Let's Change Education

Challenge. Discover. Lead. Change.

Category: Reflection’s Reality

Reflection’s Reality: Learning is a Story

Learning as Journey

Each a journey. Each a story. Each a young spirit with whom I get the privilege to experience life and learning. For 180 days each year, my students and I join journeys, and for the briefest of  whiles our experiences are shared, our stories are intertwined, and we are connected. We are bound by learning. That is our journey, a journey of shared responsibility in our common quest to grow as we make our way down the road. And in that bond we’ve each a role. My role is to provide opportunity and support. Their roles are to take ownership and responsibility. And so, with those packs snugged securely to our backs, we face feet forward and venture into the land of learning, the realm of possibility.

Okay, my flight of fancy has passed, but that is my ideal approach to learning. I don’t want learning to be a tentative transaction, a simple exchange. I want learning to be a committed connection, an exhilarating experience. And while I have wanted that, chased that ideal for most of my career, last year I finally caught some of what I sought. The journey. The difference? I took grades off the table. When I did that, it was no longer my writing their stories in the gradebook. When I took grades off the table, they had to pick up the pen; they became the authors. When I took grades off the table, I opened the path to learning. I discovered the journey.

And on that first 180-day journey, I learned about learning. I learned about reflection. Oh, I had always valued reflection’s role in the learning process, but last year on my trek, I stumbled onto something that I came to call learning stories. Learning stories are reflections. But they are not merely reflections: they are the moments, the chapters, the pages of one’s learning journey. I only dabbled in and experimented with this last year, but my trials were revelatory. When I gave kids the ownership of their learning, they were truly capturing their experiences in the classroom. This wasn’t about writing a reflection out of compliance. It was about writing a story out of commitment. A story. Her story. Her learning. Her journey.

This year it moves beyond the experimental dabble. This year, this 180 day cycle, it will become a full-fledged part of the journey. Learning stories will be a daily component for the kids and me. I am going to call them “Journey Journals.” In a recent, #TG2CHAT, I mentioned “learning stories” in reference to student reflections, and some folks expressed interest in hearing more. Knowing I could not do it in a 140 characters, and knowing I had to get it put together before the year started anyway, I promised a post. Here it is. Here is how I will use Journey Journals in my classroom this year.

Finding Their Stories

Most kids do not regard their lives as stories, and even fewer regard their educational experiences as stories. Sadly, I believe it’s due in part to their feeling that the adults in their lives are the ones writing their stories. So, I have tried to change that. For years, one of the first things that I have my kids write is their reading and writing stories. By the time they reach me in tenth grade, they have strongly-set attitudes on both. So, I ask them to explore those attitudes by tracing back through their experiences and capturing them in a story. If a kid “hates reading,” I want to know why. More importantly, I want him to know why. If a kid “LOVES writing,” I want to know why. I want her to know why.

This year, this will set the stage differently than it has in the past. This year it’s about recognizing where one is and having the power to do something  with it. Before it was a well-intentioned activity, but it was just that. Now it is the first page. It settles the kids in the content and context of our journey. It is the first step, a step that is not exclusive to the ELA classroom. Every kid has a science story, a math story, a health-and-fitness story, etc. So, for those of you reading this who teach in other contents, this can be done in any class.

One cool thing to note is that at Cheney High School we are having all kids in all ELA classes write their reading and writing stories, and they will keep in them in their 9 – 12 writing portfolios. They will revisit the previous year’s story before writing the next. The goal here is for all of them to have four stories from which they can see their growth over the four years with us. A lot of work remains with this, but I am excited by the possibilities. Back to the Journey Journals.

Capturing Their Stories

How’s it going to work? Based on the premise that each day, each unit, each lesson, each activity, really each interaction–academic or not–is a learning experience, here are the basic nuts and bolts of my approach.

  • I will provide composition notebooks for each kid. These will be our journals. I will also have one, and I will do everything that I ask the kids to do. Well, actually, I will have two: one for honors and one for regular. I believe that my doing this along with the kids is vital. If I am selling it, I have to buy it.
  • Our journal entries will be our exit task. Monday thru Thursday, for the last 5 minutes, we will capture a part of our day’s journey. On Friday, our scheduled reflection and reading days, the kids will have more time to capture something from the week’s journey.
  • All entries must include an entry number, date, and title.
  • If students are absent, then they will still be required to capture something from their day. The journey extends beyond school.
  • There will be no points attached. The kids will have the opportunity to bring their journals to our learning conferences to share what they select as evidence of growth. I will share from mine as well. I am looking for commitment here. I am not interested in compliance. They will also have additional opportunities to “publish” (see below).

The capture. To help my kids catch their stories, I am going to give them learning lenses through which to view their experiences.  Here is the basic premise. Our experiences can be looked at in different ways, examined in different contexts. I will ask the kids to look at their experiences through five different learning lenses.

  • Learning Targets: These targets represent our planned route for the day. This is a relatively straightforward lens for the kids. What’d we do today? How’d I do today?
  • Growth: My hope is that this is a consistent consideration for kids. Am I moving? Am I growing?
  • Proficiency: This, too, will likely be ever-present in the kids’ minds as this will represent the major milestones (standards) throughout the journey. How’s my confidence. How’s my performance?
  • World: Here is where I would love for kids to connect their experiences with the broader world–life, the human experience. How does this relate to the world? What connections can I make?
  • Self: Best for last. If my kids can discover the magic of the impact of on experience on self, then there is little more that I could hope for. This is reflection. What did I learn about myself? Who am I?

Pen to paper. Once the kids have considered context, it’s time to start writing. To help them get started, I will provide the story stems in the graphic below. Some kids, my “natural reflectors,” won’t need these; they will jump right in. Other kids will need help getting started, so for them I generated questions to serve as starters, as stems for their stories. I believe these are particularly important for the daily entries, especially early on, for the kids will need help capturing moments. So, to help prevent the, “I-dunno-responses,” the kids will have these to rely on. I will be capturing my own moments from the day, so I need the kids to become self-sufficient. These stems will serve as my support for that.

Sharing Their Stories

I will never collect the kids’ journals. But I will expect that they have their journals with them every single day, and I will also expect them to share from their stories every single day. Without grades to hold over their heads, this becomes my means for holding kids accountable. I will come at it from a you-are-a-member-of-this-community angle. I will further leverage this as a way to create a community of contributors. I will seek to instill the notion that as members of a community they have a responsibility to make contributions; in a learning community each member learns not only for himself but also his community. We learn with, from, and for each other. So we will share. We will contribute. Here are some ways that we will do that.

  • Audience: partner, group, class, teacher, parent
  • Share a word, a sentence, a passage. This will be our most frequent “publishing” opportunity. We will simply share aloud one of these options with either a partner, a group, or the class.
  • Post-it. There will be times when the kids publish a word or sentence on a Post-it and place it on the front whiteboard. I like this because other classes will get to “hear” their peers’ stories.
  • Poster. This will be a big poster on the wall that I will occasionally ask kids to publish a word, sentence, or passage. Similar to the Post-it, but this is more “permanent.”
  • Pass the Paper. This one will take the longest, so we will only do it a few times a semester. Here, each kid will begin with a blank sheet of printer paper. He or she will publish a word, sentence, or passage and then pass the paper. Each kid will publish onto his/her peers’ papers until the paper returns to its original owner. By the time the activity is done, each kid will own a classroom published document.
  • Learning Logs. Every two weeks kids have to complete Learning Logs (my form of progress reports in the gradeless classroom). As part of the required information, I will ask them to quote themselves from their Journey Journals.
  • Learning Conferences. This one was not included in the brick wall below, but when the kids have learning conferences with me, I will ask them to select and share a passage from their journals to give me a sense of where they are in their journeys. I will also share from mine.

Journeys Join

Thus, we are bound. We are one in our journey. We are one in our learning. We become part of each other’s story. That is the ideal I’ve sought for years, and this year I feel like my ideal finally has a chance to become my reality. I will no doubt have to make some changes along the way, but for now, it’s my best “Do.” I will reflect. And I will do better.

Please feel free to use and adapt to suit your classroom needs if you are interested. That is key, folks; it has to fit you, or it won’t work. Good luck on your journeys this coming year.

Do. Reflect. Do better.

Reflection’s Reality: Relationships Are Not Accidents

Reflection’s Reality: A Summer Series from the Project 180 Classroom

“Any success or failure I have experienced in the classroom has had everything to do with relationships.”

This is one of the first things I tell my young aspiring teacher candidates in my classroom management course at Eastern Washington University. I then go on to tell them, with that in mind, we will spend a lot of time talking about relationships, for they are the foundation for everything. And then I continue to tell them that when I was in their seats many years ago (literally, for the desks have not changed in the 25 years since I, too, was a young teacher candidate taking the same course at EWU) no one talked to me about relationships. No, instead I was led to believe that good management was keeping kids in their seats quietly–silently–working from bell-to-bell. I have since learned that management is not about management; it’s about culture. And really, it’s about relationships.

Recently, I had the honor of contributing a post to the  Teachers Going Gradeless  website, which highlighted the gradeless classroom as an ideal setting for creating  a culture of possibility.  The emphasis on culture stems from my belief that great teachers are not managers of classrooms but creators of culture. And from that place, I challenge my college students to capture their dreams of their ideal cultures, so we can then set to work on discovering and implementing the practices that will help make their ideals their realities. This approach gives them not only the opportunity to develop their talks but also check their walks. In the post, I went on to share how I keep my talk and walk in balance in the culture that I seek to create in my high school ELA classroom. And, of course, my first “talk and walk” addressed that which I sell as the key component in any classroom culture: relationships.

In the post I referenced an activity that I do with my high school students to make relationships an intentional part of my classroom culture. I call it Smiles and Frowns. But I did not discover it in the classroom. Before stepping down so I could focus on Project 180 last year, I was the ELA department chair at Cheney High School for 12 years, and one of my many responsibilities was to lead our weekly collaboration meetings. Of course, there was always an agenda–there’s always an agenda–but there were also eight other people sitting around the table, eight other people with whom I had to engage the important work that we do in the ELA department at CHS.  There was an agenda. There were people. The agenda could wait. People first.

So, one Friday morning on a whim, we started with a quick go-around, sharing something from our professional and/or personal lives. It took roughly five minutes. The next week, we did the same, but this time I placed it at the top of our agenda, calling it Smiles and Frowns. It remained at the top of our agenda from there on. Even now, after my stepping down, it’s still at the top of our agenda every time we meet. Last year, it made it into my classroom culture as an occasional but intentional activity to foster relationships. This year it will take center stage as the daily entry task, an intentional effort to make relationships the priority.

Smiles and Frowns

Here’s the basic approach.

  • I sit among the kids if there is an empty desk. If not, my default perch is a seat at the front of the room. I prefer to sit among the kids. My desks are generally arranged in two half circles. But arrangement varies, so we adapt accordingly. If the arrangement is not conducive to a good sharing-and-listening environment, we will all stand in a big circle around the room.
  • Each person has an opportunity to share a smile and/or frown from his/her school or personal life. This is the heart of the activity. This is such a great opportunity for us all to learn about each other as individuals, learning that transfers into so many other aspects of our culture over the course of the year.
  • Each person has the right to pass. No one is forced to share. Sadly some kids always pass. On occasion I will pass, too, to honor those kids who are exercising their rights.
  • Each person has the responsibility to listen. I don’t want my kids to be good listeners. I want them to be great listeners. And that takes practice. For us, it begins here. My rules for listening are pretty simple. No talking while others are sharing. Make an effort to make eye-contact with the speaker (which means one may have to turn around depending on seating arrangement).  Use non-verbal gestures to put the speaker at ease (nod, smile, etc.). Not much makes me grumpy as a teacher, but if kids aren’t working at being great listeners, I get grumpy.
  • We start at random places. Often, I will ask for volunteers to start us off. Sometimes, I will choose. Sometimes, I will begin.
  • It takes five minutes. Sometimes, it takes a little more, but I am the guard at that gate. If I find that there is something that the kids are excited about or have stuck in their craws, we will spend the extra time. My culture. My choice.

How I will introduce it to the kids.

We are going to learn a lot this year. A lot. I am going to push you to make the most of our opportunity together. And while the content of the course will occupy the majority of our learning experiences, it is not the most important thing we will learn together. Yes, syntax and rhetoric are important, and, yes, we will treat them as such, but they are secondary to what matters most: the people around us. Our worlds will always be full of important stuff, but they will also be full of people. And it is my belief that if we want to learn about the world and to learn about ourselves, we first have to focus on the people around us. So we, my young friends, will spend time each day learning about each other.

Relationships are key. They are not accidents. They require intention. I talk a lot about that. And I have found, that if my mouth is moving, my feet need to keep up. I have to walk my talk. And so, to that end, I make relationships a priority, and Smiles and Frowns is just one way that I am intentional about that. Yes, I have content to cover–there’s always content to cover–but at any given moment in my day, there are also thirty other bodies in the room with whom I engage the important work of learning the world. There is content. There are people. The content can wait. People first. Always first.


Reflection’s Reality: The Why of Things

Reflection’s Reality: A Summer Series from the Project 180 Classroom

For this third Reflection’s Reality post, I decided to go back to the roots of my madness, to why I decided to give all kids an A for the year. Funny that it all started with why. And as I continue to meet others here in the gradeless realm, it seems, in that, we share a common bond for our gradeless journeys: we were not content with the what of things, so we changed them. We were not afraid to ask why or why not. I have never found comfort in the way things are. Last year, I finally found the courage to change the what of things. Below is the beginning of the 180 journey.

Originally published June 7, 2016

Yesterday, it was my turn to deliver my injustice speech. I thought–hoped–that maybe with the craziness of the end of the year the kids would let me off the hook, but that was not the case. So, Sunday morning, I wrote my speech. Our speeches, as many of you know, had to address an injustice. I chose to speak to the injustice of the status quo, using my plan to radically change my grading approach next year as the backdrop, attempting to reveal the “why” behind my crazy.

I delivered my speech four times yesterday. We caught it on film during fourth period, and I posted it on Facebook (link below). I have also included the script–as delivered. The kids made me give a target time, and they insisted on filling out the PVLEGS feedback forms, too. I was pleased with how critical they were of my performance, sharing such things as “gestures seemed forced” or “relax and be more confident.” They also shared some warm and fuzzy sentiments. Some were just tickled that I said the word “ass.” Twice. Kids.

Anyway, wanted to share. Not sure how I feel about the video. Always tough and weird to see and hear myself on tape. Glad it’s behind me. I was more nervous than I thought I would be. But, importantly, I shared that with the kids, so they understood it never really gets easy; we just learn to manage our nerves, but that only comes from experience. I am so glad the kids and I shared this powerful experience. Truly felt it was a triumph for all.

Feeling a little guilty about being a year late on my “give-all-an-A approach,” I awarded a 100% to each kid who delivered a speech (only one didn’t). In truth, it’s the least I could do for these lovely little souls. They have been perfect partners in my tentative experiments this year. Truly, I owe them more than I can give them. They have given me the courage to bend my own trees. I only hope that I have inspired them to bend their own.


Ask Me Why

Ask me. Go on. Ask. Ask me why. Ask me why I do what I do. And I will speak. I will seek to answer what you would know.

But be careful, for “why” is a stick with two ends, a piercing probe sharper by far than the blunt weapon of “what.”

And you, my friends, you are well-acquainted with “what.” True. You picked him up long ago. We dropped him before you as you crossed the threshold of your education.

Of course, “why” was there, too, but he fell in the tall grass when we dropped him, and we let him lie, hoping he remained hidden from view, and you, distracted, did not see.

But for the better we believed, for why is poky and sharp, better for kids not to play, with that which is dangerous. And with that, “what” became enough.

Didn’t it? Every day. Every day, you walk in here. And every day you ask me, “What are we doing?” But you never ask me why.

Is it that you are afraid? Is it that you don’t care? Or is it that we hid it so well that you never learned to dare. Why? Why won’t you ask me why?

Is it simply that you are young? Or, is it more? Maybe it is more… because even the adults in the building seem to find little comfort in the why of things.

No, it’s true. As a staff, we have established norms to follow when we interact with each other.

What? Adults need rules for engagement? Oh, my young friends,  if only you could see a staff meeting.

Indeed, one of our staff norms is, “Seek to understand.” Apparently, “why” was not readily found by us either when we entered our education. Funny that we have to have a rule for digging into the why of things. But why?

Is it that we, too, are afraid? Is it that we, too, do not care? Both, I suspect.

And so, I wonder. I wonder about next year. I wonder if the “What is Syrie doing?” Will also come with the “why?” Will they seek to understand? Can I make them understand?

Friend or Foe, it will not be easy to explain, for it runs counter to the very “what” of our existence in education, but I, discontent and disturbed with that what asked why, and, then, I asked why not?

And that has given me the courage to proceed, to turn upside down that which no longer makes sense in my search to understand. And though it would not suffice, I, when pushed to explain, would prefer to lift from the page a piece from Bradbury, which aptly intimates the very why of my crazy.

“I hate a Roman named Status Quo!’ he said to me.

‘Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said,

‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds.

See the world.

It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.

And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away.

To hell with that,’ he said,

shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.

And that is the essence. I wish to knock education on its ass. With great impudence, I wish to land the sloth flat on his back and make him suffer for the lie that he is, for the damage he has done, and for the apathy that he has aroused, kicking him again for good measure, releasing my rage, Banging my staff on the Bridge of Khazad Dum, crying, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

But I will not. I cannot. For the savage in me will win no friends, and so I will simply, humbly share that I wish to learn, patiently and prudently explaining my journey to those who will listen. And that, my friends, is the “why” of my next year.

But, too, I wonder about your next years. I wonder if “what” will be enough.

I wonder if you will be content to hang upside down on the lower, more stable branches of “what,” or if you will seek the higher, more dangerous limbs in the top, daring to bend the tree with your “why’s?”

So, go on. Ask me. Go on, ask. Ask me. Ask the world. Ask why. Be not content with the “what” of things, else you become the sloth of the world.

And while I truly regret that I cannot gift you an “A,” this year, I can instead offer you a word. WhyI wish I could give you more.

Do. Reflect. Do Better. 

Link to video (Facebook) of my delivering the speech.

Ask Me Why


Coming Soon! Reflection’s Reality: A Summer Series


The perversity of such an approach was seductive; what was there to stop me, aside from my own fear of  being “unscientific”? I knew that if I told people I was studying “what it’s like to be a plant,” some would dismiss me as a joke, but perhaps others might sign on just for the adventure. Maybe hard work could stabilize scientifically shaky ground. I didn’t know for sure, but I felt the first delicious twinges of what would be my life’s enduring thrill. It was a new idea, my first real leaf. Just like every other audacious seedling in the world, I would make it up as I went along. –Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

From the Project 180 journey comes Reflection’s Reality, a summer series dedicated to exploring the discoveries big and small from my gradeless experience this past year. Look for a new post each week as I look back on and forward from my first P-180 journey. I am thrilled to begin this next turn of the 180 adventure, even if I am making it up as I go along.

Note: Right before publishing this post to introduce Reflection’s Reality, my wife, as she is wont to do, interrupted my thinking to share the above quote from a book that she is reading because it reminded her of me, and while I am not always as appreciative as I should be of such interruptions, this one smacked me across the face, reminding me that one should always listen to his wife, especially his lovely art teacher wife who is the best teacher he knows, for it perfectly–perfectly–captures the sentiments of his P-180 experience. Thanks for interrupting me, Sher. I will never not love your interruptions again. Promise.


%d bloggers like this: