Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars

As I shuffled half-awake through our carport and down the white concrete driveway toward the curb, I craned my neck and gazed into the predawn, winter sky to check in with my favorite constellation, Orion. I first became acquainted with Orion at Trenton Planetarium. My father occasionally took my brothers and me when we were smaller to the museum, and as a special treat, sometimes we got to attend the planetarium show.

The show took us into the evening sky with various segues of classical music and narration describing the constellations that appeared during different phases of the night. Different narrators followed the same script each time, and I anticipated Orion as the black sky began to pink just a bit. Superimposed on the angular and illuminated network was a muscular hunter attacking with his bronze club.  He was depicted as more modern than ancient and reminded me of my fuzzy bearded GI Joe doll poised for combat. Over again, we heard the story of his adventures and ascension to the firmament at the hand of Diana. 

As a twelve-year-old paper boy, I delivered the first news that nearly seventy families received in my neighborhood each day. At five o’clock on the morning of December 8, 1980, the weather was a bit warmer than usual at about 41 degrees Fahrenheit. I didn’t even bother to put on my jacket to go outside. Reaching the bottom of my driveway, I looked down from my view of Orion and leaned over to pick up the bundle of newspapers. The headline on the top copy read “John Lennon Shot Dead.”


I remember loping back to the house a bit panicked with my newspapers, calling to my Dad, who was pouring coffee from a percolator and humming. I hollered as if one of my friends had been injured playing street hockey out front or maybe fell of his bicycle, and we needed an adult to come out and see what happened, “Dad, I can’t believe it! John Lennon was shot last night!”


“I’m sorry to hear that, Matthew,” Dad poured me some coffee, “What a shame.” We both sat down at the kitchen table to read the story in troubled silence. 

Of course, I wasn’t but a couple of years old when the Beetles disbanded, but my sister had several of their albums that we played on the stereo in the living room. Like many adolescents, even to this day, I was deeply interested in the group and knew all their songs by heart. I even bought a copy of Double Fantasy, released just a few weeks before David Chapman fired five shots at Lennon on the street in Manhattan.

John Lennon was so real to me. I felt like I had met him. I’d read enough about him to learn the meanings behind so many of his songs as they were weaved with recent history. The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film had come out just a couple of years earlier in 1978, re-energizing Beetles’ music along with the intrigue of my friends and me. We were John Lennon fans, and all of us saw the movie and pretended to be characters in it.

After my dad helped me fold my papers, I peddled out on my bicycle, making diagonal cutbacks from house to house, delivering sad news with a discus throw toward each porch under streetlights and Orion’s fading action pose. His singular bright stars, including red Betelgeuse perhaps long exploded 642 light years ago, pressed together in my vision blurred with occasional tears. In my imagination, John Lennon climbed the sky on musical notes to join him.  


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Pi is a Piece of Your Imagination

Let them eat Pi! I think.

Students and teachers across the nation and perhaps around the world will be celebrating Pi day tomorrow, March 14th. Maybe you’ll bake or buy a pie or just have a slice. I like to make an apple pie now and again but only when I think there will be enough people coming over for dinner – Thanksgiving perhaps – to finish the pie. Leftover pie is a real problem for me because I will eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and as a snack until it is gone.

My wife’s Granddaddy Pete used to say that cutting a pie into more than four pieces is wasteful! I agree, and I love that a pie, no matter what kind it is, apple, blueberry, chocolate, coconut cream, or even pot pie, it is always a circle!

Circles are beautiful and mysterious. I think about how often spheres occur in nature, but I believe that the source of the majority of circles, the two-dimensional brother to the sphere, is the human hand. Whether with a compass, a string, or a rope, it is so easy to make a perfect circle. One feature of a circle, the ratio of its diameter to its circumference (Pi) can be calculated to within a whisper but can never be known.

It is estimated that perhaps 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians began the quest to find pi, and through all the ages of human history, including our present information age, we have added to the numbers on the right of pi’s decimal, but the rest is up to our imagination.

Pi represents the balance between information and imagination. Like mathematics, a circle is a human construct to capture the imagination and harness it for a wheel’s perpetual properties or the fair and foul fathoms of a baseball field. Try as we may, nonetheless, we will never know pi.

So, tomorrow, celebrate the unknown and unknowable with a piece of delicious pie! In this day and age – the information age no less – we think we can know everything. Celebrate that we cannot and that there is beauty and imagination in trying. Droves of students will recite pi. Greater numbers still will stand by with smiles in awe of the effort. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Open Your Heart to Epiphany

This past Sunday at my church, Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Charlottesville Virginia, our minister, Reverend Scott Davis talked about the Epiphany in a way I had never heard it described before. Scott delivers wonderful and enlightening messages to help us reflect on how we live our lives as part of our community. In every “sermon” he delivers, there is a powerful takeaway rooted in story.

Historically, Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and commemorates the visit of the three wise men to the newborn Jesus. We often use the word “epiphany” interchangeably with “surprise” or “discovery.” Scott turned this idea around by telling the story of the origin of 3-Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura - Oops! I dropped the lemon tart recipe. In the video in the link I provided, Bottura explains that there is poetry all around us, and we should always be ready to see things that others don’t imagine. Thanks to this paradigm, he created a new lemon tart recipe from a disastrous mistake on the part of his student. He turned a failure into an opportunity to innovate and to teach compassion and forgiveness.

According to Reverend Davis, an epiphany is not an extrinsic surprise. If we are open to creativity, we sense the world around us in a different way and see opportunities to lift others with positive changes. These chances to help others see beauty in our everyday world are all around us. We just have to open our hearts.

Scott’s story reminded me of a pleasant surprise I had on the Sunday after thanksgiving. I was washing my truck out in the driveway. It was a little after 5:00 in the evening; the orange sun was low, and it was getting a little chilly, so I was rushing to finish when something caught my eye.

A few years ago I spread river rock in some of the beds around our house. There is a patch of it between the garage and the driveway. I was reeling out an electrical cord to run the shop vac, and I saw what I thought was a little white rock smiling up at me from among the others in the patch. I did a double-take. Sometimes shadows can make a pattern, but sure enough there was indeed a pebble grinning up at me from the rocky bed as if someone had drawn a face on it with a sharpie. I felt a little silly when I realized I was smiling back at the rock.

I looked around for more, pacing slowly around the house, and there were half-a-dozen of them in various places. As I picked up one near the deck, I could see Lainey, my twelve-year-old, in the window. Her beaming face told me all I needed to know. I waved to her; she waved back.

Before finishing up with the truck, I pulled one of our red plastic lawn chairs out in the driveway and – still grinning – sat and watched as the last bit of sun set behind the leafless trees. I could hear a train rumbling off in the distance. I admit, my eyes welled a little as I thought about Lainey, and how joyful she is. I take things too seriously, so seriously that I can fail to see the poetry, the epiphanies around me.

Lainey was reminding me to be on the lookout, to be creative, to open my heart.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

How do We Unstandardize Testing?

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in on a fireside chat with Dr. Pam Moran, our Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent and twenty-five or so teachers across grade levels, school administrators, instructional coaches, and the like. The chat was a closing session to our division-wide professional development day, Making Connections. Participants talked about many local and national school-related topics in this informal setting, and the conversation drifted toward assessment.

It seems like almost all of our chats, fireside or not, can lead us to state or nationally imposed standardized tests. Anyone following these conversations is bound to see that change is once more upon us. While assessment has been driven by politicians, state departments, philanthropists, and – depending on how you look at it – educators for the past couple of decades, it is certain that the next generation of American public schools will enable and foster assessments determined by  perhaps – again – educators, parents, and believe it or not, children. For a terrific read on this topic, I recommend The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be by Anya Kamenetz.

I bring this up, because during Pam’s chat, Andrew Wymer, a terrific Physical Education teacher at Burley Middle School, made a comment aligned with Kamenetz’s prediction about students’ self-assessment in the near future. Kamenetz refers to testing for accountability as a motor built on mistrust. This motor is running out of gas in terms of political support, but what will come in its wake? If we seize this momentary lapse as a chance to do what is right for students, we will balance assessment and put the “test” in the hand of the student to exercise Daniel Pink’s defined drivers for learning:autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Essentially, what will be the context for these drivers and the content mastery that students measure? Andrew said, and I paraphrase, that the context should be the student’s health and well-being. We have far too long made the so called core subjects the center and even the basis of our work. They are important, but only as far as they fuel curiosity, learning, and purpose in the context of the child’s well-being. We treat healthy living as a curriculum, and it is squeezed in around the edges of academics. How might we redesign schools so that each student’s health and personal development comes first as the educational container with everything else fitting into and supporting it? Why not? Keep the math, science, civics, and language arts framed within the whole and individual child. From there, help students learn to assess themselves against competency measures while periodically participating in low-stakes “tests” for school responsibility to impart the guaranteed curriculum. 

It will take a lot of smarts and hard work to make these changes, and I think it’s a more sustainable, rational, and balanced approach. Designing learning and assessment in this way is more divergent, less predictable, and hardly standardized – kind of like high quality learning?


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Whatsoever You Do...

          Ever since my dad passed away a few years ago, his younger brother Ray and I meet for lunch three or four times a year. My Uncle Raymond turned eighty this year, and he is one of the wisest people I know. We talk about faith and books; we reminisce about my dad; we talk about our careers; and we talk a lot about education. When we part, Raymond always braces my shoulders, looks me deep into the eyes, and tells me in his bass-toned voice, “Matthew, you are doing God’s work.” It’s hard for me to convey the positive impact his words have on me.

          The last time we met, Ray said something I’ve been pondering: “Matthew, people say that we are what we think we are, but when we are small – children – we are and become what the people important to us tell us we are.” Of course, the flip-side of this comment is that “big” people are equally defined by how we treat those who are small, the least of us. We cannot be great and mistreat the people who depend on us most, often children.

          One of my favorite metaphors from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is his -explanation of the “trim tab.” He illustrates the idea that tall orders of change begin with the smallest of changes, similar to the way an ocean liner’s ten-story tall rudder is first pushed by its tiny trim tab; the whole ship then begins to veer. I believe it. I also believe that the direction we take as a society, in particular as public schools, is defined by how we treat the smallest of us and those who depend on schools the most to meet their learning, social, and physical needs. Are all the responsibilities to transport, feed, accommodate, and nurture children of all strengths and challenges unfair? I don’t think so.

          American public schools exist to share with all. Our schools are like a ten-story rudder guiding the nation to a better place, a smarter society, a world-driving economy and democracy. It all starts when we first reach out to take the hand of a four- or five-year-old who needs us, and we do our best for the least.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Remember to Let Him Go

My father could recite Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He learned the poem from his mother during childhood in the 1930’s in a household where storytelling and songs were a source of learning and entertainment, prior to the advent of television. He had a gift for hearing and remembering and storytelling. The powerful part of this gift was his application of the stories he knew to everyday life.

In 1955, my parents bought their first home at 48 Eaton Road, Bordentown, New Jersey. In 1968, I was born into their family as their fourth child. I’ve been reflecting today on that house and its location, and I realize that I never thanked my parents for choosing the house they did. New Jersey is densely populated and industrial in many places. My home town, however, is shouldered by the Delaware River and Crosswicks Creek, a tributary to which flowed like an artery a couple of hundred yards behind my house: Thornton Creek.

Most of my childhood, I existed between the banks of that creek. Even in the winter, I stepped on its surface, peering through the ice into deep, clear pools. I can still feel the surface of the ice with my cheek. During the spring, summer, and fall, I walked the creek, eventually with hip-wader boots I bought with paper route money. I often had a bucket or two in hand, and sometimes a net. I was on the lookout for minnows, frogs, snakes, turtles, all creatures of the woods, as we called the narrow strip of green space between streets. As crowded as my neighborhood seemed sometimes, I almost always had the quarter-mile stretch of creek between Thorntown Lane and Charles Bossert Drive all to myself. Later I would learn that I was sloshing in the footsteps of an earlier “owner” of the creek, Joseph Bonaparte (Napolean’s brother).

I took playing in the creek for granted then, but looking back in time, I now believe that my escape into the quiet, green, and vital space encouraged me and helped me make sense of life. It was all by hand by sight and touch and concentration, and the noise of life washed away with the sometimes thin and sometimes voluminous flow of the water over white, brown, and gray rocks and pebbles and sediment. Looking at my hands now, it’s hard to imagine them in youth through a few inches of water, but I do see them. I see and feel them in the chill of the creek, groping the edges of a large and flat rock and deciding how to best leverage and slowly lift it.  Setting it sideways, I wait as the brown cloud of dregs swirls and lightens to reveal the creatures hiding under the rock, perhaps a crayfish or salamander. And then the challenge to trap it with my hands, no matter the animal. Once I leaned over and watched a foot long gray American Eel resting on the creek’s bed for so long that my leg fell asleep while I moved my hands closer and closer until I grabbed and tossed it into my three-gallon bucket.

When my dad came home from work, I showed him my eel and he told me the story of the eel and how this fish had been born South of Bermuda in the Sargasso Sea and had swum into the Delaware Bay up through the river into the tides of Crosswicks Creek, arriving at our creek. Dad got out the volume of our family’s encyclopedia set that contained information about American Eels, and we figured by the size of the eel that it was probably seven or eight years old, just about my age at the time. We were on the patio of our house. In the summer, my dad had a habit of taking off his work shirt and drinking a beer out back in his t-shirt before dinner.

The cool of the evening was finally starting to grow from the shade as he said, “That eel will be happier when you remember to let him go, Matthew. He has to someday find his way back to the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to the sea where he was born so that he can start his own family. He can rest here tonight, but I promise he’ll thank you when you let him go."

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Early the next morning, I found the impatient eel already traveling in the dew-soaked grass toward the creek. I went down ahead of him to the creek for a fresh bucket of water and came back to give him a more comfortable ride to its bank. Before tilting the bucket low enough in the current for the eel to escape, I wished him a safe journey and imagined the towns and people he would pass on his way, gray and silent and quick. I prayed that he would make it home, and I let him go.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Feedback Doesn't Have To Be Scary

Growing up in New Jersey during the 1970’s and 80’s was great. One of the benefits of living there is that no matter where you live, you are really very close to the beach or Jersey Shore, as we referred to it. Annually, my parents would rent the same house on the same street in Ship Bottom. My parents would put a down payment on the house every fall and save all year long for the vacation to come. We loved everything about the Jersey Shore: the white beach and blue-green surf, the ice cream parlors and beach shops, and the sturdy boardwalks and amusement piers that dash the coast.  Yes, there was a lot to do on our trips, but beginning in the mid 1970’s my brothers and sister and I began an extreme nagging campaign for Dad to take us to the haunted house on the Brigantine Pier. We began the campaign each spring as the pier’s commercials started airing on local television. My dad resisted the nagging. The Brigantine Pier was indirectly about an hour away from our beach house, but that didn’t matter to us. Admission was $22.50  in 1978 for five of us. With inflation, that would be $82.10 today, but that didn’t matter to us. The line outside the castle would take hours to negotiate for the momentary thrill, but that didn’t matter to us either. What mattered most is that we would be terrified.

Finally, my dad acquiesced, and Brigantine was horrifying, as promised. Even my dad jerked backwards and nearly knocked me down when a blood-soaked, cleaver-wielding kook in a white butcher's apron seemed to come within inches of touching his arm. A haunted house is an assault on our senses, our primary and most involuntary source of feedback. During the dark places, we lose use of senses and have to guess based on what we hear or feel as feedback to believe what is happening. I have a visceral memory of gripping my sister’s hand in a black-dark hallway of the house where squeaking sounds permeated the air and “hairy,” rubbery, invisible “rats” tickled our sunburned legs. I still get a chill. In all haunted houses, sudden and close movements from human or mannequin fiends challenge our sense of space and instigate a fight or flight response: sensory overload. But we live and thrive and learn from the use of our senses and the feedback they provide, so they can't be ignored. I think that’s why haunted houses are so scary.

So if you decided to read this blog, you are probably wondering by now what a haunted house in New Jersey has to do with feedback for student learning. I would submit that feedback of all kinds is such a lifeline for the growing mind that negative or counterproductive feedback for student work has the same horrifying impact on learning as a haunted house has on its visitors. I believe that ineffective feedback slows students down at best and causes them to quit at its worst.

I really hope Grant Wiggins won’t mind the poetic license I’m taking with his piece, Seven Keys to Effective Feedback from 2012, but when I read this piece I couldn’t help but have nightmares about the pretty scary job I did in providing feedback to students when I was teaching English a couple of  decades ago. I’m even more afraid when I see those same practices persisting today in spite of all the reform efforts around teaching and learning that have taken place since the 1990’s. In Grant Wiggins’s piece, he provides seven conditions for feedback for growth. That’s appealing. Sometimes, however, in order to catalyze improvement, we need to know the why behind the reasons to improve. The reasons are not always a glass-half-full, so to speak. I’ve heard that it’s important to confront some of the brutal issues or horrors around a practice. More time spent on feedback and improved feedback practices promote quality learning; simultaneously, abandoning the scary practices of feedback should at least reduce negative results.

I’m assuming that haunted house designers have one goal: create as much senseless fear as possible in participants. They backwards map the house from this target and provide inconsistent and relentless unproductive feedback. I would also submit that no teacher starts the school year with the goal of creating senseless fear – or possibly apathy – in students through untimely and inconsistent feedback. Intentions aside, this image has become a caricature of the educational process.  Proper feedback for student work should be timely, consistent, and oriented to students’ learning goals for the course. 

With scary feedback, students are unclear about the goals for a learning task. The teacher assigns a “project,” writing prompt, reading assignment, or math practice without articulating up front what goals are for students. In this case, the goal for the student is simply to complete the work and see what happens. It’s like getting in line for the haunted house with the goal of just making it through. According to Wiggins, “Learners are often unclear about the specific goal of a task or lesson, so it is crucial to remind them about the goal and the criteria by which they should self-assess.” Haunted houses are often frightening because the passenger is forced to keep walking and negotiating the course, although the way ahead is unclear and the feedback coming from his senses is opaque at best. The best thing to do in this case is to duck and run if possible. Wiggins suggests that feedback should be tangible and noticeable for the learner if it is to be productive. For example, why observe several students give speeches as an assignment with minimal feedback opportunities from the teacher when they can readily video their own speeches repeatedly for self and peer assessment?

Another tactic, telling a student he has written a “weak paper,” is a dreadful thing to do. It is a useless form of feedback with awful consequences. It evokes the same fight or flight response as the screaming ghoul in a haunted house because it is neither actionable nor user-friendly. I’ll bet, however, that anyone reading this blog – unless you have been very lucky – has received feedback like this at least once. Feedback should be criterion referenced base on the articulated learning goal for the work. A student’s score on one criterion should communicate implicitly the “how to” of improving current or future work. Writing a pejorative comment on a child’s paper is malpractice, and it’s scary.

      Another source of negative feedback is “overwhelming feedback.” Like the loud and overlapping shrieks emitting from the crevices of a haunted house, overwhelming feedback is neither actionable nor user-friendly. Denny Wolfe, the professor who taught my teaching methods class when I was an undergraduate stated it this way: “The more you cover, the less the student will uncover.” In other words, the more red marks you put on a child’s writing, the less he will learn from it. A few choice pieces of actionable feedback will result in the student “uncovering” learning from your insights. 

I’ll admit that in writing this blog entry, I’m probably employing some of the same bad practices for feedback that I’m complaining about. My goal is not guilt or accusation, however, it is to demonstrate how pointless and harmful some of our most entrenched grading and “feedback” practices appear to be. Shouldn’t the goal of feedback be to make students smarter? Students must be challenged; there is no doubt about it. They should be challenged and motivated to learn and grow and to develop a growth mindset. Appropriate feedback appeals to the human desire for autonomy in setting goals and selecting tools for improved performance. It also guides mastery and aligns with the learner’s purpose for truly engaging with the work at hand. Consider Daniel Pink’s take on best practices in compensating and reinforcing effort with higher order work as presented in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

It is never too late to start a new instructional practice, especially when you know that one you are using is harmful. Consider the guilt and hesitation that 19th century physicians confronted when they realized that washing their hands would kill germs and reduce patient mortality rates. They first had to admit that by not washing their hands, they had harmed patients in the past. We now take the practice of hand washing for granted. If you have been providing haunted and scary feedback to students, abandon it and start over by replacing your past strategies with what you really know will work. If personal hygiene evolved, why can’t instructional practices?


The haunted house at Brigantine is gone. It closed in 1984 and later burned to nothing. All that is left of the pier are stubby posts protruding from the surf. There is no foundation on which to build it again, and yet millions of visitors carry hair-raising memories of the place. It’s funny, but because of the way our minds work as children, we felt a involuntary impulse to go through it, much like students as captive audiences for schools and classes. Submission to the call to tour the ghost infested mansion had be daunting; it was a haunted house. A student’s submission of work to a teacher doesn’t have to be so. It can be positive. It can and should be an opportunity, a foundation, for learning and growth.