Tuesday, December 15, 2015

11 Things Paul Taught Me About School

Today Paul turns 11 years old! That's right... it has been exactly 11 years since that first time I met him and held him in my arms! He changed my world in an instant - Paul defined unconditional love for me and taught me what it feels like to be willing to give your life for someone else. It is hard to believe that this funny, opinionated and brave young man once fit into the palm of my hand. But, here he is, in middle school. He has his own passions and interests, his own circle of friends and his own strong set of beliefs... he thinks a meal isn't complete if there isn't a dipping sauce or something fried, he thinks Justin Bieber is overrated and he thinks the less sleep, the better. 

The list can go on and on about his likes and dislikes but the thing that stands out the most to me is his opinion about school. I think the word HATE might be too strong but let's just say that he is not the biggest fan. Paul has been making an argument for 2 months of school and 10 months off for the last couple of years; he is the kid who dreads Sunday nights because Monday means school; he is the kid who counts down the days to the next break; he is the kid who remembers nothing about his school day except for what he ate at lunch and what he did in gym; he is the kid who only looks forward to school because it's a chance to socialize with all of his friends; and of course, he is the kid who would like to do away with HW! Does his disdain for school upset me a little bit? Yes because I love being an educator and am inspired each day at Cantiague by our kids, staff and families! But, do I understand why he dislikes school? Yes. Did I view school in the same way at his age? YES! Do I wish I could change things for Paul, when it comes to his school experience? Yes! Ugh... school is a touchy subject in our home!

Fortunately, when I push past the negativity, I realize that Paul loves a lot of things about school (even if he doesn't admit it) and that over the years, Paul has given me tremendous insight into school, teaching and learning. In fact, Paul has taught me a LOT about school. 

So, in honor of Paul's 11th birthday, here are 11 things I have learned about school from my most epic son...

1) Kids want to know what the point is of the work they are doing in school. They need to be able to answer the following questions as it relates to their learning... What are you learning? Why are you learning it? (Thank you Joe for sharing these questions with me). Learning and teaching shouldn't be shrouded in mystery! We need to be explicit and clear with our kids. Paul will often say... "Dad, I am not sure what the point of school is!"

2) Whatever is being taught in school should matter to kids and help empower them with some type of knowledge that will contribute positively to their lives. Knowledge is power but only if our kids understand the value of said knowledge. Paul is developing a whole skill set outside of school that he sees as more valuable than what he is learning school - that has to change!

3) Something changes around 3rd grade... and the change isn't necessarily good. Paul said school was fun up until that point but then something changed and school became more about busy work and "getting through the curriculum" (his words). Learning and fun used to be synonymous but by fourth grade they became two separate and not necessarily equal things within school!

4) Kids want to feel loved, valued, safe and respected within the context of their schools and that comes as a result of investing time in healthy and positive relationships. The teachers who Paul qualifies as his "favorites" are the ones who took the time to get to know him as a person... not just as a learner! 

5) Our kids come to school with a lot of knowledge, experiences and abilities - let's access those and give our children opportunities to be lead learners in school each and every day. Our kids are not empty vessels to be filled with information... they are forever evolving, growing and learning - let's capitalize on that reality. Paul always talks about the experiences in school when he got to share his passions and interests with classmates because his teachers saw them as valuable. 

6) Kids need time to socialize in school because they learn a lot through these interactions. Paul often talks about conversations he had with friends and what he took away from these exchanges. He also shared how much he loves sitting in groups because if he doesn't understand something, he can ask a classmate. Socialization isn't only about discussing the latest Minecraft update but it's also an opportunity to learn from peers. So, no more desks and rows - let kids sit together so they can learn.

7) Kids, even in MS and HS, love lunch and even some recess! Our children need unstructured time to talk, laugh, play, decompress and have fun! Paul may not recall much from his school day but he can always give me a play by play of lunch and recess. So, NO MORE silent lunches! NO MORE taking away recess as a consequence (unless something happened at recess)! Let kids talk (maybe even loudly) and have fun!  

8) Sometimes just using technology in place of a worksheet is totally fine because the device itself makes the activity more fun. Yes, we want meaningful technology integration (check out the SAMR model if you must) that pushes our children to further develop 21st century skills but sometimes, the device in itself is enough. Paul raves about the school days where he has access to technology, even if it is not in the most meaningful way.

9) Worksheets with "fill in the blanks" or an infinite number of math problems are not fun and are generally not necessary. Our children can show us their understandings in so many other ways and often times, all worksheets do is decontextualize the learning and reduce it to mindless guessing. Our kids deserve better - let's push them to access their critical thinking skills with less worksheets and more open ended activities. Granted, sometimes Paul prefers a worksheet because they are easy and don't challenge him to think but that is not ok - our kids deserve more!

10) Opportunities to innovate, create and pursue passions within school need to be the norm, not the exception. We have to build the curriculum around these ways of thinking - not try and force them into the curriculum we have so carefully planned in advance. We need to give our students (and teachers) the space to collaboratively solve problems and create their ideal learning environment - these are at the core of a space that values and appreciates innovation (thank you George for helping me develop my innovator's mindset). 

11) HW stinks... it is that simple and it is the one thing I have heard consistently from Paul. HW is meaningless, useless, and doesn't necessarily help our kids learn anything better. In fact HW takes up time when our kids just want to unwind after school, spend time with family and friends and pursue their personal passions!

Of course, Paul has taught me a lot more about life over the last 11 years but these are the lessons about school that stood out. These lessons are the ones that guide my daily work as an educator and often inspire me to create an amazing space for kids here at Cantiague. I share this list in the hopes that other educators will join me on this journey where student voice is heard and changing the narrative of public education is the goal! 

Will you join me?  


  1. Yes, I will join you! By the way, I think Paul will be our next Lead Learner! Yay to Parenthood and Education: some of the hardest journeys in the world. Yet, we keep coming back for more. Keep Rising Paul and Kids. You make the world a better place.

  2. I'm in brother! My kids are saying the same things, and I can't help but agree as I work in the same system they are simply existing in. I want to make it rich, and meaningful, and dare I say it... relevant!

  3. My kids say the same thing. My 12 year old tells me I can't understand her stress because I like school and she doesn't. She also has a learning disability so it's hard and stressful. Homework at our house is often a nightmare. I love the ideas above about talk, connections, socialization and letting them lead in learning. Right now we're starting a social justice unit & my students are sharing why they are choosing their topics. I'm learning so much about them and how thoughtful they are. Sharing their ideas is exciting. We need to figure out how to engage & create a positive learning space for all of our students! Thanks for this!

    1. Excellent piece, Tony (and Paul) and friends!


      I love what you wrote here: "Right now we're starting a social justice unit & my students are sharing why they are choosing their topics. I'm learning so much..."

      I love that you're doing social justice AND that the students are choosing their own topics. (and sharing why!)

      I retired from NYC DOE ten years ago and very seldom had the freedom to do anything like this. How is it that you can? Is it the school or system that you're in? an open-minded supervisor?


  4. I'm with you Tony! My daughters share many of the same concerns as well. All are great points, but Number 4 is top of my list! I'm right with you for numbers 10 and 11 too after hearing George Couros speak this month. Thanks for sharing and giving Paul's perspective of school!


  5. Dug this, Tony -- and my guess is that 90% of the kids in our classrooms would agree with your list and Paul's feelings about school.

    So here's the hitch from a classroom teacher's perspective: I'm ready to make the kinds of changes that both you and Paul suggest, but making those changes WON'T produce the kinds of results that I am held accountable for producing. Stated more directly, making those changes WON'T result in higher test scores -- and I am ONLY held accountable for raising test scores.

    That's been the tension for me as a teacher -- and every time that I slip into crappy instructional practices, it's because I'm responding to the very real truth that no one cares if I empower my students or if they leave my classroom with a sense of joy or interest. All they care about is whether or not my kids leave my classroom knowing a small set of facts from a ridiculously huge curriculum.

    And leadership at all levels gives lip service to the importance of other outcomes, but in official meetings where we set goals and look at data, the only goals we write are connected to improving our test scores and the only data we look at are scores on end of grade tests.

    THAT's why my classroom sucks sometimes. I'm working in the environment created by my bosses -- and until my bosses make it clear in statement after statement and goal setting meeting after goal setting meeting that there are outcomes BESIDES test scores that we are going to measure and pursue with tenacity, I'm probably not going to change my teaching in significant ways.

    Any of this make sense?

  6. I'm in! Let's make school suck less!

  7. As a grade six student I can definitely relate to almost all of the points that you made. Especially the point about worksheets, my teacher has taught us that there is no point in learning things and then just spitting it out on to paper because that just means that the people who can easily memorize things will do better on those types of sheets. If we really get the opportunity to show what we have learned like do a presentation or something then that will give a better idea what we have actually kept with us. I found this article very accurate and that I can really relate to a lot of these things.