FDR, Eleanor, and Teddy: Teaching the Roosevelts

I spent a whole week recently devouring the new Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History while folding laundry (which I recommend– laundry is much, much more entertaining this way). I also have the privilege of counting Debi Duke, the Program Coordinator at Teaching the Hudson Valley, as a colleague and friend– and THV is housed at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites (Hyde Park), which will be a very familiar name to anyone acquainted with the Roosevelts. “What stuff is out there for teachers interested in teaching the Roosevelts?” I asked her, and she responded with this amazing treasure trove of a post– pictures and all. Enjoy. All pictures aside from the first are attributed to Bill Urbin, National Park Service.  Check out the cool THV blog here, where this post will also live.  ~ Dina



Eleanor_Roosevelt_in_school_portraitThe Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Ken Burns’s epic saga of Eleanor, Franklin, and Theodore Roosevelt has many teachers—especially at the secondary level— looking for resources. There are tons, so we’ll get right to it—but not before we hear from Donna Nageli, an elementary teacher who posted on Teaching the Hudson Valley’s blog about her Roosevelt classroom. Think Common Core doesn’t leave room for field work? Not on your life. Below are some edited excerpts from her post.

Take a look at NYSED’s social studies core curriculum, and the ELA CCSS, which is filled with references to the importance of being able to read and interpret primary sources, i.e., the kind of documents available at many historical sites in our region. Just be sure to ask when arranging a visit! This IS Common Core.

My students [see] items mentioned in their readings. I observe them reading markers, discussing the information they garnered, and comparing it with what they had read or talked about in my classroom. Again, this IS Common Core. Primary and secondary sources are integral to CC.

My students bring field journals and are expected to make notes. I ask the docents and educators to include a quiet period for reflective writing and make sure we share and discuss their writing on site or after we’ve returned to school.

Discussion and debate extends learning experiences: Are there differences between what we read in class and what we see on site? If there are, can they be resolved? Why do these differences exist?

Donna’s post focuses on the importance of field work– not just “trips”– outside the classroom, and makes a strong argument for the irreplaceable engagement of field work, bringing students nose-to-nose with the primary sources that make history so rich and fascinating. If at all possible, we strongly recommend using the sources we list below to support the case for field work for your students. 06-16-11-96.-HOFR-GWES-Kingston-NY-Photo-NPS-WD-Urbin-1140x912

From The Series Itself:

First the seven-part series itself can be streamed online.

There is also a two-minute video, Behind the Scenes, The Making of ‘The Roosevelts’.

The companion book of the same title by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns is available at your local independent bookstore.

General On Line Teaching Resources:

The Roosevelts were rooted deeply in New York’s Hudson Valley, going right back to their Dutch ancestors. In Hyde Park, you can explore the Home of FDR, Top Cottage (the president’s get away in Hyde Park), the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site (Val-Kill), and view related podcasts and trails. View or download a guide to educational programs at these sites.

Also in Hyde Park is the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. The education section of its website includes featured resources and a wealth of information for teachers, students, and parents. On-site and classroom workshops, museum programs, and professional development opportunities are described.

Teaching the Hudson Valley, a project of the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt-Van Buren National Historic Sites, all north of New York City, has a free library of activities and lesson plans including several about Eleanor and Franklin. Find them under Resources: Lessons. THV’s blog also shares student work prompted by the Roosevelts, here and here.

Arthurdale Heritage, a private organization in West Virginia, preserves Eleanor Roosevelt’s New Deal Community of the same name. School groups are welcome to visit the craft shop and museum; the website includes audio and other resources. The National Park Service has also developed a lesson plan, Arthurdale: A New Deal Community Experiment, for grades 5-12 social studies.

Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson University: prior to FDR, there were no “official” presidential libraries. TR’s papers and much more are available on this website. Sections for educators and students contain two lesson plans using TR’s sheet music–Father and Son – Dynamics and Rhythm (grades 3-5) and The Rhythm of Political Campaigns (grades 9-12)—and much more.

A search of “Roosevelt” at the Library of Congress’s site for teachers turns up loads of resources, so pick some key words or phrases to find what you’re looking for. (LOC also offers webinars, lesson plans, and much more.) Ditto for the National Endowment for the Humanities’ EDSITEment collection and the National History Education Clearinghouse. All three Roosevelts are also included in National History Day’s 100 Leaders in World History.


Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Expeditionary Learning’s widely used unit on the UDHR can be found here, completely Common Core-aligned.

Teaching the Hudson Valley also published this rich post with multiple resources for teaching about ER and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project includes documents, videos, and teaching ideas. Check out this page for more UDHR-specific information and lesson plans.

Cobblestone, a magazine geared to 9 to 14 year olds, has an issue devoted to Mrs. Roosevelt, The Importance of Being Eleanor. Full of photos and written in an engaging style, single copies are $6. A teachers’ guide can be downloaded free; click teachers’ guides in the resources section.

Other Sites and Parks:

Wilderstein, Daisy Suckley’s home just north of Hyde Park in Rhinebeck, NY. Suckley, featured in the series, was a cousin and confidant of FDR.

In New York City: FDR Four Freedoms Park, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, and Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.

In Washington, DC: FDR Memorial  and Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Elsewhere: Theodore Roosevelt NP (North Dakota), Roosevelt Campobello International Park (Maine & Canada), Sagamore Hill NHS (Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY).

~ Debi Duke

Leave your own ideas, questions, lessons, and thoughts in the comments!

Wendell Berry is Not My Boyfriend

wendell berryDespite the innumerable times my husband has asserted this. (And he just came in and did it again.)

However, as I shake off the dust and get ready to re-enliven my blogging, this bit, from Berry’s Introduction to his  Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, comes across my radar. It is worth quoting at length. Substitute “blogger”– or “teacher,” for that matter– for “author,” and “blog” for “book,” and you have as good a statement of what I or anyone should be aiming for on our blogs, and in our classrooms, as anything.

“An essayist must be aware of the danger of becoming just one more in this mob of drummers. He (as a matter of syntactical convenience, I am speaking only of men essayists) had better understand with some care what it is that he has to sell, what he has to give away, and certainly also what he may have that nobody else will want.

I do have an interest in this book, which is for sale. (If you have bought it, dear reader, I thank you. If you have borrowed it, I honor your frugality. If you have stolen it, may it add to your confusion.) Most of the sale price pays the publisher for paper, ink, and other materials, for editorial advice, copyediting, design, advertising (I hope), and marketing. I get between 10 and 15 percent (depending on sales) for arranging the words on the pages.
 As I understand it, I am being paid only for my work in arranging the words; my property is that arrangement. The thoughts in this book, on the contrary, are not mine. They came freely to me, and I give them freely away. I have no “intellectual property,” and I think that all claimants to such property are thieves.

I am, I acknowledge, a white Protestant heterosexual man, and can only offer myself as such. I take no particular pride in my membership in this unfashionable group, nor do I consider myself in any way its spokesman. I do, however, ask you to note, dear reader, that this membership confers on me a certain usefulness in that it leaves me with no excuses and nobody to blame for my faults except myself. In fact, I am only grateful to my parents, my family, and my friends, who have done their best to make me better than I am. On my more charitable days, I am grateful even to my enemies, who have sharpened my mind and who have done me the service of being, as a rule, wronger than I am.

I am well aware that you cannot give your thoughts to someone who will not take them, and I am prepared for that. I would like to be agreed with, of course, but the rules of publication require me to be willing also to be disagreed with, to be ignored, and even to be disliked. Those who are moved by this book to disagreement or dislike will take discomfort, I hope, from hearing that some of my readers treat me kindly.

Kindness from readers is something that no essayist (and no writer of any other kind) has a right to expect. The kindness I have received from readers I count as the only profit from my work that is entirely net. I am always grateful for it and often am deeply moved by it.

But kindness is not—is never—the same as complete agreement. An essayist not only has no right to expect complete agreement but has a certain responsibility to ward it off. If you tell me, dear reader, that you agree with me completely, then I must suspect one or both of us of dishonesty. I must reserve the right, after all, to disagree with myself.

But however much I may change my mind, I will never agree with those saleswomen and salesmen who suggest that if I will only do as they say, all will be fine. All, dear reader, is not going to be fine. Even if we all agreed with all the saints and prophets, all would not be fine. For we would still be mortal, partial, suffering poor creatures, not very intelligent and never the authors of our best hope.”

I think Wendell Berry probably meets all four of Dana Goldstein’s criteria in “Four Ways to Spot a Great Teacher”, don’t you? Especially here:

An essayist [teacher] not only has no right to expect complete agreement but has a certain responsibility to ward it off… I must reserve the right, after all, to disagree with myself.

Ask the questions, folks. Of your students, of your administrations… of yourself.

Screw You, Amazon? Five Other Ways to Get Cheap Books Into Your Classroom

amazon postSo, I cancelled my Amazon account last week.

The procedure for doing this is absolutely fascinating. You have to email Amazon directly, first of all– no quick and easy “unsubscribe” button– by diving determinedly through six or seven layers of the website to find the form and email address you need.

Then you go through a round or two of concerned Auntie I can’t-believe-you’re-getting-divorced emails (steaming cup of tea and cookies, your hand captured and pressed warmly, her brow furrowed as she leans over the kitchen table and asks, “Are you sure?”).

You’re cut loose, finally, with a message I can only describe from my overactive imagination as– well– stricken.

As you requested, your account has been closed and I’ve unsubscribed your e-mail address from our mailing list. Your account is no longer accessible to you or anyone else.We’ve appreciated your business and wish you the best of luck in the future.
Best regards,

Oh, Anand. I never meant to hurt you.

As it turns out, marketers are kind of happy I’ve kicked Amazon to the curb. It’s likely I am a “problematic customer,” more prone to complaining about the service and shoving their emails into my Spam box.  I’m just obstructionist enough to find this delightful.

I’m also more problematic than they think: I don’t find Amazon emails annoying, but rather morally suspect. The New Yorker reports beautifully here about the take-no-prisoners attitude of Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, towards book publishers (arguably a cartel in and of themselves), and Mother Jones also recently sent someone undercover to work in a warehouse that supplies companies like Amazon. Here’s one of my favorite lines from that shudder-inducing piece: “I feel genuinely sorry for any child I might have who ever asks me for anything for Christmas, only to be informed that every time a “Place Order” button rings, a poor person takes four Advil and gets told they suck at their job.”

I’ve tried this once before when I was still in the classroom– cancelling my account, that is. But then I discovered that I couldn’t find my DVD of the adaptation of Gary Paulsen’s “Nightjohn,” and I needed it for my unit in, like, six days. I caved, and re-registered.

There’s disturbing parallels, like that one, all over warehouse employment and public education. Like the low-wage temps warehouses hire, as a typical teacher I don’t really have the money to pay for the approximately $500-800 in extraneous supplies most teachers spend out of their own pockets, so I need to use Amazon for their cheap prices (and the likelihood that they actually stock the “Nightjohn” movie from 1996). Like dehumanized warehouse employees, as a typical teacher I also don’t have any time to plan or think ahead, so I’m discovering my lack of critical equipment much too late. I need the author of the Mother Jones piece to take her four Advil at 3 am and go find my damn video. 

I feed the monster. Or perhaps more accurately, the monster feeds itself. 

So I’m not dissing teachers for holding onto their Amazon accounts– believe me, I understand. But I humbly offer here five alternate paths I have employed over the years to stop feeding the monster, at least in terms of books.

1) GO TO WWW.BETTERWORLDBOOKS.COM FIRST.  Better World Books is not nearly as well known as it should be among teachers. 8 times out of 10, they have the weird book I need, and more cheaply than Amazon. Better World Books collects and sells only used books, and donates or recycles all of its products that it doesn’t sell on line. They environmentally offset their shipping. I never pay shipping costs. And judging from all their press, it’s a good place to work. Check it out.

2) GO TO WWW.INDIEBOUND.ORG NEXT. IndieBound hooks you up with local booksellers so that you’re not only getting out of the Amazon game, but also the Barnes and Nobles one. I have always been able to find the titles I need here; no moldy Dick-and-Jane leftovers from the 60′s, unless you want them.

3) BECOME A MEMBER OF WWW.PAPERBACKSWAP.COM. The digital version of “Hey, I have this book I finished– do you want it?” Completely free. Audio books available through this website as well.

4) GET LOCAL LIBRARY BOOK SALES ON YOUR CALENDAR. Most branches of your local library will have kick-butt cheap-as-heck decent-books sales semi-annually, around the same time; I stick the typical dates on my Google calendar and set to repeat once a year to twig me to check out the dates and head over. First day usually gets you the best selection; last day will usually net you some kind of “bag of books for $5″ sale. No sticky questions about what you’re money’s supporting, either.

5) EXPLORE ALTERNATE PUBLISHING COMPANIES.  The one mentioned in the New Yorker piece, OR Books, is a great place to start. Granted, most of their select titles are for grown-ups (my absolute laugh-out-loud favorite being _Fifty Shades of Louisa May_), but check out the annual Independent Book Publisher Awards in the Juvenile and Young Adult categories to get a very good sense of what other treasures are out there. Here’s three to check out for fun:




If you contact these little places, explain you’re a teacher who teaches in their demographic and would like to serve as an advance reviewer; you can also sometimes get free books that way.

Got any tips and tricks for sticking it to the Book Man? Leave them in the comments. Meantime, at least for now, I am enjoying my Amazon-free me. 


A Holocaust Educator Weighs In

Czech-2013-Theresienstadt-Block_AThis moving and thoughtful guest post is by my colleague Jeffrey Parker, who amongst other accomplishments is a veteran English educator and teacher-fellow with the US Holocaust Museum. The post expresses a view somewhat different from mine, but I cannot say at all that I disagree.   ~ Dina


I will admit right up front that I cannot comment objectively on this exam prompt. I have an intense passion concerning the Holocaust, human rights and genocide education. I am a teacher-fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I direct a week-long summer institute for high school students and teachers focused on these topics, and I have been teaching about them for more years than I care to count. That being said, my strongest response comes from the simple fact that I am a thinking, breathing, feeling human being and parent.

Simply put, I think the assignment was wrong. Not because it was meaningless or asked the students to formulate an argument concerning a sensitive topic, but because  of what it lacked. From what I have seen and read, there was little to no context provided beforehand – even though California is one of only five states that mandate Holocaust education – and the provided supporting evidence was weak (I’m not sure biblebelievers.org.au counts as a credible, scholarly source, particularly when the site is closely associated with the discredited Institute for Historical Review). This smacks of something that sounded good as a concept but failed miserably in reality. Whether that was a result of ignorance, insensitivity, or carelessness really does not make a difference. We should demand more of our teachers. Misguided, thoughtless education is often worse than no education at all.

I have no problem with the topic though; I teach my students about revisionist history of the Holocaust along with the associated rise in anti-Semitism, and we talk about the thought process, the arguments, the “evidence,” that supports it. It is absolutely essential to critically grapple with contrary views. As part of our two day, in class oral exam at the end of our Holocaust unit, one of the questions we discuss is “How would you respond to a person that denies the reality of the Holocaust? What evidence would you reference to support your view?” An exam bereft of feedback is not the right place for this though. Yes, on the assignment, it directs the students to engage in “academic discussion” of the material for the purpose of note taking. This is not the nuanced feedback of a committed educator that is prepared to guide. An eighth grader, no matter how mature, is not in a position to silently struggle with such a monumentally complex event. While I agree that “the other side” needs to be addressed, this method was inappropriate at best.

A question on an exam such as this trivializes the Holocaust and leaves little room for true education – where is the discussion, the close reading or viewing of survivor testimony, the illustration of the true complexities? Where are the stories of the Jewish partisans, the text of the Nuremberg Laws, the diary of a teenager living in the Lodz ghetto, the photos of the Sonderkommando that were snapped by an individual that was willing to die for the documentation, the words of the men in Reserve Police Battalion 101, the eyewitness accounts of the liberators of Buchenwald? The USHMM, in their “Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust,” urges educators to, “Contextualize the history,” “Translate statistics into people,” and “Make responsible methodological choices.” This exam question did not do this.

It sickened me when a colleague posted this last week. Challenging students to formulate an argument on such a topic – whether climate change, immigration, or the Holocaust – without adequately preparing them or providing appropriate tools is deplorable. As Elie Wiesel said, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

This test did not forget the dead; it disregarded them and the living children who should hear their testimony.


Mr. Parker’s opinions are his own and he does not presume to speak on behalf of the USHMM or any group with which he may be affiliated.

Holocaust Assignment Questions: Why Not?*

controversy* For the record: I view as facts human-driven climate change, evolution, and the unspeakable calamity of the Holocaust. I view Holocaust denial and xenophobia as indefensible. Just saying.

But onto the post.

In Rialto Unified School District in California, test officials apologize profusely for misguided critical thinking assignments quoting Holocaust denial text. 

The editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo basically assures us that the teachers involved were anti-Semites, because he grew up near Southern California.

In Chicago, elementary school immigrant students  debate the path to citizenship in the US on a standardized test that allegedly uses fake “conservative” xenophobic text. This blogger, and other edufolk I deeply respect, call this racist.


So: is an exam, or detailed writing assignment, the place to require students to deal with issues like Holocaust denial and xenophobia?

There’s some very strong reasons to say a big fat “no,” many of which have been voiced this past week. One of them is whether subjects such as these are developmentally or socially appropriate for kids who may be personally involved in them. (The Rialto assignment was given to kids in 8th grade. Chicago’s population of ESL students stood at 15.8% in 2013.)

But the largest concern, as far as I can tell, is that since a summative exam or writing assignment is a place where an assessor’s personal views are not supposed in any way to determine the outcome, it is the exam or assignment’s implicit message that it is possible to pull together a cogent argument on either side of the issue at hand.

In cases such as global warming denial, creationism, or Holocaust denial, then, there is a radical enough concern about the factual basis of these stances that including them on an exam is viewed as implicitly stating that one view is equal in its weight to the other– false balance. In fact, that concern is radical enough that most people deny there is any real controversy involved in these issues at all.

(And thank you, John Oliver, for taking my call and developing this skit you aired last night just to support my blog post. Great party last week too. Latte soon, ok?)

False balance, and dealing sensitively with little ones or adolescents who hold or are exposed to problematic views, are huge, huge problems. As a result confronting such issues with grace, respect and evidence is arguably the place of a well-guided classroom, not an exam or a graded assignment.

On the other hand…

1) Our American exams and assignments have historically been completely arbitrary exercises in meaninglessness. (Ironically, this is one of the criticisms being made as we speak about Common Core-aligned math assessments.) So in our race to be culturally sensitive and factually-based, are we in danger of automatically shutting down assessments that are finally taking up matters of relevance and worth?

(Check out this report, which points out that possibly one fifth of people in the US possess some kind of indifference towards Jews and the Holocaust. One. fifth. I won’t even talk about the amount of people in the US who think we should close our borders.)

Think about the quantum leap in relevance that represents in terms of academic content. Dude, does no one remember the pineapple?

2) A side effect of the democratizing of voice in American media is the ability, frankly, for any damn person to say any damn thing and have it look pretty in a blog post– if not transmitted to the millions through Twitter. I include my own work in this.

Our students live in an information age where  possessing and understanding the power of logic and argument in real life situations is not optional. The need for it suffuses nearly everything our students see and hear. To put a relevant and controversial subject on an exam or an important assignment, then, delivers the message that American education understands this reality, and privileges the ability to make and carry a cogent argument. Would that Congress would do the same.

(By the way: “I lived near Southern California, so I am qualified to comment on this story” is a version of the Appeal to Irrelevant Authority. Page 14.)

Yeah, so we may suck at dealing with controversy on our assessments right now. I sucked at teaching in my first year too. And my fourth. You learn, you get up, you move forward. I trust our teachers, our best test writers, to do this.

And finally, 3) consider this:

Whatever you believe about climate change deniers, xenophobes, or creationists: these people exist. Their arguments exist. And furthermore, they are believed: every single day.  They affect education, national policy, and most importantly, real people: namely, our kids.

We need to teach our students to be able to answer their arguments. We need to teach them to take these stances head on with perseverance, compassion, evidence and cheer: not tap out by saying that they are too controversial to put on a high stakes exam, or that our students are too fragile to handle writing about them.

We need to show students that we trust them and value them enough to tackle the events and beliefs that affect their very lives.

Trust me: there is nothing higher stakes than that.


A Poem For Mother’s Day


If you have ever had a thought

beyond your own breath

this day is yours;

the earth has given it to you,

the emeralds balanced on branches

by the long undying winter;


the fish frying in the pan,

red wine and laughter;


the washrag twisted and rung out

into the bloody water.


If you have ever held a thing

beyond your own body

this day is yours;

the stars have given it to you,

their insides coalescing

into flesh and bone;


the sons and daughters

that clamber rampant

in and over all the stones.


This day is yours.


If you have ever waited

beyond your own hope

this day is yours;

hope leaves

and who is left

but you;


you against all thieves?


This day is yours,

long beyond the day

and beyond the hour.


Here is the seed you planted.


Here is the flower.


~ Dina Strasser

Louis CK is Wrong: Creativity and the Common Core

creativity_is_boundless_by_pixelnase1How can I teach “creatively” in an era of national standards?

Tough question. Tough, tough, tough.

But I have found in my conversations with colleagues that the question above is often, actually, this question:

Why is the Common Core being done TO me, and not WITH me?

This is a critical thing to ask, and the answer is nuanced, and sadly politicized to the nth degree. It is essential that we talk about it (and I’ll be posting further about it next week and perhaps beyond– an idea is blooming about a post series on how to relate healthily as a teacher to the Common Core).

But for NOW, do me a favor, though, and set aside this sub-question: that is to say, any political questions now about how the CCLS were developed and are implemented. That’s a whole other kettle of monkeys, as my father used to say.

For now, let’s assume that the question is what it is, on it face:

“How do I get ‘creative’ in class when I have a set of common standards under which I must operate?”

So here’s the thing. The word “creative” is actually as complex in its meaning as anything else relating to the Common Core. (Of course. More coffee, please.) Notwithstanding this, I want to tackle three important “shades” of this word, kindly provided by Miriam-Webster on-line, in relation to Common Core.

1) Creative can mean “marked by the ability and power to create.” Pretty simple– and the answer, as it turns out, is also simple (if also challenging and sometimes scary).

2) Creative can mean “having the quality of being created, not imitated: imaginative.”  Now here’s a rub. Where, in otherwords, can I get imaginative while implementing the Core? Or: How can I preserve my Banned Books unit, multiple intelligences ice breaker, and walks outside on campus?

3) Creative can mean “managed so as to get around legal or conventional limits.” This one might be my favorite– as in Enron’s “creative financing.” I think no conversation about the Common Core is complete without acknowledging the need for and power of, frankly, resistance.

First: Does the Common Core allow me to have the ability and power to create?

Answer: Yes. 

Action: Be brave. 

 Common Core is not, and never was meant to be, a curriculum. The Core does not tell us what to teach, that is, the means of teaching. It is rather, as the Common Core site states, “…a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.”

(If the Common Core myths page site turns you off, by the way, check out Politifact’s version. You’ll get the same answer.)

This is not CCLS puppetry: this is fabulous news for teachers. It means that whoever in your educational world is telling you that there is one way to teach the Common Core– be it Pearson, the “Common Core aligned” workbook handed to you in your last department meeting, your curriculum supervisor, or your colleagues– is simply wrong, and you can quote the CCLS itself to prove it.

(It also means, Louis CK, that you are also wrong. Sorry. I love your stuff 99% of the time.)

We, teachers, retain exactly the same right and privilege to use our academic creativity, leverage our knowledge of our kids, and work from our individual strengths and passions as we did before national standards came onto the scene. (Which, to make a tangential point, was not in 2012, but in 1996–  at least for ELA folk.) This is old hat for us, friends. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. 

Second: Does the Common Core allow me to create instead of imitate– to be imaginative?

Answer: Yes. 

Action: Find the cracks. 

 This action is stolen from some of the most moving lyrics written in the world, by Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

Now, #1 really goes a long way to helping us out on this one: after all, if the Core does not prescribe how we teach, then we preserve a huge amount of our autonomy automatically. But let’s say you’re in a district or a building that does not share this view. What do you do?

In the Common Core, or in your week, day, or period, there are “cracks.” These can be as small as your pliable five minute Core-aligned “Do Now”, to as huge as New York State CCLS ELA Key Idea #11a, “Students will self-select text based on personal preferences.” These cracks are the key to your creativity. They are the places where light and air reside in your schedule, in your infrastructure, in your lessons, in your teaming, in your after-school commitments. Your job is to find those cracks, and use them to their utmost.

Here’s an example of the light that can come through one of those cracks: Two Minute Massively Multi-Player Thumb Wrestling, through which you lay the groundwork for the collaborative work called on in the Core.

Or, here’s another one: the two voice, research-based poem. (Full disclosure: I helped write this curricula.)

In the absence of other means of supporting teacher creativity– inimitable, imaginative products– a teacher has to think out of the box as to where that creativity can reside and thrive. While this is not enough to drive systemic change, neither is it defeat– on the contrary. It is one of the best kinds of revolution.

Finally: Does the Common Core allow me to manoeuver around legal or conventional limits?

Answer: Yes. 

Action: Know your s$&t.

So, back up to NYS CC ELA Key Idea 11a: you’ll note on the PDF I linked to that it is highlighted. Highlighted content is state-specific; it is not a result of adoption of the Common Core, but decisions state make to add or revise Common Core standards. Key Idea 11a is an example. 

Why is this important? Because your independent, self-selected, we-love-Nancie-Atwell reading workshop model is anchored to the rock by Key Idea 11a. It is not something we throw out in New York because “it isn’t aligned”. It’s required– and the only way you’ll know it is if you read the damn thing.

Another example: Appendix A of the ELA Common Core.

I think I’m going to do some kind of crash course on Appendix A on the blog, because it’s called an appendix (after that nonsensical little tail of skin in our intestines that we do not need and completely ignore), when it should be THE FIRST THING ANYONE READS IN THE COMMON CORE EVER. I cannot believe, for example, that people are still griping over Lexiles as an absurd and destructive federal mandate when there is zip, zero, nada, NOTHING in the Core about using Lexiles as the sole measure of text complexity.

In fact, the Core recommends an extremely reasonable three dimensional approach to this task, and states outright that qualitative measures TRUMP quantitative measures. So you want to use Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust  but “the Lexile is too low”? Sic this on people.

Out of the Dust

So what does all of this mean? It means that if you’re going to resist this kind of fear-mongering nonsense, you need to read.the.Core. Every little bit of it. Hell, if you’re going to resist parts or the whole of the Core itself– the questionable psychological suitability of the K-2 CCLS comes to mind– then you also need to read.the.Core. Every little bit of it.

(Shall I point out the superlative irony that knowing your s$%t in order to resist the Core is the heart of the Common Core Standards? Why, yes, I think I will, for the 4325th time.) 

So, to conclude:

How can I teach “creatively” in an era of national standards?

This is how I tried to do it:

 Be brave. 

Find the cracks. 

Know your s^&t. 

And that about sums it up for me.

Three Little Things and One Huge Thing in My Life as a Teacher

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So, I wrote a thing about getting into my forties and nearly slicing my thumb off a few weeks ago. Surprisingly, people seem to like it. I love you, bloodthirsty readers.

And, I consulted on a thing about New York State’s teacher evaluation system, acronym APPR. Written by Dr. Aaron Pallas of Teacher’s College Columbia University. If you still have no idea how or why you got the score you got, read this. It’s important. Journal where it’s published below.

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And, I had a thing came out in Educational Leadership last month about teacher morale. Headlined with Rafe Esquith and Nel Noddings, dear god, help me.

And lastly, I am no longer a classroom teacher.

About three weeks ago Expeditionary Learning, where I’ve been writing as a consultant these past few months, offered me a 20 month contract as a full time staff writer. I took it.

Expeditionary Learning is just about as close as you can get to a repository of all the stuff I’ve been trying to crystallize in my classroom for the past fourteen years: portfolios, student-led assessment, growth models and mindset, community roots, thematic curriculum, collaboration on all levels, inquiry-driven lessons. If you go back through the blog (now seven years old– wow), you’ll see all of this, and you’ll see me struggling to carve it out in my school.

So you’ll see that even more than this being an exciting new way to contribute something to the field of education… it’s also a relief.

I’ve hung back from posting because I haven’t been sure about how to make this transition work on the blog. I want to continue writing here– it’s essential to me to continue writing here– but I don’t want the blog to end up looking and sounding like a mouthpiece for EL, either, much as I love them and am on board with their vision.

So I need your help.

How can I make a transition from the classroom to educational non-profit work for you, my readers?

What can I continue to add to the conversation?

What can I add that is new?

What annoying things can I not do, or stop doing?

What do you find valuable about this space?

That’s about it, folks. Do leave a comment for me. It will help a ton.

Philosophy in Schools? Yes, Please. (Subtitle: Why The Common Core Isn’t the Devil, Either.)

lincolnAs a Catholic school girl (even through college, where Logic I, Rhetoric I, and Philosophy 101 were baseline freshman courses), I got a severe dose of syllogisms.

There is nothing I learned– nothing– which was more empowering.


(By the way, don’t you love this new use of the period for emphasis? Almost as good as our new prepositional form “because/noun.”  English rocks, because creativity.)

Logic, rhetoric and their leafy green branches, philosophy, are an electron microscope. They are a scimitar.

They are the Defense Against the Dark Arts for Muggles.

And they used to be foundational in our schools. So what the heck happened to them?

Their classical formation disappeared right around the turn of the century, as the purpose of our schools shifted. They enjoyed a renaissance in the Progressive Era in public life and universities, but with the flowering of industrialization and mass technologies for persuasion, they have all but died away. (For a more detailed and nerdy take on rhetoric’s general history in the US and elsewhere, check this out.) Indeed, in February 2013, an article in Scientific American by Dennis Bartels argued that schools have gone so far past the point of no return that it is useless to even try to teach critical thinking in them.

And not for nothing– and I’ve saved this for last, since this is one of those topics that can derail Thanksgiving Dinner entirely– but this is one of the reasons I was attracted to the Common Core. I don’t believe Dennis Bartels. (Because critical thinking.)

The Core, insofar as I know, is the first concerted effort since the 19th century— and arguably the first concerted national effort ever– to introduce the idea of teaching the building blocks of critical thinking to everyone, not just privileged Catholic school girls.

You think the Common Core sucks? You’re not the only one. And yet, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, logic gives a lovely light. In fact, in one of the greatest ironies of the Common Core conversation, it is precisely the Common Core’s strengths in logic, evidence, and reasoning which creates the strongest means by which to constructively criticize the Core’s weaknesses.

I’m going to continue to make this baby-bathwater point in future posts.

For a really good article (and the piece which inspired this post), please read The Guardian’s “Teaching Philosophy to Children? It’s a Great Idea,”  published this past Wednesday.

“While academic achievement, career advancement and financial success are no trifling things, they’re simply visible husks that may grow around a philosophical life. The hidden kernel,” says this lovely piece,  ”is made of freedom, clarity of thought, and a professional mastery of what it means to be human.”

I might rephrase a bit. The teaching of logic, rhetoric, and philosophy is the clarity of thought, and a professional mastery of what it means to human, that results in freedom.