I’m missing out on the epic snow storm (epic, for North Carolina, anyway), and I’m out on the West Coast at a Learning & the Brain Conference on using brain science to boost social and emotional skills. We had to rush to catch a plane out to avoid the snow, but I’m not complaining about an extra day in San Francisco.

One of the things I was most looking forward to at this conference was a talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal on willpower. Grit, resilience, will-power, self-control have exploded as buzzwords recently, especially in education, so I was interested to hear how she would approach the topic. I’d also enjoyed her TED talk on how to make stress your friend.

Dr. McGonigal defines willpower as directing your energy and attention to those things that are important to you. Willpower is not a fixed trait or either/or, but a habit of mind that can be strengthened.

She highlighted the importance of feeling like you belong in developing willpower. Loneliness/stigma are very stressful to self and the prefrontal cortex gets affected by shame in the same way that it is affected by sleep deprivation. While feeling bad makes you want to change, it doesn’t make you more likely to change. Forgiving yourself made people more likely to get back on track. Dr. McGonigal suggested the best way to offer a message of self-compassion (to yourself or someone else)

  • Acknowledge the feeling (of frustration, disappointment, failure)
  • Remember common humanity
  • Encourage self-kindness, forgiveness, and positive action (What’s the next step that’s consistent with my goals?)

I found that a really helpful frame in considering how to talk with students who are struggling with willpower this year. It’s so tempting to just use positive reinforcement (or in my darker moments to want to make them feel bad) for not doing that work. Dr. McGonigal’s talk was a great reminder of the fact that both of those strategies aren’t particularly effective.

She closed by noting that it’s important for teachers and parents to be good role models for kidw when it comes to willpower because how you treat/speak to yourself leaks out when you’re talking to kids or loved ones.

The App Generation

Dr. Katie Davis’s session today at the Learning and the Brain Conference shared some of the findings and highlights from a book she wrote with Howard Gardner, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and ImaginationBecause I misread the schedule, I showed up a bit late to the session, so my notes focus on the last piece of how youth navigate imagination.

Dr. Davis presented research on how student pieces (visual art and creative writing) in a literary/art magazine from the early 1990s and the 2010s reflected creativity. A number of different characteristics of the pieces were coded. A few that I found interesting- In visual arts, more of the early pieces had centralized image focus and were primarily pen and ink. The later pieces were more likely to have stylized cropping and greater use of mixed media. In creative writing, the early pieces contained more fantasy and more non-linear structure; their use of language was more slang/informal. The later pieces contained more formal realism, linear structure, and more formal language. Overall, the findings suggested increased complexity in visual art and less experimentation, greater adherence to the everyday in creative writing.

Dr. Davis noted that while these changes might be reflective of changes in technology, the changes in creative writing could also be the result of an emphasis on standardized testing  might be affecting writing. She also suggested that while the visual art teens were producing appeared more sophisticated it might also be that they were mimicking what they had access to online.

She concluded the talk by describing the difference between app enabling and app dependence and noting that many educational apps encourage app dependence. Students are keenly aware of what we as adults do, and Dr. Davis encouraged educators to model app enabling. I think this is especially important for teachers as they consider how they use technology in the classroom. I’ see a push back on app dependence in an increased interest in encouraging students to explore hacking and the maker movement. 

In response to a question wondering whether apps weren’t just another tool, like a dishwasher or calculator, Dr. Davis suggested that while she was happy to cede much of life’s drugery to apps and technology, she thought it was important to make those concessions mindfully. The questioner them suggested the perhaps what she was arguing was that apps make it too easy to give up too many things.

I thought that last point was an interesting one to ponder. I had my own app awareness moment recently when I realized that I was cropping a picture in a certain way so that it would display well on Instagram. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that choice, but it struck be how mindlessly I initially made it.

Why Change When We’re Doing All Right?

It’s a fair question. We’re busy people. Busy teachers, busy administrators, busy staff. Change takes time and effort. Change can be scary and change can result in failure.

But if we don’t change, if we don’t ask ourselves what we could be doing better, we start to stagnate. Things around us are moving. And if we let the busyness consume us, we may turn around and find, perhaps years later, that things weren’t as all right as we thought they were. If we don’t change, we avoid risk-taking and in the process lose out on an opportunity to model risk-taking for our students.

I think the question of “Why change?” can be an especially tricky one for many independent schools. Because of our resources and traditions, it can be easy to tell ourselves that change is unneeded or perhaps even dangerous. The recession and a decline in enrollment pushed some schools to consider change, but the best time to think about change is when it’s a choice, not a necessity.

In the Discussing Change in the Well-Functioning School session at EduCon this morning, there was great discussion about how to lead conversations about change in places where things are basically alright. Sometimes that change is imposed from an outside entity and sometimes a leader or group is looking for a way to nudge change from within. Participants shared a host of questions, suggestions, and thoughts related to the opportunities and challenges talking about change can bring. 

Talking and thinking about change, on a personal or school-wide level, starts with reflection- What are the strengths of our school community? In what ways do I feel most alive as a teacher? In what areas does our school least reflect its mission statement? What are the unspoken assumptions we make that may or may not be true? In ways do I stand in the way of my students learning?

What Do We Do Now That We’re Here?

I’m spending a few days at Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools (OESIS) in Cambridge, MA. I’m presenting on the question of how to best use face to face time in blended classes. It’s a topic that I think gets less attention than it deserves. I won’t be surprised if in a time not so far away, teachers and schools will be asked (by parents, legislatures, society) to justify face to face time. That’s why I think it’s important to start these conversations now.

Here’s the description for the session….

f-3 (9:20-10:15)
What Do We Do Now That We’re Here? Maximizing Classroom Time in a Blended Learning Class
Meredith Stewart, Teacher and Department Chair, Cary Academy (NC)

Much energy has been focused on how to maximize student learning and engagement in the online component of a blended course. This session will explore the less discussed, but equally important question of how to most effectively use the reduced classroom time in a blended course. We’ll consider how to best use face-to-face time in blended courses to complement online instruction, rather than simply replicating traditional classroom instruction. Led by a teacher with four years of blended classroom experience in an independent school, participants will experience a mini-simulation of classroom activity and then
discuss how such activities can work in tandem with online instruction to enhance student learning

Here’s a link to the video we watched during the presentation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXRZgVm11pA

What value do you see, if any, in face to face classroom interactions?

Goal Setting with Ben Franklin

As part of 8th grade US History, I ask students to set goals for the year. (The goals sheet also turns into a faux certificate for 8th grade Celebration practice at the end of the year.) In the past this lesson has been a little meh. I was happy with the change I made to ask students tie their goals/reflection to our school’s mission statement, but I also wanted a way to introduce the lesson in a way that felt a bit more authentic and related to US History.

After the Teaching with Primary Sources Institute at the Library of Congress this summer I wondered if there was a primary source doc that could be used for a quick intro. I remembered a LifeHacker post that I’d seen describing Ben Franklin’s system for monitoring his habits as outlined in his autobiography. The LoC didn’t have a digital copy of the Autobiograpy, but they were able to point me to one.


I began by giving students a portion of the document. I asked them to make observations, guesses*, and questions about the document. They fairly quickly guessed that the letters at the top of the chert represented days of the week. Students had some interesting ideas about what the document might represent (a chart for showing which days to feed children? a diet? a chart to help alcoholics stay sober?) We also talked about who the author might be and students guessed by the way that the definition of temperance was written that it was probably an old document.

I then projected page 215 of the Autobiography that lists the virtues Franklin was trying to cultivate and asked students to revisit their guesses about what the purpose of the document was based on them. After they’d shared, I projected a page from Franklin’s Autobiography describing his method. We briefly discussed whether students thought this was a useful system and then segued into writing their own goals/reflections.


*The Library of Congress’s materials refer to these as reflections, but I’ve found that this terms doesn’t seem to resonate with students and hypotheses or guesses works better.

Tighten Up

A couple days ago Meeno asked a really interesting question on Twitter.

meenootweetI didn’t have an immediate answer, but after thinking on it some I think the book I need is Tighten Up: Improving Your Habits and Classroom Practice to Create Richer Learning Experiences.

I’d write a book that would be more than how to use technology to be more productive or how to stay organized or how to connect with students or how to plan well-scaffolded lessons or how to develop beneficial habits in one’s personal life. I would write a book that discusses those things with the end of student learning and joy in mind.  My hope is that this year will be that book, or at least a first draft of it.

I’m sure I’ve got a lot to learn, but as I enter my 7th year of teaching, I feel like I know much of what I need to do. I just need to tighten up. It’s tempting to imagine that tightening up would look like creating the perfect lesson or project before students arrive, but they are the most important part of lessons and projects. To think that I could craft the perfect year before they walk into the classroom is fanciful, but what I can do is design experiences, choose materials, and ask questions that hopefully create the space for that learning and joy to occur.

Of course, every school year needs a theme song. This one seems to fit…

Last Day of LoC STI

Today was the final day of the LoC STI. It has been a fantastic week. I’m truly sad to part company with the other participants and facilitators.

As a culminating activity, we presented the primary sources activity plan that we had created in a sort of speed learning format. It was incredible to hear just a few of the activities that participants had developed. One of my biggest takeaways was the importance of creating time and space for wonder and questioning. Hopefully that shows up in the lesson plan I created for discussing what coming to the colonies represented for slaves and indentured servants. It’s still a work in progress,  but I’m looking forward to teaching it in the fall.


Arianna, while presenting her activity, said that she was going to ask students, “What do you notice in the document that you can’t explain?” I thought this was a fantastic question that would push students into deeper inquiry.

I got several emails today about the first days of school. Hard to believe that teachers head back to school in a little over a week. It’s been a great summer and LoC STI was a huge part of that. The picture below I think illustrates the joy of discovery and learning that the week represented for me.


Images from Day 4

A quick post composed mostly of pictures tonight because I still need to write up my activity plan to share at our gallery walk tomorrow.


We spent some time writing as a way to demonstrate the knowledge we’d gained from the NYC draft riot primary sources we’d analyzed in the Thinking Like a Historian exercises. I chose to present my writing as a series of tweets from a reporter.


In the afternoon, I visited the African American Civil War museum. It was a very small museum and not a lot of new information to me, but it was interesting to look at photos of southern legislatures during Reconstruction.

Had dinner at Busboys & Poets with a former colleague and got a chance to browse the bookstore. What an awesome selection!

Had dinner at Busboys & Poets with a former colleague and got a chance to browse the bookstore. What an awesome selection! I was bummed that the screening of the Emmett Till documentary that I had a ticket for was overbooked and I didn’t get a seat :(


It was a beautiful night, so we walked down to Dupont and made a stop at Krispy Kreme. Sadly none for me, since flour makes my stomach hurt, but it was fun to watch Tim to decide what flavors to get.

Wandering and Wondering

Two highlights of LoC STI today- The first was getting to visit the Geography and Maps Reading Room at the LoC. Mike, one of the room’s librarians, had pulled several really interesting maps for us to look at. I was excited to get to see an original print of the map of US at the time of the 1860 election that I’ve used in class. We also got to see a map annotated by Meriweather Lewis and one drawn by George Washington. The maps room holds over 5.5 million maps!


In the afternoon, we broke into small groups to practice facilitating discussion of primary sources. While it can feel a little awkward to “practice” in front of other teachers, it was an incredibly useful experience. Most of us were facilitating discussion of sources with which we were not familiar, so it pushed us to avoid playing the role of expert and wonder along with our “students.”


After the STI was over for the day, I walked over to the Rayburn Office building to meet with a Senior Legislative Assistant to my US Representative David Price. I enjoyed meeting Kate and talking about teacher professional development and federal education issues generally. I also took the opportunity to sing the praise of the LoC and the National Writing Project.


I wrapped up the night with some ginger tea and coconut rice pudding at Teaism, one of my favorite spots in DC.


Got off at Union Station on the way back and walked home past the Capitol and Supreme Court building.


I think the cover they’ve got up while they’re doing work on the Supreme Court building makes it look like a movie set