The Death and Life of Creativity in the Classroom

(The title of this post was inspired by Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System)

Creativity in education is dying a slow and painful death.  From the signing of NCLB, to the carrot and stick approach of Race to the Top, there are numerous reasons for the grave state of creativity and innovation in American schools.  Our education system is far too politicized.  Who is to blame for the homogenization of the American school system?  The hard answer is that we are all to blame.

Railing against the system is a futile pursuit for those who work closest with children.  It is a poor use of our time and energy.  If teachers and parents are waiting for the federal and state government to get education right, they will be waiting a long time.  Few state and federal initiatives have ever led to significant gains in student achievement.  While the Civil Rights Act of 1972, the ESEA of 1975, Title IX, and the Bilingual Education Act improved educational access for under-represented groups, they did not lead to significant increases in academic achievement.

The current drama regarding the Common Core is a colossal waste of time for those on both sides of the argument.  Standards are a starting point for teaching.  They provide direction and structure, but they are not the bar.  When teachers focus solely on the standards, they leave something very important out of the equation, the students.  This is where creativity is lost.  Teachers must have the freedom to teach based on the needs of the students in front of them, not on a preconceived notion of where students should be.

So, what’s the solution for bringing creativity and innovation back to the classroom?  The solution is as simple as it is complex.  Let our teachers teach.  Train them, support them, pay them well, and let them do their job.  The federal and state government needs to step back and out of a profession they are mostly untrained for.

What would happen if all states were funded fairly using an accepted formula that is not tied to incentives and compliance?  What would happen if states and local education agencies had the discretion to use funds as they see fit?  Teacher creativity and innovation would likely explode and rigor in the classroom could truly be raised.

An educational revolution is unnecessary.  Schools need not rebel against the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  In fact, their response should be just the opposite.  Teachers and principals should become experts on the new standards.  Schools should embrace the standards with a critical eye and make adjustments based on their knowledge of good instruction.

With a strong knowledge of the standards, schools can approach instruction through multi-disciplinary, cross-curricular means.  Creativity and innovation can be returned to the classroom by teachers who are able to provide meaningful learning that is connected to real-life applications.  The possibilities are endless when teachers are set free to use their knowledge and experience.

Education- A Thankful Profession

As Thanksgiving approaches, I have many reasons to give thanks for being in the education profession.

Teachers Still Matter

No matter what changes have come, or will come our way, teachers still matter.  In fact, they matter now more than ever.  Teaching is about relationships.  The best teachers are those who figure out how to connect with each and every student.  Changes in curricula, pedagogy, technology, and standards will never supersede the critical role of teachers in making learning meaningful. The best indicator of student success is still the teacher who stands in front of the classroom every day.  I am thankful for that.

Principals Still Matter

Effective leadership remains central to the success of our schools.  Principals must provide support to students, families, and teachers.  When they do, there is no limit to the good things that can happen.  The role of the modern principal is complex. The changes taking place in education can make one’s head spin.  Good principals ensure that teachers are not overwhelmed by the external pressures placed on them.  They provide stability and reassurance when they are needed most.  I am thankful for that.

Parents Still Matter

The partnership between schools and families is as important today as it was fifty years ago.  Parents send their best to our schools everyday.  They trust us to protect and educate their children.  That trust is humbling when you think of the challenge it presents.  Nevertheless, when parents and schools collaborate, students achieve at higher levels.  Parent involvement remains a key indicator of student success.  I am thankful for that.

Students Still Matter

Watching students enter the building every day is one of the most satisfying parts of my day.  At the elementary level, students run and even skip to the front door.  They say good morning (most of them).  They smile, they hug you, and they tell their teachers how much they love them.  The other day one of our second grade students sent out this tweet:

“i love this school and i will never forget my time i love my teacher…shes the most awsome teacher in the world.”

Does it get much better than that?  The hopes and dreams of our students are as strong today as ever.  I am thankful for that.

Education Still Matters

I am blessed to work in a field that serves as the starting point for all professions and careers.  I get to see children learn and grow every day.  When teachers, principals, parents, and students work together it’s like a symphony concert.  The “music” that is made in these schools is passionate and enduring.  The education profession still matters.  I am most thankful for that.

Will Testing Be the Focus of Pre-K Programs?

The current pre-kindergarten bills being discussed before the United States Senate and House have the potential to positively impact education across our country.  The decision to provide states with the funds to meet the needs of our youngest learners signals a fundamental shift in thinking.  Federal and state politicians seem to finally agree that our country needs to focus on early childhood education.

The House proposal (H.R. 1041- PRE-K Act) includes the following language regarding what pre-kindergarten programs should look like:

Use of research-based curricula that are aligned with State early learning standards that are developmentally appropriate and include, at a minimum, each of the following domains:

(i) Language development.
(ii) Literacy.
(iii) Mathematics.
(iv) Science.
(v) Creative arts.
(vi) Social and emotional development.
(vii) Approaches to learning.
(viii) Physical and health development.

The House’s description seems to be aligned with the goals of most state-level early childhood programs.  They could add a line about the importance of developing a curiosity and love for learning, but maybe they consider that covered under (vi) and (vii).  States will likely have some freedom in choosing the scope and sequence of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Like Race to the Top, however, they will have to meet specific requirements in order to “opt in” to the federal program and receive funding.

On the surface, the proposals by the House and Senate seem to mean nothing but good things to come for early childhood education in the United States. There is, however, one catch that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.  Both the Senate and House proposals include language that requires states to have a monitoring process to evaluate the effectiveness of their pre-kindergarten programs.  In her Edweek blog, Alyson Klein noted that, “States would have to have early-learning standards, be able to link preschool data to K-12, and provide state-funded kindergarten, among other requirements.”

Yes, accountability is important.  The federal government will expect to have a certain level of control when their funds are used for pre-kindergarten programs.  My worry is that the feds and states will turn the accountability piece into an early childhood version of NCLB and Race to the Top.

Will their pattern of focusing on data override the need to train teachers, provide materials, and build strong early childhood programs?  Maybe some brave member of Congress can bring this concern up before we have a law on the books that leads to an over-emphasis on testing our youngest learners.  Perhaps we could focus first on providing them with rich learning environments and highly skilled teachers.  If we truly care about early childhood education in the United States, we should build the programs up before we examine their efficacy.

What About Kindergarten?

The United States House of Representatives and Senate are currently considering separate bills on strengthening pre-kindergarten programs across the United States.  On the surface, this sounds like great news.  Who would argue against providing educational opportunities to four-year-olds?

There is, however, (at least) one problem.  The House and Senate bills do not address the need to provide all day kindergarten in all fifty states.  President Obama’s initial proposal included funds for all-day kindergarten.  The House and Senate proposals lack that element and include funding formulas that are discretionary (Alyson Klein, Edweek Blog, November 13, 2013).

This could lead to the age-old problem of unfunded mandates.  By the eighth year of the proposed Senate bill, states would be responsible for providing 50% of the cost of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Where that money would come from is a mystery.

So, as exciting as funding for pre-kindergarten sounds, we are still a nation without full-day kindergarten in all fifty states.  In fact, only ten (10) states and DC offer full day kindergarten programs.  Thirty-four (34) states offer half day kindergarten programs and six (6) have no requirement for kindergarten attendance.  In addition, many of the states that offer kindergarten programs do so without making attendance mandatory (

Any bill being proposed to build pre-kindergarten programs must include funding for mandatory full-day kindergarten programs in all fifty states first.  Can you imagine states developing strong pre-kindergarten programs and then sending their students to kindergarten programs that are half day and/or optional?

We should applaud the President, the Senate, and the House for making early childhood education a priority.  Those who work in primary level schools can tell you that the earlier we get children in school, the bigger impact we can make.  The opportunity to reach out to four-year-olds and their families is exciting.  It is, however, tempered by the knowledge that as a nation we have yet to fully commit to the education of our five-year-olds.  Let’s get that right first and then address the pre-kindergarten dilemma.

Related links:

Extending the Edcamp Philosophy to School-based PD

I recently attended EdCampBmore at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This was a wonderfully organized and attended event.  There were educators from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and even New Hampshire in attendance.  These committed professionals gave up a Saturday to share their expertise with like-minded peers.

If you are unfamiliar with the edcamp philosophy, the following explanation appears on edcampbmore’s website:

“An unconference is an open, participant-driven conference. The content is proposed and provided by the participants, and is often determined on the day of the event. This style of learning is not new. It stems from the model of barcamps, which were originally focused on software, web applications, and open source technology. Unconferences rely heavily on the passions and interests of the participants. Because of this, unconferences have become an extremely popular form of professional development.”

The website also includes this table that explains the differences between traditional conferences and edcamps:

Conference vs Edcamp

Baltimore’s edcamp was organized by Shannon Montague (@montysays), Molly Smith(@historyfriend), Jenna Shaw (@teachbaltshaw), Jen Filosa (@jafilosa), Chris Shriver (@ccshriver), and Margaret Roth (@teachingdaisy).  These amazing ladies pulled together the resources to provide an exceptional professional development experience for those in attendance.

The range of topics covered included:

  • flipping professional development
  • project-based learning
  • school leadership
  • chromebooks
  • student behavior
  • standards-based grading
  • school culture
  • social media community building
  • CCSS
  • early childhood technology
  • blended classrooms
  • engaging students through gaming
  • genius hour
  • maker spaces
  • the role of the school counselor
  • student entrepreneurship
  • thinning the classroom walls

I had trouble getting to sleep that evening because it occurred to me that the edcamp philosophy could easily be translated to school-level professional development.  As a firm believer in the collective intelligence of schools, it concerns me that we don’t always tap into the knowledge of the teachers in our buildings.  In fact, one of the most popular forms of PD over the past 30 years has been the use of outside experts to train teachers in the pedagogy du jour.

The edcamp philosophy eschews this approach in favor of professional development that is created by, and shared with, those working in the field.  Our teachers have interests and strengths that can be enhanced when they are given opportunities to discuss their practices.  So much of the time that we give teachers for planning is taken by the functional aspects of teaching.  Very little of it is spent in fostering creativity and improving the profession.

The edcamp approach to professional development could be a great way to inject excitement back into the profession.  How much stronger could our schools become if the teachers in the building were given the chance to share their knowledge with their peers in deep and meaningful ways?  I don’t know the exact answer, but I plan to find out.  Don’t tell my teachers, but we’re about to plan our first school-based edcamp.  Now I’ll never get to sleep!

A Shifting the Monkey Primer for #mdeschat

Key Ideas from Shifting the Monkey

Here are a few takeaways from Shifting the Monkey.  While the book is not written specifically for educators, it has great value for anyone seeking to cultivate and reward organizational excellence.

  • There will always be workers who shirk their responsibilities
  • These shirkers constantly seek to shift their responsibilities, duties, and problems to others
  • The shifting of these “monkeys” creates stress on organizations
  • We give negative, poor performing employees, too much time and attention
  • Leaders can reward good, hardworking employees by shifting monkeys off their backs
  • Tier 3 leaders hold ineffective people accountable so that they behave themselves even when the boss isn’t looking
  • Effective leaders treat everyone well
  • Effective leaders don’t accept excuses from marginal employees, they don’t sympathize, and they don’t argue
  • Ineffective employees need to be handled on a one/one basis
  • Good leaders are constantly reflecting on what they’re doing and how things are going

This should be enough to get you started, buy the book to get the full picture.

Here are some additional resources for Shifting the Monkey:

Book Review by B. Curran:

Blog about Todd Whitaker and Shifting the Monkey:

Jason Fountain blog about Shifting the Monkey

Todd Whitaker’s Website:

Raising Resilient Children

My father was 21 and my mother 19 when they married in 1962.  My mother gave my father an ultimatum.  He could choose her, or he could choose the Navy.  He chose her, then later joined the Navy.  I can remember my mother telling stories about how she would look for spare change in parking lots while my dad was serving at the Virginia Beach Naval Base.

I have three brothers.  We were born between 1963 and 1969.  We were not wealthy by any measure, but we were not raised to wallow in pity for the things we didn’t have.  We were part of the “tough love” generation.  You got what you got and you were grateful for it.  You didn’t show off.  Humility was instilled by your relatives, sometimes in quick and painful ways.  While we didn’t realize it then, our parents raised us to be resilient.

Children today seem to lack resilience.  They struggle when things don’t go their way and seem to have few strategies for dealing with the roadblocks that life places before them.  While the challenges of growing up in the new millennium are much different than in the 60s, resilience seems to be more important now than ever.

One can speculate on why things have changed.  Do modern parents give their children too much?  Do they go to great measures to keep from disappointing them?  Do they run interference for any and every problem they face?  The answer to all three questions is probably, yes.

The reasons why children lack resilience are intriguing. It’s more productive, however, to focus on building resilience in the modern child.  What tools can we give children so they are better able to handle the stress of growing up in today’s world?

Margarita Tartakovsky provides tips for raising resilient children at

Tartakovsky’s advice includes:

-Help them become problem solvers- they’ll need lots of practice
-Don’t give them everything, or give in to everything they demand
-Don’t give them all the answers
-Let them make mistakes
-Model resilience

What seems certain is that parents and schools will need to partner in their resilience-building efforts.  By working together, parents and educators can provide children with opportunities to demonstrate their resilience skills in safe and supportive settings.

See the links below for more information on helping children be more resilient:

The Maker Movement and Genius Hour

School leaders have a responsibility to stay abreast of cutting edge approaches to teaching.  They should push, prod, and motivate their teachers toward finding the best practices for their students.  If you have been in education long enough, you have seen the pendulum swing back and forth several times as it relates to effective teaching.  The high-stakes testing era essentially eliminated teacher creativity and forced schools to abandon engaging methods of instruction.

With a swing back toward rigor and the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards, we may now begin to revisit teaching methodologies that celebrate real-world, hands-on learning.  In the past year or so, there are two growing movements that may have a significant impact on all levels of instruction.  These movements are so exciting and filled with possibility that school leaders and teachers should consider investigating them further and now.

The Maker Movement and Genius Hour offer two viable ways of integrating STEM practices throughout all instructional content.  These initiatives are about getting students to take ownership of their learning.  They empower students to investigate the world and share their learning with others.

In August, Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager wrote about the Maker Movement and noted that, “(the) Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards emphasize critical thinking, creativity and 21st-century skills. To achieve these goals requires taking a hard look at both what we teach and how we teach it. The Maker Movement offers lessons, tools and technology to steer a new course to more relevant, engaging learning experiences for all students.”

The Genius Hour concept grew out of Google’s practice of letting their engineers spend 20% of their time working on their own pet projects.  Their website states that, “Genius hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom. It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.”

When educators question how they will meet the rigor of new standards, they need look no further than these two promising resources for active engagement and real-world connections.  We have an opportunity to bring back passion and excitement to the teaching and learning process.  Let’s get going before the pendulum swings back in the other direction.

Will Other States Follow NY’s Testing Scale-back?

The state of New York continues to serve as a sign of what is to come for districts that have adopted the Common Core State Standards.  In Javier Hernandez’s New York Times article yesterday (New York State Seeks to Scale Back Student Testing) we learn that state commissioner John B. King Jr. is offering concessions on testing.

The commissioner, who recently has been criticized by parents and educators, acknowledged in the article that, “The amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making.”  That statement alone should give hope to those who are cynical of the current state of testing.

Hernandez wrote, “The proposals are modest, but they represent a rare concession from state leaders, who have faced attacks from parents and teachers in recent weeks over the rollout of a tougher set of standards known as the Common Core.”

In the article, Jane Hirschmann, co-chairwoman of Time Out From Testing, stated that,“All this emphasis is being put on testing, instead of developing an enriched curriculum that produces real learning for children.”  Hirschmann also indicated that the commissioner’s concessions would not satisfy those critical of the level of testing associated with the Common Core.

So what does all of this mean for those outside of New York?  It means that one of the largest adopters of the CCSS is experiencing significant growing pains.  It means that despite the federal government’s attempt to homogenize education, states are beginning to adjust teaching and testing to meet the needs of their students.

Let’s hope that the other states that are a step behind New York in adopting the Common Core State Standards are paying attention.  If so, they can avoid making the same missteps and foster a smoother adoption of the standards.

Link to full article in NY Times:

Let’s Challenge the “Testing Juggernaut”

Arnold Dodge and Charles Lavine have an article in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet column in today’s Washington Post.  It’s titled, “Legislator, educator challenging ‘testing juggernaut’.”  Dodge is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University-Post.  Lavine is a member of the New York State Assembly.  It is rare to have educators and politicians collaborate.  Their article speaks to the growing number of parents and teachers who continue to question the state of testing in America.

Dodge and Lavine write:

“The current testing regimes, which impact every facet of school life, are crippling our students’ ability to learn, grow and develop. A recent national poll by PDK/Gallup found the public less than enthusiastic about significant increases in testing, with 41% of respondents saying that additional testing made no difference in school performance and 36% responding that it had hurt school performance.”

At what point will federal and state education officials realize that NCLB and Race to the Top were, and are, poor initiatives that have led to little or no change in the academic achievement of our students?  How long will it take until we realize that we are over-testing our students?

Dodge and Lavine argue that, “We need a rich curriculum, assessment and measurements that are formative and diagnostic for teacher use, an honest look at our current strengths in the worldwide education stage, and an understanding that stressed out kids will not be successful learners.”

Teachers and school leaders embrace the idea that assessment is critical to their profession.  Teachers use data on a daily basis.  Formative assessment is the cornerstone of differentiated instruction.  Imagine, however, what teachers in America could do if all of the money that is spent on paying testing companies was, instead, spent on teacher training and materials of instruction?

We need more advocates like Dodge and Lavine.  We need governors and state education heads to stand up for their children.

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