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Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Some resolve & a little switch

Before I talk about how I got here, let me try to describe where here is.

I stand for

  • Student choice.
  • Democratic education.
  • Authentic project-based, service, and entrepreneurial learning and feedback.
  • Schools that function as nodes for learning opportunities.
  • Extending students unabridged rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at school.
  • Extending teachers unabridged rights to act in students’ best interests and to experiment with differentiation unfettered by bureaucracy.

I stand against

  • Hurtful curricular, instructional, managerial, and assessment policies and practices that result in a wounded, artificially stratified citizenry.
  • Standardized testing.
  • The notion that we “have to” do school any certain way.

I got here recently. I spent most of my career trying to get better at school, just as I spent most of my schooling. I started teaching at the same school where I student taught. It was a cushy assignment. I was warmly supported by my sixth grade colleagues – my “moms” – as well as by my supervising teacher from the previous year. I was an uneven novice English teacher with some ideas about game-based learning, technology infusion, classroom rituals, and backwards design that got the attention of my supervisors – in part because I had the principal’s son my first year. I wanted to earn good marks with my leaders. I wanted to be “good” at teaching. I put my desks in groups and circles, but ran a fairly authoritarian classroom in a fairly authoritarian school culture with mostly compliant kids. I became a NBCT and NETS*T certified teacher way too early. I read a lot of language arts books by the likes of Allington, Beers, Langer, Robb, and Romano. I didn’t spend enough time with enough different teachers. I was cliqueish. I did committee work for the school. I started getting in to data. I became an assessment coach. I got a seat on the division-level strategic planning committee and stood up for eliminating the achievement gap.

As a result of that committee work, I met the next principal with whom I wanted to work. Eventually, we were at the same school at the same time. I got into assessment in a big way. I streamlined and aligned everything in class with SOL goals. I learned how to put together a passing VGLA portfolio. I devoted myself to the DuFours, Marzano, Popham, Schmoker, Stiggins, and Wormeli – and Antonetti, whose sense of presence I aspire to still. I backwards designed to benchmarks and for engagement, and I pre- and post-assessed and spread-sheeted my way to modest victories in raising student achievement. I learned how to use SBAR and how to run and debrief a pilot program. I considered it my mission to make test-prep “engaging” by a combination of academic routines and semi-novel projects. I got to be a decent writing teacher. I learned to listen better to colleagues after they rightly called me on some bull-headed mistakes.

I loved that school and love it still. While I no longer see it as my mission to make sure kids pass tests, I am still awed by the dedication, intelligence, responsiveness, and unity of that school’s staff and administration. In fact, both of my first two schools were perfect for me in that they helped bring me here today. I couldn’t imagine better, safer places to get to know myself as a teacher and to kick around the emerging pieces of the educator I am today.

It was all working pretty well for me until the ambition bug bit.

I enrolled in an alternative licensure program for K-12 administration and supervision. In 18 months I was off to be head teacher of a new arts-infused, literacy-focused charter school for non-traditional learners.

It was the best decision I’ve made in learning how to serve my students.

I think my activism began when I had to teach kids for whom school held little value – and when I had to manage, at the same time, adults for whom the role of “teacher” held tremendous value. Those two groups of stake-holders and I made for an charged mix. Talk about catalysts. While we had some incredible attendance, literacy, and disciplinary results, we didn’t make AYP. My leadership style didn’t help bring our stake-holders together or help our school establish its viability in the state’s eyes, so it’s since been sent to the garage – by me. (Because we work to apply Choice Theory in a middle school setting, I read a lot of Glasser last year.)

Now, again, I teach. In some mix of frustration, shame, guilt, and determination to make institutional and personal amends, I excused myself from any formal leadership of the school and returned to the classroom this year. I wrestled again, this time from the classroom teacher’s perspective, with my “needs” as a teacher and my students’ needs as people. Thanks to mentors who gave me the time and space to find my better self, thanks to my wife’s support of my work, and thanks to powerful personal and professional relationships like those formed on the Coöp, I’m finally here, at my activism, reading Illich, Olson, and Sullo, drawing some comics about what novice teachers should know – about what I hold myself accountable for not knowing.

I don’t yet have the belief, core strength, energy, expertise, fight, passion, or tenacity of my colleagues on the Coöp.

I have some resolve left over from last year and a little switch in my brain that occasionally resets itself and lets me lower my head and plow through a problem towards its solution. So now I’m plowing for change in as many directions as I can. There has to be a way of teaching and learning that is joyful and powerful for students and teachers alike in a shared and dignified space of happiness and discovery. I’m taking small steps in practice, but bigger ones in writing, and holding myself accountable for making more of a difference next year. I’m task-oriented; I’m looking for help in setting my goals.

So here we are. My teaching is a wiki; it’s under activist revision; I’m eager for your help.

When did we become convinced that we can’t surpass the state and its private sector partners in helping our students learn? That we can’t find allies to reinvent public education?

When did we resign ourselves to a culture of resignation? What’s the point of a school that doesn’t affirm the humanity of its students before worrying its test scores?

Tell me, where do we go from here?


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


22 thoughts on “Some resolve & a little switch

  1. Chad,

    First question that jumps out at me is do you believe in this for teachers too? “Extending students unabridged rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at school.”

    What does that look like? How does it change how schools are today?

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 11, 2010, 5:12 pm
    • First, I need to acknowledge my students’ roles in teaching me how to change my practice for the better. Their patience with me and willingness to continue on with me as I have improved have been key to my growth as a teacher throughout my career and especially in the past two years.

      Next, let me say thank you, Adam, for your comments and support.

      Now, on to your questions:

      I do think teachers should be happy. I think sometimes we feel guilty designing learning opportunities that stand a chance of making us and out students happy.

      I think that teachers will have more fun when they let go of traditional notions and means of classroom management, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. When teachers see students learning joyfully about the things that interest them AND learning independence and interdependence and literacies and the intrinsic rewards of service and discovery, then teachers will be happy.

      All of this looks like trust, inquiry, and the support necessary to help students learn from failure and feel successful pursuing their learning loves. It varies in appearance from relationship to relationship. For example, I felt really happy watching this project unfold.

      Llewellyn & Silver’s Guerilla Learning lists these five keys to authentic learning: opportunity, timing, interest, freedom, and support. I think any classroom that fosters these things for students will ensure learning and help make everyone in the community feel happy, fulfilled, and engaged.

      Let’s talk some about co-learning. How actively should a teacher be researching alongside her students? What if she pursues her own inquiry while students pursue theirs? So long as she remains available to support students in their quests, is she free to undertake her own? Should she be, even at a public school?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2010, 7:37 pm
      • Chad,

        I love the Cold War project you blogged about, it captures the way I believe learning happens in meaningful ways. And I think that learning aside our students is perfectly acceptable, I do it everyday. Kids are always asking me questions I don’t know the answers to and we look for the information together, or they continue on with their work while I do some research and then get back to them with the info. Right now we are doing a project around designing a garden in math which encapsulates area, perimeter, scale, and some 3-D shapes; we are learning about climate zones, invasive species, light and soil conditions, bargain hunting, comparison shopping, and more at the same time. Now this might be a little different than what you are proposing. Are you proposing that a teacher should be able to work on her own research whether it is relevant to what students are currently doing in her classroom? More like a university setting?

        Posted by Adam Burk | May 11, 2010, 8:38 pm
  2. Chad,

    I was all ready to respond to your post including your questions at the end, and then I clicked on your “where do we go from here?” link. Now I am just baffled, Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I just don’t know which way is up right now…I’ll be back later after I go for a walk.

    The quality of this post is excellent. It provides a degree of honesty that is often not present in conversations with other educators. You serve a role model for others, making it permissible to change, to put down old ways of doing things that don’t work anymore. You demonstrate the heartbreak of this process, a necessary pain that yields more beautiful qualities then could ever have been produced had you clung to your outdated ways.

    Truly inspirational and so spectacularly human, it is a much better story than what’s in the movies or on “reality” TV. Some version of this post should be the foreword to the Cartoon book you are going to publish.

    It’s an honor to be learning with you Chad.


    Posted by Adam Burk | May 11, 2010, 5:31 pm
  3. At least I’ve moved on from “Going Through the Motions.”

    Adam, I take your humbling feedback as an indicator that I’m moving in the right direction for kids, myself, and my growing sense of responsibility to something greater than my classroom and others’ perceptions of it. Please help make sure the Coöp helps me follow-up and hold myself accountable. Send Joe after me when I slip.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2010, 7:53 pm
  4. Adam, I’m not sure I had a vision in mind when I asked the question, but I like your description of co-learning about the garden.

    I also wonder abut planning time, which many teachers fight to keep. Can the planning, assessing, and professional development work undertaken during that time be done alongside students’ as they work? Is there a benefit in students seeing the nuts and bolts work of instructional design (even when the design does away with directions)? Is there a benefit to teachers having students on hand to test out ideas?

    In a trusting, joyful, inquiry driven classroom, is a planning period necessary for learning or well-being? Or is it part of the shared work of the classroom?

    Those questions are largely rhetorical, but I want to acknowledge that the dysfunction of school can make breaks for students and teachers desirable.

    Do community members in a school reformed around authentic learning and the structures to support it need breaks from one another as matter of course?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2010, 9:32 pm
  5. Chad,

    Your ability to reflect and still practice is inspiring. I am glad that I can get to know you better and learn from you. We are all different levels, but I believe you have just as strong a set of beliefs, core strength, energy, expertise, fight, passion, or tenacity of your colleagues on the Coöp.

    I can’t wait for you to read Berger’s book…it changed the way I thought about the role of a teacher….when your ready i have more….What Holt did you read.

    Thanks for making your teaching a wiki…


    Posted by dloitz | May 11, 2010, 9:47 pm
    • Thank you, David – I feel a bit like a journeyman Gen Y worker when I look back, but feel fortunate to have taught the kids I’ve taught and to have worked with more than my fair share of outstanding mentors throughout the years.

      This week I’m reading Illich’s Deschooling Society, Llewellyn & Silver’s Guerilla Learning, and, hopefully, Pope’s Doing School. That would leave me Holt’s How Children Fail, Collins and Halverson’s Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, and Berger for the next few weeks.

      I’ll check in with you, our collaborators, and the Must Read page after that for more recommendations.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 12, 2010, 6:04 am
  6. Chad,
    I’m like David–I disagree with you saying, “I don’t yet have the belief, core strength, energy, expertise, fight, passion, or tenacity of my colleagues on the Coöp.” It is ten times harder to write in the “I” when you haven’t been doing it than continuing to put yourself out here when you already have a reputation for letting it all out there. LOL

    Sheesh, I can’t believe your reading list… I’m lucky to get several hours a week to read!

    I personally think we all need breaks. The phrase someone uses is we all need caves, watering holes and campfire experiences–(alone, small group and large group). I really like that analogy… I’d love to work in school designed for such gatherings.

    Have you seen The Third Teacher? (

    Always learning,

    Posted by Paula White | May 12, 2010, 2:04 pm
    • Paula,

      That’s a fascinating analogy to build a school from…you’ve got me thinking about what such a program would look like.

      Being pushed,

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 12, 2010, 2:08 pm
    • Wow – The Third Teacher looks great, Paula. I will delve more tonight and add it to my reading list.

      I will crash on reading soon – I hit periods of furious reading and then suffer draughts of reading time and motivation. I’m enjoying a productive period now. Kirsten recommended several of the titles. For fans of Pope’s Doing School, I’m going to go way back to my ed school days and recommend A Tribe Apart by Patricia Hersch.

      I think having a regular opportunity to exercise my voice here and at and on the PLN helps me tap into the qualities I so admire in my colleagues. I think we humans all have a mix of those traits, but, to borrow a Pokemon analogy from my students, my stats are lower than others’. I’m glad my reputation is still alive and well – I’m still getting used to working in such a small school; focused on our work, I haven’t looked around the division as much as I used to. Helping start a school is very different work from working at or transferring to an established one. It’s been a great education for me to be here.

      Hurrah for the caves, watering holes, and campfires. I’m very much enjoying our stories here.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 12, 2010, 3:14 pm
  7. Break really should be part of teaching and actually all jobs. I think we forget that in times past…winter was a break and time for rest and family…more for survival but also as the natural rhythm of the year. I wish as a society we could embrace less as more…. we could have rotating schedules which would allow for more people to work and also more people to have time to just be….what if we all agreed to work only 9 months out of the year…that is it. How would we need to change our structures in society. What would you do with those months?

    This is a part of Adam’s question….that he posed last week…but I think we are just as much change agents in the whole of society as we are in the schools. They are tied together for better or worse….

    Paul Goodman is a good example of this.

    Keep Smiling!

    Posted by dloitz | May 12, 2010, 3:45 pm
  8. Oh Chad, This is so beautiful. I just Diigoed it and highlighted it and loved it and the grace of it. I have to go back and read everyone else’s comments, but it is so moving and humble and inspiring, I had to say something right away. I really AM RIGHT WITH YOU that the trick is to CLAIM OUR RIGHT to do better than we are doing, as a sector and individuals… It is all about authorizing ourselves not to be afraid. (And it’s okay to rest. Activists need to rest, too…)

    And just on a personal note, not only is my teaching a wiki, my life is a wiki! Available for change by active users who know how to sign in.

    Posted by Kirsten | May 12, 2010, 4:46 pm
    • Thanks so much, Kirsten – it felt right and useful to acknowledge where I’ve been and to suggest that activism can be learned.

      I’ve been reading Joe’s post on Ecology of Education and reflecting on what I was doing in 2005 – starting work on standards-based assessment and reporting and scoring work mostly by rubrics and completion, trusting that the design of the work brought out the required student learning. I was setting power standards and working on writing benchmarks I defined in “student-friendly” language. I like to think that reading and writing goals are generally benign, and that choice of prompts, projects, and response made class somewhat engaging for most students, but I scratch my head at the battles I chose to fight and the students I essentially blamed for not doing the work I assigned. Yeesh. A little power sharing and self-directed learning would have gone a long way to improving those relationships.

      I finished Pope’s Doing School today. It reminded me a lot of A Tribe Apart. Have you read that one? What do you think of it? I’m beginning to want to teach a class pro bono for pre-service teachers on kids’ narratives of schooling. Do you know if anyone has a StoryCorps-like project for kids to talk about school?

      Here, there, and everywhere, it seems like the trick is just to acknowledge whatever it is that we think is in our way, to figure out what we think is right, and to do that, accepting the consequences – sometimes finding that they’re positive, sometimes discovering tacit or explicit support that we never expected.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 12, 2010, 8:13 pm
  9. This idea of colearning makes me think of how I started using Blender with Chad’s students this year.

    I’d been having a ball teaching them how to use Scratch to create animations and video games. The students were engaged and wanted to raise the bar, they wanted create 3d computer projects. I mentioned to Chad that I was familiar with an open source program called Blender that could create 3d animations and suggested that it might be cool to introduce to the kids at some point. A few days later, Chad had installed Blender on several of the desktop computers. I was shocked. In my previous teaching job, my suggestions to introduce even the most rudimentary forms of digital communication were scoffed at as irrelevant.

    This was a great opportunity, the kids were interested, the tools were available– and I was unprepared. Blender has a high learning curve and my own skills were weak. I certainly hadn’t thought through how I’d scaffold it for middle schools students.

    One of our students, an idealist is quick to verbally crucify anyone or anything that does not meet his expectations, invited me to help him. I was worried that I’d let him down and cautioned, “I’ll try, but I just worked through the beginner’s tutorial last night.”
    His response was a slightly impatient, “ok.” (which sounded more like “so what”)
    “Seriously,” I said, “I’m only one day ahead of you.”
    And that’s when Chad chimes in, “That’s all it takes.”
    So I sat down next to our student, and we stumbled through the tutorial. I admitted that I avoided working through the tutorials because I found it tedious to practice the fundamentals even though I knew it was a necessary step. We made mistakes together, we got frustrated together, we learned together.

    So Chad, you repeatedly ask people how to implement and inspire big ideas with a plc, school-within-a-school, or small school. Here’s how you did it for me.
    1. You understood enough about my suggestions that I could talk about them intelligently.
    2. You cleared away the “if only. . .” that I’d allowed myself to accept.
    3. You provided an unpressured time and space to let things happen.
    4. You gently nudged me out of my comfort zone.

    Posted by Rick Ashby | June 10, 2010, 9:40 pm
    • Thank you for such a kind comment, Rick – your work has helped students tap into their own visions of what school could be if they learned what they wanted to learn. I trust your curiosity and process of inquiry as a great model for the kids.

      I think we should let the kids push us out of our comfort zones; if I accomplished anything in my teaching this year, it was realizing that if I want to push kids further in their work, I have to let them push back. I have to let their needs and wants push my expectations and habits aside to get at authentic learning.

      I think we – you, Rick, the kids, and I – have started something important. We have work to do together, but it’s good work, and I’m confident we’ll find ways to continue it, though we might not know how yet.

      Also, I never would have thought to think of that kid as an “idealist.” Nice push there.

      See you ’round CPCS –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 10, 2010, 9:57 pm


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