My Lyft driver was a talker…

…and when he found out I’m a teacher, he had a lot to say. (That’s one of the things about being a teacher; everyone has an opinion, because everyone’s spent a significant amount of time inside of schools.)

I told him I teach world history, and he said that he hated world history, because he “didn’t need any of that stuff–the Middle East, all of that. I didn’t need it.”

He explained that he was required to take a year of basic math for the program he was in, but after that, he lost all motivation in math. He failed every math test he took because he didn’t feel like it was necessary to learn.

“But they just let me pass anyway,” he shrugged. “I hated school, I really did. I couldn’t wait to graduate. I wanted to get my diploma and that’s it.”

•   •   •

I’ve been asked a few times recently to explain the idea that education should be authentic and relevant. “What do you mean by that?” one student asked me today.

It means that what we do in our classrooms needs to connect to kids’ lived experiences. They need to see that, when they walk out of our rooms, they don’t leave world history or math or Spanish behind, waiting inside the room for them to come back the next day. World history and math and Spanish live out in the world with them. Authentic, relevant education is helping students see the ways in which what they learn in school connects to their real lives.

There are so many ways to do that. We can choose books, written by diverse authors, that reflect and speak to kids’ experiences. We can design projects that ask students to apply their learning to real-world situations or solve actual problems in their communities. (One of my first exposures to this was when I saw a math teacher using the idea of slope to help her students understand safety codes for staircases.) We can literally just ask kids, “How does this connect to your life?” and give them some space to talk or write about that.

But if we don’t try to do that at all, we’re dooming a bunch of our kids to think that they “don’t need that stuff,” like my Lyft driver.

He lamented, by the way, that his life could have taken a different path. “If I liked school I could have been a lawyer today,” he told me. “I would have been a good lawyer. But you gotta really like school to be a lawyer.”

That’s what happens when we don’t work to make education relevant and authentic. We pass kids on even though they haven’t shown us that they’ve learned anything, and what they learn instead is that school doesn’t matter.

We can start small in this work, like in anything else we do. We can start with one small thing. But that might be enough to catalyze a major change.



I met a teaching celebrity!

I’ve spent the past week in Jerusalem on a speaking tour hosted by the U.S. Consulate. (Next week, I’ll spend time in Tel Aviv with the U.S. Embassy.) I’ve visited schools, met with students, teachers, and administrators, and learned a lot about the history and culture of this region.

I’ve also learned a lot about the ongoing political conflict here, which is insanely complex. I’m doing a lot of listening, which feels good.

•  •  •

On Tuesday, I had the huge honor of meeting Palestinian second-grade teacher, and 2016 Global Teacher of the Year, Hanan Hroub. She gave me a tour of her classroom in Ramallah (a city in the West Bank), excitedly showing me the educational tools she’s made for her kids out of recycled materials (like a puppet show theater). She jumped up and down on a mini-trampoline that lives in the part of her classroom she calls “the garden” and explained how she modifies the activities in the curriculum created by the Palestinian Ministry of Education to better engage her students.

Hanan is inspiring. She spoke about the need for students to feel joyful and to have fun in class, to learn through play, and to feel loved. She said that students can’t learn if teachers don’t set up our classrooms to be warm and welcoming places, and that we have to work hard to ensure that we know our students well and can meet their needs.

That educational philosophy resonated with me. Although Hanan and I teach in different worlds, our love for teaching and our care for students make us kindred. But, like I always say, it’s not just about me–so many teachers can feel pride in knowing that we are kindred with Hanan and that she represents us on a global stage.

Our visit was coming to a close when Hanan’s students came back to the classroom from recess, rushing up the stairs, all smiles. They clamored to high-five Hanan, and, on her cue, they burst into a wild and joyful song.

•  •  •

When I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv at the beginning of the week, I asked my driver, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, what he thinks should happen between Israel and Palestine. I thought he might give me his opinion on “one-state” versus “two-state” or offer a different solution.

He barely paused before replying, “Love.”

Okay, so. The conflict here has roots that are thousands of years old, and I am only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding it. I’m not suggesting that “love” is the answer that everyone else has somehow overlooked.

But as it tumbled around in my head, I started thinking about how it connects to my work as a teacher. So often, the work feels big and overwhelming and unmanageable. I have to remind myself to follow Hanan’s example and remember that love has to have a central place in this work. Remembering that can make me brave. It can make me more willing to have tough conversations, to step outside of my comfort zone. It can make me empathetic when I feel like I’ve got nothing left or try again with that kid who I messed up with. Love isn’t all we need, but it’s a good start.


Sending the Right Messages About Learning

This week, my daughter learned how to write her own name.

It was very cool to watch this process unfold. She’s been interested in letters and writing for some time now, but she hadn’t mastered writing anything other than O. Suddenly, thanks to her preschool teachers and time, her writing ability has taken a giant leap forward.

But the best part is her joy. When she writes her name, she is so proud of herself. Her face lights up. That’s the special magic of learning– it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. She’s excited because she’s accomplished a goal she set for herself. She’s confident because now she knows she can write other words if she keeps trying.

As a teacher, it’s always really interesting to witness an authentic, self-motivated moment of learning like this, because it flies in the face of so much of what we end up doing in schools.

It wasn’t an assessment given to her by someone else. It didn’t happen during a special block of time called “Writing.” My husband and I didn’t immediately correct her and tell her that the horizontal lines on the E were too long. We didn’t write an A at the top of the paper.

So much of the learning that happens in my daughter’s preschool class is like this. It’s self-directed; the kids choose what they want to play with, and there’s learning embedded in that and gently facilitated by teachers. It’s not based on formal assessments, although the teachers do have benchmarks that they’re observing for and working towards with students. It’s driven by students’ interests; one week, every activity they did was related to dinosaurs because the kids were into dinosaurs. It’s iterative and hands-on and collaborative.

Why do we lose so much of this by the time kids are teenagers? Why do we sacrifice that joy and magic of learning to schedules and bells and worksheets and silo-ed disciplines and one-size-fits-all and tests? What lessons can I learn from all of this, as a high school teacher?

High school can’t be exactly like preschool (although most of my students could definitely use a nap). But I can work to build in more opportunities for my students to guide their own inquiry by choosing texts to read or current events to explore. I can give my students time and space to set and share their own goals. I can remember to infuse “play” into my class.

•      •      •

Last night, my daughter’s teachers sent home a “Family Conference Form.” It’s not a report card… except that it kind of is. When my husband told me they’d given it to him, I immediately felt nervous. What did they say about her? Is there anything negative on the paper? Is there anything she’s not doing well? Is she behind in any way?


She’s three.

I suddenly realized this is what my students’ families might feel like when we send report cards home. It feels like a judgment, potentially an indictment, despite all of the best intentions of the teachers.


The report card–sorry, “Family Conference Form”–started with a 3-page list of all of the things my daughter knows how to do (including “Gallops, but not smoothly,” which I think is super funny and weird to have as a learning standard, but that’s probably why I work in high school teacher and not early childhood). I felt my heart rate decreasing as I read the list. I felt proud: That’s right, my baby can use controlled linear scribbles. She can use controlled linear scribbles all day if she wants to! The teachers had added some notes and examples throughout the document of times when she had demonstrated certain skills, which I appreciated, because they helped me get a sense of what those skills might look like in practice.

Then I got to the last page, which was just one paragraph. It said that she is a pleasure to have in class and listed some ways she is awesome. Then: “Below I have listed a few of the developmental goals that we are currently working on with her.” There was a list of 5 bullets naming skills she should continue working on. And that was it.

Three pages of positives. Three pages of things she can do. And five bullets of stuff to work on.

I liked those odds.

I felt reassured. My kid’s teachers knew her, and they saw all of the ways she was growing. And they had set some goals for her that felt totally doable and not overwhelming, and invited me to help them reinforce those skills at home if I could.

At my school, we use standards-based grading. That means, instead of sending home report cards with one letter or number grade listed for each class, we send home a big list of learning targets linked to standards and color-code them based on the student’s current level of mastery. In that way, it’s sort of similar to my daughter’s form. It’s detailed, it’s broken down into discrete tasks.

But thinking about it now, I bet that a lot of families skip past the details and just look at the colors. They see red, red, yellow, green, yellow, and focus on those reds and yellows. The greens get lost in the shuffle. I wonder how we could better prioritize the things that students are doing well–frontload them–so families and students get a more balanced sense of the student’s progress. Even if a student has a lot of “reds,” it’s important that they get some positive feedback on the things they are learning or the ways they have grown.

If report cards will continue to be an important way that we communicate with families, how can we ensure that they send the right messages about learning?

•      •      •

About those five bullets on my daughter’s paper? The fourth one struck me. It said that one goal to work on is learning to write her name.

The most important thing we can remember, as teachers and as parents, is that neither of us, working alone, sees the full picture. We have to work together to support kids as whole people.

Notes from Ethiopia, Part 2

I’m back from my week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and thinking about what collaboration looks like.

My charge in Addis was to share ideas about education from here in the United States—like the benefits of student-centered teaching, arts integration, and social and emotional learning.

Overwhelmingly, I found audiences in Addis to be receptive, curious, and excited. Whether I was talking to teachers, students, or the general public, folks were eager to engage in real discussion about the promises and challenges of education. They raised questions that highlighted the differences between their teaching contexts and mine: “How can I do these types of activities when my desks are bolted to the floor?” one asked. Another pointed out that, while student-centered teaching sounded like a good idea, he had 60 students  in his class and wasn’t sure how he could do it well.

At first, in these moments, I tried to play the role of expert by offering (admittedly hypothetical) solutions.

But at a certain point, it became obvious that, regardless of the wisdom some people believed I could offer my colleagues in Ethiopia, I needed to step back and listen, instead. At one workshop for teachers, when a teacher asked how I would recommend he begin implementing innovative strategies when his principal required that he stick strictly to a mandated curriculum, I opened up the conversation to the other teachers in the audience. Their advice for their colleague was grounded in their own stories about having faced similar situations in their schools, and it was ten times more powerful and helpful to him than mine would have been.

One evening, a man in the audience at an event where I was speaking raised his hand during the Q&A and said, “I don’t know why everyone is sitting here telling you all of the things that are wrong with our education system. It’s not your job to fix it. Every time someone comes to our country who is of a different race, people think they are going to fix all of our problems.”

He had a point. Moments before he spoke, I had actually been thinking about ways that I could help fix some of the problems the teachers in the room had raised. It would be easy for me to send supplies to that school, I thought, or I bet someone in America knows a good strategy to handle that issue. 

It is a bad habit of mine to try to be a fixer, to try to solve everyone else’s problems, to avoid conflict and pain at all costs. Sometimes, this prevents me from truly hearing what someone else is saying–or from looking critically at myself.

When I was getting ready to leave Ethiopia, a number of people asked me what I had learned during my visit. I realized that, although I had learned a lot about the country, its history, people, and cultures, I had not learned enough about education. I had more questions than answers.  

How much more could I have learned from these teachers if I’d taken the opportunity to hear their wisdom about teaching, too? If I’d seen these moments as opportunities to collaborate, rather than a one-way street?

This isn’t confined to Ethiopia. How can administrators and teacher leaders ensure that professional development opportunities, whether they are weekly staff meetings or once-in-a-lifetime chances to meet with teachers from another country, are collaborative? How do we honor all participants’ expertise and ideas? How do we stay grounded in the fact that we all have more to learn, whether we’re introduced as the expert or the novice in the room?

Going forward, as I have more opportunities to talk to my fellow teachers from around the country and around the globe, I’m going to work to silence my inner fixer, ask more questions, and remember that, at the end of it all, I want to be able to answer this question: What did I learn?

Notes from Ethiopia, Part 1

I’m spending this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, representing U.S. educators and sharing ideas about teaching and learning. 

Tonight, during a discussion with a local film club about the documentary American Teacher, a man raised his hand.

“What is the purpose of learning?” he asked me.

I’ve gotten pretty good at answering questions over the last few months, at speaking without a script or advance notice of what people might want to hear from me. But this question threw me. The purpose of learning? My mind went blank. I could not think of how to begin to articulate an answer.

One man jumped in to offer that “learning” is about “wisdom,” and “knowledge is not wisdom.”

It was getting deep, y’all.

I have a good meal and a few hours standing between me and that man’s question, but I still don’t know how I would answer it. What is the purpose of learning?

•    •    •

Yesterday, I had the privilege of teaching a class to a group of about 30-40 teenagers at a local school. I built the class around techniques and activities that I’ve learned over the years from my co-teachers from the Huntington Theatre Company. The Huntington is one of my school’s oldest and most treasured partners. The work they do with our students–and with us–exemplifies the transformative power of education.

At this school, I wanted to showcase the ways that my co-teachers and I help students develop literacy skills through theater by having students do theater work focused on a poem by an Ethiopian author, Bewketu Seyoum. I was nervous, though, that my lesson would fall flat, because I had been told that Ethiopian education is very different from that in the U.S., that it is heavily reliant on memorization and rote call-and-response, that students might not even be used to speaking English. I was worried that I didn’t know enough about the culture here to build effective relationships with the students in such a short amount of time.

But the students I found in that cramped little room reminded me so much of my own students back in Boston. They were goofy and chatty and curious. They needed reminders to stop talking and to put their cell phones away. Most importantly, they had brilliant ideas. Their insights helped me better understand the poem we were analyzing.

I love the work I get to do as Teacher of the Year this year, but I miss my kids. Having the opportunity to teach for a couple of hours was a complete joy. At the end of our morning together, I was sweating and exhausted and electric.

•    •    •

Education looks different depending on where we go. But learning looks remarkably similar.

Learning looks like joy. It looks like discovery. It looks like creativity and problem-solving. It looks like collaboration and failure and revision and reflection. Learning looks like magic.

So what is the purpose of learning? I think, maybe, if we had asked every person in the audience tonight for their answer, we may have had twenty different responses. The purpose of learning is, in some ways, deeply personal.

But what yesterday reminded me is that one purpose of learning is connection.

We learn so that we can connect with one another’s humanity and with one another’s ideas. We learn so that we can grow together. We learn so that we can become smarter as a collective.

On my way out of the building tonight after the event, another man wanted to talk to me about something I’d said about collaboration. “Here in Ethiopia,” he explained, “it is different. We do not do much group-work. Why do you think that it is important?”

I told him that, when I ask my students to work together on a problem, I tell them that they have to “share brains,” because two minds will be smarter than one. Working together will likely deepen their thinking, even if they don’t agree with one another.

I’m grateful to everyone here in Ethiopia who has been pushing me to “share brains” with them by asking me these thoughtful questions or telling me about their own experiences in education. I am developing connections with people in a country I never imagined I would have a chance to visit. Those connections are making me smarter and more empathetic. And I know, even though I won’t be able to prove it until next fall, that they’re making me a better teacher, too.

Buying the Ticket

Last week, I flew on a tiny plane.

No, seriously, this was a tiny plane. It sat ten people—including the pilot. We weren’t allowed to bring any of our carry-on bags into the cabin with us, because, as the airline employees explained, the weight of those tiny bags could throw off the plane’s balance (and presumably, although they left this part unspoken, cause us to meet a horrifying end).

When I booked the flight, I thought I was headed for a run-of-the-mill plane ride, just long enough for drink-and-pretzel service. To be clear, though, I’m not exactly in love with those kinds of plane rides, either. Any time I’m launched into the sky, I feel vaguely remorseful. Flying is scary.

So standing on the tarmac waiting to climb aboard my tiny plane, when it was much too late to turn back, I wondered if I would have still bought the ticket if I’d known what was in store.

But after twenty minutes or so in the air, as I got used to the roar of the plane and loosened my white-knuckle grip on the armrests, I realized that I was living in one of those moments I would remember, the kind of moment that I would tell people about later because it taught me something, that I would mark as having expanded my worldview. If I had known enough to avoid buying that plane ticket, I would have missed out on that moment.

So many of the experiences that have taught me the most have been ones that I likely would have avoided if given the chance.

•   •   •

On Wednesday, activists unfurled a banner at the Boston Red Sox game reading “Racism is as American as baseball.” The sign hung over the field for a few minutes before they were escorted from the park.

What if everyone felt as upset about racism as they do about people interrupting a baseball game to remind us that it exists?

Against my better judgment, on Thursday morning I spent some time scrolling through the comment feeds on articles about the event. Not surprisingly, people’s reactions were mixed. Some lauded the protesters for trying to provoke conversation about the reality of racism in our country (and our city). Others argued that the sign was too ambiguous to be meaningful. But the loudest group was the one attacking the activists. One commenter went so far as to call them “terrorists.”

Several commenters complained that this action had disrupted what should have been a peaceful family event. They said it wasn’t fair to force parents to explain the word “racism” to their children (ignoring the fact that, for the parents of children of color, talking about race has never been a choice). They said that a baseball game wasn’t the time or place for political activism.

In other words, they wouldn’t have bought the ticket if they knew what was in store.

White folks, there will never be a “perfect” time or place to talk about racism. If we wait for the right opportunity to present itself, we’ll give ourselves permission to opt out again and again. We’ll never get on the plane.

We have to challenge ourselves and each other to engage in hard conversations about racism and its poisonous effects on our society and our selves. If we don’t, we send the message that working towards a more equitable world isn’t all that important. Teachers, especially, cannot afford to wait for a better time. Our students deserve more from us.

If we believe that all of our children have the right to the same opportunities, that they should all grow up knowing that they are smart and valuable and capable of greatness, that it’s not okay for students of color to attend under-resourced schools or be disproportionately funneled into the criminal justice system, then we have to get on the plane. Getting comfortable actually talking about racism is the first step we can take in being able to work together to make progress towards equity.

So what are some of the conversations we should have? There are a lot of places to start, but we could:

  • explore our own racial identities and investigate how those identities impact the ways we read our students’ actions
  • analyze whether our classroom or school policies disproportionately impact students of color
  • envision what true equity would look like in our school community, and ask what stands in the way of that vision

Conversations like these won’t be easy or comfortable. We have been conditioned not to talk about race. Many of us grew up believing that it was better and more polite to pretend to be “color-blind.” We worry about messing it up or offending a person we respect or giving someone the wrong idea about who we are or what we believe. But we’ve got to remember: the experiences that teach us the most are often the ones that we would avoid if we had the chance.

•   •   •

This article explains 11 basic understandings White people should have if we want to work towards racial justice.

Teaching Tolerance has great resources to help teachers facilitate conversations about racism inside of our classrooms, but they also have professional development tools that can help us talk to each other. Try this identity reflection activity or PD plan for discussing common beliefs about racially and ethnically diverse students.

This discussion guide can help schools structure a series of discussions on racism.

Why We Teach

Recently, a school principal approached me after an event and thanked me for speaking to his staff. He added, quietly, “You know, so many of these teachers get into the job for the wrong reasons—the vacations, the time off.”

It’s a sentiment I have, unfortunately, heard before. A popular myth endures that we teachers enjoy copious amounts of downtime, lazing away our afternoons and summers in a blissful dreamscape.

Here is the truth: all of the teachers I have had the privilege to meet worry that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all that they hope to with students, families, and communities. They lay awake at night trying to figure out how to reach that one student. They fear they can’t be both a great parent and a great teacher.

People don’t choose to become teachers because they are lazy. We choose to become teachers because we are hopeful. Because we believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. Because we love the work.

And make no mistake: the work takes a lot of, well, work. Those afternoons? They’re offset by starting the day at 7:00am for many teachers. Others spend them in faculty meetings or providing one-on-one help to struggling students or coaching teams or supervising clubs or grading student work or planning lessons. Summers are both a sacred time to reflect and recharge and a much-needed opportunity to prepare for the coming year by taking classes, designing curricula, or reading the books we hope our students will fall in love with.

Listening to that principal, I heard a call to action: Tell people the truth about teachers. As educators all over the country return to school, I am embarking on a year of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to represent my fellow teachers as the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. I hope to inspire people to think more deeply about the critical role that teachers play in students’ lives… and the ongoing dedication to our craft that playing that role well requires.


Looking for some inspiration? Check out the hashtag #WhyITeach for teachers’ take.

One way to build community within a school is to talk about why you teach together. Teacher2Teacher released this Storytelling Toolkit to help educators gather and share each other’s stories.