Resist Teaching

I’m sitting near a smouldering fire leftover from the night before. Behind me the Mae Teng River unwinds like a dropped spool of yarn, slowly passing Pok Koh Lam- a small Karen hill tribe village in northern Thailand. I’m talking to Jen about crippled butterflies, teaching and learning, the power of letting go and trusting kids. We are waiting for the group of students that we have both been teaching for the last few days, to show us that they have indeed learned the lessons we’ve been teaching them all week.

“You’ve never heard the story of the cripple butterfly?” She asks as I poke the ashes with my foot, hoping the red ember might catch alight and stop smoking. The morning is brisk and I am ready for the day of rafting that lays ahead. I shake my head no and look forward to listen to what she is about to tell me. I am hoping the tale will match the philosophy we both share when it comes to teaching kids how to be independent.

Well, there was this young boy who really loved being outside and alone. He would playing in the creek and the woods and gather the flora and fauna and keep meticulous track of it in his home. He was a young scientist of sorts. One day this boy found a cocoon of a butterfly, and the next day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further.

So the boy decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The boy continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

The boy asked his dad what had gone wrong and the father told him in his kindness and haste, the boy did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were a way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

Jen finishes her story and the kids start to make their way down to the rafts and soon we are on our way down the rapids, but this story which I have upon some research learned is a Muslim fable, stayed with me.

It has had me thinking, not only about outdoor and adventure experiences, but it also about parent my own kids and how I teach the students in my classes everyday.

How often do we let our students make their own way from their cocoons?

How often do we give-in to the urge to cut them free?

Let me share another story from the last week I spent in Chiang Mai on our school’s annual grade 8 advent trip to Chiang Mai Thailand, where our kids among other things: trek, cave, river raft, set up their own shelters and cook their own food. They start the week as helpless children and with some coaching, teaching and scaffolding, the idea is that by week’s end they are self-sufficient.

Pok Koh Lam is a test of sorts. It’s the night where the students are left to their own devices to set up camp, cook food, clean up and go to sleep. Only to wake up the next day, with a letter of instructions telling them to be down at camp ready to go the next morning.

My story began, with Jen and I, waiting to see if our butterflies would make down to camp without us cutting the cocoon, because we both share the philosophy that for kids to learn teachers must resist the urge to constantly step in.

In outdoor this urge to fix and help is pretty obvious. You observe a group of students arguing about how to scramble eggs, you being an adult and knowing how to scramble eggs, walk over and show them how to do it. It feels good. You are a teacher and this is teaching. Right?

But what if you had already shown them how to scramble eggs a few days ago, and now you just wait to see how they might resolve the issue on their own? This is what it means to resist teaching, when what you really want is for kids to learn.

Sure the eggs might turn out badly, and yes a terrible fight might break out, the list of things that could go wrong are limitless, but what if you weren’t there at all and left the kids to sort it out on their own?

Time and time again on these trips, under Jen’s tutelage I have learned that letting go and trusting that the kids will work it out,  through the process of being left alone, is when they they will do their best learning. Three years running on this trip and working with Jen, and I am amazed at the growth of my kids show at the end of the week. When we set the challenge and give enough support and scaffolding when they need it most, usually at the start, the kids step up to the challenge and break free of their own cocoons and are able to fly in the end.

Where else can we apply this philosophy?

I’m going to mix my metaphors , so please stay with me. Sometimes, usually, there is a bit more nuance between helicopter teaching and a no-hands on approach, especially with middle school learners. Kids between the ages of eleven and fourteen need a sort of manual clutch system of teaching and learning.

Think about driving a manual transmission car- there is a sweet spot between pushing the gas and lifting the clutch. A moment when the car is engaged and ready to move forward and the gas allows it to accelerate.

Middle school learners need this level of support and teaching. If left on their own too many times when success is not possible, they will lose motivation and will not be able to free themselves from the cocoon. If, however, they are given too much teaching, hovered over and not allowed to fail they will expect a teacher to always be there and never be able to fly on their own. They will not learn.

The secret is knowing how and when to administer just the right amount of teaching and when to lay-off and allow them to accelerate. (Fly? now I am getting confused)

In the jungle, I wanted to jump-in every chance I had, but Jen would remind me to trust the kids and our own teaching and to leave them alone. “Let me go see how the cooking is going, let me give them some advice on the bivy, let me, let me….” What I wanted to say was- let me do it for them to make sure it is done right. But doing it for them is not teaching.

Now that I am back from the trip, I am left asking myself how often am I over teaching and getting in the way of the learning? How well am I driving this car?

I am grateful that the workshop model meshes well with the cocoon philosophy- teach the kids early and a lot. Then later confer and see how they are doing and customize your teaching to their specific needs. But even in conferences, so many times when a student is silent or thinking or unsure, I just want to jump in and teach them rather than let them take their time to learn by doing it themselves.

Not sure if this post had a point, but it has been on my mind since the trip and I would love to hear your thoughts? What have been your successes with letting go and trusting kids? What have been the disasters from this method? Or have you had success proactively teaching and guiding students to success?

Please share your your thoughts and stories in the comments below.


Listen Up Gentlemen!

Spent Saturday and all day today at a Literacy Exchange at our school. We are working with Singapore American School and The Jakarta Intercultural School to compare our experiences with the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Program.

On a side note- Thanks to Anne Marie​ Chow and Scott Riley for a facilitating a seamless learning experience.

But what I found most fascinating, and the big idea behind this post was- who spoke the most, when and how often. The majority of the participants were women. I would say about 90%. I noticed because there were very few men in the room and it felt a bit strange.

However, despite the lack of numbers the men seemed to always speak first, whether it was at small tables or in whole class sessions when the facilitators were eliciting information.

After I realized that I too was always one of the first people to speak, I tried a little experiment- I would resist the urge to speak first. I am not sure if this is a gender thing or just a personality issue, but I noticed that when I resisted the urge to always jump in, the other members in my group, mostly women spoke more often. It helped the flow of conversation when I listened more often.

And as I resisted the urge to always talk first and became a better listener, I began to notice how often the rest of the men in the room filled the silences and spoke at length sharing their ideas. Two questions arose for me:

  1. Why do men feel the need to be heard so forcefully and so often?
  2. Why do women tend to wait until the moment is right?

Creative Common Image by KeithBurtis

The implications are two fold, I suppose. Firstly, how often does this gender domination happen in our classrooms? How often are boys encouraged or allowed to speak their minds, (Even when they don’t really have anything to say), while girls hold back and wait their turn? How often do boys feel the need to fill silences and be heard, when it might be best for the group if they simple waited to speak and listened more?

Secondly, as men on staff in schools, how aware are we of our desire to be heard, to fill silences, and to interrupt? I have been very cognizant of my role on my team this year, and I have been making an effort not to do those thing, even thought they feel so natural.

Is my need to talk so often at the expense of others part of my personality or does it have something to do with how men are taught and encouraged to be dominate?

I would encourage any men reading this post to listen more and talk less and see how your interactions, in groups where women are present, change. It was eye opening for me. And for the women reading this post, am I right about this? Or are you constantly waiting for the dude at your table to shut up so you can speak or do you jump right in? I am curious about your thoughts on the questions I have raised.


Assessment That Works (Or at least seems to be working)

Ever since our Middle School English department began using the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop model, #TCRWP,  as a way to teach our curriculum, I have been torn about ways to “authentically” use technology in everyday practice.

I wrote a while back about my excitement about charts and notebooks and books, and have been struggling with how to use tech in ways that make sense to my classroom. However, much of my focus has not been on technology, but more on conferring and finding my way around workshop.

As we start our second full year with the TC units, I am starting to feel more comfortable with the structure of workshop. The mini-lessons, checklists, and the run of the class are becoming more and more familiar.

So this year, I have two new goals: continuing to hone my conferring skills. I am working with our literacy coach to get the most out of each conference. We are recording my sessions and debriefing on what I am learning, but that is a whole other post and I will share videos and ideas soon.

The second goal for our team is assessment. How do we gather the data we need for the most effective teaching? We want it to be formative, have little to do with grades or evaluation and allow us to offer timely individualized feedback to match each student’s needs.

Although the year is still young, we just went through a powerful and effective assessment cycle with our first reading unit. And I want to share.

Basically, we wanted to get a peak into our students’ notebooks. When explaining the system to the students, I used the analogy of checking the oil of a car. I spoke to my class in depth about the purpose of this type of assessment and worked diligently to detangle assessment from stress, anxiety and grades.

The idea was simple: show us your understanding of each skill, show examples of these skills from your notebook and discuss what you still need to learn and ask any questions you might have.

I explained that assessment is just as much for the teacher as for the student. That by sharing what you don’t know and asking questions, you are showing your teacher what to teach you next.

I am not sure if what we came up with is “authentic” use of technology, but it got the job done for us, felt natural and ubiquitous, and allowed us to give feedback back to kids quickly and gather the data we need to teach.

The photos are pretty self-explanatory. Take a look:

Students used their devices and google docs to show snippets of their work and show their understanding of the skills.

Then I used my hybrid-data-collection-system to monitor their learning, take notes to inform teaching and send them timely feedback. The program you are seeing on the iPad is called iDoceo.

Here is a video that walks you through the “marking” side of this process:

There is no perfect model and every school and every teacher needs to find their own systems, but this seems to be working for us at this time.

Do you have any questions? Any suggestions?


What does love mean in the context of a school?

We had our Moving On Assembly for the grade 8 classes today. I had a very special group this year. I will miss this class something fierce.

Here is the speech I gave. (We all raised plants this year, hence the reference to plants.)There are many variables to consider when helping a seed to grow into a fruitful, viable, living plant.The obvious things are water and sun. But you have to be sure that the soil has nutrients. It can’t be too wet or too dry. You have to place the pot in a place where it gets optimal sun but not too much.Sometimes the pot needs to be rotated. Sometimes the plant must be pruned. Sometimes you just leave it alone for a few days and trust that it will be fine. Other times it needs constant attention.

Raising a collection of different plants in one setting adds even more complexity. Some plants need water everyday, while others prefer drought. Some plants will vine and weave and grab onto anything they can attach to, while others prefer to grow alone in their pot. Some plants will wither with the slightest neglect, and will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

There are many variables to consider when helping a teenager grow into a kind, independent, expressive human being.

The obvious things are food and electronic devices. But you have to be sure that their classrooms are nurturing. They can’t be too hands off or too smothering . You have to place the kids in a place where they get optimal mentoring but not too much.

Sometimes the student needs to be reminded about manners. Sometimes the kid must be reprimanded. Sometimes you just leave them alone for a few days and trust that they will be fine, other times they need more constant attention.

Raising a collection of different kids in one classroom adds even more complexity.

Some students need attention everyday, while others prefer to be left alone. Some kids will make friends and be social and grab onto anyone they can get attached to, while others prefer to grow alone in their skin. Some students will clam up with the slightest neglect, but will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

But one thing I have noticed is that both plants and students need love grow. Love is word we don’t use enough in schools. We love our families and we love music and we love food and we love boys and we love girls and of course we love books, but for some reason it feels a bit strange to say you love your teacher, or for me to say I love my students. Maybe it is because the word love is such a tiny word for such an immense emotion. But I am here to take it back.

What does love mean in the context of a school? I think it means kindness, honesty, respect, taking risks and allowing for vulnerability in order to feel safe. I think love in the classroom means that everyone feels like they belong. Everyone feels heard and attended to. Everyone can be themselves without having to change for others. In short, people enjoy each others’ company and feel happy to be with others. When you love your peers, your teacher or your students you want to see them everyday and their energy and your energy are no longer separated.

I want to share a quick story to help you visualise what this love looks like. Last Friday night, I was with 8JRa and all their parents at our year end class party. We had eaten and the music was loud. Before I knew it, I looked up and saw us all dancing and smiling. Yes, there was a conga line around the room. Kids, parents, teacher.

In my 15 years of teaching, I have never seen anything like what I saw last week at our class party. I have taught my share of kids. I have raised my share of plants. But sometimes, the stars are aligned and a classroom and the teacher and the kids, and let’s not forget about their parents, create a situation so we all love each other. These bonds. These classrooms are special. Don’t take them for granted. They don’t happen very often.

In closing, I want to say goodbye to 8JRA for this year. I hope you will come and visit and stay in touch in the future. I hope you cherish what we built 8JRA. It didn’t happen by accident. Kids, Parents, Teacher- we all did our part. We had a good run. I hope you will look back on this year and think about the things we learned together and that you smile fondly. This class will always have a special place in my heart.

Thank you. I love you.


Leave With A Suggestion

My growth as a reader and as a reading teacher continue to evolve. Readers of this blog might remember the first time I opened my eyes to YA literature and drastically changed my reading habits to better serve the needs of the kids in my classroom. Then a few months later, I expanded my thinking and reflected on what our Independent Reading program was looking like at the end of the year– last year! Here we are in February and I feel an update is necessary.

A few quick things: We have, since the beginning of the year, established classroom libraries, adopted the TCRWP units of study and have hired a literacy coach, Ann-Marie Chow (a superstar) to help us learn how to teach our best in “the workshop” model. Kids are reading and writing at their best and I feel more comfortable with this approach with every passing week.

So like any proper edu-literacy-book-nerd, I was a bit star-struck to meet Penny Kittle this past Saturday for a great workshop at our school.  As if meeting her and attending her session wasn’t enough, I was able, with my colleagues, to watch her teach a class, confer with kids and debrief her work for well over an hour afterwards. Needless to say, it was time well spent. If we think about teaching as a craft, and I do, then there is no better way to improve your craft than to watch a master crafts(wo)man do her thing. I took several pages of notes from her Saturday workshop as well as from her teaching today, and this post is a synthesis and reflection on what she said and did. I am not sure I will say anything that you will not find on her website or in her book, but I know my friend Ari will be curious for my notes, and who knows, you may be too.

Before I begin, however, let me say how refreshing it was to work with such a humble, passionate and sincere teacher. So many times when teachers achieve notoriety or success, they don their consultancy hat and forget that real teaching happens in real classrooms with real kids. Sure it is nice to have empirical data with which to draw upon, but I will take an in-the-classroom-teacher who refers to her kids and her own work, over a consultant years removed from a classroom any day. Penny was calm, understanding and real. And it was her gentle and supportive persona, which she displayed both with teachers and students that impressed me most. Okay, hopefully that is enough to get her blushing. Let’s get to the notes!

In order to get these notes published and shared with some level of immediacy, I will not wrap them in too much prose. I apologize for the bulletted format of ideas and the litany of grammatical gaffs and typos which I am certain litter this post. I will try and add some insight and annotations as I work through my notes and ideas, but I cannot make any promises at this time.


  1. Some Essentials:
    1. Be positive
    2. Build classroom Libraries
    3. Read everyday! Everyone- teachers and kids
    4. Confer with kids as often as possible
    5. Give choice. Choice. Choice.
      1. Don’t hand! Let them grab. Offer them three possibilities and let them choose books.
    6. Set goals.
  2. Build a school culture of reading
  3. Reading is the foundation for any writing program.
  4. Increasing stamina builds engagement (kids inhaling books), building complexity builds confidence= Independence.
  5. We Think in Narratives
  6. Persistence + Self-control + Curiosity+ Conscientiousness + Grit= Self-Confidence
  7. Try 6 word book summaries or Twitter reviews to get to the heart of thinking.

For me there wasn’t much new to what she shared, but it was reaffirming. Her workshop made me feel confident that the work we have been doing as a group and the enthusiasm I have developed personally are exactly the direction we should be heading. The time and money we have spent, along with the systems we have built to support our classroom libraries are worthwhile.

As a department we spoke a little about what is next in terms of building a school-wide culture. What would a humanities class library look like? Where are our books about science and math? What work are those teachers doing towards literacy in their fields?


Read. Write. Revise. Everyday.

That means everyone! My biggest take away from her writing session was that there needs to be room in a writing workshop for free, fun, undirected writing. Kids notebooks should look like Bubble Catchers not just skills based writing workbooks. There is room for practicing the skills explicitly taught through mini-lessons, but there should also be room for exploring ideas that may never be shared or published.

Penny shared several prompts and talked about the power of a short mentor text annotation and mimicking. She used this example by Devon Gundry from Rainn Wilson’s Soulpancake.

Depending on when you met me, I might have been: a checkers champion, the kid who squirted Super Glue in his eye, a competitive Ping-Pong player, Tweedle Dum, a high school valedictorian, a fake blond, 1⁄12 of an all-male a capella group, a graduate of the Vanderbilt School of Engineering, a nomad, a street musician, or a pigeon assassin.

The idea was to use the structure of the list to explore some thinking that might later to lead to more expansive writing. I loved how she allowed us time to think and write during this time of the workshop. At first I found the structure limiting, but the more I tried to stick to its confines, I realized how it pushed my thinking and made me write in ways I probably would not have if given the freedom to write in whatever way I wanted.

Depending on when you met me I might have been a blue-ribbon-winning horse show participant, the kid who repeatedly lit himself on fire using Aquanet hairspray, C-3PO, or the underachiever on report card day, the blue-haired guy with too many piercings, an open-mic performer, or Columbia grad student, a Peace Corps volunteer, a wanna-be writer, or a leave-the-cockroaches-alone activist.

The more we write ourselves, the more we know where kids might stumble, and so we know how to anticipate their needs.

She also mentioned how important it is to write in front of kids and make your thinking public. Show them how you start with scattered ideas and how your thoughts and writing evolve. Revise you work in front of them too, so they see the process not the final work.


Penny Kittle’s workshop was a great use of time and I found it inspirational, but to watch her confer with actual students was something else all together. As a teacher new to workshop, I feel my conferences are awkward, rushed, uncomfortable administrative sessions, only done to see where kids are in their work. A notebook check-up. But watching Penny, I knew that with some time and practice, I too could hopefully use this precious time to actual teach kids while I sit with them for five minute sessions. Watching Penny Kittle confer with kids was truly a work of art. There was so many subtle devices she used, but here are some of the basics I was able to retain.

Smile. Be kind. Give compliments. Make eye contact. Relax. Breathe. Speak with a loving voice. Listen. Listen. Listen. Start where the writer is not where you want him to be. Talk about books, writing, ideas not skills, tasks, or work. Allow kids time to arrive at an idea. If they need to summaries the plot for two-minutes, let them. Do not rush their thinking. Listen. Say thank you. Don’t think about the next kid. Be present. Don’t fill the silences. Thinking takes time. Let them stew in the silence. Make eye-contact. Smile. Listen.

Ask, “How can I help you? What are you discovering? What is it you just did?” Teach a point and ask for examples. Name what kids are already doing and compliment them on being smart. Say, “I noticed that you……tell me about that.” Ask them, “If you did know the answer what would it be?” Encourage guessing. Risk taking. Revision.

Constantly remind students that you too use the strategies you are teaching when you read and write and think. Don’t ask about theme, but ask, “Why do you think this book was written?” Say to them, “I love this strategy. I use it when I read too.” Compare their shortcomings and failures to your own shortcomings and failures. Ask them to show you were they have revised their writing in their notebooks. Don’t have an agenda when you sit down. Tell them, “I want you to figure out what you need, so you don’t need me.” Ask them, “Read me something you love or something you want me to help you with.” Smile. Say thank you. Compliment.

Listen. Teach. Don’t administrate.

And always leave with a suggestion!

I hope this post was useful for you. I know it is not the same reading this on a blog or seeing these ideas on her website. Meeting people in person and seeing them in action is where so much of our learning happens. We all know these things. Right? But like Zen, it is a practice. We have to apply these skills over time to improve. I for one feel energized and inspired to get into my room tomorrow and try out a few of these things.

No agenda. Smile. Eye contact. Listen. Teach.

I’m on it.