Moving Beyond Self-perpetuation: Two Stories about Action


By BK – ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC- BY- SA 2.0



When I began this blog I decided to call it ” rethinking learning”. I did that because, after visiting a number of schools throughout the country, I realized that much of the focus the recent reform era has been on improving ‘schooling’ and, many times, these efforts had too little to do with learning. The approaches used by No Child Left Behind and its successors focused on the act of teaching rather than on the process of causing learning.

In writing and talking about this with friends and colleagues it seems clear that moving the focus beyond the act of teachers (and blaming teachers for lack of anticipated progress) to the process involved in causing learning requires more than just thinking about learning. It requires action. And so that led me to look at why change oriented actions are so difficult for our schools and for our teachers.

In the last post I shared some thoughts about the tendencies of institutions (like schools) to self-perpetuate and protect the status quo and how fear frequently keeps us from attempting the kind of changes that we know are necessary but don’t know how to begin. One of shortcomings of our system here in the US is a tradition in which our professionals have significantly less time in their workday for professional growth and exploration than their peers in countries which are regularly cited as producing results superior to ours. I know that I now have much more time than many to find and read some of the many things available for my professional learning than I ever did as a teacher.

This past week I encountered two very different approaches to beginning the change process. I thought I’d share these with you as examples of how we can take actions that begin to increase our focus on learning and escape some of the less effective aspects of schooling.

The first of these comes from a post by Mary Tarashuk entitled “3 Ways My Students Assess Their Progress”. It’s a great piece and I urge you to read it in its entirety. In it, Ms. Tarashuk describes the struggles she has as a 4th grade teacher in the face of the increased pressured imposed on her and her students by the test and punish culture of the school reform agenda. She makes a connection between her own response to conferences with her principal when she receives her Student Growth Percentage and the response she sees in her students when they learn their scores on the now annual PARCC assessment. She writes…

I wish it wasn’t true. I wish that, the other week, when my principal called me into his office for my Student Growth Percentage, I wasn’t slightly curious about my score. I wish I could say, wholeheartedly, that I didn’t care about that score. I can’t.

Something deep within, from years ago, is still there. It tells me that my success is somehow defined by a grade…or in this case, a statistic.

For years, I’ve been frustrated and angry about standardized testing in general, writing about it ad nauseum here at my MiddleWeb blog. Dissecting it. Needing to uncover and expose the injustice of it all.

For years, I’d been finding more and more ways to “prove” that standardized test scores do not give an accurate portrayal of my individual learners, that the use of the data generated from these test scores should be examined more closely. So I really and truly wish that, when my principal told me I had scored well, I didn’t feel a tiny little flutter of something, deep inside my chest. I can’t quite describe this feeling, but I felt it…if only for a brief moment.

What Ms. Tarashuk is describing is one of the lessons learned in schooling… in her schooling and that of her students. But she goes on to describe an awakening she had as a result of her reading of a work by Dr. Brene Brown, Daring Greatly. She describes Brown’s research as it relates to education and how her work on shame and vulnerability applies to her work as a teacher.

Let’s face it. There are days when teaching children is like herding puppies. Kids are curious. They explore their surroundings, bumping into each other or crawling over each other to get to the next objects of interest. This is a good thing.

There are also days when I “fail” in the moment, when some of my own shortcomings – a lack of patience, or a lack of sleep the night before – can affect my relationships with my students, especially those who need a little “extra patience.”

I’ve seen shame in the eyes of my students…and I feel shame just thinking about the times I’ve been the cause of it. Dr. Brown believes that, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.” Shame doesn’t belong in a classroom.

My experiences in my own schools and in schools I have visited leave me confident that the vast majority of our country’s teachers agree with Ms. Tarashuk’s statement, “Shame doesn’t belong in a classroom.”

So why have I included Ms. Tarashuk’s story in this piece? She is like many of us. As she describes, “For years, I’d been finding more and more ways to “prove” that standardized test scores do not give an accurate portrayal of my individual learners, that the use of the data generated from these test scores should be examined more closely.” Mary took action. I don’t know if she protested, wrote her congressmen, spoke before her board of education. I do know that she changed something in her classroom… in her classroom.

It’s why I chose her story. It’s not a new school. It’s not an instructional revolution. It’s just one thing. It’s the story of a starting point.

That’s where positive and constructive self-assessment come into play. I don’t want my students to feel shame. I want them to try to look at themselves (and the people around them) more realistically, and to learn to set personal goals for growth.

I share stories with my class about the life lessons I learned from my father. I’ve also shared the sadness that I sometimes still feel about his death, over a decade ago, especially when we come across a character that reminds me of him. We’ve laughed about my son’s potty training tales from days long ago. And they, in turn, share their family legend and lore with the group, safely, honestly, and often with no filter!

Mary offers an option for those who know there has to be more that we can do but who may be uncertain/fearful about starting as big as the problem seems to warrant.

The second piece  I’m sharing tells the story of the Apollo School… a school within a school at Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania. In this post, Jennifer Gonzalez describes a learning option made available to students at York Central.

This represents a step beyond the action taken by Mary and yet it remains well within reach for many teachers and students. In introducing the reader to the Apollo School, Jennifer asks the question we explored in out last piece last piece , “…why are so many teachers still using the same old model, where we plan and deliver lessons in separate subjects, in lock step, using the same traditional schedule as we always have?”

Jennifer offers two explanations. While I’m not on board with her first explanation.. “because it works… more or less”, I am in total agreement with her second…

The other reason we stick to the traditional framework is the one I believe is more powerful: It’s because we don’t know how to change. We have no template for what school could look like if we restructured it to reflect priorities like cross-curricular connections, student self-efficacy, and inquiry-based learning.

The remainder of her post offers a description of the Apollo Program…

The Apollo School is a program that operates inside a regular public school, Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania. Apollo is a semester-long, four-hour block of classes—English, social studies, and art—all blended together and co-taught by three teachers, one from each subject area. Throughout the semester, students are responsible for designing and completing four major projects, each of which is aligned with standards in all three subject areas.

Students set their own goals for each day based on whatever project they happen to be working on at the time: This includes independent and group work, one-on-one appointments with teachers, and attending optional, self-selected mini lessons taught by the teachers. By lunch time, when the Apollo block is over, students resume a regular schedule for the rest of the day.

 I urge you to read the entire article which also includes a video and transcript of an interview that Jennifer conducted with the program’s founders. If you find the program interesting and would like additional information, here is a program program website

What I wanted to share …

How the program started?

Two teachers organized the program in response to (a) their own observations about the problems caused by adherence to artificial content boundaries and (b) the district’s commitment to customizing instruction/learning for its students.

What are the Course Requirements: Curriculum and Assessment?

  • The program is theme-based
  • Students complete four projects per semester
  • Students are provided with the curriculum standards for each course
  • Students must correlate their explorations/investigations with curriculum standards and must demonstrate proficiency in each by the end of the semester
  • Students are assessed via a defense of the their project conducted by the three course instructors
  • Students are also assessed on how well they met four thinking skills—reasoning, perspective, contextualization and synthesis—and two “soft skills”—communication and time management.
  • Students may utilize any of the three “work” classrooms as well as the media center
  • Students may also elect to attend mini-lessons. Some are generic while others emerge as defined by student needs.

Given our experiences in schools as students and the enculturation process that takes place in many of our schools, it is understandable that many of the teachers who recognize the need for change simply can’t envision what steps they might take. Mary Tarashuk’s approach is being implemented in one the nation’s most aggressive large-scale assessment states. It is the result of an individual decision. It is one that requires only one simple statementI will.

The Apollo School requires more. It requires collaboration. It requires a culture that support and welcomes innovation. It does not require a new school. It does not require that all members of a school’s staff and community participate. It has one major idea I common with Mary’s steps… it has replaced “We can’t” with “We will”.

Please feel free to use the comment section to share with other readers additional examples of action that teachers, administrators and/or communities have taken to move beyond the culture of self-perpetuation.


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