My talk slides from 5 Feb #LiteracyMatters event

Hello, Ed Cases. If you saw my talk at Aldine ISD’s #LiteracyMatters virtual event on 5 February and would like a copy of my slide deck, use the link below to download. Also: Thanks to Aldine for having me, and to all the folks who tuned in. Please be in touch if you need anything else, are interested in partnering, etc.

P.S. – If interested in seeing a recording of the talk, I’m not exactly sure where the event folks are on that as yet–if they will be, when they will be, where they will be, etc. When I find out, I’ll update this post.


THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES – Part 6, Hopeful Epilogue

Well, it’s been almost four weeks since my school’s staff submitted our students’ final-quarter grades, delivered our first-ever summertime (and mask-optional!) credit-recovery program for high-schoolers, completed our classrooms’ checkout checklists, and headed away for summer break.

On a late-July day like today, the school is largely at rest. The sounds of summer learning sessions and maintenance projects can be heard coming from some classrooms, but most of the building has its lights off and is silent. At this point of the summer, the school’s most concentrated activity is most likely found in its main office: there, admin/leadership teams buzz as they hire for open positions, play Jenga with the master schedule (go Tamra!), collaborate to map various continuous-improvement actions, meet with families of prospective transfer students, and on and on.

The school, in other words, kinda looks like a school on summer break is supposed to look.

While all that may not seem particularly remarkable, such normalcy actually makes me grateful-bordering-on-giddy.

These feelings exist because I can see real signs that, after the year and a half of pileups and explosions set off by The Great Covid Trainwreck, my school (and indeed, the entire education field) survived and can begin moving forward again. There’s wreckage to clean up back there and we took on some internal damage to be dealt with, of course, but the impact site itself is getting ever smaller in our rearview. At long (and very weird) last, it appears that we can get back to being what we wanted to be.

And as such, that means I can finally (and mercifully) wrap up the ‘Covid Chronicles’ theme I started at this blog a couple Marches ago.

I didn’t do as much with it as I’d intended at the outset, but hey: ‘“Aw, shit” time‘ turned out to be far more taxing than I ever could have imagined, and it dragged on far longer than I ever thought it would. (Also, the deaths of my parents–mom in September and dad in March–threw some other wrenches in there.)

Plus, if I’m honest, I found that the longer it went on, I just didn’t believe that I–or anyone, really–had many good suggestions for my colleagues in the field. My school just took in evidence as we went and adjusted on the fly to every new challenge. Whether the challenge was managing changes in state safety guidelines, spikes in the county’s positive cases, students who were completely MIA, mid-year staff resignations/Covid-related quarantines (I spent my final two quarters teaching six preps–grades 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11–and turnover at the school’s paraprofessional level roiled all year), technological issues, or whatever else, we did it all within our tunnel. As I only knew my tunnel, and as I doubted that our solutions and strategies would transfer across to others’ larger/smaller, more/less crowded, lower/higher needs tunnels, I figured writing about those solutions and strategies wasn’t really worth my or others’ time.

Finally, I only logged a small number of Covid Chronicles out of sheer self-preservation. The last 18 months didn’t break me fully down or move me to walk off my job like some did across the field (I mean…it sucked, but however painful education got in that time, we all knew it was temporary), but I can say that my professional challenges sure didn’t help all I was managing personally and psychically. The past couple of years have been the most painful period of my life, hands down. And as I’ve worked through it, I can’t say I’ve felt much like writing.

Now, however, with the deepest difficulties of Covid getting further and further behind us (oh please, keep getting further behind us), I’m hoping to get back to writing more frequently about all those matters I’ve always been most interested in: making instructional decisions that are more strongly based on evidence, improving schools continuously and common-sensibly, and such like. And just as my school appears to be snapping back into place, here’s to hoping that a return to writing will help pull me back into something more ‘normal’.

That said, below are a few items I plan to blog about in the weeks/months ahead:

  • My school’s ongoing curricular improvements. I’ve shared a bit about this in previous posts, but I haven’t gone into as much detail as I’d have liked about our design and implementation process, as well as how my first classroom experiences–namely with Teach Like a Champion’s Reading Reconsidered literature curriculum–are going.
  • Concerns for the 2021-22 school year, particularly with regard to our post-pandemic reality and the current controversy over Critical Race Theory in education.
  • The hopeful return of researchED US (likely in Spring 2022, venue TBD–stay tuned!), and concerns facing the evidence-informed education community as we move through the current, very challenging, moment.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re having a rejuvenating summer. You’ve earned it, for one, but the field is going to need us all to be at full strength in the year ahead. Take care and be in touch!

THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES, PART 5 – (Yet) Another Reason to Invest in Strong Curriculum

At the beginning of last school year, I left an instructive three-year detour into the nonprofit educational-support sector to join the staff of the school I’m at now, a charter that had contracted me to do some consulting, PD, and advisory work over the few years prior.*

* – Sorry, but I should correct a couple things on that nonprofit detour. For one thing, ‘confirming’ is probably a better word choice than ‘instructive’. Also: taken all together, the choice I made to work there is, without doubt, one of the single worst decisions of my life. There. Fixed it. Carry on!

From both directions, my fit with the school made a lot of sense: their leadership was seeking to go deeper on matters I’d previously assisted with in small doses (i.e., building a schoolwide scope and sequence, strengthening their teacher-development structures, continuous-improvement planning, etc.), and I was eager to get back to all those ed things I’m so passionate about on more daily bases. When they asked if I’d be willing to teach a few sections of high-school English (!), the position seemed almost too good to be true.

And from the jump, I found the work to be fast, furious, and fun. I planned for and taught my classes, but I also became directly involved with determining the school’s improvement priorities, teaching staff about those priorities (and subsequent strategies) in continual PD sessions, re-building observation-coaching-evaluation criteria and processes, and, naturally, other duties as necessary.

In all, I was grateful to work with one school again, and with so many parts of the school at one time. None of it was easy, but it was my kind of work. (And man: .as hinted at above, I really needed it.)

But wait, it gets better

Of all I was happy to be working on in that first year, though, I was probably most excited about the opportunity to lead the school through comprehensively strengthening its curriculum.

In light of several factors I’d observed over my previous work at the school, I’d been on leadership for some time about the school’s need for a more definite, knowledge-rich, expectation-high, and teacher-helpful curricular plan — something, in other words, that could act as a ‘stick in the sand’ for the school’s staff and families.*

* – For more on how I mean that, see this presentation deck I did for a past researchED conference. As I know slides don’t tell much of a story on their own, feel free to reach out if you have questions.)

The leadership agreed with these recommendations all along, but they admitted that their young, growing charter simply had too many other parts spinning to be able to give a full curricular overhaul the attention and space it deserved. When someone like me came aboard full-time to engineer it, however, we were able to get the process moving in earnest — and I was thrilled for the chance.

So in the fall of 2019, I pulled together a great staff committee that got busy (1) learning together which improvements were necessary (and why), (2) setting content targets aligned to the improvement priorities we landed on, (3) plotting scopes and sequences across all subjects, (3) researching materials, (4) studying and reviewing samples, (5) planning how we’d phase it all in (to include, of course, training staff) over the next 2-3 years, and (6) continually communicating progress to and seeking input from the larger staff.

And by the early spring of 2020, everything was right about on track…

Improvement, interrupted

…when, yes (but you knew this part already), Covid-19 sent us away to teach from home last March.

Hoping we’d be back to school as we knew it fairly soon, we did what we could to keep things moving on our improvement projects as spring went into summer. Infection curves, however (and you knew this part, too), didn’t flatten as we hoped they would.

Then in early August, with a school-opening unlike any we’d ever known getting closer and closer, we finally conceded that it wouldn’t be wise to continue as planned on our big curricular implementation’s first phase. Infrastructure and PD time would just be too compromised, fiscal resources too repurposed, to pull it off. Also, and quite obviously, we knew that the hybrid instructional model we were to begin the year with would be shaky ground, nowhere near sturdy enough to build upon. As teachers were effectively going to be re-learning how to teach (and for the second time in just a few months), it didn’t seem reasonable to have them work in all kinds of new — not to mention much more rigorous — content and methods.

While we had to squeeze the brakes on some of what was rolling, however, we got enough done last year to see some curricular upgrades operating throughout the school this year, Covid-compromised paradigm be damned!

(What! You weren’t expecting a story of total defeat, were you? Have you already forgotten the Covid-19 Ed Case Chronicles #1?)

For brevity’s sake, here’s a partial list:

  • The secondary math team’s work with me to define the upper-grades sequence (and, of course, the materials we brought in for them in accord) allowed them to get directly into our revised offerings in the fall.
  • Concepts and exercises from the supplementary lower-grades math materials we reviewed and selected, which had been specifically targeted in light of the revised upper-grades sequence above, are currently being worked into elementary teachers’ lessons.
  • For our teachers of our early grades, materials were brought aboard to help them do more explicit work with their students’ phonemic awareness.
  • The leadership team received training in the CKLA sequence over the summer (and adjusting loads for the distance paradigm), and, to provide a base for when things become a bit more normal, our K-3 leads strategically selected CKLA units to be adapted for distance teaching over the course of the year.
  • In middle grades ELA (which I teach, and which had nothing resembling a curricular plan previously), we fashioned a 6-8 scope and sequence based on Teach Like a Champion’s Reading Reconsidered curriculum and acquired necessary texts for immediate implementation. (In some future posts, by the way, I’ll talk a bit more about how my work with the RR curriculum is going.)

Grateful for progress, even if partial

And wow: As someone who has to teach through all this stuff, I sure am glad we got in what we did. As much time and effort as it’s taking to adapt my instructional materials for the disastance-learning paradigm, plus manage a mid-year load increase (due to a resignation in my department, I now teach a whopping six preps), I can’t imagine where I’d be if I had really no instructional materials to adapt. Preparing for classes every day will always be a lot of work; being able to look down the week, though, and know what’s ahead, maybe even with some ideas for activities, sure helps.

(Side Note: One of my heroes, Robert Pondiscio, recently did a thoughtful piece on the costs of teachers curating their own curricular materials. It includes intriguing findings from a recent RAND report, plus a discussion of the impact curricular-curation has on teachers’ time usage. As with everything by RP, it’s definitely worth a read.)

In all, my school’s Covid-interrupted curriculum-improvement journey has given me yet another reason to endorse ‘strengthening curriculum’ as an absolutely critical improvement lever for schools and districts (which is fairly remarkable, as I didn’t think it was possible to have more reasons than I already had): curriculum helps to streamline teachers’ workloads.

And in schools where workloads may become exceptionally and/or unexpectedly stressful for staff — schools that tend to have high teacher turnover, for instance, or, y’know, schools that have to deliver instruction during an international pandemic — it might be a good idea to have everything they can on hand to keep academic rigor at desired levels. Not investing in such resources is really only inviting rigor to sag, and teachers to break.

THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES, PART 4: The One I Never Wanted to Write

Last March, my pal Jasmine Lane and I agreed to use our blogs as spaces for discussing distance-teaching. We were as lost as everyone else, of course, but we thought the new evidence-free zone could use some observations, reflections, and recommendations from the school level — ideas to perhaps balance all the shiny solutions vendors were dropping into teachers’ inboxes, as well as all the irrational policies and procedures being enacted by schools and districts.

I’m not sure how far Jasmine got, but I had to give up after three entries. (Okay, more like four: my third installment had a Part B.)

Basically, the weird rhythms and rigors of disastance teaching, when combined with other challenges in my life, made writing impossible for me. I participated in the Covid-education discussion in a few ways (like appearing on some podcasts/webcasts, sharing insights with various ed reporters, doing a researchEDHome talk, organizing researchED US’s virtual event, etc.), but blogging? There was simply no way.

Under the circumstances, though, I didn’t let my lack of output get to me. ‘This Covid thing will be behind us soon,’ I told myself. ‘All of us will soon be able to stop obsessing over pandemic education’s inevitable losing game, and I’ll get back to those instructional-improvement matters I’m so passionate about.’

(Heh. Kinda missed on that one, I know.)

Rather obviously, then, this post is one I never wanted to write.

After running a considerable gamut of experiences at my school since this all started, however, I thought it might be good to share some of what I’ve seen on the ground, along with a few recommendations I’d make in accord. I hope you find the points below helpful and/or affirming, and, well, I hope like hell that I don’t have to write another installment of the ‘Covid-19 Ed Case Chronicles’. Because flatly, and I beg your pardon here, this shit just sucks.  

BEFORE TAKEAWAYS & RECOMMENDATIONS, A QUICK CONTEXTUAL NOTE: My school went from last spring’s ‘band-aid’ response to an improved — if very difficult, see below — hybrid model in the fall. After logging a full quarter with that hybrid model, rising infection numbers in our county drove us back to teaching and learning fully remotely two weeks ago. Informed by this progression, however, our current distance-learning operations have much more structure and considerably higher expectations than last spring’s emergency version did.

Takeaways & Recommendations After Eight Months and Several Pivots

  1. No question, hybrid and distance learners are struggling. I did some quick calculations of grades-earned in my classes, and the differences in performance are quite stark between in-person (on-site all days per week), hybrid (on-site two days per week), and fully-remote students. Over four grades (I teach ELA 8, 9, 10, & 11), in-person learners earned a solid B on average (3.31), while hybrid and remote learners averaged far below (1.87 and 1.03, respectively), even with the considerable flexibilities and leniencies I’d built in. (In short: Students who received failing grades in my classes first quarter did very — and I mean very — little work.)
  2. The struggles in #1 check outWhile it may be tempting to blame the data disparities above on the distance paradigm, I know from previous experience with my students (I taught most of them last year) that many of the most-concerning performers are simply continuing in patterns of low participation, work-completion, etc., and that they do so across pretty well all their classes. The remote instructional relationship may not be helping us to find the keys to motivate these students, but I would hesitate to say that it’s the reason for their failing grades. Going back to last spring, in fact, I can name only one student whose performance/participation just fell off the table when we went to distance learning. On the whole, in other words, students seem to be adapting their ‘studenting’ fairly well to the new terms and conditions: if they excelled before Covid, they excel now; if they struggled before Covid, they struggle now. The search for how to motivate those lower-performing students continues.
  3. Hybrid teaching is very very difficult. At a certain point last summer, everyone everywhere realized that we weren’t yet finished with Covid-compromised schooling. And just around that point, I found myself getting a real kick out of all the policymakers and pundits glibly throwing around the idea of ‘hybrid’ models — y’know, like, despite the fact that no one had ever actually rotated kids in and out and alternated online and onsite days, it made good sense to consider. Well, after having planned and managed it for three months, I can confirm that (1) teaching as such is utterly brain-melting (especially over four separate preps) and (2) my cynicism was fully justified. I could go on here about why, but please…just take my word for it.
  4. In this time, leaders should re-consider how (or if) PD/continuous-improvement fits. In addition to teaching four grades of ELA at our school, I also serve as the school’s curriculum and instruction lead. (It’s work I’m glad to do, too, as I’ve long had a passion for helping schools to effectively improve over time.) And in my two years there, a good improvement foundation has been established: I rebuilt the school’s evaluation rubric to include priority practices, re-designed the observation-coaching process, defined and constructed programmatic scopes and sequences, began acquiring improved curricular materials to bring online, and on and on. As much as I want to continue building up from that foundation, though, a bigger part of me keeps thinking it might be better to just hit ‘pause’ on some of those continuous-improvement aspirations for now. We’re moving ahead on some of them, of course (especially with curriculum — more on that in an upcoming post), but the logistics of distance/hybrid have made implementation rather like taking a strenuous jog across a minefield. And in the event that we’re doing this Covid-compromised schooling deal for several more months, we might be wiser to keep the main thing the main thing and figure out what to do about those kids referred to in points 1 and 2.
    • I urge school leaders everywhere to do the same regarding their ongoing professional development and continuous improvement actions — not to cancel them, necessarily, but just to look at them a bit more critically in the current light. Because if what you’re asking teachers to do is not helping them to do their jobs better right now, and it’s not helping to get more kids participating and learning right now, they just might not be the best uses of anyone’s time. (And believe me: as I’m a big continuous school improvement guy, it’s difficult for me to suggest that leaders should focus so exclusively on the right now. Simply, however, the challenges of our particular right now may demand it. Get as good at doing right now as you can, and, as your understanding of this paradigm builds, continue raising the bar within it. It’s all we can do.)

I have more, believe me, but I’ll stop here as, hey, all this Covid-education talk will be obsolete soon anyway, right? RIGHT?! 🙂

Hang in there, everyone, and be in touch. I have to go get my Google Classrooms ready for Monday.





Remembering Leslie Lamar Parker, my former student

To spotlight some of the thousands of lives lost to COVID-19, CBS This Morning has a segment called ‘Lives to Remember’. This morning, the show featured my former student, Leslie Lamar Parker, who succumbed to COVID-19 complications in May. (Leslie’s sister Shika videoed the segment, and it can be seen on her Facebook page.) I’ve been in touch with Leslie’s dear wife Whitney since Leslie’s passing, and she asked me to write this in Leslie’s memory. This is posted with her permission.

Thank you, Whitney, for asking me to do this. I’ll always be crazy about Leslie, and it was truly a pleasure to hang out with his memory. Wishing you and your lovely family peace and strength.

NOTE: I am posting this on my blog to honor the memory of this young man I am so very fond of, and to mark for myself just how, when I got mired in all the inconveniences of our current situation (e.g., providing distance learning at work, mask-wearing, closed businesses, etc.), I may have taken my eye off COVID-19’s real ball. Leslie’s passing reminded me of what I should put first, and why. The dangers are severe, and very, very close.

To put it another way, any political positions you pull out of this are not my intent and are fully on you. This piece is about Leslie Lamar Parker, who I am so very glad I got to work with and know. I’ll never forget him.

From the first time he walked into my high school English classroom, he was just…well, big

Big in physical stature, sure (he was several inches taller than I, which few teenagers are), but more so in sheer presence. He entered the room slowly and easily, and his classmates clustered around him. They quieted themselves when he spoke, and they exploded with laughter over everything he said. 

I’d been teaching nearly ten years by that point, so it was certainly nothing new for me to see students clowning or showing off on the first day. Such students were just in hurries to establish their desired place in the class’s culture. It’s understandable, really. (And, full confession: aside from the rare students who ended up taking their class-clown roles too far, I ended up adoring the heck out of my day-one clowny kids.)  

The remarkably big young man here, though, didn’t seem to be working any role or positioning himself. He interacted sincerely with the classmates who were so obviously drawn to him, and he showed big appreciation for them in return. He made his classmates laugh not so he could get their adoration, but so he could laugh along with them.

Simply being himself, he was effortlessly big. And, like all big things, he had considerable gravity. 

Mere moments after that initial observation, I also learned of my impressive new student’s big courage, consideration, and class, all in a single interaction. 

When I was calling roll and got to his name, “Leslie Parker?”

He responded, “Here.” 

I made eye contact with him and thanked him as I do with all my students on the first days. Before I could get on to the next name, though, he added, “Hey Mr. Kalenze! My cousin had you for a teacher!”

“Oh yeah? Who was that, Leslie?”

His reply stopped me short. It was the name of a student who had been expelled from the school district a few years prior, stemming from an incident that had occurred in my classroom. My new, remarkably big and highly gravitational student, in other words, had a preconceived notion of me, and it wasn’t a good one. Great. Just great. 

I looked up from my roll sheet at Leslie—whose big eyes were locked on mine in a gaze I recognized as one of challenge (his eyes were certainly not laughing, as they had been just five minutes earlier)—and replied, “Really? Wow! Say hi to him for me, okay?” 

Before returning to the roll, though, I kept my eyes on his a bit longer and gave him a subtle nod. He gave a quick “up nod” with his chin in acknowledgement, then looked away.   

With that single exchange, Leslie discreetly let me know that I was on notice with him, but that he was giving me a chance. In kind, I discreetly let him know that I saw him and understood. Whatever feelings he might have had against me, he had a keen sense for how this moment was not the best one to work them out in—and I appreciated his awareness and respect beyond what I am able to express.

In all, Leslie Lamar Parker’s first-day impression on me was a profound one. I’ve never forgotten it. I can’t say any high schooler ever impressed me as much in their first class period with me as Leslie Parker did that day. He was just big like that.

* * *

Thanks to Leslie’s big openness and big grace, he quickly emerged as that section’s biggest asset. He fully engaged his big intellect, big wit, big heart, big curiosity, and big perspective to my class’s literature, discussions, and activities—and with all that gravity of his, he took many “satellite students” right with him. When the year wrapped, I was truly sad to see him leave.

Fortunately, however, Leslie and I stayed in touch after our time as teacher-student. In 2011, Leslie’s big consideration spurred him to reach out through a LinkedIn message that read, simply, “MR. BATMAN!” (NOTE: When he was in my class, he nicknamed me “Mr. Batman” because he thought I looked like Michael Keaton. He even left an absolutely perfect—and, of course, very big—Batman symbol in my yearbook in 2007, the year of his graduation. I never saw the resemblance, but I’ll always treasure the nickname.) As we messaged back and forth, he let me know that his first child had just been born, and that he’d recently taken an IT job at Howard University. When I asked how he’d ended up in D.C., he said he just “wanted to venture out since I went to school in Minnesota.” It was a joy to watch him making such big decisions and moves. I was thrilled for him.

From there, we messaged each other a few times a year to stay caught up. He updated me through his move back to Minnesota and through his work in the district where we first met. He asked process questions about the books I was writing. We talked about his own dreams of being published, and I passed along a few pieces of advice. We discussed role models and the example he was hoping to set for some relatives of his, and on and on. 

Our contacts weren’t weekly or even monthly, but I will always cherish my continuing relationship wih Leslie Parker. The big young man I knew years ago was growing into a just a big man, and he made time to check in with me as he did. To me, it will always feel like a big gift.

* * *

On 11 May 2020, Leslie Lamar Parker lost a two-week battle with Covid-19. He was 31 years old.

It’s hard to know even what to write after that sentence, probably because even now, more than two months out, I still can’t believe the words in that sentence are true.

I do know, however, how grateful I was to receive a few more words from Leslie a few weeks after his passing. These came from, who fulfilled Leslie’s long-time dream of being published when they ran an essay of his called “I won’t remember how unforgiving Covid-19 was to people like me. Instead, I’ll remember Sunday dinner” on 27 May. 

I won’t say much about the essay here, but I will offer that it gives a brief glance into the myriad bigness of Leslie’s spirit. Reading it, you should get senses of just how observant, funny, intelligent, gracious, gentle, strong, wise, and generous Lesle Parker was. It sure gave me a lift to experience all that one more time, and I know that it lifted others around the world as well: after sending the tweet below, I heard from people all over the world about how they were reading Leslie and reflecting because of his ideas. Better still, teachers in my social network were sharing Leslie’s ideas with their students. (Click image below to view original tweet and read replies.)llptweet

Thank you, Leslie, for coming into my classroom that day so many years ago, and just for being so darn big. Your gravity positively affected many, many people, and you will live in my heart and my thoughts forever.


Hello, Ed Cases. Wherever you may be, I wish you peace and strength in these uncertain, troubling, and truly historic days.

I’m writing to announce that the researchED US event scheduled for 24 October in Philadelphia is being postponed.

Though the program was already (and quite impressively, I must say) rounding out as the pandemic hit the US a few months ago, we recently decided that it’d be unwise to proceed. There’s simply too much still unsettled regarding travel, congregation, and other guidelines to do so.

Thanks to all the speakers who so graciously committed their time, to our venue (St Joseph’s Prep), and to the Prep’s wonderful Dave Fortin. Your generosity and flexibility are greatly appreciated.

FINALLY: I’m using use the blog to make this announcement, as I would like to share a few points of interest that can be hard to fit onto tweets. I promise not to keep you long, as I know everyone has many other matters to be tending. If you have questions about any of the points below, please reach me through the blog, email, Twitter, etc.

  1. We have every intent to have another US event as soon as we can. I would love to give a timeline, but it’s simply impossible until some things play themselves out. Please stay tuned, and watch the Twitter handle (@researchED_US). My hope is that spring of 2021 will be workable.
  2. If you’re interested in the types of content available at researchED conferences, you may want to check out researchEDHome (follow on Twitter at @researchEDHome). It’s a series of FREE VIDEO SEMINARS available on YouTube, presented by folks who are familiar presences at researchED conferences around the world. I did one myself and I’ve been tuning into them as I can, and I can say with no hesitation: if there’s better free video-based PD out there, I have no idea what it would be. (RESOURCES: researchEDHome YouTube channel, researchEDHome schedule.)
  3. Building off the success of other canceled rED events in the UK that offered virtual substitutes (and, of course, researchEDHome), we’re giving some thought to a virtual researchED conference to stand in place of the Philly event. A few committed speakers have already expressed that they’d be willing to submit video sessions, so it sure seems like something we could engineer. Again: stay tuned, and feel free to lend suggestions if you have them. We’ll announce whatever we know as it takes more shape.
  4. Please know that, in this unexpected interim between events, I and others are working on strengthening researchED US at its more strategic, organizational levels. We may have to sit down for a while, but I assure you we won’t sit still.

Thank you so much for reading this far, and for your interest in researchED US. We’re of course heartbroken about having to make this announcement, but all of us have many other important matters to focus on right now.

We’ll be back soon. Stay safe.


The Marathon and the Swimming Pool Revisited: #rEDHome Talk Deck, 5.21.20

I had a great time speaking as part of the researchEDHome series this morning. A youtube link of the presentation should be up shortly. My presentation deck is enclosed below, with references on the last slide. Be in touch if you have any questions.

P.S. – If you’re not already following the rEDHome series, you may want to. It’s some of the best ed learning out there, and it’s FREE. Not sure where else you can see free sessions by the likes of Dan Willingham, Daisy Christodoulou, Dylan Wiliam, Jo Facer, Dianne & James Murphy, Paul Kirschner, Tom Sherrington, and so many others. (See the rEDHome Program and rEDHome youtube channel if interested.)

Download PPT Deck: rEDHome_May2020_EK

THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES, PART 3B: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Evidence-Free Zone

This post continues from Part 3A, We Have Entered the Evidence-Free Zone.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Evidence-Free Zone

As frustrating as it can be at times to not know what the right things are (see my previous post), I have to admit that I am enjoying the challenges of our new Evidence-Free Zone.

And no, it’s not lost on Mr. ‘Evidence-Uber-Alles’ here how weird that sounds. Hear me out, though.

Simply, I’m accepting the Evidence-Free Zone for what it is, and approaching the whole deal—and urging my school teammates to approach the whole deal—the same way I approach so much of my work in education already: by getting all formative. I’m not sure what’s missing or needed, so I generate evidence before choosing my actions.

So okay, I guess it may be more accurate to say that it’s not the Evidence-Free Zone itself I’ve learned to love, but rather the challenges of (1) making the Evidence-Free Zone…well, less evidence-free, and then (2) attacking issues according to the evidence I’ve harvested.

Either way, I can definitely say I have found the process quite gratifying thus far: to go forth with some class decision, humbly admitting all along that I have zero idea how it will turn out (but full confidence in why it’s designed as it is), and then analyzing the heck out of all the output so I can keep improving. (And I have to add: Parents and students—the ones I work with, anyway—don’t seem to hold it against me when I sincerely remind them I’m learning right along with them here. In what I’ve seen to date, in fact, it actually earns ‘trust points’.)

SOMEWHAT RELATED ASIDE REGARDING FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT PROCESSES: I’ve always preferred the term informative assessment, actually, as whole goal of the assessment is to inform my & my kids’ subsequent moves. I wonder if this slight adjustment might do away with some of the mysticism and misunderstanding that so often follows formative assessment around. Hmm…food for thought.

A couple weeks ago, for instance, I knew I had to give a test to one of my classes: I had to know reliably what they knew in order to move ahead, I didn’t want to pitch all the work they’d done already, and all the rest. I tweaked my test for an online administration, released the link, and crossed my fingers. It’s now back and safe and graded, and it taught me a lot about how my kids take tests in the disastance environment. (And yes, it assured me that testing wasn’t an expectation to throw out altogether. The kids’ average percentage was around a 81%, and their answer-distribution suggested that cheating was really not an issue. Finally, of the three kids who earned A’s, two participated my pre-exam extra-credit opportunity to write and take retrieval quizzes. Interesting.)

Also, and from a school-wide improvement perspective: after the first week of my school’s initial distance-learning plan, we heard widely from students and parents that they could really use a one-stop resource for organizing all their kids’ responsibilities. I asked my PLC if they thought we should/could provide such a thing, perhaps using a crude ‘Class Master’ process. They agreed it was worthwhile, so I built a sheet that looks like this…


…and communicated process expectations and directions across the team. We spent a couple days working out bugs, and then made families aware of the resource through our central notifications. Now, as has been our custom so far, we will see if folks find it helpful or not. If we learn that they don’t, we’ll adjust yet again. We’re all learning here, and all doing the best we can. 

A Chance to Be Bottom-Up

The coronavirus pandemic seems to be bringing into stark relief (again) how important it is for schools to have strong processes for improving from within, addressing the needs their specific students have. (And I’m not just saying so because it’s what my most recent book is about, I swear.)

In this moment, after all, globally idealized versions of what kids need right now, or general statements of ‘distance learning happens best when…’, really should not be taken seriously. They may sound good, but they are based on nothing. Good ideas are out there and are worth keeping ears up for, of course, but schools’ realities simply differ too much from one to the next. Perhaps more than ever before, now is definitely not the time to graft intuitively pleasing ideas widely across contexts with little consideration for those contexts’ realities. For they won’t just fail, frankly. They may cause more angst for staff, students, and their families than any of those folks can spare right now. 

On that note, my recommendations during this disastance learning experiment don’t and won’t have much to do with choosing a resource over another, establishing student routines that go ‘a-b-c’, or anything similar. Items such as those are too far in your own weeds. Advising on them, really, would presumptuous bordering on disrespectful. I know that my school is focusing right now on connecting better to our kids (see beginning of previous post) and making academic expectations as rigorous, but manageable, as we can (see above enhancements). It’s what we’ve identified we need to put first right now, but I’m not saying it should be Job One for you. That’d be awful top-down of me, and…well, I’d prefer to not be that. 🙂 

Hang in there, everyone. We’ve got quite a way to go in this whole Evidence-Free Zone, so be in touch any time if you want to bounce ideas around. Let’s make each other better.



The COVID-19 Ed Case Chronicles, Part 3A: We Have Entered the Evidence-Free Zone

Hello, Ed Cases. I hope y’all are holding up out there. Things are weird here (duh), but I’m feeling confident that I and my school are maintaining a productive attitude, learning tons every day, and continuing to make improvements on the distance-schooling environment we had to create so suddenly.

We’ve even managed to work some nice outreach into all the assorted instructional strategery. We did a virtual Spirit Week, for instance (see the school’s Facebook page for photos), and this staff ‘greeting card’:

QUICK NOTE to colleagues who may be reading this: I can’t thank you enough for bringing pieces like these to life. For someone like me, who probably doesn’t worry over schooling’s human touches as much as I should, you are providing a powerful reminder of what our priorities should be in this strange and stressful time. Additionally, you’re doing wonders for my motivation through all the adversity. I’ll put it this way: if upper-school science teacher Mr. Chris McBride, with all he is currently managing (he’s a second-year pro, and he has five prepsFIVE!), can make our school do its thing a bit better for kids and families by pulling together something like the greeting card above, all of his own volition, I damn well can do more right now too. So again: thanks, all.

Remember: This is the Evidence-Free Zone

More than just a heartwarming way to kick off this post, however, the above updates and bursts of gratitude lead toward a few ideas that need heavy emphasis right now.

First, to everyone connected to a school’s closure or a school’s conversion-to-virtual—and yes, I mean every central office admin, every school leader, every teacher, every student, every parent, every policy expert, everyone: Please keep in mind that no precedents, proof, or playbooks exist for what we’re attempting to pull off here. I mean, flipping the switch and activating best practices in distance learning may sound nice and all, but let’s be frank: (1) widely transferable best practices in distance learning haven’t ever really surfaced anywhere, and (2) what we’re doing right now isn’t pure distance learning anyway—rather, it’s ‘forced, comprehensive distance learning within a disaster-pandemic context’, and that’s pretty f-ing different. Really, what we’re attempting to make work should be called disastance learning. (That’s right: ‘disaster’ + ‘distance’ = ‘disastance’. I’m going with it.)

Quite literally, we are now in the Evidence-Free Zone—another dimension, a wondrous land of imagination, and so forth. (Wait, check that: we know pretty definitely what I mentioned above, that piece about the distance-learning band-aid not having much sound evidence to recommend it. So whew, we’ve got that…um, going for us…?)

In the Evidence-Free Zone, Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

So please, Ed Cases, to start the coming group of posts: as you fire up your laptop Monday and are flooded with notes about how many tasks you should assign, how many video lessons you should record, how you should be continuing to build relationships, and all the rest, please keep in mind that our current disastance-learning experiment is happening in the Evidence-Free Zone. Anyone who tells you what kids need right now is really only operating from their own ideas about what kids need right now.

A moment like this one has never happened before, after all, which means that absolutely no one is qualified to say exactly what all kids and families need from their schools right now. And, judging from how much tension is being added to already-frazzled homes, how many kids are being missed altogether, how vaunted conferencing technologies aren’t fully ready for the instructional realm, and numerous other early stumbles, it appears that some of the self-appointed experts have wildly miscalculated. (Imagine that.)

Until my next post, then, do what you can to keep the main thing the main thing. (You may want to start by tuning out anyone you hear speaking with certainty in our Evidence-Free Zone. It may help cut the noise down up there, after all.) Focus on how you can best serve your students’ continued academic and personal growth. Stay true to your school’s instructional mission, monitor the expectations you assign to make sure they are meaningful and manageable, and be willing to adapt. We’re all learning here, and that’s okay.

And for goodness’s sake: make sure you’re making some time for yourself.

See Part 3B, ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Evidence-Free Zone’, for (in)formative attitudes and approaches I and my school are adopting, recommendations I’m making (and not making), etc. 

THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES #2: Tips for Testing at a Distance

When my state announced that schools would have to make teaching and learning operations available virtually, my ninth- and tenth-grade ELA classes were both nearing the ends of multi-week units. 

While I wasn’t thrilled about the directive (or, very obviously, the crisis that prompted it), its timing actually works out pretty well for me and where my classes are currently. After all: in the coronormal’s immediate term, I won’t have to fret much about how to simultaneously get my sea legs in the online-instructional waters and effectively teach rigorous new content. The hard parts of my units-in-progress (like installing background knowledge, working through unit texts, designing practice and analysis exercises, keeping up with grading, etc.) are effectively done.  

Assessing the learning that happened or didn’t happen over the wholes of those units, though, is another deal entirely. I’ve assessed throughout the units to inform my planning and my support, of course, but, due to the nature of the content we’d been working with, I was really counting on the ‘so-what’ of some kind of capping examination. It is, after all, the best way to know how much of all that unit content has made it firmly into students’ long-term memories. (And as I have more applied, analytical exercises coming up next, I really didn’t want to move on without a bit more certainty.)

The distance-learning relationship changes all this, of course. Indeed, without being able to provide a true testing environment, I had to wonder if the tests I’d originally envisioned were even worth giving.

After some thought, however, I decided that the answer is absolutely yes: even within the new realities of distance learning, going through with the tests is the right thing to do. Some additional guides and procedures will have to be established first (and yes, I’m just going to have to let a few things go), but I can make this work—I think, in fact, that I can use this situation to help kids actually improve their exam-preparation habits.

In Light of the Circumstances, Lighten the Heck Up

To begin, as in my overarching approach to all my distance-teaching, I’m starting with my state of mind. Specifically, I’m keeping in mind the utter weirdness of the current situation. 

I’m not talking about lowering expectations, as I’m never about that. On some things, though, I have to keep the circumstances in mind and just lighten the heck up. I have to get over myself. I have to accept that perfectly replicating my physical classroom’s conditions—especially on a matter like test security—is simply not possible, and then plan accordingly.

To put it another way: with all the income being lost, ways of life being rearranged, and people fearing for the health and safety of their loved ones, I probably shouldn’t work myself into a lather when one of my students thumbs through his copy of Antigone so he can select ‘Teiresias’ over ‘Eteocles’ for a point on my test. (And folks out there just powering through and going ‘next-level’, please, please check yourself. All of this is an emergency-response, remember.)   

Use Test Design to Keep Conditions Rigorous (…and myself sane)

I can, though, ratchet the challenge level high, get a good bead on what my students have learned, and keep my own workload manageable through my test design. Below are some principles I’m abiding by, and strategies I’m enacting, to do so.

Use the available tools As my students regularly use Google’s interface and because I’m conducting most classroom business through Google Classroom, I’ll be collecting student output with a Google Form. This will make grading a bit more manageable, as I have worked the form’s settings to log correct answers. Plus, I’ll get handy spreadsheets of results across the class to inform future instruction. (If you’d rather not use Google, several online survey tools are available freely. For a quick list of a few, see here. I’ve used a few of these myself—and while it’s never been for instructional purposes, I don’t see why they couldn’t be rigged to do a serviceable job. Happy browsing.)

“Open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy” – Okay, so I’ve let a few things go and accepted that students will use their notes (and one another) to work on the tests I administer. Still, “open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy”. Here are a few things I’m doing in hopes that students will prepare diligently for, not just coast into, test day.

  • Defining the time of the test window. The Google Form students are expected to complete for their exam will open at a certain time, and no answers will be accepted after a certain time. (Incidentally, I’m providing 90 minutes. This is considerably longer than usual, but it uniformly provides enough time for all—and honors my IEP students with additional-time accommodations.)
  • Making “open-notes” a trap. Within the 90-minute time window, I’m making the concept of open-note test a bit of a trap through point-distribution. On one test, which is worth 100 points total, I’ve made sure the majority of the points (55, that is) come through the test’s extended essay and short answer (2-3 sentences) sections. That makes less than half of the test multiple-choice, or notes-reference-able. And from there it’s just math: If each question takes 1-2 minutes of looking in notes to find answers, students will have used their entire allotted time (90 minutes, remember) on less than half of the overall test.
  • Communicating the above rationale clearly. I see this as a good way to teach some lessons about habits of preparation and attention (which I do regularly), so I plan to start the week with some explicit reminders of the above points. I’ll put these out on my Google Classroom stream, definitely in writing and perhaps via video.  

Teach, Structure, and Incentivize Retrieval Practice

Finally, I’m using the run-up to these tests as a way to get students preparing through content retrieval, as, of course, retrieving information from our memories is one of the most proven ways to make information permanent in our memories. 

To replace the myriad ways I typically have students retrieve crucial content in my classroom, I’m taking steps like these:

  • Exposing students to the underlying science of retrieval practice with accessible videos like this one, from my friends the Learning Scientists.
  • Via extra credit rewards, encouraging students to prepare through retrieval practice. In my case, I’m offering extra credit to students who write quizzes using their class materials, as well as to students who take the quizzes written by their classmates. 

* * *

All that said, though, I have to be honest: I have no idea how it will all go. None of us do, really, as highly successful virtual teaching and learning is still much more aspiration than reality for our enterprise.

And as such is true, I’ll stick to my basic classroom principles—and, of course, a genuine acknowledgement of our unique circumstances—and do my best translating them to the new normal. It’s the best any of us can do.