On the Power of the Little Black Dress

I recently had a conversation with a colleague that got me to thinking.  We were discussing the current state of teacher professional development in light of what we academics call the  “topsy-turvey” state of the edu-political landscape and what it means for folks like us at ACSR.  With a few exceptions, district and school administrators seem to be falling into one of two camps these days: either they’re in wait- and- see mode (“Is Common Core going to stick? What will the test look like? What about our current scores- do they still matter? How will teacher evaluations work now?  What about the budget?”) or they’re looking to *very* customized, (often very expensive and well marketed) plug- and- play solutions that target a very specific niche and provide slick, digital resources like videos and downloadable lesson plans.

Now, if you’ll excuse me a moment, I’m going to digress into the world of fashion.  I’ve reached a stage in my life where I have the perspective of nearly half a century of trends, shopping (and discarding) behind me and the most important thing I’ve learned is this:

Never underestimate the power of the little black dress. 

I’ve purchased, worn, and discarded a lot of stuff in my life.  Mini-skirts, maxi-skirts, cigarette pants and bell bottoms.  Shaker sweaters and boucle jackets and pants suits and overalls. All have come and gone from my closet (okay, except the overalls, but I only wear those in the garden because, Hello! Pockets a-go-go!).  You know what *hasn’t* gone by the wayside?

My little black dresses.

 I have three of them.  Different seasons, different styles, but all equally wonderful and useful.  I use them in all kinds of situations and I’ve never once found a time where I was overdressed or underdressed when I had one of them on (thank you, Karl Lagerfeld for that piece of advice).  They all *work* in all kinds of situations and that’s what I think clothes should do- they should work for you.  Not the other way around.

I think the same is true of professional learning.  They should be simple and elegant and they should work over time, in different situations, no matter the crazy wrought by policy makers and budget situations.  Standards will come and go- be they the CCSS or some other variety, no matter how locally developed and individualized, even if you have your own set for your own classroom.  Assessment systems will change from large scale and high stakes to local and formative.  The pendulum will swing- we’ve all seen it.  Bell bottoms will come back and skinny jeans will disappear (dear lord let them disappear soon) and the width and length (and existence) of a well-tied tie will, too.  Trends come and go and sometimes it’s fun and interesting to play around with them. The wise shopper knows, though, to invest in the classics.  Invest it things that last and that work no matter the situation.  Invest in things that are timeless.


Critical Skills has been around for 30 years.  It’s shifted as research has emerged- particularly around neuroscience and pedagogy- and based on what teachers tell us they do and what works for their students. (Classroom teachers still do all the model revisions and 90% of the training, in fact.)  But essentially, foundationally, it hasn’t.

The basic ideas- that kids (and adults) learn best from experience that pulls together content and process skills, that we learn best in community, that we need to have clear targets for learning and assessment- those haven’t changed. They haven’t needed to because they just work whether we’re talking about Common Core or the learning goals one parent has for the kids they homeschool.

They’re the little black dress of learning for kids and adults.



Punk Rock, and CCSS

I’m all about the guest bloggers these days.  Today I’m welcoming the return of Reuben Duncan, Assistant Superintendent in our own SAU 29 here in Keene. Thanks for sharing, Reuben!

Green Day, The Offspring, U2, Eve 6, and Blind Melon. These are bands that help me clear my mind when everything starts to get jumbled up. I don’t exactly know why I feel this music helps me to reflect and organize my thoughts. I mean, those of you who have lis-tened to The Offspring for any duration of time might actually feel driven to destroy any organization you have developed. I don’t know…maybe the predictability of the sound and lyrics of The Offspring is what makes it so calming to me. It’s kind of like listening to Aerosmith; every song sounds the same, but they’re cool.

SAU 29 has done a lot of work this year with data, standards, unit design, and of course, teaching. A lot has transpired this year on many fronts, and it is at this time of the year when I find I start to get tired. I meet with leaders from around the state, and many have told stories of how people in their schools are overwhelmed with the Common Core and all that goes along with it. Their stories remind me of the lyrics to my favorite song by Eve 6, Inside Out

I burn, burn like a wicker cabinet, chalk white and oh so frail I see our time has gotten stale The tick tock of the clock is painful All sane and logical, I want to tear it off the wall I hear words and clips and phrases I think sick like ginger ale My stomach turns and I exhale I would swallow my pride, I would choke on the rinds But the lack thereof would leave me empty inside Swallow my doubt turn it inside out Find nothin’ but faith in nothin’ Want to put my tender, heart in a blender Watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion Rendezvous then I’m through with you.

This song about a relationship gone sour reflects the sentiments of many. “I see our time has gotten stale.” Or perhaps, “My stomach turns and I exhale,” to the point of, “Rendezvous then I’m through with you.” 

However, in SAU 29, what we have seen is something completely different. During the Keene early release days, teachers from across the grade levels and subject areas have inspired one another through collaboration and creativity. During the January work-shop day, all town schools came together for a day focused on performance tasks, unit planning, and working together. The response to all of this collaboration has been very positive, and many have indicated that it has been rewarding – time consuming – but rewarding nonetheless. 

Many teachers have completed units, have taught them, and have already started to refine their work. Others around the SAU are completing the unit development and will be implementing their plans during the April and May months. 

The themes have been integration, relevance, authentic learning, higher order thinking, and becoming fully inclusive. As a member of the Keene Education Committee, I have been able to witness much of the work that has been developed. I can say first hand and can speak for those who sit on the committee that the presentations by various educators and schools have been inspiring and full of life. It is neat to see schools experiment and pilot approaches to teaching, such as Wheelock School’s use of the P.A.C.T. which promotes a unique approach to differentiation for all students. Last year, I wrote about The Daily Five read-ing approach. Many are using these types of personalized approaches to teaching and learning and find-ing noticeable success in their classes. 

The Common Core is an opportunity for growth and for inspiration. In SAU 29, our time has not gotten stale. We have started down a journey togeth-er that will only make us stronger as a unit. Thank you all for your dedication and very hard work!

Reflection and Service


So pleased to have a guest post today from Dominic DiBenedetto. Grade 8 English teacher at Keene Middle School.  These are the remarks he delivered at the closing of the National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony at KMS last week.  One of the things I most appreciate about Dominic- both as a teacher and as an NJHS adviser- is that he seeks to make the exclusive inclusive.  NJHS at KMS isn’t about drawing a circle in which only one brand of excellence is valued, it’s about honoring a whole bunch of different versions of service, citizenship, and academic success.  (He’s also an AUNE alum, so that makes him extra snazzy in my opinion.)

Learn from your mistakes. It seems simple enough, right? But how do we know at which point in the process we went wrong? How do we pinpoint the specific pieces of the puzzle to readjust – instead of simply trying to jam something in place that simply doesn’t fit? The answer involves the art of reflection: looking back with a critical eye and using resources to change and address those mistakes.

As an educator, I benefit from the daily, almost hourly opportunity to be reflective – specifically in the area of lesson planning.  Whether I ask for it or not, I am given immediate, specific feedback regarding the content of my lessons, the timing of my activities, and the methods with which I manage my students. Even a very organized and competent planner can come across mistakes in his classroom. Were I to blindly follow my plans, disregarding my students’ ability to learn successfully, or blame it on their supposed laziness, I’d never get anywhere!
The young men and women honored tonight have shown that they must be very reflective members of our community – taking seriously the delicate processes for learning from their mistakes. They have put in a great deal of effort into reviewing their unsuccessful attempts, culling out the problematic steps, and revising their strategies to accomplish their goals.  Skills and instincts, no doubt enriched through the careful, loving support and teachings of their biggest influences – the parents. You have all given these young leaders the benefit of your reflective practices and learned-from mistakes.  We all appreciate the countless hours and sleepless nights you’ve invested.
And now, kids, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and really give back. Whether or not the plans we make come to fruition this year, we are always planning and reflecting – What parts of our community need our help? How can we provide that support? These questions and more are considered regularly. Tonight isn’t simply a party – it’s the beginning of a commitment to lead by example, encourage others to do their best, and going forward in excellence, remember to learn from your mistakes.

Where Dewey Meets Digital

I’d like to say I’m a geek.  I really would.  I’m pretty sure that my inability to remember what OS I’m running or how many megabytes or gigabytes something has precludes me from full-on geekdom.  I don’t code and my Minecraft skills are weak (at least that’s what my kids tell me).  (I do have an impressive collection of Wonder Woman items, but that’s another post for another day.)

I’ve got one thing in my favor, though- I. Love. Tech.

That may seem odd for someone who works at Antioch New England.  We’re not very high-tech by most estimations. We’re a pretty nature-oriented. We’re very green, very high touch, very relational.  You’re more likely to find yarn, water colors, leaves or wood than steel, titanium or screens and our default method of communication is much more likely to be “let’s meet for a coffee” than “let’s do a Google+ hangout.”  

But to me, it’s a perfect fit.  See, most of the folks I know who work with tech (as opposed to working ON tech- you know, fixing it, designing it, building it, etc), are less focused on the “what” than the “why.”  They want technology to build connections, to deepen understanding, to magnify learning.  They’ve seen tech get in the way of relationships and they’ve watched enough badly utilized PowerPoint suck the life right out of a conversation to value the conversation- the connection- above all else.

We’re good at conversation.  We’re good at authentic connections, at reflection, at teaching teachers and leaders how to have those same connections with the people they serve.  We know what it takes to move from Instructor to Facilitator- and those skills don’t change whether we’re sitting around one table in a classroom or we’re sitting around tables in 4 different time zones during a g+ Hangout. Personally, I think we need more Edtech integrators who know how to have the conversation, who know how to put the pedagogy before the technology, who can listen to a teacher talk about what she wants kids to know, do, and be like first and then recommend the right tech tools for the job.

That’s why we’ve partnered with some of the best Edtech Integrators we know (like Dan Callahan, Cathy Brophy, Cathy Higgins, and Zach Chase) to develop a program that combines our Critical Skills Program, (which has a powerful emphasis on learning processes and inquiry-driven, experiential pedagogy), with a constructivist approach to educational technology.  

We’re taking Dewey’s view of learning through experience and making meaning out of the world around us and connecting it to tech in the classroom.  We’re not here to tell you what tech to use- we’re here to help you figure out the best ways to use the tech you have and reflect on your experience so you select just the right tech in the future.

 Antioch University New England, where Dewey finally meets Digital.

Getting My Learning On Pt 4: Silence

The Mindfulness Practices for the Educator course is starting this weekend.  (It’s part of our Mindfulness for Educators concentration, one of my favorite things at AUNE.) I’m not very good at Mindfulness but I know enough about it to know what it is and how I’d do it if I were going to do it very well.  One of the things I’ve learned (mostly from years of sharing an office with Susan Dreyer Leon) is this idea that right now is what matters- not what happened 10 years or 10 minutes ago or what might (or might not) happen 10 years or 10 minute from now.  It’s a lovely, freeing way of being the world, to tell you the truth.  I’ve also learned that there’s value in silence- even though my silence is usually filled by my brain chattering at me like a monkey, reminding me of everything I need to do, should do, forgot to do, or should worry that I need to do but will forget.  Eventually, I can calm it (actually, the process feels a lot like the ways I used to get my hyper toddlers to settle down at bedtime many years ago), usually just by paying more attention to the silence than the chattering.  

Then I ran across this is one of Torin’s books (Finding Your Self)…

During his life, Gandhi often affirmed the tremendous power and creativity of silence… he urged his followers to adopt periods of voluntary silence to find the inner courage needed to overcome oppression…


Yet silence is not just the pushing inside of external stimuli; it can also be cultivated in the small in between times of life. Even a very small space, such as the interval between two notes, it is a moment that can be magical. Life is very full of in-between moments: riding an elevator, waiting for a phone call to go through, listening for the thunder after lightning flash–they are all pregnant opportunities. The spiritual question is “What do we do with these in-between moments?” Do we simply rush through them, growing patient, try to fill them with multitasking? Or can we be more like the human heart, which actually arrest the movement of blood for the slightest moment, a time in which much can happen to further human consciousness. If we can expand those small moments of silence in daily life, we can open up opportunities for something else to enter…


Silence.  Mindfulness.  It doesn’t have to be hours or days or even minutes.  Seconds, in-betweens, can be enough to bring us back to ourselves and make space for something new to emerge.

Maybe I’m better at this mindfulness thing than I thought I was.

Getting My Learning on Part 3: A Second Classroom

I’m still doing a lot of thinking and reading and learning about the work of my colleagues here at Antioch University New England and it’s taking me in a lot of different directions.  I just discovered this amazing a six segment interview that Torin Finser did with a prominent Waldorf scholar, Eugene Schwartz around his new book- A Second Classroom.  I’ll put it up a bit at a time, but wanted to get the first link up asap as it’s just. So. Interesting.  Click here to give it a listen online!

Grit and the Critical Skills Program: a Disposition, not a Predetermination

I’ve already said my piece on “Grit” over at Edweek Teacher, or at least grit so far as it’s used as a litmus test for whether or not one should be a teacher. (Or perhaps better said, whether or not one should actually prepare to be a teacher rather than just jumping in after 5 weeks of summer prep, but I digress.)  There’s been one aspect of the whole grit conversation that actually sort of sticks in my craw a bit.  It causes this conversation in my head that goes like this:

Me: Grit is good!

Also me: Yes, yes.  It’s good. And your point is?

Me: It’s good- and we should teach kids how to have it!

Also me: Hmmm…yes I suppose, but…can we?

Me: Well, don’t you say you can teach kids to be problem solvers and leaders and critical thinkers?  How is this any different?

Also me: Good point. Let me think about that.

(this is the part where I wander around Antioch University New England, scratching my head and looking for chocolate on other people’s desks. Pro tip: There’s always a bowl in the VPAA’s office.)

Image So yes.  Grit is good.  It’s also known as perseverance, which is a word I prefer.  And yes, we can teach it in the same way that Critical Skills teachers have been teaching all kinds of skills and dispositions for the last 30-odd years- by co-creating clear, observable expectations for what it looks like and sounds like, and then by creating opportunities for kids to practice and demonstrate those expectations in action through meaningful, contextual problems to solve.

Where the “Grit” narrative breaks down for me is when we start talking about it as either a magic bullet that will keep us from having to figure out how to level the playing field or as an internal, inherent quality that allows some folks to just not need training, support, resources or allies.  Everyone deserves those things- teachers, kids, leaders- no matter how much “grit” they may have.