Tabula Rasa

NYS 4th grade math assessment

NYS 4th grade math assessment excerptPlease note bullet two in the above image: "student can erase quickly so that they do not have to suffer the evidence of their mistake."Or bullet one, "the teacher can respond to a hole in student understanding and skills." Or perhaps I should refer to bullet three: "students love both the drill and thrill capability…" These bullets are directly excerpted from the New York State common core curriculum. These bullets are in reference to a long and complex math unit for fourth grade mathematics. Bullet two particularly offends my senses because it suggests that the authors of this curricula (who are not educators, but companies/orgs paid to develop PD by the state) believe there is nothing to learn from a different answer, except shame. It's hard to believe this is on a document that is distributed widely by the New York State Education Department, but it is - in fact the commissioner tweeted about it yesterday.

Commissioner King tweet

Is that what we want - kids to not remember their mistakes? Teachers to fill holes? Kids to be drilled to be thrilled? Is this what we want for our young people? I certainly don't. Do we think teachers are technicians or automatons, such that they have to be given scripts in order to achieve the expected results? I certainly don't.

However, it is clear from the example above that the writers of this curriculum don't agree that teachers' and students' knowledge and voice matter. Teachers are knowledge delivery agents and young people, the receivers. Freire (1968) referred to this as the banking model of education, a model of education that suggests students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. I would argue that the prescriptive curriculum being pushed out by states like New York, under the guise of support, position teachers as empty vessels as well- belying their talent and knowledge by giving them lessons so tightly scripted that in some cases actual phrases are provided for them. For example "student debrief (9 minutes)" or "exit ticket (3 minutes)" or even the emotion to be used (e.g. with excitement!). Of course part of the ethos of schooling and education today is that teachers aren't prepared for the new standards and certainly neither are their students. So the solution? - prescriptive curricula that dictates every minute of everyday, in other words inoculating the classroom of teachers' actual knowledge.

Perhaps this hit home this week because of the reading I've been doing for practitioner inquiry, a course that is helping me to broaden my conceptions of knowledge production, teaching and research. Practitioner inquiry encompasses a range of research approaches that differ in epistemological and ethical commitments, but at the center value practitioner's knowledge and the unique view point they are able to bring through their practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Practitioner research positions practitioners as valid researchers and their knowledge as significant because they are engaged in a particular space, be it a classroom or a teacher team meeting. Moreover, the knowledge generated by practitioners can be made relevant and useful in these studied spaces (Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 2009). The very idea that practitioners, in this case educators, could contribute to the knowledge base about teaching and learning without being a formal researcher is a departure from much of the social science research field and still remains contentious and often critiqued.

Building on the rich history of practitioner research, is an approach to teaching practice that fully embodies inquiry as an integral part of pedagogy: inquiry as stance. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) describe inquiry as stance by saying:"…practice (and thus practitioners' learning) are understood, at their center, to be about inventing and reinventing frameworks for imagining, enacting, and assessing daily work in educational settings." This notion of practice includes the ways practitioners co-construct curriculum with students by investigating experiences, drawing on cultural and linguistic resources, and integrating textual and other knowledge sources. here, what practitioners chose to do at any given moment is understood to be informed by their more comprehensive and nuanced sense-making about a whole host of things- learners, languages, culture, race, class, gender, literacies, disciplinary content, social issues, power, institutions, neighborhoods, histories, communities, materials, texts, technologies, and pedagogies. Thus in all educational settings, practice, which is deeply contextual, relational and interdisciplinary, is also and always theoretical and interpretive."  (p. 134)

This is a definition of teaching that opposes the idea or conception of teacher as technician. It defines teaching as an active, reflective, dynamic and multifaceted role that has little to do with knowledge transfer and much to do with creating space for rich dialogue, thinking and participation. In questioning and critiquing and reflecting and being cognizant about how the world shapes (and is shaped by) their work with students and colleagues- practitioners don't simply act as mediators of isolated knowledge, they co-construct knowledge and act in ways that challenge the norms to which we we have become accustomed. Thus, inquiry as stance, is activist, not simply in service of questioning for the sake of being oppositional but rather to be critical.This last piece is important. There is strong anti-teacher, anti-educator and anti-student rhetoric that permeates public discourse. Students and teachers are both faulted for lack of performance on standardized measures. The solution of course is to valorize standardization and measure both teachers and students using assessments that are again divorced from their context and histories. There is also, as evidenced by the above curriculum, a weighty distrust of what teachers can do at the district or state level. They are often othered in policy conversations. I've lived through that and am never failed to be amazed when people with fewer and fewer years of teaching experience become leaders in educational organizations (like districts) and make major decisions that impact teachers but don't include their voice.

So when I see this curriculum, I'm again reminded of the uphill battle that remains, in trying to shift the paradigm to valuing educators and students' voices in a substantial way, so that they aren't positioned as empty vessels or blank slates, waiting for the next off-the-shelf solution.  Teaching is more than that - much more.


Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.


What happened to me Saturday was nothing short of a miracle. I was riding the 1 train downtown in New York on my way to meet friends for dinner. I got onto the subway and plopped into an empty seat and uncharacteristically slipped the straps of my backpack off and leaned back against it. As I contemplated which stop was closer to my destination, at the last-minute, I chose to jump off at 59th street. Immediately, I was struck with horror, feeling lighter than I knew I should- my laptop and all my dissertation ideas were in that bag. I turned back to the train and banged on the doors, crying out, "Please stop the train! Please! Please! Please stop the train!" I banged on the train and pleaded but it pulled out of the station. An older gentleman pulled me from the train and said, "Stop you'll hurt yourself." In shock, I ran to the MTA agent behind the booth and pleaded with him to stop the train, mentioning that my laptop and all my belongings were inside. While he of course couldn't stop the train he began to radio the conductor on the train I had been on, as well as others.After many calls and much waiting, I heard someone had found my bag and let the conductor know they would return it to the closest station. Hope! The MTA agent assisting continued to try and track down my bag. I kept hoping it would turn up - and eventually went to the police precinct to file a report. At the precinct, I sat down and filled out a form, listing all the valuable items in my bag starting with my laptop. As I waited for the officer to complete his end of the paperwork, I fidgeted with my phone. Suddenly, I noticed I had gotten a new school e-mail with the title, "Found bag!" I screamed out to the officer - "Oh my god! Someone e-mailed me, he has my bag!" We were able to get in touch over the phone and two officers went to pick up my bag. Ten minutes later, the officers and another man walked into the precinct. The man who saved my laptop, was a graduate student at a local university. He said he saw me banging on the doors as the train pulled away. He had looked through my bag to figure out if he could return it, eventually found my student ID and that's how he got in touch.Let me just say, losing and getting anything back off a moving train is hard to imagine, losing a laptop and expecting to get it back - nearly impossible. But, there he was, the person who had taken the time and effort to get in touch with me via e-mail and twitter (he created an account just to tweet me). He explained that he felt bad when he saw that I had left my laptop and wanted to make sure I got it back. Amazing. Am-aaaaaa-zing!The evening was full of lessons about hope, kindness and empathy. From the man who kept me back from the train, to the MTA agent who orchestrated the search, to the police officers who took action, to the student who brought my backpack to me, I was shown much kindness and empathy and therefore, given much hope. As I recounted this to my professor yesterday, it occurred to me that I shouldn't be surprised. New York City is where I have experienced some of the most kind and humane acts amongst perfect strangers; many of them on the subway. But it's always nice to be reminded that the very notion of a "random act of kindness" exists because there are people who care about others in their community /society/world and are willing to take time to do something without expecting a thing in return, simply to be kind. That's inspiring. So thank you to all those kind people- you truly warmed my heart.

Making to Learn

Winter break has been well, just that, a change from an otherwise intense semester. The first week of my break was full of cooking, baking, gift wrapping and, attending and coordinating family events. I went from frantic proofreading, revisions and EBSCO searches to rapidly making dough, rolling out cookies, and packaging sweet treats. For nearly a week I woke up feeling more like a catering manager than a graduate student. Truth be told - I loved it! Albeit frenetic, making and baking was an excellent break from an intense semester. It required a completely different set of modalities. I had to be focused on technique and timing but also artistry and of course taste.Baking is all about precision: you need to be precise about timing, quantities and the order things happen. Baking new things can be challenging, even with a recipe. Getting mentally attuned to what the recipe requires and knowing what type of result to expect is an important part of the process. For example, on my last major day of baking, I attempted to make cream scones. I had made scones using buttermilk, but since I was making these for a high tea, cream scones were more appropriate. The recipe I selected made roughly a dozen scones, so I could have doubled it to meet my needs. However, I went through the motions once to see if I understood the technique. When I saw the cream scones had risen and more importantly tasted yummy - I was ecstatic. I made the second batch with confidence.My baking journey has been interesting, in that it started with a kid’s curiosity. I have fond memories of my mom making cakes, tea cakes, and magic layer bars to name a few. At Christmas, my aunt started me on the tradition of baking cookies and showing me techniques like painting icing. While I grew up in a household where cooking was the norm, baking was not as common. However, it intrigued me, perhaps because I had sweet tooth. So, when I was about nine while grocery shopping, I convinced my dad to purchase a box of chocolate chip cookie mix. I burned that first batch by leaving them in the oven too long, but it didn’t matter because I was hooked. From then on, and supported by my family (who generously gifted me pans, mixers, spatulas and other tools to support me over the years) I was given the space to make. Over time, I gained confidence in following recipes and incorporating new techniques into my repertoire eventually ridding the need for boxed mixes. I filled my cabinets with the ingredients I needed to always be able to make cookies or cake. It's been more than twenty years since that first box of cookie mix, but because I had a willing audience (my family) and the resources my learning has never stopped.Without appropriate tools or access to an oven or the ingredients, I wouldn’t have been able to make the many baked goods I have over the years. Having an audience was also integral to my learning and growth. Along the way, I’ve had people who could appreciate my performance (baking) and give me feedback. At times, my interest and confidence waned, the lack of practice often got me feeling like I couldn’t do things and the longer I stayed away, the longer it took me to get back into the zone. However, the holidays are always a time for me to reinvigorate my passion because of family and friends. In addition to the physical tools, and an audience, I also have found online videos, recipe sites and, of course in-person advice to be invaluable in guiding my learning.As I reflected back over my frenetic week of baking, it occurred to me how my own theories of learning have been very active in my development as a baker. Over the years I had time, space, support (including people and tools) that led to learning and growth. As I’ve mentioned often on this blog and via my tweets, schools don’t seem to have this luxury. But – why not? What would school be like if learners the time to master a skill or sit with a concept or idea? What would it be like if teachers and students were not affected by standards or bureaucratic rules about time spent with kids, or time on task? Even the performances suggested by existing and new standards like the Common Core are limiting, the performances and results are pre-determined. A good performance or product is not validated or evaluated by the learner but by a teacher, and with the Common Core, these are often dictated via sample scoring sheets. These standards suggest that learning is about mastery of content and particular processes, for example, a method to solving a particular math problem. So even with all the talk of “multiple solution paths” there are still a set of right and wrong that are evaluated externally.Could we turn this on its head? Research on teaching and learning suggests that unless learning experiences are personally meaningful and connected to youth’s interests, passions and curiosities that they can be mis-educative or wasted (Dewey, 1938; Papert, 1993). Being engaged in the production or creation of something that takes time and iteration gives learners opportunities to refine their technique, devise solutions and navigate challenges, while also becoming more critical about the product but also the process. Kids also need space to make mistakes - a safe space where getting the wrong answer is not failure but rather a learning moment. I would not have gotten nearly as far if my burnt cookies were thrown in the trash. Instead, I was lucky that my parents encouraged me to scrape the bottoms off with a butter knife and salvage the rest of the cookies. That moment has stuck with me. I believe we can change classrooms to be about these moments- to focus on the journey or the process and to allow learners passions and interests to be valued and remain central to the trajectory of the classroom. Content mastery means nothing in a world of wikipedia and google, what does matter is giving kids ways to solve problems, to develop resilience and criticality, to be thoughtful and to define their own version of success. The more they practice, make, produce, the more this will become possible.ReferencesDewey, J. (1938). Experience in Education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi.Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.


I like so many millions around the world felt tears rush to my eyes when I saw the words in print- Nelson Mandela, dead at 95. I was struck by the outpouring of grief across media. Every site I turned to had a different picture of Madiba, an iconic figure who did in fact change our world. As the President reported yesterday, we will likely not see someone like him again. The evidence of Nelson Mandela's imprint on the world was visible across the web yesterday just after 5:30pm (EST): each site posting several different pictures and articles about him. As I looked across them, I thought that even in death, he managed to bring the world a little closer together - with so many of us confronting his likeness as we went about our everyday. I am left overwhelmed and inspired by his legacy. I have no idea what the future holds but I do hope that his memory and his sacrifice persist.

Madiba Washington Post
Madiba NY Times
Madiba- Wall Street Journal


The summer has been a nice respite from an otherwise busy academic year. Perhaps what is unique about it is the amount of quiet time I've had to sit with ideas, develop and respond to questions and try things out. For example, one day I spent nearly twelve hours working on some sample Scratch projects I might try out in the fall with new students. My office was quiet, I was armed with enough water and snacks to sustain me and I had my laptop charger. And- I had the luxury of time on my side. That day, I not only worked on the larger objective of developing a sample to share but I also dug into the details. This included painstakingly editing my characters (or sprites) to make the animations more realistic, scouring the internet for images that would bring my story to life and perfecting small little details to get my project to work the way I wanted. At the end of it I had a robust prototype that I could proudly share with others. I felt like I had learned more about how to work with Scratch in that one day then in all the other short sessions I had over the course of the year because in those cases, I was always rushing somewhere else and I couldn't invest the time.Interestingly, this same theme of time was evident in many of my students' reflections on our Spring Scratch workshop. In their interviews and on a survey where they reflected on the course, they explained that they liked having the time to work on their projects. My students appreciated the lack of lecture and mentioned that they liked the mini debugging activities that I had selected to help them get more comfortable with Scratch. I, and my co-teacher were truly in a facilitation role: we worked with students as they had questions or ran into a challenge their group members couldn't help them with. If you had walked into that room on any Wednesday, you would have observed a scene that included the following: students typing, chatting, moving between tables to ask questions - some kids had their headphones on, others just played music. Some sat on desks, others on chairs. Those things didn't matter, because my role was to help them to get where they wanted to go, in this case, to complete an app.In the end, every group had created their own app that ranged in content, aesthetics, complexity and functionality. However, they all felt good that they got to this point. And this is because they had something that is a scarce resource in K-12 schools: time. I gave my students the time they needed to work on problems they were interested in solving. There is much research to suggest that when youth are engaged in personally meaningful making and have time to develop their ideas and can also reach out for support, that they are inclined to continue to refine and develop a range of robust artifacts ranging from television shows to video games to books.Notice I didn't use the word "flipped classroom" or phrases like "personalized learning plan" or any other buzz word that get co-opted by a range of people/organizations to sell the experience I described above. Creating time and space in schools for youth and teachers to pursue meaningful problems would put a lot of people out of business. This time would include time to plan, time to think, time to read, time to ask questions. If you stepped back and removed the test prep and the obsession on elevating "the skills" or "the standards" that kids must gain, there would be time for kids to actually be engaged in meaningful learning of their choosing.Though I am happy the students felt good about their final apps and their overall experience, I am still concerned about how these ideas might be made useful in more traditional settings. Questions that I as a teacher and researcher am continuing to ask:

  • what should I have done with youth who didn't get as much time in Scratch because they were responsible for the art or imagery and chose to work in other programs?
  • how do I support the youth who want to learn but might find the orientation of this kind of classroom space confusing or in opposition to their other class experiences?
  • acknowledging that traditional classrooms differ from after school or out of school classroom spaces, how do I research the lived experiences of kids in these creative contexts?