Daniel: yeah that’s why i was wondering if like if you could bring someone in to do some sort of diversity training you know there’s a lot of exercises of what it’s like to walk a mile in my tech shoe exercises you know in college they lined us up shoulder to shoulder and it was hey if you if you had somebody in your family right that’s been incarcerated take a step back and so after a number of rounds me as a white male looked back and i was way ahead of all my peers of color and that brought privilege like it was visceral you know there’s nothing i did to get that privilege there’s nothing they did to get a worse start so to speak um but that made it real for me. my wife with her her students she’s teaching on health outcomes uh in minority populations right in the unequitable health outcomes that uh occur in the u.s but she found something in the uk where it’s it’s basically right you have a family and justin was saying it’s it’s the bills or groceries and it just takes people through the type of uh decision trees that are their reality right if you have x amount of dollars and it’s the internet or groceries or a bus ticket to get to the job right and if you’re sick but you don’t have health care do you go in sick or you know it’s like it gets out of control quickly and i think we just need to have these experiences that help us understand back to your point who the kids are that are in front of us it feels good to pat myself on the back and say from you know in a press release that 130 hot spots went out right and and you should be applauded for making that effort but it’s not enough we can do more and and i think with a lot of creativity we can do more and there’s a great book um you know about the the beauty of constraints right uh that you can turn these obstacles um and challenges into the the solution right the way that things um can be whether it’s uh green eggs and ham and the author being challenged to use only a certain amount of syllables and words and that’s how it came came to fruition or these formula cars where i forget which brand but they wanted to win the race and do it with diesel fuel and so it had never been done before they had to completely redesign the car but by putting constraints around the challenge they designed a faster more efficient car they had to make fewer pit stops and they won the race as a result so um that’s the challenge but that can make you guys be a leader in excellence by just figuring it out and getting more creative.

Lorraine: Thank you thank you very much well

Justin: and lorraine to your question i think sometimes it’s a matter of not just looking at how do we solve this particular problem you know like it may be that there is no way to increase the data maybe you know maybe there is maybe you can go to the telecom provider and say hey we really need these to be unlimited data and maybe they’ll you know maybe they’ll value the press that they you know the positive press that they get out of that but maybe they won’t and in that case i think there is a an opportunity that we have as leaders and i’m i’m drawing heavily from my knowledge of toyota and the kind of quality movement uh that taught us to ask the five whys right the the you know why why is this system the way it is why is this in place or why does this problem exist and how can we solve the the problem kind of but that’s behind it and i think this is an incredible year for maslow i mean maslow i assume has been dead for a long time but is probably uh turning in his grave because people keep saying his name you know what’s what’s all this about maslow but you know we really need to be looking at those those fundamental needs that are the the chief barriers you know we’re not going to solve an internet access problem by making our teaching on zoom more engaging right we have to solve the fundamental problem first. and it may be that we have to look not just at can we get kids on the internet with unlimited data but can we design and provide learning experiences in a way that work for kids whether they have internet or not you know are there things that kids can be doing online can we get books into kids hands when they’re at home without internet? you know i think so much of what kids are missing out on right now is is reading and there may be other ways that we can uh you know can can make some of that happen without you know without internet access. but i think you know daniel to your point earlier about access to uh you know to kind of call true college prep coursework um i think if we if we ask those five whys of you know why do we have kids who are arriving in 11th grade unprepared to take pre-calculus why do we have a whole bunch of you know upper-middle-class white students who are ready to take pre-calculus in 11th grade and that’s it you know the the rest of our students are are not prepared for that coursework? why is that? and when we ask why that is we can start to do something about it um so so let’s talk a little bit more if we could about that kind of backwards design you know when we look for those some sort you know those sort of root causes when we see an outcome that’s inequitable right like we have an AP exam all of our students are who are passing the ap exam are upper-middle-class white students let’s let’s kind of do a scenario here where where we work that backwards and and ask those five whys. if if we’re really committed to uh anti-racist design and we spot an inequity like that that seems like it’s the result of of lots of things that are beyond our control what can we do to to kind of work backwards and and redesign those systems?

Daniel: so you’re saying what are the five whys that we could ask or what are some of the questions that we might ask

Justin: yeah what are some of the questions we might ask and and and how do we kind of approach that you know not knowing what the the actual causes might be and and what the solutions might be but um you know what what might that look like and what kinds of conversations might we have as educators to to start to unpack that because you know i think especially you’re more of a high school guy than i am i think especially at the high school level you know high schools receive a lot in terms of you know the the output of elementary and and middle school they receive a lot in terms you know like there are there is a lot that feels like it’s already the die is already cast by the time students walk in the door in high school so so how especially can can secondary uh high school educators think about some of these problems and start to address them?

Daniel: yeah that’s awesome question and then first and foremost too because i think one of the the biggest um challenges or excuses or reasons that it’s okay to let us off the hook that the kids failed would be um you know thinking about their social net economic status or some sort of judgment on parents right. so i would say too if you’re going to get into the curiosity and go the five whys take off parents take off socioeconomics because if we’re honest and candid i think we just use it as an excuse too frequently. i i’d be really curious off the bat uh what what courses did they take prior to that AP class right so what was what was their entry point um you know what what was yeah sort of the track that got them there uh i’d be curious um about what middle school elementary school that they came through that got him there i’d be curious about uh if this teacher is teaching another form of an ap class or even not an ap class what does their grade distribution look like? you know is it potentially something with the adult where i can work on this one human being and help them out right and that benefits all the kids and is the magic piece of the puzzle there. when i started investigating what kind of classes they’re coming from where the elementary and middle school experience if i have any sort of assessment data that leading up to it and it shows that some skills were potentially lacking well what did we do as a school to address those skills part of them get into the AP class you know like i mentioned opening the doors and providing access is one thing but then you have to have the wrap around supports too so another question would be what kind of wrap around supports are we offering? are they well attended? if they’re not well attended why not? you know i i have a hypothesis that you know open open house or any type of event where you see poor attendance you know maybe it’s just because it’s kind of a boring event it’s kind of the simplest solution but if you made it more engaging and interesting and provided something that really was a draw you’d have great attendance doesn’t that seem to make sense? so anyways if there’s like tutoring in these kind of things and it’s not well attended you know what’s going on there so that’s a start i don’t know if that’s everything you were looking for or if you have any to add

Justin: i appreciate your your point about curiosity there that you know that there’s going to have to be some digging that takes place we’re not going to know all of the answers to those things in advance and as you said looking at the the previous coursework well why why are students in eighth grade taking the courses that they’re taking why do we have uh vast over-representation of upper-middle class white students taking pre-algebra in seventh grade taking algebra one in eighth grade well that is going to produce the results that we’re seeing in 11th grade if you know if we’re willing to dig a little bit and the solution again especially you know to the to the needs of high school administrators the solution may involve things that we don’t directly control you know and i think that’s one that’s one of the tensions of the principleship that leaders at all levels face that we’re responsible for outcomes that are based on things that we do not totally control but i think there are still opportunities there Daniel: big opportunities and you know i was i think i mentioned to you we’re reading uh simon sinek’s uh the infinite game within the community uh that i lead and um he he introduces this idea of a just cause which is a bit different than mission or vision and it’s it’s it’s inspiring it’s lofty but he says even ultimately unachievable. but the neat thing about a just cause and i’ll provide a story to illustrate it is that it gets more people involved into you advancing the just cause. so for example when apple was building personal computers windows he hasn’t hadn’t been uh you know on the scene yet and then IBM out of the blue they’re there you know they’re doing personal computing as well well obviously in the business setting and I talked about it with selective enrollment schools you see you see that normally that’s competition right and so in a fixed finite-minded business apple would say how do we crush ibm and just absolutely destroy them as a market competitor? but instead with a growth mindset an infinite mindset they said this is great with ibm entering the marketplace we both could advance this just cause to make personal computing accessible to everyone. so even if you don’t know how to code a computer wait there’s this thing called a mouse and i could just drag it around the screen and click something and the computer does amazing stuff this is great and so Apple took out a full full-page new york times advertisement which is not cheap and they said welcome IBM seriously right and then basically had a little riff about why them entering the marketplace to advance personal computing was a great thing and they wish them the best. right so to our point about dismantling uh racist systems within schools uh in with what lorraine was talking about with data and all this kind of stuff what if we had a cause big enough and bold enough that would stretch across middle school high school and elementary and get us all rallying towards the same place? ultimately maybe unachievable but inspiring enough that we’re all rowing in the same direction and those kind of questions really get me quite excited uh and the last thing i’ll say too just uh for Lorraine you know we’re thinking about this in a binary like school uh in in the um internet provider sort of way but there’s a million other people again the constraint is the opportunity that could potentially help you solve it and uh who knows who it might be but there might be folks that want to invest uh into having kids have access right to this internet and they’d feel great about doing that. right um and so i think there’s just like there’s a lot more players within the community than just school and internet provider that could be a part of the solution

Lorraine: Danny, thank you for that. I want to say that one of our teachers is already making connections with a cable company to see what we can do for our kids because I knew that there was no way we would be able to solve it. So we have people on the ground going out to do that but as you were speaking I think one thing that I’ve encountered as I was trying to get kids into advanced coursework, kids of color specifically, into advanced coursework are the gatekeepers that are the teachers themselves in those high-level classes. And so if you do not have the wrap system that you’re talking about, the tutoring, the work with college tutors coming in and what it takes for those kids to be successful within the content, what you get is a lot of pushback and kids not being successful and not seeing themselves as those scholars. And so I think the gatekeepers it’s not just the parents it’s also the actual teachers of those high content areas and getting their biases and working with those biases and working through it you can create some really great things and great things for our kids of color or kids of poverty. And I will tell you great success with Avid and of our class of 29 that went through when we pushed for them to get into those get into advanced classes, we had 15 of them that went on to higher ed. That was a huge shift for the school that I was at that time and so I really loved what you said about the wrap services and not just thinking about it in terms of just the class, but also the other needs of how to navigate the system. Thank you for that.
Justin: yeah thank you Lorraine really really uh compelling examples and uh a great description of some of the challenge there um and uh I will also say great things about Avid. I was a teacher in a middle school that used avid to uh you know to really design a school experience that would prepare kids for uh yeah for going to college so appreciate the uh the mention there Lorraine um danny let’s talk just uh briefly I know we’re uh about out of time here uh but i wanted to talk about uh this this design issue a little bit more and uh lorraine you mentioned uh the the idea among teachers that you know if i’m going to teach calculus for example or if i’m going to teach AP history that the students will come to me in a certain condition right they will come to me with certain work habits and dispositions and prior knowledge and parental support and things like that. and it strikes me as um you know not only something that we need to kind of rethink and redesign if we’re going to set up more students for success in those courses but also it strikes me as something that is fundamentally inequitable as a norm in our profession and Danny i don’t know if you’ve seen this in uh in your career in the schools that you’ve worked in. but it’s it’s been my experience that teaching advanced classes that have the highest achieving students is seen as something of a privilege and the longer you stay in a school the more you increase your status and professional authority in a school the more you can work your way into those you know i only teach seniors i only teach AP courses all of my classes are half the size of everybody else’s and it’s seen as a a status symbol for the teacher to not have freshmen to not have non-college prep classes to not have non-ap classes. how do we start to have some of those conversations as educators? because you know i don’t think we’re going to change this by saying well hey actually you know what you’re racist and you need to not want to teach ap anymore but really there are some very harmful outcomes that come from treating those ap classes you know and not teaching the you know the general ninth grade classes or whatever as uh as a status symbol. how do we how do we start to change the status uh and and the way people think about their their own course load and the the students that they work?

Daniel: i with some uh i’m trying to filter my smart alec responses you should hear what’s going on in my mind right now but as you were sharing that story i was just thinking you know aren’t those the best teachers right or they like to think so you know even to lorraine’s point she was talking about the teachers as the gatekeepers we can’t let the power that we have as school leaders we can’t let that just go right and so whether that’s the uh the teacher is the gatekeeper or the you know like you’re mentioning the ones on with half the class size not teaching freshmen only ap blah blah blah um well that’s up to us i mean it’s a dance right it’s something you negotiate and hopefully you’re not predominantly top down like this is how things are but you do have power and so i mean uh change up the schedule you know or have some sort of rule like why does that teacher always teach in that class you know um yeah so those are some things that i think can can happen but again bringing teachers to the table and what i was sharing with heather and her community in terms of parents what would it look like to have a very open and curious discussion about why are only these certain kids in these classes? i would love to hear just what my faculty would say because they that’s an assessment right there a formative assessment of where they’re at right and potentially on the unconscious bias that we’ve been talking about you know what they see perceive. and we know the impact of expectations on our students. and so if i know that this teacher feels this way about certain types of kids well of course they are going to struggle in their class. um so that that might be some things that you could look into

Justin: yeah well and i love the the idea that you brought in earlier from simon sinek about having a just cause and i think the the just cause that comes to mind for me with this is this idea of uh you know of breaking the mold and of creating opportunity where if we didn’t create that opportunity it it wouldn’t exist for for kids— you know this idea that schools to to great an extent reproduce the existing social and class structure of society right that that the the attitudes and assumptions that we have that say well you know the kids who’ve already taken the the most advanced coursework the kids who have the most parental support the kids who already have the most uh you know outside tutoring and background knowledge and all of those advantages that show up uh you know when it comes to taking an AP class for example those are simply ways that society reproduces itself and i think one of the the challenges that we’ve got to take on as a just cause as educational leaders is to say you know what we’re actually here not to help society reproduce itself and help the upper middle class parents produce upper-middle-class children who become upper-middle-class adults and people who come from poverty will stay in poverty and have children who will stay in poverty. like that’s kind of our our whole reason that we exist as educators is is to create that that social mobility and to create that opportunity where it wouldn’t exist without us i think to uh to a great extent and yet we often don’t you know don’t put that at the forefront you know

Daniel: Yeah I agree with that for sure. I mentioned my friend who’s a principal in Northern California and his school right now is trying to answer a question. If we have this idea—at least in the States—that’s liberty and justice for all— is that true? And so that’s a bigger broader question, nationally. But he’s trying to answer that just locally and within our school. Within the things that we can control. Can we say that there’s liberty and justice for all our students and our staff? And so again getting back to those big juicy questions of what might motivate and rally people uh and start the discussions you know i think that’s what it’s about um you know we talked about no i’m not a racist and going back to the idea well if you don’t say anything right if you don’t even ask those difficult questions because we know that the conversations could get uncomfortable then what’s going to change? how are we going to progress and become an even better society?

Justin: Yeah. Very well said. Let’s talk about a few resources if we could. I know we could probably keep talking for another hour but we are out of time and i want to respect everybody’s time uh what are some of your uh top resources that you send people to on this topic of designing anti-racist systems and understanding implicit bias?

Daniel: Yeah thanks well I mentioned that one book that I’m reading right now overcoming bias by Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman. We mentioned on Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist so nice you’ve picked it up too. I just picked up a book called Caste because that was recommended to me and then I would search that right like uh look for anti-racist education resources and see what comes up in Google I made a antiracist podcast playlist at least for my show um and there are some people that come off the top of my mind. They’re all doctors—Tracy Benson, Sheldon Eakins, Darnisa Amante—they’re all doing incredible work and so I would have them on speed dial. I would hire them, join their workshops, and get involved in their world because they have so much knowledge and can help schools navigating these difficult waters for sure.

Justin: Yeah excellent resources and I know we’ve both interviewed Dr. Tracy Benson and you’ve had him on your podcast a number of times and he’s doing some very innovative programs right now to help people in some of these areas. I also want to plug the implicit bias test that you sent out at I think a great tool for kind of understanding how some of these things work at an almost subconscious level .

Daniel: Did you take any of those tests?

Justin: I did. I might have taken them too slowly. I think I was afraid to answer fast enough—I was like if I’m just really careful and thoughtful then I won’t be biased but yeah those are really interesting and there are lots of them. I was still biased. I’m like wait. I thought I kind of get it, but there’s a lot of work to be done. There is and I want to close by addressing something that might seem strange or that might be a little bit obvious. I mean we are two white men discussing this topic and I wanted to normalize that. I mean we are not here to sell anything on this topic and I think you’ve done a great job of pointing to some of the experts that people can bring in some of the books that people can read. I think more people need to be talking about this though I don’t know What’s your thought on the role of white educators in particular?

Daniel: You have a voice use it. Don’t be a wimp and stay silent. Like it takes courage, you know. And I don’t have kids yet. I really really—I can’t express enough how much I want kids—but I want to be able to tell my nephews and hopefully, future children where I stood on issues of importance to me. I know what my core principles are. I’m very clear on that and so I’m not going to be quiet about this kind of stuff. No way. There’s no way. So that’s one thing. Just have the conversation understand the power that you have. And admit when you make mistakes. It’s okay, it makes you human. I lead a group of 60 leaders from around the world and I was looking a couple of years ago—this is three years ago—looking at our books. They were mostly white and male. Dang it. And I know better. So I made sure to incorporate more authors of color and women authors. And the School Leadership Series, right? And so instead of just me hosting that podcast, I knew it would benefit if I created a diverse team with diverse experiences. So now that team is like 50 percent female and I forget the percentage of hosts that are leaders of color, but I’m proud of that type of stuff right. So it’s just it’s looking at where you have influence where you have control and say something do something—and even these small steps, I think they add up to quite a big change.

Justin: Well said. Well, let’s leave it at that. Daniel thank you so much for joining me on the Roundtable. If people want to learn more about your work where can they find you online?

Daniel: Yeah so is the website @alienearbud is the username on all social channels. And just if you want to email.

Justin: Well thank you to our panel. Thank you Lorraine and Heather for your participation and questions today. And thank you everyone for engaging with this topic and drawing attention to it. So Daniel again thank you and we’ll talk soon. Bye.

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Roundtable: Jethro Jones



About Jethro Jones

Jethro Jones is a former principal who helps schools and districts find simple solutions to complex problems. Named a Digital Principal of the Year by the NASSP, Jethro has served students as a teacher, district coach, media & distance learning specialist, and principal, with experience at every level of public education. He’s the host of the Transformative Principal podcast, and the author of the new book SchoolX: How principals can design a transformative school experience for students, teachers, parents – and themselves.

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Roundtable: Peter Dewitt



About Peter M. Dewitt

Dr. Peter DeWitt is an education consultant focusing on collaborative leadership and fostering inclusive school climates. Within North America, his work has been adopted at the university and state level, and he works with numerous districts, school boards, regional and state organizations where he trains leadership teams and coaches building leaders. He’s the author of six books.

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Roundtable: Steve Peha



About Steve Peha

Steve Peha has been writing about writing for over 20 years. He has worked with thousands of writers, young and not-so-young, through Teaching That Makes Sense, the company he founded in 1995 to provide high-quality educational training and innovative learning materials. In 2007, he won the Independent Publishers Award Gold Medal in Young Adult Nonfiction for the first edition of Be a Better Writer.

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Justin: Welcome everyone to the May meeting of the Instructional Leadership Directors’ Roundtable. This month our honored guest is my good friend and literacy expert Steve Peha and we’re here to talk about his philosophy and framework and approach which we call writing first so Steve, welcome to the Roundtable.

Steve Peha: Thank You, Justin, it’s great to be here.

JB: I wonder if we could start by just having you describe some of the work that you’ve done in schools and in partnership with teachers, and in partnership with leaders over the years to promote literacy instruction to help teachers improve their practice—as well as any of the work you’ve done outside the field of education that gives us the context for your work.

SP: I’ve been working with schools for about 25 years. Prior to that I had about 10 years in tech and in addition to the work I do in reading and mostly in writing now I’ve also had some good experience in EdTech. I worked on a large Gates Foundation project about 6 or 8 years ago building a reference system for student longitudinal data systems.

So I’ve had a lot of experience in education, in tech, and I’m a professional writer I’ve written a writing book called Be a Better Writer and generally has had a lot of varied experience. Probably the best thing that I’ve ever done for me—and often for teachers—is in addition to providing traditional professional development training, I also go into classrooms every chance I get. And teaching, I probably taught 10,000 lessons if that’s where your 10,000 hours comes from. That’s probably where I put them in and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done is just to show up and work with your kids on a given day, doing whatever it is we need to do, has been the biggest learning experience for me.

JB: Yeah absolutely and, you know, I’m a big proponent of administrators getting into classrooms. I think as an author and as a partner to schools and improving their literacy practice, it makes a little sense that that would be your best PD your best first-hand experience as well to be in classrooms.

So let’s just jump right in and talk about that that you know a kind of literacy consulting work. What are some of the quick wins that often you see that that you can help teachers make? And maybe we can talk about a couple of different grade levels. Hopefully, everyone who has responsibility for teaching reading has training in literacy, training in teaching writing. But there are always big opportunities when you get into a classroom and start working with a teacher to do a model lesson to be as part of some kind of embedded PD. What are some of those big wins and opportunities that are just right in front of us that you often help people take hold of?

SP: I think some of the wins are right available to us very easily we just don’t think of them that way. Kids are very used to doing reading every day and they’re used to doing math every day. And even if they’re not very good at it if they don’t like it they still sit down and do it. So one of the biggest wins that we can all get is to be doing writing every day. So that’s a scheduling issue—I know there are challenges but it is a huge win when kids come to school every day knowing they’re going to be doing some writing.

The second big win which is relatively easy is teaching kids how to choose their own topics for writing. When kids have their own topics, they tend to be a lot more motivated and take a lot more ownership. And again this is something I have a couple of strategies for, but it’s not terribly difficult to do. And again just comes with that expectation I’m gonna be writing about something that interests me.

Technically, I’ve found that one of the biggest wins is teaching kids how to write good beginnings. It’s easier than a technique for almost anything else because there’s nothing on the paper yet and kids can write just about anything. The other thing that I’ve realized over the years is that essentially everything we write is the beginning to the next thing, so teaching kids how to write beginnings doesn’t only help them with the beginnings of a piece of writing, it actually helps them with the beginning of any part of a piece of writing. And so there’s a big win there in just teaching that one skill which seems to sort of cascade through the rest of the writing process.

JB: Absolutely! Thinking in terms of that kind of opportunity that we have to just simply do more writing simply set the expectation with kids that they are going to do writing every day—in the same way that they expect to do math and expect to do reading every day—no matter what—how common is it for students to write every day? Or how often do students typically write? It strikes me as a parallel to the question of how often do principals get into classrooms. Obviously, principals should be in classrooms every day, but the reality is you know most teachers report “oh yeah my principals fine like maybe once or twice a year give you some feedback and we do the formal observation that’s kind of it.”

Obviously like I don’t think anybody would argue that we don’t need to be doing writing every day, but what’s the reality on the ground in your opinion?

SP: The reality is extraordinarily varied. Obviously, there are many elementary teachers who do in fact do writing 4 or 5 days a week. And it’s not surprising that they have the most success. I have actually been hired by a school—this is the strangest experience in my career I’ve been hired by schools to do training in writing for schools that don’t actually have any writing time listed in the schedule. So you could go as far to the other way possible and find some schools that don’t actually have a writing component per se they feel that they can somehow get writing in by writing across the curriculum. And while that’s a great thing to do, it doesn’t actually do much for kids getting better at writing across the curriculum. I would say that at the elementary level I would hope that we see kids writing at least 2 or 3 days a week the goal really is 4 or 5 and it makes an extraordinary difference.

Something happens in secondary that we’re all aware of, but I don’t think we think about it very much. Kids lose half their language arts time. They go from roughly 2 classroom periods down to one, and that one period is dominated by literature at the secondary level. Nothing wrong with a lot of literature—it’s great—but kids may go down to almost no writing time as they hit the secondary grades.

JB: Yeah let’s talk about the secondary level a lot because certainly, you know we don’t call any of the subjects that are taught in middle school or high school reading. Typically it’s language arts it’s literature its composition you know and the idea, of course, is that we’re not teaching reading explicitly sometimes we’re teaching we’re theoretically teaching writing—we’re calling it a composition class or whatever or maybe we save that until college. But yeah there’s this idea that writing should be just kind of embedded in everything else and because it’s embedded in everything else it should be happening enough. What is the state of the union kind of, you know, what’s the norm in secondary writing? Are kids writing in other subjects are they writing in science? Are they writing in social studies? Are they writing about literature in their ELA classes? And how much of that is taking place in your respective opinion?

SP: I think that we do more writing today than we used to. We go back 10 20 30 years we’re doing more. But I’m not sure that it’s helping as much as we wish it would. In most language arts classrooms at the secondary level, I would say writing is chunked or blocked as a unit. The kids might read a book and that might take four to six weeks or so and then there might be a two-week unit on writing. And the unit based or assignment based or assignment driven approach to writing is really what’s most common. The downfall of that or the negative of that is that the emphasis is on kids completing an assignment not necessarily improving a skill.

So you’re gonna find in most cases that writing gets less than half the time and that it’s often simply done in reference to an assignment. Across the curriculum, it really depends entirely on the teacher. I’ve seen some teachers do quite a bit and I’ve seen some teachers of course not do any at all.

So a lot of kids could end up entering secondary years and not actually doing a lot of writing that would help them become better writers. I really try to distinguish between writing and writing instruction. If you ask me simply to write I’m going to write I’m gonna write as well as I write. And if I don’t get some instruction let us say if I just get a final grade, I probably want to learn to write any better. I think that’s the real issue as we get into secondary grades is kids get bigger—they tend to know some bigger words and they develop bigger knowledge—but they may not actually learn to write much better in that secondary time period because they will have effectively lost the instruction time they might have had an elementary for writing skill.

JB: Yeah. And I feel like there’s this tendency at the secondary level to you know assign writing and to grade writing but to basically take it as a given you know this student writes at this level, you know, I wish I could expect more—and I’m speaking mostly as a parent of a recent high school graduate— that often we assign the writing, but we don’t really see there being a ton of either opportunity to improve the writing or a ton of value in spending time on that if we could be spending time on the content instead. Does that give students kind of a pass to just kind of you know barf out whatever they’re going to on their paper, turn it in, and kind of get away with it? I don’t know do you feel like there’s an accountability for quality that goes along with that intention on the teacher’s part to actually improve students writing? What’s going on there?

SP: Well, I want to be fair to teachers. I think it’s really important just to consider just that simple thing that we just talked about—that a kid is gonna have gone from kindergarten to fifth grade having effectively enough time in the day for two language-arts periods—a full reading period and a full writing period—and then they’re going to go to secondary—and it isn’t anybody’s fault but there’s going to be half the time. And the orientation for secondary language arts teachers is more heavily on literature. So we simply have a large traditional structural challenge there. It can be changed but it doesn’t get changed in most places.

The second thing and I don’t think we think about this much either—and again to be fair to teachers about this—if I’m a fifth-grade teacher and I have 25 students, I get to know them really really well. Writing is a deeply personal and individualized thing. It’s the only subject we have where every kid has to come up with a different right answer. And that really depends on how well a teacher knows the kids and how well kids know their teachers. So you go from a kids who’ve had one teacher who’s known them really well for year after year after year and all of a sudden they had six or seven classes. And a teacher may have 125 150 sometimes 200 kids and so the individual attention that writing requires simply can’t be put into place.

And so I think I think if we want better writing at the secondary level we need to look at some structural changes that may not be easy, but they do make sense. And that’s what I’m trying to encourage people to do is to ask those questions. Do we really want kids who write well? I think we do. So let’s make the time and the structures for it in our schedule that we can.

JB: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about that writing first philosophy, because we’ve been talking about this for, I don’t know, a year or two now—this idea that rather than see writing simply as instrumental–you know as basically just part of the pencil—I need your answers from you so you need to write them, or I need to know if you understood this book that we just read, so I need you to write about it. Rather rather than see writing as just a means to an end, what happens when we do put writing first and see it as a primary target of our instruction that we deliberately and directly focus on.

SP: That’s a great way to put it—the primary target of instruction. I’ll use that let’s call it a PTI. Again. a lot of this—obvious is the wrong word but it is sort of out there in an obvious way. Writing is the most minute for a minute writing is the best brain workout kids can get. It requires all skills of reading, some of the logic of science and math, small motor skills for little kids, basic computer skills for big kids, and social-emotional skills too. So if we thought about how precious our instructional time is we thought about how to best use that time to further learning, we would naturally choose writing as our most common subject. It gets more done.

The second thing that’s really important and it’s a big part of the philosophy that I have is that writing has the highest correlation with general academic success. The way I look at that or the way I explain that to people is we’ve all known kids who are very good readers but who are not good writers. That’s fairly common. I’ve never met a kid in the world who was a good writer who wasn’t also a good reader.

JB: I think that’s really key right there. Yeah, the opposite is not true.

SP: The correlation only goes in one direction—it goes from writing to everything else. Kids who write well, think well. And because writing requires all the skills of reading, the logic of science and math and all those other things kids who can write well can do a lot of things really really well.

The third thing that I think is really important and you touched on it briefly but I think there’s probably a better way to think about it is, writing is really a great way to express knowledge. It’s sitting there at the end of your fingertips.

And it’s not just the way to express knowledge but it’s a great way for kids to collect and organize knowledge—there’s always a big I don’t know exactly what it is but there’s always a big thing about kids taking notes. Yes, we want kids to take notes. Yes, we want them to do Cornell notes. Yes, we want them to do these notes and those notes and to study their notes and it’s always seemed to me to be somewhat, not counterproductive, but less effective if we have kids taking notes who can’t write. Kids can not only express their knowledge very well in writing, but they can organize their knowledge very well in writing too. And I think that’s sort of the third obvious piece.

For me, as I’ve developed you know when I started out writing was just another thing we did and the farther and farther I’ve gotten into it, the more I’ve realized wow those years when I’ve worked with kids who’ve had great years in writing suddenly magically they’ve all had great years in just about everything else. And so to some degree that’s causal— obviously there’s a lot of correlation. I think perhaps the one thing we don’t think about very much that maybe makes the difference is something that a lot of my Australian friends call student agency.

Writing does require you to write something original that is yours and yours alone. Reading we hope kids read this book and get the same about the same things from it. Math, we hope kids follow the curriculum to get the same answer. Science, social studies, these are all areas of school where we really hope that all kids come back with the same information that we once we’ve given it out. Writing is completely the opposite. What that means is the kids have to develop their own individual agency and once they do that however they’re a lot more confident about all the other things they do in school.

JB: Heather, you had a question about finishing writing and the idea that that may be perhaps we overemphasize finishing. Why do you pose that for us?

Heather Bell-Williams: Yeah I’d be intrigued to know what you’re thinking is around that idea of having to finish all of the writing that we start or the writing that we assign. I think I’m probably dating myself, but you think through Writer’s Workshop and process writing and all of the stages of writing a good story. For instance, we do a rough draft and then we do whatever we go on to call a good copy. I’m thinking, “whoa, I kind of thought my original was a good copy.” And you know I love the language that we’ve historically used around that but that notion we’ve been pretty fixated on following that process through to completion and I wonder if there’s merit—I believe in my own work as a teaching principal with elementary kids I’ve seen merit in terms of you know we’re going to write for a particular purpose, but we didn’t all finish all of our pieces and somehow I felt like I was breaking rules. What are your thoughts on that?

SP: I’ve got two thoughts on that the first is probably again the simplest. To make sure that kids learn how to do all the different types of writing and develop all the skills they need, they obviously have to finish some pieces. Because there are simply things that go into finishing that they wouldn’t do otherwise. The corollary to that is that if you’re writing regularly. And this is the advantage of writing every day or at least four days a week you don’t have to finish everything you start, because you’re going to get enough opportunities to finish just for the amount of writing that you’re doing. The way I look at it is this—the big breaking point or the point – to get past if we’re going to finish a piece of writing is to get through revision and do a real revision pass. There’s a lot of writing we do in our lives—almost every email I write, every text I send—is largely considered a prewriting a draft. And so there’s an extraordinary amount of writing we do in our lives that does not go to revision so the difference for me is when I’m taking kids into a piece of writing are we going to go into revision? And what I’ll often do, especially at the elementary level but I would do this at the secondary level too, is I give kids some latitude to decide whether or not a piece is one that they want to take through to the end. They all have to finish a certain number of pieces just to get better at it, but I don’t want a kid to take a piece that they struggled with whether they don’t like or that just isn’t a good topic and spend all the time it takes for them to finish. I’d love it for them to abandon a piece, in fact, one of the big moments—there are two big moments for me when I’m working with a class and hopefully they happen within the first four to six weeks. One is when a kid comes in and tells me they have a good topic that they’ve been thinking about writing and it actually is a good topic. That tells me they’ve taken home something that we’ve been doing and they’ve essentially brought it back the way I’d like to see it.

The second is whether they can tell me “Mr. Peha, I don’t want to finish this one anymore I don’t think it’s working out very well I’d like to start another piece and take that one to the end. That’s a really big moment and I’m always really glad when that happens. Does that address your question in a reasonable way?

HBW: Absolutely, I love that you know here choice and going back to that student autonomy and student agency so I love that. Yeah, we have to finish some but ultimately, for the most part, you can make good choices about what you’re going to finish and what you’re going to abandon.

SP: Right and that’s exactly is a choice autonomy agency we should be honest about that but those are all nerve-racking. Those are hard it’s hard to give kids a lot of autonomy and agency especially when they’re very little or if they’re far behind in school. And one of the things that again we have to think about is that writing is a fundamentally different act than all the other subjects that we teach. It absolutely does require choice kids have to choose their own words and their own ideas. I often get up in front of kids this way and I say you know kids if we were in math this would be really easy because you’d all have to do is come up with the same answer to every question and turn in the same sheet I grade it everything would be fine. But if we do that in writing it’s called plagiarism, so in fact, we can’t all write the same words. We can’t all choose the same ideas I don’t even like kids all working on the same topics when I’m working.

And I know Justin you talked about sort of the assignment driven nature of writing at the secondary level. I think one of the biggest hang-ups with that is that if kids are all writing the same assignment, they’re going to be incentivized to write the same thing. And the big problem comes when there are kids who are very high and very fluent who are writing their work and kids who aren’t. And it’s so easy to compare and it’s so easy for kids to struggle to want to copy the work that they see other kids doing that’s more fluent. That may help them produce this better piece at a certain moment, but it doesn’t actually help them learn very much.

So I’m a real big believer in what I sort of called guided choice, which is giving kids a range a small range of choices within it tightly conscribed area so they always have some choice but they never really have free choice. And I learned very early on in the first couple years of working with kids that if I let them choose everything completely, I would end up with a lot of stories where monster A is killing monster B and then space-alien C comes down to shoot monster B, and we go on and on. That’s mostly boys in that regard. Girls tended to have different kinds of stories that just went on and on and on. So I’ve learned over the years to give kids a small range of choices, usually off a couple of lists we may have prepared where I know they probably got 10 or 12 really good topics to work with.

HBW: Thank you for that. You mentioned revision and the need to have that skill developed do you have any sort—if I’m a principal doing and walking through writing classes what kinds of things would I love to see around that act of revision?

SP: You know, when I talk to principals about walking through their classrooms this is true of all subjects but it’s especially true of writing— ideally, I’d like you to talk to the kids I’d like you to ask the kid what they’re doing and see if they can tell you why they’re doing it. So one of the things that you would see ideally is that a kid is in the act of revision. They’re looking at a piece of writing they’re working on, they’re making changes, they’re telling you, “I’m working on a different beginning, I’m working on a different ending, I’m adding details to support an idea that the kids in the class didn’t understand when I shared it, I’m trying out this new lesson that my teacher gave me about using strong verbs.” If you could hear that from kids you’d know that they were not only learning something new, but they were applying it and that it was indeed an explicit revision task.

HBW: Thank you, I love that—explicit revision task. Gonna write that one down.

SP: That’s the way I teach revision. It’s not that revision always goes that way I can gear up and model a lot of explicit tasks and kids don’t do them right away. This again goes back to the notion of how much time or how many days we offer for writing. One of the things that that I’ve noticed over the years is if I know on Monday that I’m teaching writing on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I don’t feel the pressure on Monday for everybody to get everything the way I want it. If I know I’m going to teach 20 days in a month of writing and I want to get four things across, I know that I just have to keep bringing those things up and giving kids examples of them and modeling those things. And probably most of the kids will get around to doing pretty well.

I’ve actually at certain points written down small lists of things that seem to make most kids really successful like writing good beginnings and good endings. Early in my career, I did a lot of large-scale student assessments as largely with the six trait model or I would be doing the training and adjudication. And I would probably read 5,000 to 15,000 pieces of student work and one thing I noticed was if kids had a good beginning and a good ending the middle was probably pretty good too. And so I put a lot of emphasis in my teaching into beginnings and endings. Kids will know that I’m always always working hard for them to have a good beginning a good ending because that seems to set up the frame for them to kind of be accountable to themselves in the middle. So there are two explicit revision tasks that I teach more than explicitly, but they have such a high benefit that I think they’re worth doing all the time.

HBW: Thank you absolutely. I wonder if it’s appropriate to talk about the remote teaching of writing that we’re being asked to consider moving—well currently for many jurisdictions and looking at the next school year with some hybrid of remote and face-to-face teaching. What are your thoughts around that whole idea of remote learning as it relates to writing?

SP: I think I’m gonna see a couple of things. I think that we would all be surprised if kids somehow did a lot better in remote writing than they did in our classrooms that wouldn’t speak very well to our being in classrooms as teachers. So I think remote writing is going to be harder in a certain way, especially when it comes to things like developing a community in the classroom where kids want to hear what other writers have to write. So there might be a motivation issue that is very very hard to deal with. One of the other things and I’ve noticed this from a lot about college online courses is that some kids—especially those who might consider to be introverts—those kids may actually do a little better they may write a little bit more because don’t feel like everyone’s watching them. And something that the teachers have told me I don’t know how long they can keep this up but something that teachers have told me as they’ve switched over to online is that they do spend an awful lot of time answering kids’ emails. And college kids, in particular, are talking about all of a sudden having more access to their professors. And it’s true that if you send somebody a message and they send it back to you, that’s a pretty good one-on-one interaction. It’s not the same as conferencing in a classroom but it may just be that if we can handle the load of questions and answers, that we may be able to get some value from that we don’t get from a normal standard teaching situation.

So I think we’re gonna see some things get better I think we’re gonna see some things definitely not working as well. And my hope is that kids doing writing online—this is gonna go for kids who can type, I’m not quite sure how our primary kids are going to fare with this—but I’m hoping that what happens is that kids who can type pretty well are gonna have enough positive interactions that they will improve their writing despite not having that teacher with them in a say a writer’s workshop conferencing mode.

HBW: Thank you. I haven’t thought of the possibilities around some of those strengths for some of the introverted kids. Thanks for pointing that put.

SP: Yeah yeah you’ll see this a lot. I think we actually know a little bit more about this than we do because so many college courses have been done online and there’s so much online learning. So you know probably maybe there are two big things we’ve learned from online learning.

One is that it is possible for those students who work better on their own or without the self-consciousness of a large group—working online works better for them our normal classroom situation is a lot like our normal American culture—it favors extroverts. So introverts get a little more fairground in an online situation. But the other thing we know about online learning is the completion rate is really low. If you look at the stats from Coursera or you look at stats from online degree programs or online classes, you’ll see that the drop rate is really really high. And though it won’t be possible necessarily for our k-12 kids to drop a class, we’re likely to see levels of participation be very very low.

JB: Lots of things I want to run with if we can from that. And Heather thank you for those fabulous questions. There is—Steve I’m hearing come up here is that there’s an opportunity to actually give kids more feedback on their writing if we’re not with them in person. And I think about the structures that teachers at the elementary level especially have to put in place in order to create time for those one-on-one conferences—you know to just go to a student’s desk and talk with them about their writing look at their writing work with them one on one you know it’s kind of a whole thing to get the rest of the class to allow you to do that. Everybody else work independently, I’m gonna talk to this kid and I’m gonna get around to everybody hopefully over the course of the week I like that’s a significant challenge in an in-person classroom. And to me seems emblematic of a paradigm that we’ve moved toward over the last I don’t know 10 or 20 years toward talking about writing rather than doing written work in writing or talking about our thinking rather than writing about our thinking.

I wonder if there has been—I don’t know—maybe an unintended consequence of all of the great strategies we have now and these were strategies that I was taught as a new teacher that was heavily emphasized in Seattle Public Schools when I was a teacher in principle around accountable talk, right? We want students talking to one another we want them interacting we want them to share their ideas with one another and now we’re worried that like if there’s Plexiglas between the kids or if the desks are 6 feet apart we’re going to lose that. What did we lose in terms of writing when we started emphasizing all of that, you know, face to face conversation about writing and thinking? Did we stop doing some things in writing that maybe we should have continued doing and writing?

SP: I wouldn’t look at it that way you bring up an excellent point though because there are trade-offs for everything so if when I was starting on you and you and I probably learned a lot of the same things. I learned oh it’s always great to do peer conferencing get those kids conferencing with each other peer of peer editing. And you know what kids make crappy editors. So does that mean I don’t do any peer conferencing work? No, it just means I have to structure it in a really good way. So one of my simple structures was, sure, grab a partner get in a group of three here’s the rule: Questions only. Ask your writer partners questions. Help them figure out what you want to hear what isn’t clear and then leave them alone so that they can answer those questions. An editing kind of thing right around you know what kids there’s an order I want you to look at I want you to see if all the words are there first. It’s not much value in looking for periods and commas if the words aren’t there. Then I want you to look at ending punctuation but before you go and try to tackle all the commas and everything, why don’t you work on capitalization? That’s relatively easy and then you’ve got words in good shape, you’ve got sentences in good shape, you got capital letters in good shape, now guess what? I want you to go to spelling let’s get that spelling looked at finally we’ll get into some of the really harder things like interior punctuation.

So I think it wasn’t so much that we lost something or something was lost it was simply that we didn’t do something that we do almost everywhere else. We didn’t structure the activity in a helpful way and I think that’s probably the reason why a lot of those practices didn’t seem very valuable. Just like you were saying, there’s some work that is required to get the conference time that you need with kids in classrooms. You don’t just get it by saying, Justin, I’d like to talk to you but my desk. and everybody else then goes and does whatever they want you have to structure that with classroom procedures yeah I think that’s the trick it’s probably that’s probably true of everything we do with kids but it was certainly true with writing where an extraordinary amount of time could be wasted just having kids talking. And then it didn’t take me too many sessions of listening to kids starting to realize they very quickly stopped talking about their writing.

JB: Yeah that structure is really key and I appreciate you saying that is the case for written feedback as well. Don’t bleed red ink all over your neighbor’s paper. First, ask questions or make sure the words are there. And then make sure the ending punctuation is there, and then eventually we might worry about spelling. We’re not just gonna start you know scribbling all over each other’s papers.

SP: We’re not gonna go through it in kind of a random way because what that means is that each kid who’s contributing is going to contribute in a different way—and that’s gonna be very hard on the writer.

JB: Yeah—thinking as a former science teacher, often I will say I probably did accept first draft work if that got us to where we needed to be. But there were times when it would have served students well relative to the purpose of the lesson to revise or a certain purpose. Help us thin— especially for secondary content teachers—how can we be smart about putting in that extra structure—putting in those specifics? You know, we’re going to revise for this purpose—I want to make sure that your lab write-up addresses the question of whether the hypothesis was correct. We might not worry about spelling today but you’ve got to talk about whether the hypothesis was correct or whether you’ve even got evidence to be able to evaluate the hypothesis. We have a time issue right? We can’t focus on everything. We can’t do five drafts of every assignment, in every class, every day. How can secondary teachers, who maybe are not primarily writing teachers, be selective about providing that structure and really pushing students writing forward?

SP: That’s really good—again I’m gonna draw a line at revising here. Clearly there might be some prewriting or thinking that kids do. Obviously learning the lesson material is probably the rough equivalent of prewriting in a way. The majority of writing they’re going to do is what we would think of as drafting in a language arts classroom. But then you bring up a point well what if the kid doesn’t have the information down in a way that makes sense or in a way that’s complete? This is again where this notion of questions as the main focus of revision are answering questions as the main focus of revision becomes extremely powerful and extremely efficient.

It doesn’t really take me very long to look over—we’re doing tiny amounts of writing in the secondary and look in the content areas—it doesn’t take very long to look at a paragraph or two of writing and go hey what about this? what about that? did you remember in my model that I had this this, and this that would be the other part of the piece right? I wish and I don’t know if this will ever happen but but in my done my deathbed maybe someone will come with a study that says 40% of teachers and content areas are modeling the writing they’d like kids to do. Just to go back to the idea of quick wins right modeling is something I control 100% myself. I’m the model I can either show them a piece of writing or I can write one right in front of them. I think the secondary content area teachers could could do a lot for kids by simply doing their own assignments up in front of their class.You want all the kids to come up with the same right answer most of the time. I know we don’t want to give them everything, but if after a group of kids is tried for two or three days, what I don’t like and I think this goes, Heather, to what you were saying about finishing is what I don’t like is we spend a week on something about half the kids aren’t getting it and then we close the books on it and give a grade. Why not just spend a little more time but make sure everybody writes down all the information? To me, that’s part of school. And again writing is a really handy way to do it.

JB: Could you say what you mean more about having everybody write down the information? Because I think especially if we’re talking about note-taking or anything that seems kind of lower-level there’s a strong pushback against that idea, because we want everything to be higher order we want everything to be personal expression. Help me understand what you mean by that.

SP: sure think about it this way and again I’m I do a lot of things just by I’m gonna call it common sense. If I’m giving, let’s say my lecture for the day or for the week is the history of the Middle East crisis say from 67 to the present right or maybe I want to go all the way back to the Balfour Declaration or I want to go all the way back to the end of World War I. Whatever that chunk of time is, I’m going to be giving kids information I want them to learn something about it. Obviously I want them to learn a lot that has to do with higher-order thinking. But as we’ve discovered and I think everybody’s kind of getting around to it there’s some basic knowledge that has to be in place first. And so if I’m talking and kids are trying to write notes, my hunch is I don’t have their full attention. I also noted that while I’m telling them about a certain thing that happened in 1914 and another that happened in 1918 that led to one in 1939, etc the kids are not exactly making those connections. Certainly not all the kids. So the way I kind of look as it is why don’t I put that up on the board as I talk about it? Why don’t I arrange the information the way I talk and then what would be wrong with kids actually copying that down or making sure they had that exact information? Oh my gosh wouldn’t that ruin their higher-order thinking? No because what they’re copying down is the quote lower order. I don’t like lower order. But what they’re copying down is the information that every one of them has to have to do any higher-order thinking. So why isn’t it a good idea for a for the teacher I almost can’t teach this I can’t I have to do this now to teach. I have to actually write down all the things I’m teaching kids to literally remember where I am half the time. So I’m writing these things down and I’m just telling kids kids write that down here’s a list of four things we just talked about it write it down, put this down, put that don’t put this down we don’t need that that was a sidebar question. We’ll get to that or we won’t worry about it. But what I’d like in a subject like science or history is, I’d really like kids to have that knowledge and I’d like to know they have it—I’d like them to know and I’d like it to be fair. Kids who take notes better than others have an advantage that simply accrues more to the advantage they already have and I don’t want that to happen. So even though I know I’m probably breaking a rule and slaughtering a sacred cow here, I would say I really do want all kids to have the same notes. just like they would have the same textbook.

JB: Wow, it is so hard to even just hear you say that. Like, it goes against, you know, our kind of values of higher-order thinking and student personal expression. So let’s talk about that personal expression idea because if we were to kind of categorize the writing that gets done in schools you know the students the writing that students are asked to do, it seems to me that an enormous proportion of it is just kind of personal expression. Like the good old tell us what you did this summer, write about what you did this summer, or write a letter to so-and-so telling them what you think— there’s a heavy emphasis on personal expression because as we’ve talked about earlier there’s huge value in student choice, student agency, students being able to kind of select their own topic. But does that get us too far away from the information, from the knowledge that students need in order to have something to think about? Help us with that.

SP: I think it gets away when we let it get away. Again, I’m probably never going to walk in to a classroom and say okay just write anything. All right I’m never gonna do that tell me what happened last summer I mean I’m just not going to do that I’m not saying that’s inherently wrong I’m just saying I’m never gonna do that. I have topic selection activities that I use where kids develop good topics. Some of those topics naturally lead themselves to a personal narrative, but many of the topics lead themselves to informational writing. some some lead very naturally to persuasive writing some lead very naturally to argumentative writing. Kids still get the choice but I get to choose by putting them with certain types of topics I get to have a lot of control over the type of writing I want them to do. And I think again so much of school is all or nothing. Okay they all have complete choice or they have no choice—five paragraph prompted essay no choice right about anything you want that makes you feel good full choice. Neither of those is probably good. I don’t think—this is just one of the things that I made kind of a rule for myself and I’m probably going to break it here—it’s almost never either/or it’s probably always and. And so that’s the way I think about it with regard to narrative writing versus expository writing versus persuasive writing versus argumentative writing. Again I’m going to go to sort of a common-sense approach to this. What do you think the likelihood is of a kid doing a really good expose expository they can’t write a narrative piece? It’s probably a little lower what if what do you can’t write a narrative or or posit or a piece how hard is it for them to write a persuasive or argumentative piece? Very hard. So I don’t think of these things in terms of mix or balance I think of them in terms of progression. I really really really want to make sure that all kids can write a pretty solid narrative. And that’s for two reasons one we’re all very aware these days that our brains are wired for narratives, that in fact even when we approach informational writing expository information we still organize it in a narrative fashion. Some comes first something comes next something comes after that. So I really really want to put an extraordinary emphasis on narrative reading, not because I think self-expression is important, but because I think actual logical thinking is important and fluency of thought is important. And I know that there’s almost no way kids can succeed in higher-order thinking in the content areas in expository, persuasive, and argumentative writing if they can’t easily knock out a narrative.

JB: So you’re almost kind of sequencing it as a progression of skills that you know narrative first and then you said expository and then argumentative kind of builds on those on that foundation, right?

SP: yeah yeah narrative is the foundation for everything and I think I think that’s just how the human brain works. Expository or informational writing it comes off that really easily. And kids can do this a lot better than we give them credit for if we approach it as personal expository writing rather than as a teacher assigned topic. If it did has a story to tell about basketball game they played or particularly event in their life they actually know quite a lot about that as an informational topic. So often the way to get kids into expository writing is by having them write informational e about things they already know. This is how I work with the video game kid it’s quite a lot of information that they know they just don’t know that it’s valuable. And it’s also also I don’t want to stress to that if we’re not writing for an audience we’re not actually writing anything that, I’m not gonna say that matters, but we’re not writing something that matters to someone other than us. Here’s a really simple activity I loved it it was a huge hit, I don’t know why we don’t do it. But you know in math say third fourth fifth grade any kid who goes through it and does the problems in a math book and it’s not a math book in front of them could in fact write their own section of a math book. it could in fact create a set of four problems that go from easier to harder and they could write a little thing that explains how to do that math problem. Every kid can do that every kid can write story problems and what do you know they can actually solve more of the story problems they write themselves. So I the way I felt like we were finished with a math I don’t want to say a whole unit but we were finished with a section of a math unit is if kids could actually write their own math lesson. And I don’t know why we don’t do that we could do that in social studies we could do it in science it’s easier in math because they have an example right in front of them. But that seems that seemed to me to be a very productive way of working, because of course what did they try to do they’re trying to create problem sets that would challenge all their friends because that was the corresponding activity write your math lesson give it to another person, if they can understand it and figure out the problems then we’ve sort of close the loop on the learning. And kids thought it was very cool that they could do that and I said yeah it is cool you can do it. And I think I think I think writing can be really cool I when kids see that they can produce things that are on a par with or in some way similar to the writing that is given to them.

JB: yeah absolutely and there’s there’s an authenticity I mean so much of what we’ve just been talking about applies perfectly to project-based learning with you know the constrained choice the you know the kind of you know genre or problem space that that we’re working within but then you know a great deal of originality and agency and developing and using your knowledge in the course of that like— yeah so much of this overlaps with PBL.

SP: That’s right! It’s great for PBL. I couldn’t be more of a proponent of PBL if I wanted to. I mean it’s just such a good thing to do and there are so many opportunities for writing within the PBL space.

JB: yeah well I think we’ve we’ve kind of been circling around this question but let’s let’s get to it directly. What does it mean for a school to embrace a writing first philosophy? So rather than oh we’re gonna try to squeeze in writing across the curriculum or oh maybe we’ll have writing on Fridays or you know will demand writing three times a year as an assessment. What does it mean to really reorganize our curriculum or at least our thinking about student learning around a writing first philosophy?

SP: I think you kind of hit on the first thing which is we actually have to make a commitment to have it included in our day. I would say that if you’re a writing first school or you embrace a writing first philosophy you should probably be doing writing as often as you do reading. I haven’t been to too many schools where reading wasn’t done every day so that’s the first thing is we should make the commitment to the task itself. I think the second thing is to make the commitment to share a small group of strategies. that’s where they’re that’s where the big win in in my work has come through just in your the language I know I’ll be the language arts teacher you’ll be the science teacher. You really don’t have time in your day to teach writing and you shouldn’t I’m the one who should teach kids the how you should then say hey I know there’s this thing Mr Peha you called the idea detail strategy I want one of those and then ideally you get that without having to teach the tool.

So share strategies commitment to the time shared strategies and then I think a good third piece has to do with getting back to this notion of note-taking and writing kids do to express their knowledge. When I’ve been in the elementary level I’ve been a big proponent of kids having an extra notebook in each of their subjects that I just call their journal. It is not for journaling it is for capturing their knowledge on a daily basis. And one of the things I wish that we could do, and I don’t see why we can’t, I wish that I wish that a teacher would teach for about 12 minutes-15 minutes and stop and say what do you know? what did you pick up and hold those kids to actually writing in complete sentences anything that they’ve picked up and learned. CauseI think what we might find is the two minutes that the 10 or 12 minutes of talking and the two minutes of writing and maybe the one and a half minutes of quickly sharing, would tell us exactly what kids know and don’t. Also gives kids a night gives kids who do know a chance to show their knowledge and once they do gives kids who don’t know the opportunity to write that down as well. And I wish that there was kind of a learning journal approach that we could take because it just makes sense. It’s what it’s what I try to do when I go to a course or something or I’m in a training for a day. I try to actually write down the few pieces of information that seem the most salient to me. and I wish we would take that approach with kids.

JB: Yeah absolutely I mean I think so much of that just reflects what we do as adults you know to learn.

SP and we all know what we all know about this we all know it’s a good idea we simply don’t elevate it to the same level as again I’ll go back to reading and math we’re supposed these three R’s in our national curriculum is reading riting and rithmetic but actually writin has never even been close especially as we get into the secondary level. It’s as though writing just vanishes and I think the exactly the opposite should be true as kids get older writing should take a higher higher level especially as we look at what I’m really not sure what this debate about 21st-century skills is about but I will tell you one thing the number one 21st-century skill is writing we all text we all do email we have to have LinkedIn profiles we have to communicate through writing. And so if you’re walking out of 12th grade and you don’t have a certain handle on writing, your prospects for the future are really limited. Whereas say in the 50s reading would have been that benchmark or that limiting factor today it’s writing. And I think that we should embrace that and that’s probably why we should do writing first. We know kids will learn to read if they write we know they’ll learn to think if they write we know they’ll learn some computer skills if they learn to write. I’d be pretty happy if any kid I knew had that kind of an education.

JB: Yeah absolutely and so much of what we want to happen in those other areas does happen as the as a you know a byproduct or along the way of getting students to do that writing, but the reverse is not true as we said at the beginning right yeah.

So Steve if if someone is interested in becoming a writing first school bringing this philosophy and bringing some of the the specific methodologies and techniques that we’ve touched on a bit today what’s the best place for them to get in touch with you and maybe have a conversation.

SP”yeah the best this is something that plays out very differently in every school and every school has different constraints so the best thing is to get in touch with me on email that’s, and i love to talk with anybody about it we can set up a phone call or a video conference. I can also give out most of how he’s happy to give out copies of my book Be a Better Writer. It’s used quite a lot by kids but also by teachers in schools and some elementary schools have taken it as a study book so I’m always happy to send a copy to to anybody who wants one so I hope to hear from people individually and we’ll take it from.

JB: Wonderful yeah I know we’ve we’ve correspondent for for many years I have probably written more to you and you have other written wanted me than any other people and we probably have you know a hundred thousand words of correspondence between us yes. The book is in I think it’s upstairs in my kid’s room right now be a better writer fabulous resource on you know very specific strategies for improving your writing as you said be strong beginnings and strong endings and lots of other specifics. And I would definitely encourage people to check that out on Amazon or to reach out to you about that.

Tell us just briefly I know we’ve got a we’ve got to go here tell us briefly why you decide I don’t actually know the answer is why did you decide to write a novel pretty recently and what happened?

SP: huh first of all I haven’t finished it that’s the important there’s a really simple thing I have a rule that I will never ask a kid to do something that I haven’t at least tried to do myself. And I realized that I was teaching fiction to a lot of kids and I’m a good fiction writing teacher, I really am, but that I hadn’t really struggled through it enough. So that’s what I’m trying to do now I’m trying to experience what that’s like it’s really hard. I also I’m also realizing that it makes me a better reader, and so as I become a better teacher of fiction writing I think what I’m really doing for most kids is helping them get more out of literature. So that’s probably going to end up being the real reason why I did become a better teacher.

JB: love it love it and and you want some sort of award just like for a—

SP:idea that I won I won an award is called the 2019 or is given by Ingram spark and it was for reading a one-minute spark of your book I read the first four paragraphs and I won. So the first four paragraphs are great you know the rest the rest is gonna take a while but that’s part of it too is you know I want to say kids go ahead give fiction writing a shot. Here’s how it works write something read it to people and don’t die. Just don’t die when they tell you something about it you know just just live to write another day that’s really the thing with fiction.

JB: love it we’ll see if thank you so much for setting aside this time and sharing your perspective and taking my crazy questions. And Heather thank you so much for being our panelists today to share your perspective as a principal appreciate you being here

HBW: my pleasure Thanks

SP:Thanks it was really a great opportunity today I appreciate it all right well we’ll we’ll stay in touch we’ll talk soon and we’ll we’ll get this recording posted for our roundtable members and Steve will send you a copy as well thanks so much and have a great day right take care.

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Roundtable: Robyn Jackson


About Robyn Jackson, PhD.

Robyn Jackson, PhD., is the founder of Mindsteps and the host of School Leadership Re-Imagined, the podcast for school administrators, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders. She’s the award-winning author of 10 books including the best selling The Instructional Leader’s Guide to Strategic Conversations with Teachers and Never Underestimate Your Teachers, which was chosen as an ASCD Member Book.

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