Teacher Blog Posts

The following posts are authored by Teacher Leaders who participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange. The opinions expressed are their own.

Learning to Listen to Teachers: Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education

By Lynn Otaguro


Have you ever been in a room full of people when an idea starts to grow like an avalanche, moving in one direction, with everyone being pulled along? But you’re the one who has to take responsibility for the decisions made in the room, so you ask a question. People rethink their positions and suddenly the answer is very different, because the information considered is more complete.

This is the value of giving people a voice and listening to diverse points of view. I have been in that room and I have been that person, but in a former life, not as a teacher.

This fall, teachers came together in the VIVA Idea Exchange to talk about accountability in public education. Over 900 teachers responded with ideas, sharing comments with one another. Seventeen teachers then worked collaboratively to create a report reflecting those ideas and made recommendations for transforming the present systems of accountability and responsibility in public education. I was fortunate to be one of the seventeen teachers in the Writing Collaborative.

The report we wrote, “Changing the Story: Transformation Toward Fair Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education”, takes a broader view of accountability in education. It asks that we treat our children as individuals and teach them so that they can be successful in all aspects of their lives. It asks that schools be funded equitably so all children have the best chance at success. It asks that schools be structured more collaboratively so that they are more supportive of parents, students, and teachers. It asks that teachers be allowed to use specific knowledge of their own classrooms, students, and themselves, to choose the steps that will best help them improve and serve their students.

Sometimes, as a teacher, it feels as if we are in those rooms where decisions are being made about education, but unlike my own former experience, we have no voice and are unable to provide input. The national conversation about accountability and responsibility in education tends to be very narrow: teacher evaluations, high-stakes testing, and who is responsible (or to blame) for public education. I first approached the issue in that way, but then, for me, the teachers in the Idea Exchange and the Writing Collaborative served as the person in the room raising a question, and I began to think more deeply about the issues.

When we talk about our responsibility in education, shouldn’t we be thinking about how our current policies and decisions affect the next generation? Are we giving our children what they need to lead a full, well-rounded life? Are our schools structured in a way that gives our children what they need or that allows teachers to provide these things?

These questions need to be raised, but they will only be raised and considered when we give our teachers a voice. Our educational decisions will only be complete when we listen to those who must implement our policies. The report written by the Writing Collaborative is a step toward giving teachers the kind of voice that can make a difference.

You can read the “Changing the Story” report online. Please read it. Talk about it. Agree or disagree with it, but let it be the beginning of a conversation that includes teachers in the decisions that affect our schools and classrooms. Teachers care deeply about their students. Let teachers help find solutions to the issues surrounding public education.

 Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.27.51 AMLynn Otaguro is a first grade teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii. Previously she was an attorney who represented the State of Hawaii Department of Education. She participated in the NEA 360 Idea Exchange; Changing the Story

Breaking Through the Barriers Between Disciplines

A Job for 21st-Century Teacher Leaders

By Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty


Our students have never lived in a world without Google. And through the increasing prevalence of technology, they possess unprecedented access to knowledge and exposure to divergent opinions. At the same time, they live in a world in which global problems abound, and many of these call for interdisciplinary solutions.

In charting this terra incognita, the role of the teacher leader seems more essential than ever for mapping a curriculum for the 21st Century and beyond—one that not only empowers students with relevant learning experiences, but also empowers their teachers.

Specifically, as teacher leaders, we work collaboratively and diligently with our interdisciplinary teams of teachers to remove the unnatural divisions between academic disciplines at the middle- and high-school levels.

  • How can an ordinary person change society?

  • Why do leaders sometimes lie?

  • Is it possible to solve a problem as big as child labor or poverty with just a peace treaty or agreement? Or does there always have to be violence?

  • How can children show leadership in a society?

  • Do you think that the way we are currently living is “civilized?”

As veteran seventh-grade English Language Arts teachers and teacher leaders of our grade-level teams, we know that we do not have all the answers to these questions. In this digital age, we also know that our students shouldn’t be expected to leave us as walking, talking encyclopedias, either.

In fact, for us, the mark of true learning is when our students leave us with questions—interesting questions that indicate authentic mulling over of academic content, important questions that seem to drive further exploration.

In June, our seventh-grade students filled out a Google Form in preparation for a Socratic Seminar that would culminate our annual interdisciplinary capstone project. They were asked to provide new questions to prompt discussion, but their questions also revealed meaningful reflections on our shared instructional practice.

For example, Tyler’s response demonstrated that his questions weren’t for the teachers, but for his peers:

I have one major question for the class and that is: Is it okay for someone to commit a crime if it’s for a good reason? Why or why not?

Nathalie’s question elaborated on a theme from our Shakespeare unit:

Does being born into power make you a leader?

Omar’s question evoked research he conducted in Latin class on the effects of deforestation in Ancient Rome:

What can cause a global issue to become extreme enough for civilized people to react?

Jenny’s questioning seemed to indicate that an earlier debate in Humanities class had hit an emotional nerve:

How do you think life on earth would be impacted if everyone had an opportunity to earn more than 10 dollars a day? If those who need a job can’t get any and actually wants one, whose fault is that if they’re always told to get one?

And so, in 2008 we felt ready for change, spurred by our beliefs that early adolescents:

  • want to understand and imagine a world beyond their everyday existence,

  • should be encouraged to actively explore ideas that are important to them,

  • can apply their learning in school in order to engage in rigorous and creative problem-solving around global issues.

Thus began the design of an interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum that deepens students’ understanding of essential concepts and poses questions that challenge students to synthesize their learning across content areas.

Re-creating curriculum for students required teacher leadership in order for grade-level teacher teams to embrace this unconventional instructional approach. The result has been the development, over time, of a divergent school culture that embraces risk-taking, collaboration, shared leadership, intellectual curiosity and persistence: a culture that drives both teaching and learning across the entire grade level and is used as a model for other teacher teams.

So, for the past seven years, we have been developing our roles as teacher leaders of this interdisciplinary and, some might say, disruptive approach to learning–a vision which has recently been validated by the Common Core. We have found that this type of learning requires leadership and collaboration from teachers who are willing to break away from the traditional curriculum and forge a new path.

Through our personal journey, we have discovered key attributes necessary for teacher leaders and collaborating teachers embarking on this work, as well as strategies for modeling them. There are too many to mention in one blog post; however, being a reflective and open practitioner who is willing to embrace feedback and change is the most critical to beginning this process.

As accomplished teachers, we know that feedback and reflection are necessary components to our work, which consequently leaves us destined to a recurrent state of flux. The fluidity of curriculum as a result of change–both self-initiated and brought upon by outside forces—has been a constant of our work together.

One of the greatest obstacles we have encountered as teacher leaders is that this kind of dynamism isn’t always welcomed by all of the teachers, nor administrators, with whom we have worked over the years. Once a curriculum is established, many educators tend to prefer editing and simplifying to any kind of robust change, and sometimes effective teacher leadership requires implementing this type of tailoring, too.

However, if we constantly seek feedback and are consistently reflective about the feedback provided to us—which is one aspect of our leadership—it becomes essential to develop and learn how to foster a certain comfort level with variability in the curriculum.

As a collaborative team of lead teachers, our shared reflection, mutual trust and honest feedback with each other eases us through the more stressful moments of making this happen.

Despite the challenges, we know that this is work worth doing because we know that what we do with feedback determines our success as teachers. It is critical for teachers to both seek feedback and to reflect on it actionably.

Feedback should come from a myriad of inputs: from students, parents, assessment data, administrators, other teachers, and any person or organization with a vested interest in the classroom. The goal of feedback is for us to stand back and be able to articulate our successes and failures.

Successful teachers communicate with their students and develop relationships with them and their families that invite them to get a pulse on how effectively things are going, or perhaps on how ineffectively things may be going.

In addition, when another content area teacher provides anecdotal evidence of a student making a connection to something learned in our content area, or when a student connects content learned in another class to ours, we know that that student has begun to successfully think and problem solve in the interdisciplinary manner we believe will help that student achieve.

Furthermore, most successful teachers we know possess a heightened awareness and curiosity about what is happening in their classrooms, what is happening in the world outside their classrooms, and what their role should be in bridging these two worlds. For this reason, we also feel successful when we find that what we uncover through our reflective practices aligns with current educational research.

It is our goal as successful educators to both maintain and model high expectations, pushing our students as well as ourselves to think creatively and to develop a willingness to take intellectual risks. Yet we also see success when our students appreciate how much fun can be had in life and learning, and when they are able to connect the two in a way that inspires them to engage in rigorous problem-solving and thinking—viewing learning as a challenge worth their time and effort.

Feedback can be found through the kinds of questions our students ask us and the kinds of questions we ask of them and those that we ask each other as colleagues. Our collaboration begins with our work together as leaders and then translates into a consistent approach with our interdisciplinary teaching teams.

This builds the foundation for our work as reflective practitioners–something both of us learned during our process for becoming National Board Certified teachers.

This approach models the role of being a lifelong learner: one who reflects on the surrounding world and draws from knowledge and information provided from many directions in order to problem-solve through life’s issues, and, moreover, interact with and even change our society and culture in meaningful and impactful ways.

Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty are both National Board Certified teachers who work in the Boston Public Schools. They can be reached at kmahoney@bostonpublicschools.org and coflaherty@bostonpublicschools.org


Kellyanne Mahoney


Catherine O’Flaherty


Teachers: Stand Firm on AP US History In Oklahoma

by Nancy Kunsman

What do Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oklahoma Representative Dan Fisher (R) have in common? Absolutely nothing, except that they were both on my mind last week.

The first time I heard anything about AP US History’s near-death in Oklahoma was when the state’s education committee was preparing to vote on Fisher’s bill, which would effectively remove AP US History—a proven course—from Oklahoma high schools.

No worries, I thought, that is ludicrous. And I went about my business. In fact, I didn’t even bother mentioning it to my AP history teacher husband, because there’s no way educated officials would vote to ban a proven program.

And then I remembered—I live in Oklahoma, where our legislature considered outlawing hoodies. This might be more serious than I thought.

The second time I heard about the bill was when the committee voted to approve the bill, 11-4, straight down party lines. No wonder Oklahoma ranks 47th with a whopping D+ in Education Week’s annual rankings.

We have leaders in Oklahoma who base education decisions not on what is best for students, but on how they can support their own party’s agenda. We can’t fault Rep. Dan Fisher for following what he is expected to do in lock-step fashion, can we?

As an official member of the Black Robed Regiment, Fisher feels obligated to protect Oklahoma’s youth from ugly, negative facts. There should be enough pretty, positive facts around to fill a high school history course without adding in all the gory details, right? Why should students learn about anything that paints America in a negative light?

Ironically, while Mr. Fisher and all 15 members of the legislative committee were voting straight down party lines to ban the revised AP US History course, I was introducing my English III students to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Romantics’ belief that “Whoso would be a man would be nonconformist.” Emerson was not—could not—have been speaking about politicians who support the removal of a curriculum that encourages critical thinking and open debate.

Mr. Fisher and his fellow Republican committee members are definitely not nonconformists. They are following the lock-step formula laid out in the Republican National Committee’s Resolution Concerning Advanced Placement U. S. History (APUSH).

Will AP English Language and Composition be next, Mr. Fisher? I mean, why do our students need to learn to challenge authority?

Maybe Mr. Fisher thought Oklahomans—with our D+ educations—would be easily bowled over. After all, we were willing to send Common Core on its way without so much as a handshake. But what he found out is that we Okies know when to take a stand.

And today we stood up to those politicians who serve their own agendas. We stood up for our students’ right to learn about America’s history, whether ugly or nice. We stood up for our students’ ability to compete for college acceptances all across the country. We stood up for truth—clean or dirty.

Currently, Mr. Fisher is looking to reword his bill. I predict it will never again see the light of day in Oklahoma. But heed the warning: Those who tried to get a toehold in Oklahoma will try to find softer ground to plow elsewhere.

Stand firm, fellow Americans in other states. You will have your own Representative Fisher trying to get this movement started. Stand firm for your children, America’s children.

Critics complain that our education system is not as strong as others around the globe. What they should complain about is our politicians’ role in education. Let’s remind ourselves that when educational decisions are based on political agendas rather than proven academics, our children are the ones sacrificed.

This episode shows why teachers should have a place at the table when education policies are being decided. Local and state school boards should have teachers holding non-elected seats on school boards. And even at the school site level, teachers should be included in curriculum decisions. We have the experience and expertise to know what is best for our students.

Teachers, be proactive. This is a wake-up call for all of us. I have learned from this incident that I don’t want to hear about the latest education conversations on the news. I intend to pay attention to what is going on in the legislature.

When this bill passed the committee, Oklahoma teachers spoke out and went to the news media and to the communities and even to former students making them aware of this vote. And these actions led to many more people speaking out against this bill. Teachers, I don’t have to tell you how much your former students look up to you, especially concerning education matters. We continue to be their role models, even after graduation. Let’s be on alert to changes in education policy.

I encourage teachers to monitor state legislatures, contact congressmen, write blogs, write letters, send emails, and join social media groups designed to follow education legislation.

We are the ones that are really “fighting the fine fight” that Mr. Fisher claims to be embattled in.

Oklahomans—Americans—stand firm and share your voice.

KunsmanNancy Kunsman is a National Board Certified Teacher, currently in her 16th year teaching English. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Test, Test, Test. Why Can’t I Just Teach?

by Joy Peters

Test, test, test. All I ever do is test. When do I have time to teach? Why are these students taking all these tests when the results never change?

What are the results, you ask? The results always say that ESOL students in the beginning levels are at the bottom of the range of scores. When I do a breakdown of the reasons why they don’t score well, it always comes back to the fact that they don’t know enough English to comprehend what they’re being asked. And guess what? I already knew that.

Personally, I like standardized tests. They usually give accurate results for those students who understand English or do not have special needs. If the test is geared toward ESOL or Special Ed, the results are accurate enough as well. My problem is the number of tests that we give. I don’t mean the weekly or biweekly tests that a classroom teacher gives to check for learning. I mean the tests that require students to sit for hours and answer questions in a bubble sheet or online. These are the tests that effect how schools and teachers are evaluated at the end of the year, the tests that make students hate testing.

We have been in school since August. It is now December, and we’ve given 1 to 3 of these tests each month. In January, my district will give 4 major tests that will require our class schedules to be changed for 2 weeks. If you’re an ESOL student, you get to take the longest test of all, WIDA ACCESS for ELLs, and it takes 2 half-days and part of a third day to complete.

By the way, this is the only test that determines where the student will be placed in future classes. It is the only test that shows growth and progress 100% from year to year. The other tests show growth and progress, but not to the degree that ACCESS does. By the end of January, my students will be burnt out on testing, and they’re not even done yet. March, April, and May will bring more tests each month.

Where does that leave us? Changing the Story: Transformation Toward Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education makes several recommendations for testing. One recommendation is to limit the number of tests given to ESOL and SPED students. Too much testing takes away from instructional time that is desperately needed by these students to learn enough to succeed at the tests that will honestly help their teachers drive instruction.

PetersJoy Peters works as the only middle school ESOL teacher in Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland. She participated in the NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Teacher autonomy is the secret to student success


By Amanda Koonlaba

During my work with VIVA on the Accountability 360 Idea Exchange–and with the Writing Collaborative for “Changing the Story: Transformation towards Fair Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education”–I kept coming back to the theme of how essential it is for teachers to be a part of all decision-making processes. This theme oozed out of every idea and comment in the Idea Exchange, and was a central aspect of every recommendation written for the report:

Teachers are in the BEST position to make the BEST decisions regarding what is BEST for students. (Period and amen!)

This includes all levels of decision-making, from classroom decisions like what text to use for teaching specific skills, to district decisions like textbook and resource adoption and acquisition, as well as state- and national-level policy decisions like what curriculums should be adopted and how students should be assessed. All of these things fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and teachers know better than anyone how to make the puzzle whole.

One Idea Exchange participant stated, “Give teachers back their autonomy and respect, and watch us work even harder than ever to reach and teach each child.” This is an incredibly relevant statement in today’s current educational climate where teachers are reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with their careers and leaving the field at alarming rates.

How would you feel if you were depicted on the cover of a national magazine as a bad apple? Or constantly berated in other media? Maybe that sounds like we’re taking it all too personally. But we have to take it personally. When the discussion about teachers implies that we’re all lazy and self-serving, it’s personal. When our students are catching the effects of negative media, it’s definitely personal. Because after all, teachers are in this for their students. I believe that with my whole heart and mind. I don’t know any bad apples in the teaching profession.

I know teachers who want the respect they deserve as educated and dedicated professionals. I know teachers who want back their autonomy and ability to make decisions about their students. I know teachers who care so much about their students that they would rather leave the profession than participate in a top-down policy that forces them to do something that could ultimately be detrimental to their students.

In Recommendation 4 of “Changing the Story”, our statement of the problem clearly identifies that the exclusion of teachers from decision-making processes is not working for students. It is a witch hunt, a blame game, a finger-pointing debacle, and it is time to end it.

We proposed six solutions to this problem. We held our students at the heart of our problem-solving at all times. Everything we put forward in this report was done for the betterment of America’s public education system, and that includes every single student. If America is truly serious about student success, it will get serious about giving teachers back their autonomy and respect. I, for one, can’t wait to see the results!

KoonlabaAmanda Koonlaba, M.Ed., NBCT is a Visual Art Specialist at Lawhon Elementary School. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

The 5 Attributes of a Teacher Leader

By Josh Agpalza

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the Teach to Lead Conference in Denver with other teachers and educators from around the nation. As I was listening to stories and presentations of teacher leaders making a difference, I realized they all had 5 things in common.

  1. Teacher leaders are innately progressive. This should not come as a surprise because teachers are professionally trained to reflect and refine their lessons every day. So teachers being empowered to make changes is inevitable and built into their gut. At the conference, one teacher leader after another kept reiterating their natural urge to improve systems that would help student growth. They also spoke about their passion to revolutionize professional development, education policies, and their communities. This innate progressivism empowers teacher leaders to keep moving education forward.
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  2. Teacher leaders are committed to their ideas. I had the opportunity to work with a 12-year veteran teacher from Arizona. She came to the conference to share her ideas on building positive relationships between teachers and administrators within her district. I asked her how long she had been working on the project, and she said, “Well, for 12 years now.” It took me a second to realize that she had that idea the day she started teaching. She further explained that she wanted to improve on the idea of building positive relationships, despite the growth and progress that the district had already made. She was also determined to expand her project at the state level. Her relentless commitment exemplifies the unwavering spirit that is common among teacher leaders.
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  3. Teacher leaders are not afraid to fail. Unfortunately, we often see people, including our students, give up on complex ideas or difficult tasks on their first try. However, a teacher leader is willing to learn from their mistakes, improve on their ideas, and try again. During a breakout session, a teacher from the state of Washington shared his experience with an administrator who shot down his innovative plan for student growth. He said he wanted to give up, but he was just too passionate to let it go. Through trial and error he learned who to go to for the proposals, what to say to people, and how to effectively implement the project. No matter how many times he failed, he kept on trying, and eventually his idea became a reality. Teacher leaders learn from failure.
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  4. Teacher leaders never do it alone. Throughout the conference I never heard a teacher leader say they successfully implemented an idea all by themselves. In fact, teachers acknowledged that their success couldn’t have happened without the support of other teachers, educators, parents, students, and the community. Furthermore, the collaboration framework of the conference provided teachers with the opportunity to seek help, ask for support, and learn from one another. This structure gave teacher leaders the confidence and expertise to make their ideas real. It also supported the concept of making sure teachers never do it alone. Teacher leaders understand the significance of “power in numbers.”
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  5. Teacher leaders do it all for their students. I am a diehard Seattle Seahawks fan. I could have chosen to stay home for the weekend to watch the Seattle Seahawks defeat the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Playoffs, but I didn’t. I chose to go to Denver to share my experience, my story, and my life as a teacher leader. I did this because I am passionate about creating change in a complex education system. I did this because I learn a lot about other teacher leaders making a difference in their communities. But most importantly, I did this because of my students. My energy to move education forward draws from their stories of struggle and success. Everyday I am inspired by their lives, their thoughts and dreams. It’s the students that push teachers like me to give a presentation on leadership. It’s the students that inspired the teacher from Arizona to keep building relationships with administrators. It’s the students that helped the teacher from Washington persevere and commit to his idea. It’s the students that made it possible for the 200-plus educators from around the nation to come together to make a difference and inspire change in education.

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These 5 attributes of a teacher leader were a common theme this past weekend. I challenge teachers and other educators to identify other attributes of a teacher leader. Share your story or a story of another educator trying to make change by leading.

Email your stories here: joshua.agpalza@gmail.com

Joshua Agpalza PhotoJosh Agpalza is a Cambridge World History and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher at Federal Way High School in Federal Way, Washington. He participated in the VIVA NEA Time in School Idea Exchange.




When it comes to Common Core, content is what counts.


By Mark Anderson

The Common Core standards have provided rich fodder for outrage and tendentiousness throughout 2014, and will likely continue to do so in 2015. But why do we endlessly debate and polarize policies, instead of seeking to implement them in a way that best helps the citizens they were crafted to serve? (See early education, healthcare, etc., ad nauseam).

While folks are still arguing over whether Common Core is the hellspawn of all evil, educators at my school are working to revamp our curriculum and practices, using the new standards as a guide.

Last year, my ELA department elected to try Expeditionary Learning’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, which has been made freely available on NY Engage. We found much to admire, but we also realized we had other areas of study we would like to explore further. For example, this year, all grades (6-8) are reading a dramatic text by Shakespeare, and each grade has dedicated a unit to studying poetry. We’re balancing the materials we developed around EL’s curriculum last year–along with curriculums we’re developing on our own–using the Common Core to steer our planning and assessments.

The standards are vague on details, so there’s a lot to unpack. What does it mean to “read closely”? Annotation must be an aspect of reading closely, so what expectations for annotating do we communicate to our students? And how do we assess them?

And that’s just the basics. Then there are the real doozies, like Reading Literature Standard 5 for 7th grade: “Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.” How do we teach students to conduct such an analysis? What knowledge and vocabulary do students require to understand the structure of a sonnet or a soliloquy? How will we prepare our students in each grade to understand how structure conveys meaning, across all different types of texts?

To support our understanding of the standards, I decided to draw on other resources to fill in the gaps. For example, I like the approach and guidance that the Massachusetts ELA standards have provided, so I used Sandra Stotsky’s ELA Curriculum Framework as a guide for content and knowledge specific to poetry. And to better determine the discrete skills specific to the standards and how they might evolve across grades, I reviewed ETS’s CBAL Learning Progressions. Using these and other resources, I tried to break down the knowledge, skills, products, and scaffolds of each standard across the grades that I teach (I co-teach 6-8 as a special education teacher). So far, I’ve only barely gotten through the Reading Literature standards!

My analysis document was useful for my own thought process, but difficult for planning purposes, so I condensed the potential products for each standard, trying to visualize what would be most concrete for both teachers and students. For example, for Reading Literature Standard 5 in 6th grade, one method of both assessment and scaffolding would be to utilize a narrative arc graphic organizer to track the development of a story’s plot.

By engaging in this process, I began to establish how I and other teachers could assess and teach the standards consistently across grades, as well as how we might sequentially build on the knowledge and skills taught at each level.

We just completed our units on poetry across all grades, and are now immersed in Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet). As we plan our units, I refer back to my standards analysis to assist our thinking in how we will target and assess our instruction. For example, we decided to focus on Standard 5 in our poetry units. Across the grades, we consistently taught concepts and vocabulary based on poetic structure, such as stanza lengths like quatrain, cinquain, or rhyming couplet. Our current 6th graders will now be equipped to build on their introduction to enjambment and caesura, so that by the time they get to 8th grade, they will be much better equipped than our current 8th graders with cumulative knowledge and skills.

To see how we assessed Standard 5 across grades and get an idea of how we view each grade building successively on the other, you can examine our 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade culminating tasks.

I present this process not to imply that my school’s analysis and curriculum development is better than anything else out there, but rather to suggest that time spent digging into the standards will yield resources and knowledge that will be of benefit to students. I encourage educators who may find themselves caught up in political currents to engage in a similar process to keep our focus on what really counts: the content we teach our students.

In 2015, I’d like to see less bickering about politics and ideology, and more resources and knowledge shared by professionals about how we can better support our students and teachers in exceeding the targets of the Common Core standards.

Mark-Anderson-150-Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx, NY. He participated in the VIVA New York Task Force.



Not Junk Mail

By Justin McGehee

Junk mail. It looked exactly like junk mail.

Okay, it only looked like junk mail for a second, but if I hadn’t given it a second glance, it would’ve been deleted. What a change that would’ve been.

The subject line said something NEA something something Accountability something...or something. Probably just another FYI on education policy and upcoming elections sent by a union-related emailing site. Not spam, but not personalized either.

Couldn’t hurt to take a look. I opened it.

Okay, they wanted ideas blah blah blah, school accountability, what-did-I-think-as-an-educator. One link took me to a forum where I’d need to create a sign-in (with a password) to comment.

“Bah! Humbug!” said the minute-pinching time miser of my brain. It’d probably take a whole minute to create a working sign-in, and I’d probably forget the password, and nobody would read what I wrote, and nobody would make anything happen. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dis!\

I backed out…but I didn’t delete that email. It just didn’t feel like the millions of others I’d seen. It stayed in my inbox for days, maybe weeks, egging me on until I finally broke and created a sign-in. I only made one post and later just one comment. It wasn’t much in quantity, but I truly put the best ideas I had, the kind of thing I just wished “somebody out there” would hear, please, just somebody please hear this… In other words, I had ideas, but not much hope. Not until I got the next e-mail, that is.


Okay, that’s not what it said, but it might as well have.

True, I wasn’t being asked to sneak the One Ring to Mount Doom as part of a nine-member fellowship. That would’ve been easy; I already know that story and could take advantage of a little plot hole involving some large eagles. No, it was more serious than that, because this was real life, and I was being asked as a forum-identified “thought leader” if I would please consider doing a whole bunch of reading and writing to put people’s ideas together into a Really Cool Report that would be presented to some High-Profile People.

In other words, something important was about to be said, some very important people were about to be listening, and was I willing to make sure the right things were said, and said in the right way, so that the message wouldn’t be lost on its way to people who could make a difference?

I had no idea what I was in for. All I knew is that because I hadn’t treated an honest request like junk mail, suddenly I’d have the opportunity to make sure nobody’s voice was treated like junk mail.

See, while I often don’t want to be the leader, I do want to help the leader, because that can help everyone else by extension. But now, the leader was Everybody. I’d need to treat Everybody’s voice as an important message because Everybody would be helping and leading everybody else.

Nobody’s voice is junk mail. Everyone has it in them to listen, and everyone has it in them to speak. I wasn’t junk mail. I gave my best in a moment I didn’t even realize would matter, and look what happened. The rest of the writing team wasn’t junk mail. They gave their best, and look what has happened.

You aren’t junk mail, either, and neither is anyone you know.

Now go give your best, and see what happens.


McGeheeJustin McGehee has been teaching high school ELA for 11 years after starting with a performing arts emphasis in English and a Masters of Education.

Teaching as an Art of Inspiration

By Nancy Kunsman

In many of today’s school districts, teachers are handed lesson plan packets weekly. These packets include all the materials a teacher (or anyone for that matter) needs to stay on the district’s pacing calendar tract. This process means all sophomore English teachers across the district use the same materials each week, and teach the same lessons each week, and—in extreme cases—even assign the same exercises each week, all in lock-step fashion.

Recently, a friend of mine from Mississippi, an art teacher who is free to design her own lessons, told me the core teachers in her district are handed these types of packets every week. She also said they are the most miserable teachers she knows.

I have taught in a district using a daily pacing guide with the expectation my students would be within a day of Ms. Jones’ students across the hall. The common rationale was that the students needed a “common experience.” I, too, became one of the most miserable teachers in education today because I had lost my autonomy, my opportunity to inspire.

I recently joined fifteen teachers from across the United States to present a policy report to the National Education Association leadership and its policy task force. While in DC, I made time to go to the Smithsonian Art Institute just to have my picture taken with Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway. Why? Because in my current school district, I have autonomy, and during a unit on symbols in literature, I arranged a videoconference with the Smithsonian so one of their experts could use art to help my students understand how symbolism is used in visual literature (namely, art).

The one piece that fascinated my students was Electronic Superhighway. In a district with tightly scripted lessons, my students would’ve only had the artwork in the textbook to illustrate symbols in literature. But in a district where teachers are treated as professionals, I had creative options. Returning from DC, the first thing I showed my students was the photo with their teacher in front of that piece of art. They were as excited as I was, and they knew they had a teacher who went out of her way to help them not only understand, but also be inspired by what they learn in the classroom.

Can you imagine the great masters, such as Monet or Cezanne, creating inspirational pieces while being told, “Here’s your paint. Everyone is using these three colors. We want your audience to have a common experience”?

Just as master artists inspire with their creativity, master teachers inspire with their creativity, too. New artists are taught technique and given the opportunity to learn; new teachers are also taught technique and given the opportunity to learn. However, both artists and teachers grow with the autonomy to be creative. While new teachers may need mentors and guidance, these should be carefully balanced with the encouragement to bring their own talents to the classroom.

The role of teachers is not to prep for a test. The role of teachers is not to offer one-sizefits-all instruction. The role of a teacher is to INSPIRE. Contrary to pop culture, we are not just another brick in the wall. We are not just bad apples, needing to be discarded.

Teachers inspire classrooms full of students every day. I make the policy proposal that districts reconsider the common experience through scripted lessons. Instead, schools across America should encourage teachers to show us what they have, to show us their creative abilities. Teachers inspire us to have unique—not common—experiences in classrooms across America.

KunsmanNancy Kunsman is a National Board Certified Teacher, currently in her 16th year teaching English. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

“Now is the time” to take steps towards education reform.


By Janet Foster

It started with an email. My inbox is replete with things that are sent to me without my permission. The fact is, I often don’t read them fully. I had my finger poised over the delete key while I was scanning an email from the NEA in October, when I read about the formation of a writing collaborative through an organization called VIVA (Voices Ideas Vision Action). I read on. For me, it’s kind of like walking into a book store with an unlimited gift card—I’m a sucker for a writing project.

I took a few minutes to compose my response to the question and sent it. I went back to the website a few times over the course of the next couple weeks to see what other people had written, and was encouraged to see so many other teachers writing about the same topics I did. Then I got another email; this one invited me to join VIVA. I hesitated briefly, then jumped in.

Along with my interest in writing, I decided to join because I wanted to see the people who are at the heart of the National Education Association (NEA). The picture I had in my mind was a smoke-filled room with grumpy, old men scowling, smoking cigars, and cooking up impossible ideas for the teachers of America. Teachers, the professionals who should be a part of their conversations, are never present when I imagine this scene. I’m not sure why; something to do with Jimmy Hoffa and union bosses in control of the ignorant masses. So I decided to join this writing group to develop ideas and suggestions to present to the union, to meet some of the movers and shakers of the NEA, and to refine my notion of the union’s intention.

When the VIVA writers finally met in Washington, D.C., we already knew something about each other, but that isn’t the same as being in the same room. We quickly became a cohesive group and we worked on last-minute adjustments to what we planned to say. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but even as we walked through the NEA headquarters’ doors, I wondered just how things would work since we had never rehearsed as a whole group.

Ultimately, rather than the original 90 minutes with three people that we had been told to expect, we spent four hours with a 12-person task force. Not only did we present our information, but we were also given time to join them at the table, literally, and speak directly with them and expand and discuss what we had written.The time passed quickly and some intense conversations on contentious topics drew passionate responses from both the NEA and VIVA groups. For a time during this discussion, the VIVA group dominated the conversation with specific comments and guided the talk toward some significant changes that we believe should be implemented. It seemed that we were being heard, and it was encouraging. In the end, the momentum of VIVA’s influence waned and it seemed that the NEA had reverted to ingrained, traditional thinking and it didn’t sound like they would seriously consider our suggested solutions. But they had just been handed our report and they hadn’t had time to read it yet. I believe that they did hear us, and that when they read and digest our full 50-page report, they will consider our recommendations. The NEA task force members are teachers, too, and they, like most of us, sometimes forget to question the status quo.

My trip to Washington, D.C. was short and I only had about two hours to walk and see the White House and the National Mall. As I stood at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, facing the reflecting pool, I thought of the footage I have watched with my students many times of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on this same spot, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. We study his speech because it was a significant turning point for many Americans because he was speaking to a national, multiracial audience, many of whom had heard of him, but had not heard him speak directly.

When my class reads and then watches the old black-and-white footage of this speech, we discuss the marked change in King’s presentation. He begins slowly and methodically, and he seems to have no passion for his audience. Then we notice the distinct point when he breaks away from his scripted speech and begins his impassioned plea to the crowd. One phrase that he repeats to make his point is, “Now is the time.” This inspirational mantra can be used in a new context for us today in the realm of public education in the U.S.

Now is the time for teachers, the union, and the public to work together and reverse the direction of a one-size-fitsall approach to teaching. Now is the time for the voices of teachers to be heard above the din of corporate, profit-making, non-education-based organizations. Now is the time to remember that we’re talking about the hearts and minds of our children.

This writing collaborative has been an incredible journey for me—both personally and professionally. I met my personal objectives by completing the writing task, presenting it to the task force, and taking a walking tour of some of the most iconic symbols of my country. My hope is that the task force will glean some ideas from our writing that will help them suggest specific steps that the NEA can take in the coming year. It will take much more than a single report from the writers of this one report to institute the changes that need to be made in public education, but one step is a beginning.

Fortunately, I found the NEA task force totally contrary to my imagined group. They were engaged and anxious to hear what we had to say. They were led by a vivacious, engaging leader, Becky Pringle, who questioned and prodded us to clarify our writing. The task force not only gave us an opportunity to present our findings, but they also showed a very down-to-earth, compassionate approach to what they were hearing. They did this because they are just as concerned about the future of schools and students as we are in the VIVA writing collaborative. I am glad to have a revised picture of what the NEA actually does behind closed doors.

Though the work is only beginning, I returned home to Oregon with a new appreciation of what it takes to make change happen—especially on a national level.

And incidentally, as I walked away from our presentation at the NEA building that crisp December evening, I am pleased to report that I did not see a single cigar.

FosterJanet Foster is a Language Arts teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson, Oregon. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange.