Heartfelt Moments at School

I will fight for you…I always do.

Sometimes I hear a song that tugs on my heartstrings. I’m a fan of Andy Grammer’s music, but I was shell shocked when I heard his song “Don’t Give Up on Me” which he wrote for a movie called Five Feet Apart. While the content of the movie itself is moving and heartbreaking, I was particularly moved when watching this video from his website. Please take a moment and listen.

I love to see PASSION and JOY coming from students, no matter if they are here at Presbyterian School, or if they come from somewhere else. The kids in this video are from PS22, a public elementary school on Staten Island. Not only can you hear the joy these students have in sharing their musical talent, but you can feel the emotion when looking at their faces. I am sure that this video was taken after a number of practice rounds. Further, I am confident that there were plenty of mistakes made along the way.

How much rehearsal time do you think the kids in this video experienced before they got to perform with Andy Grammer? Think about the various expressions on the faces throughout the performance. How much practice does it take to look genuinely emotional while singing? You’ve really got to feel the music and believe in the lines you are singing. For you all who participate in choir here at School, think about the number of times you have practiced a song before finally performing it. How many times has Ms. Holt or Mr. Harrison drilled you all on a single measure, over and over, to make sure that the sound is juuuust right? I’m sure you can relate to the happiness these kids show when performing. After all, the road is long, but it’s worth it. I mean…they got to sing with a rock star! That’s pretty cool.

Eighth graders: think about the hours and months of rehearsals for the three shows you performed. When did you finally see the pieces start to come together, and how awesome was it to perform in front of a large crowd of people, the largest group ever to watch a PS event. They stood and cheered for you! Like the choral director in this video, think of the teachers, directors, and so many others present at every rehearsal – never giving up on what you could do when you put your heart and souls into your work. It makes me think of the line from the song:

‘Cause I’m not givin’ up, I’m not givin’ up, givin’ up, no, not yet
Even when I’m down to my last breath
Even when they say there’s nothing left.

What is my foundation?

Take a moment to think about your greatest work throughout the year. Was it the Old West production that you fifth graders accomplished last week? Sixth graders, will it be that special thing you will present during the upcoming Genius Hour? Seventh graders, perhaps it was the Westing Game activity or science research paper, or the Talent Show? Eighth graders, I would like to think that every activity, from the musical, to the trip, to your RIDEE project, and even today’s Manifesto Museum is the product of great work, lots of practice, and learning.

I’m not givin’ up, I’m not givin’ up, givin’ up, no, not me
Even when nobody else believes
I’m not goin down that easily.

This year, countless times, all of you reached towards something that was there…but you just couldn’t see it yet. You trusted, you took a leap, and you found your footing…somewhere – maybe exactly where you had hoped, or, maybe not. But you stood up and presented, sang, spoke, defended, competed, or whatever the verb needed to demonstrate your guts, your passion, and your capability. As we have been using all year, the Essential Question, What is my foundation?, was apparent in each effort and every day…whether you realized it or not.

Matthew 7:24

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

Of course, the Bible got it right when Jesus proclaimed that His words serve as the foundation for which all other things can stand. I hope your trust and your sure footing finds a home in His words. I’m certain that there were times when you felt like you were in free fall without any sign of support. But but support is always there – it just takes a little trust, and a lot of patience. So let’s talk about both the free fall, and the foundation in further detail.

And I will hold, I’ll hold onto you
No matter what this world will throw
it won’t shake me loose

Failure and Support

When you think about something from the year that you are proud to share with classmates, family, and community, I want you to think about two key concepts surrounding that effort: failure, and support. Let’s walk through these two compenents.


How many times have you tried and messed up, received a school paper that was all marked up with red pen, or worked as hard as you could only to come up short? I got to see an example of this type of effort when our varsity lacrosse team competed in their semifinal playoff game. They had never worked as hard as they did in that game. In the second half, the players fought tooth and nail for every goal, cutting into the lead before running out of time and falling short. But what I saw that day, what I hope that they have gained, was the experience of lifting each other off of the ground and showing true grit as they competed. Sure, the outcome was not in their favor – but the effort was. Another coach from the later game came up to me and commended our team on their effort – he said he’d never seen a team fight so hard. That acknowledgement is worth its weight in gold because it’s laced with respect – and respect is life’s most valuable commodity.


In all you have accomplished this year, how many teachers have stood behind you or next to you, for better or for worse? Who has challenged you to give it one more try, or take one more risk to accomplish something you’ve never done before? How many times have you heard a teacher talk about “next time,” or the fact that success is not about the grade, but the effort to get that grade. How often are you encouraged to achieve more, extend that lead, or improve your results? Your teachers will always be there for you. This group of educators will never stop encouraging and celebrating you. It’s not only their job; it’s their mission. In the moment, you won’t always like what you hear…but when you stop to reflect, I’m confident that you will see the true intention of your teachers – because their expertise isn’t in math, or history, or some other content area. Their true gift is seeing your potential – and getting you to see it, too.

I will fight.
I will fight for you.
I always do until my heart is black and blue.

To close, please remember the struggles, successes, and failures you have experienced this year. Think of the magical moments, and the awful ones. Think of the people from Presbyterian School who stood by you, fighting until their hearts were black and blue. Let’s start with the very beginning – you are known…your are loved…and you are wonderfully made. Thank you for a fantastic school year. Let’s finish strong, making beautiful music, until that last breath; until there’s nothing left.

Lenses, Not Silos

I am reading an inspiring book about school design and program development with the student at the center. It’s called Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase. I’m enthralled with the motivational idealism that exists throughout the work; however, this idealism is galvanized by practical experience as the two authors, former school principals, have demonstrated how theory can become common practice. Every so often, a quote pops up which allows me the opportunity to reflect on our School practice. This morning, that quote came from a chapter on “Lenses, Not Silos.”

Good, thoughtful teaching and learning is a process more gerative of questions than of hard and fast answers. – Building School 2.0: How to Create Schools We Need

It’s the Lens

The context for this question stems from the fact that classrooms cannot harbor concepts and skills in exclusivity. In other words, the ideas presented and discussed in a math class must, at their core, facilitate how a student can view the world through a filtered lens. That filter depends on the reference point (or, in the case of school, the material presented); however, a child in the classroom should feel empowered to use this lens as an every day, any moment skill. So when that same student is in history class, there should be an opportunity to utilize a math lens to view the task at hand.

This blending of content areas can happen organically, for instance, in history and English classes. With a little effort, the courses sync to the point where students should not recognize the difference between history or English class…and that is wonderful. But the example I used above (seeing math in history) can be a bit challenging when material is not presented with intention. But this essay is not a challenge to create connections. On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

Content as a Vehicle

Instead, I’d offer that educators must focus on building the lens through which a child sees learning. The content used is merely a vehicle for practicing ways to use various lenses. When we can teach students how to think mathematically or process a concept within socio political paradigm, the endgame will present itself tangibly. In our case, the goal must be a capable young learner who can see the comprehensive opportunity to process content as he or she would in the real world.

So I encourage you, in this last month of school, to frame your conversations with the lens of learning in mind. Let’s teach our kids how to see the world as an interconnected classroom, where their ability can bring many thoughts and materials into a useful, practical, and joyful experience.

Driving towards a better model

Many schools today consider a move towards new learning methods as they seek to improve on traditional school design. A program in which I am participating, called Change.School, consistently stretches my brain to consider ways in which I lead my school and why I have chosen to do so. Some questions presented by a colleague in a recent post had me thinking particularly hard, so I will share my thoughts with you.

1.  What is the role of direct teaching in an inquiry based classroom driven by student questions?

I have researched the National Paideia Center and later had this organization come to train our faculty on a component of their framework: the Paideia seminar. Their stance is that a typical classroom should see about ten to fifteen percent didactic learning (with the vast majority of the remaining time be saved for practical application of knowledge and discussion via the aforementioned seminar). I’m a math guy, so these numbers speak to me as proper guidelines for leaders who want to give learning ownership to the students in the classroom.

2. Is there a role for teacher developed provocations?

I strongly believe in modeling how we expect our students to engage in their learning. Trevor MacKenzie has written Dive into Inquiry, a text that focuses on a gradual release of ownership to students when building an inquiry-based classroom. From phrasing the essential question which guides the inquiry to choosing research methods and the eventual medium to demonstrate learning, MacKenzie explores how to gradually shift each of these pieces to eventually reach “Free Inquiry.” Food for thought (and a good, quick read).

3. Once we determine the exit skills for a variety of stages in the educational development of children, can we give ownership of the standards to the children and allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their proficiency?

I think this is a brilliant idea. But as a senior thesis paper must be “defended,” so too should a student have to defend how and why the chosen demonstration accurately displays proficiency. Perhaps a better question is: “How can a student show learning as opposed to proficiency?” It seems to me that we need to measure progress and development towards mastery and not the snapshot, quantitative value on where a student is at any given moment. Learning is linear and follows its own time…but we can objectively measure that development given the proper rubric to follow.

4. How do we ensure a visibility to the teaching and learning going on in schools and how do we ensure parents are integral partners in the process.

Parents must have a strong level of engagement in the learning process. In the demonstration of proficiency you mentioned in the previous question, I would think that parents should be able to observe and appreciate the level of learning that has transpired. A fun activity would be to build a sort of “passport” for parents or visitors to use as a roadmap to see the different displays of learning to a) build a community that celebrates learning, and b) see the comparative progress made from one student to the next.

5. Should we be co-creating assessment criteria with students and then give them full partnership in assessing their peers and themselves? What does the role of the teacher look like in this environment?

This question brings to mind a slide that my headmaster uses in his presentation on assessment. It looks something like this:

There are 3 types of assessment in today’s classroom:

  1. Assessment FOR learning – enables teachers to use information about students’ knowledge to inform their teaching while providing feedback to students about their learning and how to improve
  2. Assessment AS learning – involves students in the learning process where they monitor their own progress/skill development through self-assessment and teacher feedback. Students can ask questions about their progress as a reflection of their learning and to re-set goals for the future.
  3. Assessment OF learning – the most typical type of assessment in today’s schools; this type of assessment measures student achievement against learning goals and standards.

6. Should attention still be paid to building community and ensuring we are building citizenship skills as well as facilitating student driven inquiry?

In my mind, a student is never going to remember what he learned in 6th grade science; however, she is NEVER going to forget the way that teacher made her FEEL. If you haven’t yet seen Mrs. Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk on relationships, then take some time to do so right now. Why am I a teacher/school leader? To ensure that I am building inquisitive CITIZENS who understand that character builds reputation (not knowledge or skill).

7.  Is there a time when a topic is so compelling a teacher should/must draw it to the attention of students and invite them to investigate?

I think this question goes into my answer for question 2. However, when something like the World Trade Center attacks occurs, we MUST stop and investigate how this changes the world in which we live. Granted, I believe this disruption is both the most difficult and most impactful “teachable moment” an educator has the opportunity to share with his students.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these topics. Thanks for reading!