A 5am Reflection on Engaging

This is a space I come to from time to time to share my thoughts on teaching, curricular innovation and to reflect. I know my readership includes my mother and a few former colleagues, so why post? Is it hubris? Perhaps. A sense of self-importance? Perhaps. Privilege? Definitely. Why don’t I just write in my journal? Yet, every time I think about deleting this website I pause, hopeful that some day this may be useful to others. Last summer, years after posting a reflection on Standards Based Assessment an educator from the mid-west (I live in New England) reached out and wanted to talk more. I was thrilled. It had helped someone. Great.

When I got a renewal notice a few days ago I started to reflect on the role of blogging and of this blog in particular, I recognized (not for the first time, but I am a slow learner) the person who benefits most from my writing is me. The discipline and constraints of forming sentences require me to process my emotions, thoughts and ideas in ways I might not have otherwise. In some ways it is my form of prayer or meditation, which, just like prayer and meditation I don’t do it as much as I should. Perhaps it is the same as the difference between walking around all day and casually gaining fitness and the intentionality of going for a specific walk? I am not sure the metaphor works nor does it matter.

If you are reading this, I urge you to join me in writing your thoughts for yourself and reading longer format pieces in this time. It is important to say my immense privilege as a white woman of means (fill in the blank when you wonder what those “means” might be: monetary, degrees, a family safety net, a steady job, a devoted partner, a computer, a platform of a blog) allows me to use these tools as a means to process my emotions, engage these conversations and, above-all, learn. If you, like me, have these privileges please consider engaging. Honestly, you probably don’t have to, because you are privileged. You, like me, could ignore the riots, the news, watching the video of George Floyd’s murder with a WASPish sense of horror at watching violence unfold. However, I believe we need to engage. When we do, we should use the tools we have at our disposal. If your biography resembles mine, that includes an academic background, so you have the tools of reading, writing and engaging in dialogue. We also need to cultivate a new skill, undervalued in academic settings, we need to be better listeners. This is coming up all over social media, and the cynic in me wonders at intentions of professing to become better listeners, to blacking out screens yesterday. Are the business owners, famous people, etc. promising to listen because they are jumping on the tidal wave of this movement? Are they mere lemmings following the social media trends? Then I realized, it doesn’t matter how authentic their intentions are, they are attempting to act and spread the word. I suppose I am doing the same thing here in my little corner of the internet.

Let me be clear, I don’t like absolutes, bold letters our shouty capitals. As a history teacher and educator I struggle with oversimplification of narratives, movements or children. My father always said nothing is ever “all the time”, “always” or “forever” (gotcha Dad, you “always” did something, but the lesson stuck!) However, if you have found your way to my soapbox, and have made it to 5:45 with me as I write this and the baby starts to wake, I suppose I should be clear with my perspective. While sentences that begin with “We should” “We need” often make me groan I think being an advocate and ally to the cause of anti-racism and a more just world, means inviting, prompting and provoking our circles of influence to act. Hence, despite my discomfort with it generally, I affirm “We should engage.”

Here is an example of the benefit and world broadening nature of reading more.

When I couldn’t sleep this morning at 4am I opened my computer (bad screen hygiene noted) to read Victor Osterweil’s “In Defense of Looting” from the New Inquiry published in 2014 in the wake of Michael Brown shooting and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri recommended to me by a friend. It was excellent. “Excellent” feels a strange word to describe this provocative article. However, it was outstanding in its ability to explain to this white woman why destruction of property might not be such a great thing to criticize.

I will continue to post what I read here and my thoughts in the hopes that they help just one more person process and attempt to move forward in a more thoughtful, supportive and authentic way.

The baby is awake, time to go.


Turn off the Screen and Stay Awhile: Taking the Time to Think about Tech

Over the past year I have been reading a lot about screentime. While some of the 2010-era optimism around technology persists, most of of the headlines, texts and talks express concerns around putting children in front of screens to learn. As I sought to reflect on my reading (most of which, ahem, happened on a screen), I often thought of using this space, but after reading of the damaging impact of light emissions on my circadian rhythms I thought, better use that bullet journal.

I return to this space now with purpose and a hope to share what I have been reading, my takeaways and how I used these resources to structure our professional development theme for the year. Part of my work at Holderness is developing what we now call our “Symposium” theme. This single lens aims to focus our professional learning efforts in faculty meetings throughout the year. We culminate our learning with a three-day experience for our faculty in June–the Symposium. I will share more on our speakers and how we structured that time in the future. I will also share my reading list and thoughts on resources if you find yourself interested in taking a deeper dive into this theme.

Why this theme, at this moment? Here is where my journey into this topic started, and how we framed our inquiry.

The most recent history of Holderness was on published in 2004. It ends by describing the new and innovative “Faculty Laptop program.” The world has changed drastically in the past fifteen years. We have weathered or witnessed (depending on your perspective) the rise of MySpace, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. The iPhone was released in 2007, the iPad in 2010. We have experimented with four different learning management systems including Wikipages, Moodle, Canvas and now OnCampus. The campus now has wifi. Our student handbooks now acknowledge a student’s virtual presence. 

In short, we have changed with the times, consistently trying to “catch up” with the technology and trying to understand the world in which we all operate. As the initial reading (the introduction from Joi Ito and Jeff Howe’s Whiplash) suggests we have worked to “survive our faster future”. The Holderness Symposium theme for this year allows us the space to take stock of our relationship with technology, our student’s relationships with technology and ultimately craft a philosophical position that helps us to engage new resources while also understanding the challenges we face in our  “faster world”.

95 Things I Hate About Traditional Grading. A Rant and then a Standards Based Grading Journey

The List

This isn’t a church door in Wittenburg. However, just like Martin Luther, I think the system is the problem. It’s not corruption, and this is not a revolutionary argument, but the main drivers of the issues with grading are apathy, lack of time and resources and a grade-driven college process. So here are the things I hate about grading, and then I share my thinking and resources so far in trying to reform my own classroom. (So not solely a rant).

  1. I spend hours giving feedback on essays, and most students spend less than a minute looking at the feedback.
  2. Students make the same mistake again and again on essays, meaning my tireless feedback isn’t actionable.
  3. If a student rocked the final exam, demonstrated true mastery, but didn’t get it all right the first time, (i.e. learned something), there was no mechanism to reward growth, they get an average of their efforts?
  4. What does a B- mean? seriously? 80% mastery? 80% effort? 8 answers correct out of 10? what truly distinguishes that from a C+? (besides in the psyche of student and parent?) what is the difference? Is it arbitrary?
  5. The external audience for grades, outside of my classroom, (colleges, parents) causes anxiety to students, so much sometimes that they can’t focus on actually learning
  6. I see tests and quizzes as opportunities to learn more about my student’s thinking, data collection points, they see them as punishments, that I am trying to “catch them out”
  7. When a student (maturely or immaturely) doesn’t care about a grade, the typical strategies of external motivation give them no incentive to learn.
  8. Curiosity and inquiry are really hard to grade, but we value them more.
  9. Cheating and ethical boundary pushing sometimes come from not having space to fail first, as part of the learning process.
  10. Perfectionism is encouraged: “Look, students, it is possible to get a 100 out of 100!”
  11. Every student, teacher, and parent bring a different idea of what a letter grade means to the table. A B could be devastating to a student, fine to a parent. For example, a student gets a C for C work (but what does C work mean? See #4). To the parent, they say average, to the kid, depending on the school that is a failure.
  12. Do you set the bar, and then help students work toward it? Or do you gradually raise the bar as the year goes on? I find setting the bar high from the start in a traditional grading system is overly punitive.
  13. Letters don’t give the context of a student’s learning.
  14. It is hard to see the human behind the letters.

I could come up with more, but you get the point. (What if Luther had been so lazy?).  I should say that while I have very strong feelings about the merits of traditional grading, I still have to translate my system into letter grades at the end of each quarter. Also, last year even though I felt this way, I used a more traditional grading system in one of my classes (can you see my guilty wince?). It can be used with effect toward student learning, also there is a lot of work behind changing the system, and it just wasn’t a reality for my class. One of my colleagues after I shared some ideas about Standards Based Grading recently said, “That has to go on the back-burner for now, but the back burner has never smelled so good or looked so tempting.” We do have to make that decision in our lives as teachers. No shame in that.

Why I Grade?

Why do I grade? to give feedback.

Why do I give feedback? Because it informs learning.

Why do I want to inform learning? Because I am a teacher dammit!

Shouldn’t all assessments be formative? Designed to inform learning? Even if there is a grade attached?

Formative assessment is often described as a simple check in, a low-stakes assessment that allows students and teachers to see what they do not know in-between a student’s ears. But, shouldn’t the “traditional” test or essay also be formative? There is a grade attached, so the low-stakes part evaporates, but isn’t that what a test is? a test of knowledge? Interestingly, before the modern grading system developed in the l890s, students at universities and colleges didn’t have grades but were evaluated by a panel, and evidence of their learning came from their degree and three letters of recommendation. With the growth of compulsory education, a standardized more efficient system was introduced (Brian Palmer).

I think my language has to change. To grade means “to sort”, and if I don’t care about “sorting” then I should just think about using the term feedback. This section might better be titled: Why do I Give Feedback? However, is this like me speaking Arabic to a room of English speakers? How do I get the kids to speak the same language?

My Evolution

A 7 year Journey

Right before I began my first year teaching, I attended EdCamp CT at the Ethel Walker School. I learned from a savvy teacher the power of assessing based on standards, what I have come to call standards based assessment. He shared the following images with me.

I found his presentation, statistics of student improvement on standardized testing and the idea compelling. I had been a perfectionist, Type A student (and, yes, now I am a perfectionist Type-A teacher), and I was I think I was a genuinely curious kid, I also had to have a perfect binder because that was 20% of the grade in each of my classes. Is that really where my cognitive energy should have been partially spent in my teens? No.

I was inspired but I didn’t have the guts to do it year one.

I moved to a new school the next year, found my footing and three years later I gave Standards Based Assessment a go.

First Try

It was in a senior elective on modern countries of interest, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Nigeria. I could build the class from the ground up and I made all of my standards skill based, I knew skills were something I would assess multiple times. I used an early version of the Canvas Based Learning Mastery Gradebook to organize it. The skills I graded were group discussions (group grades), reading comprehension (informed by Bloom’s Taxonomy, every quiz had one question for each standard) and writing.

Main Ideas

  • The most recent grade on a standard is the one that counts
  • There are four grades. I introduce them as a check system that students are fairly familiar with, then there is the number, the language and the color they appeared in Canvas.
    • Check Minus, 0, Not Proficient (appeared Red) 
      • I will admit, I felt more comfortable giving these in earlier feedback than on the last quiz/essay before the grading period closed. It was helpful for me because while I had certainly doled out some early Ds on papers in my classes in the past, the shock and hurt of the hardworking student were often counter-productive. In this system, negative feedback didn’t sting perhaps quite as much.
    • Check 1, Partially Proficient (appeared Yellow)
      • I love this feedback. I felt like whether it was a kid working on something that was on track for an A or for a D I could give the same feedback: “you are on the right page, but not there yet, keep working”. Some SBG systems are just these two grades: you have it and you don’t. In reality, that is rare for a kid.
    • Check Plus, 2, Proficient (appeared Green) 
      • Just like what it sounds like. This is the “mastery” level.
    • Check Plus Plus, 3, Star (appeared Green) 
      • I dole this out very rarely, but I didn’t like the idea that the system didn’t allow for students to push beyond mastery or proficient.
  • How I translated?
    • I said to the kids, all 2s would be an A. They said, “But a 2 is a 66%” and I realized they were still working in a percentage paradigm. I liked that this disrupted it.
    • I said to kids all 1s would be a high C, low B.
    • I said zeros are bad. Period.
    • I wasn’t confident enough with these pithy statements, so I also had this chart to fall back on for the really grade-focused kids.

Canvas Learning Based Mastery Transcript

This tool helped enormously. It organized the standards well. It can be used in tandem with a traditional grade book–meaning you could just do this for a certain skill that you want to track over time (like writing). Also, this view allowed me to see that most of my kids were still grappling with how to fully address the prompt in their thesis. My goal was always to eliminate the red slice of the pie first, and then make the green slice bigger.


Canvas- I would tailor what I said in class based off of these pie charts.

How did I Communicate it to Kids? 

I used this presentation to introduce the grading system to students.

How did it Go?

The Good: One student whom I was teaching now for the third year had an aha moment because of this feedback. I had been writing comments about his topic sentences and paragraph organization for two years, and I had talked to him about them in our one-to-one conferences. At one point after getting feedback on his paper he said in front of the entire class, “So my topic sentence standard is red, I guess I need to fix that!” I was dumbfounded. I thought he knew he had to work on it (I had told him after all) but it was in one ear and out the other. The next paper? Topic sentences. Victory.

A student who lacked a lot of confidence in her writing and reading said after the class that her anxiety about getting it right the first time dissolved in the early essays, allowing her to actually “practice” and carry that confidence over into the final essay.

The Bad: Students who were good at traditional grades were frustrated that their early “good work” wasn’t counted towards their grade. They felt high pressure at the end of the grading period. They were more anxious than they otherwise would have been.

The Ugly: This was a group of seniors, so in my independent boarding school, there is a lot of tension with this age group around quarter one grades for the college process. They only got three papers before grades closed (which is infuriating, because if they are taking a class for a year, they shouldn’t be good at it to start! What is the point of taking it then?) They learned in Quarter 1 how to game the system realizing they didn’t need to “try” on anything but the last paper in my class.

The Next Year, New Courses

I kept the 0,1,2,3 grading scale but “fixed” some of the above issues with the handy new “decaying average” in the Canvas Learning Mastery grade book. The most recent grade is weighted to a 65%, and all the others are 35%. Meaning, that they get a small nod for being good consistently, but are rewarded for getting better and having mastery at the end.

Canvas- The Decaying Average. Brilliant.

Research Methods: this is a sophomore skill-based course. I used the similar standard rubrics for discussions and writing, it worked ok. What I experienced felt like grade inflation, but is it inflation if they are learning more? I’m torn. It felt like inflation because kids weren’t penalized for not reading or doing the daily work of the class if they pulled it together for the bigger writing assignments. I’m not proud of the word “penalized” but that is how it felt at the time.

AP US History: this was the next challenge. I felt I understood how valuable this grading was for giving feedback on skills, but what about content? Reading comprehension was the closest I had gotten. The content list for this class is enormous. Mastery based grading is all about giving students multiple bites at the apple, many chances to show mastery. I already felt the crunch for time, was it possible? Luckily both years I had excellent teachers to team up with and talk about these questions.

Year 1: Grading skills was a huge success, we used the AP DBQ rubric (now outdated) and student writing developed much more quickly and they knew what they needed to fix. Grading content (we tried to go by the thematic objectives in the curriculum guide) was a huge flop. There were too many and there still wasn’t a systematic way to get through them all multiple times. In January we switched the grading system to be 50% SBG for all skills and 50% traditional for content.

Year 2: Grading skills continued to work. Grading content we tried a new strategy. For each Period (there are 9 in the curriculum) we came up with a list of identifications, then we sorted them into categories for example in Period 1: 1491-1607 we had “People”, “Native Societies” etc. Then we came up with “Big Understandings” that we wanted the kids to take away. When we had a multiple-choice set on a quiz, we would grade the “Big Understanding” necessary to answer the questions correctly. All of the AP History multiple choice questions begin with a source and then have 2-4 questions. If students got half of the questions correct, they got a 1 on that standard. This worked better, allowed them to get some multiple choice wrong and still do well, but we still didn’t give them the “multiple bites” of the apple that we had hoped. They got something like 30 thesis statements graded (sometimes we put a prompt on a quiz and ask for just a thesis statement), but some content only got graded once still. Argh.

Canvas View: when a kid clicked on my “thesis standard” this is what they would see


Canvas Shows Me: not enough alignments or “bites at the apple” argh!

Here is an example of the standard sheets we developed for each period. We wanted to do historical terminology as well, and while it was part of the curriculum, we didn’t figure out how to grade it.

Honestly, I think that while Standard Based Grading improves student learning through giving them actionable feedback immensely, the bigger advantage might be that it forces teachers to hone in on exactly what is important to them and their classes (especially important for a teacher of a historical survey course) and my teaching improved becuase I had done that heavy-lifting.

*A disclaimer: I acknowledge that these are AP students, and as such, they are probably the best at taking feedback and acting on it. However, I had taught this class for a few years before, and while a few students would make the necessary changes in their writing after getting feedback, this system made it so that 100% of the students could communicate (and did in their journals) an area they needed to work on in their next paper after reading feedback.

This Year? 

So, my school moved away from Canvas. I had to come up with a new system. I am pretty pleased with it. It has less “bells and whistles” but is perfectly tailored to my classes. I am trying a new system will all of my classes (this year, AP Comparative Government and Politics and Advanced History of the West, a team-taught, 2-year course combining AP European History and AP US History- read more about it here).

A few changes we are experimenting with for this year.

Four Grades

Only the 4 most recent grades count in a decaying average. (The first three- 35% of the grade and the last is still 65%). I hope to get at least 3 for each content standard.

Content 3.0- A New Attempt

  • I am transitioning from several week units to weekly topics. Each week I will grade content in a short quiz that has two types of questions on it:
    • Comprehension: How well are students comprehending the material from this week?
    • Retention: How well are students retaining ideas and concepts from past weeks? I will ask a question from a prior week.
  • For the content each week there are four things I am grading:
    • Free Recall Key Terms
      • You are able to free-recall key terms and describe them.
        • An example from my AP Comparative Government and Politics course:  What are the three ethnic groups in Nigeria? What regions do they live in and what is their majority religion?
    • Connections between Key Terms
      • You are able to explain the connections between key terms
        • An example that is a past AP question from AP Comparative Government course: Describe one major difference between a revolution and a coup d’etat. Identify a country in the APCG course where there have been several successful coup d’etats in the past 50 years. Describe a political consequence of the coups d’etat in the country you identified. (there is also an evidence component to this question) 
    • Contextualize/ “What is Missing?” for Sources
      • You are able to explain the context of a primary source using key terms, or you able to share what evidence is not included in a historian’s interpretation
    • Inquiry
      • You are able to frame questions about periods, sources and/or historical model.

A New Organizational Method- Google Sheets. 

Canvas was great- but we have a new LMS, (Blackbaud)

  • Using the code “Import Range” I have made an individual grade book for each student so they can see what I see, but just their columns.


John Smith has some sample grades


Student View in the New Gradebook

  • I wrote some code (total newbie here) for a decaying average once 3 grades get in the grade book. It took me way longer than it should have, so here it is for someone else: This is for “equal participation” for John Smith.
    • =IF(F9=“”,(((C9+D9)/2)*0.35)+(E9*0.65), (((C9+D9+E9)/3)*0.35)+(F9*0.65))

Decaying Average Code

  • Note: “The Your Average Right Now” will not be correct until they have at least three grades for each standard.  I probably will not use this view with ages other than seniors. They are so anxious I think it will help them to see, but it could backfire, time will tell.

  • On a separate sheet, I have a list of assignments with more of a “comment” feedback, and where I can note what standard was used, the students see this in the column on the right

My Assignments List View


Want to Try My Gradebook Out?

It is clunky at moments. But it is also customizable and, if you have a google account, FREE.

These links you can make a copy of the google sheets. Please email me or comment below if you have any questions and/or you are using it. I would love to know how it is working! 

Master Gradebook

Student View

How To Make Copies for your Class (and adjust the Import Range codes), this page was really helpful in my figuring it ou.

An Important Note: Formatting and Import Codes don’t adjust easily. So….

  • Make your Master Gradebook FIRST
    • Wait until you have really close to your final roster before you make changes. You can’t “add columns” to insert a kid later without disrupting the import range for the entire class. You can add rows, but not more columns once you set up the “kid view”. Right now I have a kid with the last name B, out of alphabetical order after an I- last name because a J dropped the class and  B added it…. annoying.
  • Make one student copy FIRST- be sure it is how you want it before you change it.

A General Implementation Suggestion

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience. –John Dewey

Students need the opportunity to reflect on experience AND your feedback whether it is given in a standards based approach or a traditional system. There are a lot of variables in why students started getting better faster at writing, for example, it might have been standard based grading, it also could have been that I gave them time in class to look at the feedback and then asked them to write a journal entry summarizing the feedback. Then before they wrote the next essay they went and re-read their journal entry and created two goals for that essay.


Some Musings on Reparations, Teaching Civil Discourse and Collective Memory.

Blog. It has been a while. The drafts of post that linger for a year, (but not quite years yet..) because of perfectionism ceases for a moment. Forgive the lack of proofreading.

What is the trend line of my most recent thinking? One of my good friends and colleagues often says that I am interested in everything, and he doesn’t know how long I will hold onto an idea until I jump to a new passion or idea. He means this as a compliment (I think). For me, it is a muddled web most of the time. How could my interest in comparing governments connect to my fascination with Gilded Age Boston, and then the politics and history of memory and memorialization? Sitting at the lunch break for the Universities and Slavery Conference at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard is one of those moments where I start to sort out my tangled web of ideas I am mulling over…so bear with me as I jump around a bit.

My junior year independent study at St. Lawrence was on the lack of official public recognition about the French complicity in the Holocaust. This was inspired by a single comment in the Caen peace museum when one of my professors (Bruce Weiner) lauded the fact that the Caen museum actually acknowledges this component of French history. Junior year I took the topic on. Russo’s The Vichy Syndrome became a core part of the way I thought about the role of collective memory. I traveled to France thanks to a research grant to look at the way French museums talk about World War II. (Everyone was in the resistance was the main conclusion, excuse the sarcasm). My interest in this topic was not radical as I picked up a new book in the Logan airport, Sarah’s Key that had invited this topic back into consciousness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was teaching AP Comparative Government and talking about the legacy of colonialism for developing countries (a theoretical introduction to the unit before we study Mexico and Nigeria) and I was struck yet again by questions of responsibility. What is the Western World’s responsibility in former colonies where they erased traditional leadership, supported feudal authority and then left? How do those countries “Get to Denmark” (we had just read parts of Fukyama’s Origins of the Political Order) ? I found myself again coming back to the notion of reparations, writing it on the board and asking my students if it applied here as a possible solution? What form would it take in this case, when in a statement that is astounding lack of political correctness one of the Nigerian interviewees says, “the British should come back”. The Director of the Royal African society was our next video, who talked about the profound lack of self-confidence as an important legacy of colonialism. Jury is still out on how I think about these sources….

A few weeks ago in Art History we looked at art theft, and considered the Rape of Europa. Again, reparations to Maria Altmann seep into that story of paying for past crimes as a small attempt to repair several layers of violation of a social contract. When I applied for my MALS program at Dartmouth (which I have set aside for a variety of reasons) I wanted to enter the creative writing program. I wanted to begin to experiment with the role of historical fiction in the history classroom. I was specifically curious what would happen if we made students write from the perspective of Nazis, it is much easier to empathize with the victim, but how do we help students understand the systems and modes of thinking that led to the perpetrators acting the way that they did (without become apologists)?

And now I find myself at this conference. The topic of reparations began the conversation with a keynote address this morning by Ta-Nahisi Coates. As he was queried about his “Case for Reparations” piece, he challenged Universities “to make the language of Reparations respectable”. On Monday of this week, Dr. Eddie Moore visited our school to kick off a student led unconference day on the topic of privilege. In the smaller conference setting he outlined the system of white supremacy for our students and how the “mission statement of the United States” entrenched in the constitution and Declaration of Independence was only a reality 3% of the time. When I probed him about what constituted the 3%, and what would have to happen to shift the bar for him, he said reparations; and that he believed we give too much credit for basic human treatment.

I am reminded of “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace. I am reminded of the debate about the role of media in our society and positionality, how much can the media give the public unbiased facts with which to make up their minds about society, and how much does their experience in the world always color their interpretation? What is the water we swim in right now that we don’t even recognize? Is it mass incarceration? Is it rape culture? Is it the fact that our conspicuous consumption is propped up by workers who have few rights and make less than $1 a day?

I am also struck by the challenge of turning the lens inward. How do we have this conversation without alienating people? Coates said some people will be “affirmatively ignorant” and yet the parts of his talk I found most compelling are when he ventured into different territory pondering, “would we cease to function if we had to acknowledge it was THAT bad?” Another scholar on the panel, James Campbell, later talked about PTSD and the notion that societies can collectively experience trauma. Coates said we have to do more than call the “affirmatively ignorant” people “deplorable” as Hillary did, we have to ask WHY they are deplorable?

Most surprisingly in one of his final comments he said something along the lines of: “I am not an activist, I am a writer. ‘The Case for Reparations’ was part of my journey to understand the Civil war. The question about reparations is answered for me. Yes.” He then spoke of how being a writer means he needs to pursue the questions most captivating for him at that moment. I wondered about this, and while he says as a society we have a responsibility to acknowledge this plunder, but at the same time pivots away from calling himself an activist. Yet he also encouraged playwrights and artists to reconsider the images we have of the antebellum South (Gone with the Wind) and change that, to become activists of sorts. I think I can affirm that anyone should pursue the questions they find most compelling, but at the same time how do we have this conversation if people can pivot away from it? Some of the comments from the crowd asked how to we can lead the uninterested to water and “make drinking attractive”? This seems to be a central question: how to convert the ignorant to be less ignorant? (essentially the task of educators)- but on a single way of thinking that is absolute truth… which I am wary of.

Yet I am also teaching American History with the most politically engaged group of students (conservative and liberal) that I have ever worked with. Every day I wonder if I am being true to my belief in free speech and open discourse in education. I am intimately aware of the power I have to direct the way students think, and wonder how much do they parrot my ideas back at me? How much room do I leave them to disagree? How can I be balanced in an age of Donald Trump? Probably a question for another post, but I can’t help but feel the question of how to talk about this is intimately linked to how we invite civil discourse into our classrooms even at the expense of the beliefs that ground our ideas? The University of Chicago’s Statement about Free Expression seems to be the closest thing I can come to supporting, but I still do have questions about the role of power dynamics in free speech even at universities.

Sven Beckart’s is an organizer of the conference and his A Global History of Cotton (which I will admit is lingering on my bedside table beneath a pile of student essays, bookmark starting to impress the pages) inspires a new class we will offer next year, Advanced History of the West. A combination of AP US and AP Euro in a two-year course that rejects the notion of the history of America existing as a topic we can study independent of global events. Textbooks we use have been doing this for a long time, but we still require a year of “US history” to graduate- it seems a nationalistic project to our department we are excited to poke holes in. How will a study of the constitution be enhanced by genuine time to cover the Enlightenment? How will we consider the world that the African Slave Trade made in a more global context?

The lunch break is ending. Natasha Trethewey, Vincent Brown and a panel on “Slavery at Harvard” are up next..

On Storytelling

There are a few things that happen when a new acquaintance unfamiliar to the world of education learns that I am a teacher. Subsequent inquiries are frequently made about what age level and subject I teach. When I respond that I teach high school, it seems to open a neural pathway to a pool of teenage memories. Those who smile dreamily thinking of their high school sagas I often believe were popular jocks, and those who grimace seem to resent me for reminding them of the acne, cliques and heartbreak. When I mention that I teach history, they either light up and state their avowed love for the discipline or confess their lack of aptitude. Nearly everyone shares something about a history teacher. These teachers are characterized as either master storytellers or resented date-drillers. They often cite a renewed adult interest in history courtesy of a Ken Burns documentary. What strikes me most is the detail with which people of all ages remember the storyteller teacher.

See the rest of my reflection on my summer study in Scotland here. It was posted a few weeks ago on The Lamp, Holderness School’s space for sharing ideas about education and the teaching profession.

The sweeping views and cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, provided the perfect setting for Kelsey Berry to study the many stories and narrators of history.

Why Study History?: Thoughts on the Job of a Historian for History Teachers

A junior student asked me last May, during dorm duty, “Ms. Berry–What can you do with a history degree?”

Me: (joking) “You mean, besides do what I do?”

Student: (sheepishly) “Well… yes.”

Me: (in my best saleswomen voice with the goal of admiring her foresight, but also lessening her anxiety about the college process )…

I spoke somewhat apprehensively about the skills that are developed at a liberal arts school, and in the humanities especially (and noted this was from my limited perspective/experience). We discussed how the job she will likely do, probably has not yet been created... it was definitely an unintentional plug for the liberal arts approach. Then I spoke about being interested in what you are studying, and how important that is to success.

But I need a better answer to this question, “why study history?” While education is the focus of my career so far, why history education?  I have been with 30 teachers for the past week (mostly history, some English and one librarian) studying Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment. As we debate the enigmatic character of the father of both the Declaration of Independence and slave Sally Hemmings’ children (likely), we were constantly trying to reconcile competing images of a hero of the American national story. Should we care that he was a slave owner? He was a “man of his time”… but the argument goes, he was also “not a man of his times” (all men are created equal, unalienable rights etc). What is the historian’s job? What is the history teacher’s job? Is it to defend Jefferson? Apologize for Jefferson? Indict Jefferson? Are these even the right questions to be asking? (also these questions are at the heart of the AP US curriculum debate). The opinions and ideas of this group of teachers had me asking…what does it mean to be a historian? Perhaps, if I try to define the role I play in regards to Jefferson’s story, then I can ask a better question.

What is the job description of a historian? Often historians are teachers, and sometimes a teacher would identify as a historian. Are “professional” historians just those with a PhD?  What about the mental engines behind small town historical societies? But what exactly does a historian do? Study the past is the simplest description. So how do they study? It seems that the historian appropriates/adopts the methodology of other professions as they seek to study the past. What is the job description, then, of the history teacher? To facilitate burgeoning historians? To model being a historian? So then I return to my first question: what is the job description of a historian? A few ideas…

Tell stories.                      

Historians can be story tellers in the tradition of Herodotus.

Investigate the data.      

Historians can be scientists of the past, carefully measuring data with the precision of a chemist, but their scientific method is foiled by the countless  unknown variables.

Weigh the evidence.    

Historians can be lawyers, carefully weighing the available evidence to judge the past.

Listen and analyze.      

Historians can be psychologists, poring over diaries and letters with a Freudian lens judging sexuality, phobias and temperaments.

Architects of a national story.     

Historians can be politician-soldiers , “Defenders of the Faith” whatever that faith may be, if their hero is Thomas Jefferson, if their historical satan is Thomas Jefferson, some historians are in the business of defending the fairy tale given by the storytellers to young children.

Time travelers. 

Historians can yearn to be anthropologists as well, and travel back in time and live among and study their subjects, one reason for the many historical reenactments.

The verb “to reconcile” seems closest to the work I do with my students. See the Google definition below. The french word conciliare means “bring together”. How do we reconcile, or bring together the view of Jefferson as the author of words below yet also the view of him as salesmen of humans, and more contentiously, a rapist by modern standards?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Reconciliation has a positive connotation, but when a historian does it, is it a positive thing? Seeking to reconcile is an important part of the historian’s job, but we should, perhaps, clarify that it is a constant state of trying to reconcile, rather than asking students to square a circle. The hardest part of teaching history, I find, is the lack of a “right answer” for students. However, it is also my answer to “why study history”? There is no right answer, but seeking to answer, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not only a practice in critical thinking, but a constant acknowledgement of human complexity. Jefferson is the archetype of a historical paradox, a walking contradiction, and he is not unique.

Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson was mounted in the Jefferson Memorial in 1947, four years after the memorial opened, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011633648/

James Akin. “A Philosophic Cock,” Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804. Hand-colored aquatint. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140), http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefffed.html.

reconcile ˈrɛk(ə)nsʌɪl verb
verb: reconcile; 3rd person present: reconciles; past tense: reconciled; past participle:reconciled; gerund or present participle: reconciling
  1. 1.
    restore friendly relations between.
    “the king and the archbishop were publicly reconciled”
    • settle (a quarrel).
      “advice on how to reconcile the conflict”
      synonyms: reunite, bring (back) together (again), restore friendly relations between, restore harmony between, make peace between, resolve differences between, bring to terms; More

      “the news reconciled us”
      settle, resolve, patch up, sort out, smooth over, iron out, put to rights, mend, remedy, heal, cure, rectify
      “the quarrel was reconciled”
      antonyms: estrange, alienate
    • make or show to be compatible.
      “the agreement had to be reconciled with the city’s new international relations policy”
      synonyms: make compatible, harmonize, square, make harmonious,synthesize, make congruent, cause to be in agreement, cause to sit happily/easily with; More

      “it wasn’t easy trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his career”
    • make someone accept (a disagreeable or unwelcome thing).
      “he was reconciled to leaving”
      synonyms: accept, come to accept, resign oneself to, come to terms with, learn to live with, get used to, make the best of, submit to, accommodate oneself to, adjust oneself to, become accustomed to, acclimatize oneself to; More

      grin and bear it;
      informallike it or lump it
      “the creditors had to reconcile themselves to drastic losses of income and capital”
  2. 2.
    make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.
    “it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the financial accounts”
late Middle English: from Old French reconcilier or Latin reconciliare, from Latin re- ‘back’ (also expressing intensive force) + conciliare ‘bring together’.

Introducing The Lamp! “Working Where you Live, Living Where You Work”: Work Life Balance at a Residential School

The Lamp Cover Page

Check out The Lamp, Holderness School’s new place for conversations about teaching and learning! (better viewed on Safari than Chrome at the moment). My first post is about work-life balance at a residential school.

Work-Life Balance. From some very quick research, this phrase seems to have first been employed in England in the 1970s in New Ways to Work and the Working Mothers’ Association in the United Kingdom. Historically the creation of a dichotomy between work and play is an industrial concept. Time away from work was a byproduct of the industrial revolution. While often this “time” was limited to Sundays because of long working hours, the separation of work from the home was perhaps as big a shift in human history as the agricultural revolution was to hunter-gatherers. So the notion of work-life balance isn’t very old, perhaps 100 years for the United States.

The language we use to describe this balance came from another historical event — women in the Western world’s entry into colleges, universities, and some boardrooms. The curious world wondered, how can they run the company and have company for dinner? Women were told “they could have it all” with newly won rights such as Title IX, and Roe v. Wade (1973). Setting an almost impossible standard for women, the idea of “everything” – the job, the family and the freshly baked bread – erased any notion of balance (see video below). More recently the phrase has been employed across the gender line to discuss the tentacles of technology bringing work into the home.

Check out the rest here...

The AP US History Controversy, Liberal Bias and History as the Study and Practice of Drawing Conclusions

The new AP United States history framework has prompted a lot of controversy. The media has picked it up in waves, first last summer, then in September with the sick-outs in Colorado, over the winter with the debates in Georgia, and most recently with the Oklahoma bill that has now been pulled for further review. Often the headlines describing the movement against the curriculum are laughable, employ Orwellian language, and references to North Korea and totalitarianism abound.

My AP classes were discussing the Scopes Monkey Trial and the culture wars of the 1920s (often cited as a parallel in reports on the AP US debates) while the Oklahoma debates were happening. There was a parallel between Foner’s discussion of the fundamentalists in our textbook and the technique of labeling opponents of the new framework with these volatile, extremist words. I recognized, perhaps begrudgingly, that there is a lot of support to revise the standards, just as there was a lot of support to enact Prohibition, the 1924 Immigration Act, teaching creationism etc. However my making that connection may be part of my liberal bias. Although at times the supporters of the move to revert to the old AP standards are sometimes comical in their description and clearly lack of understanding of the curriculum (I pleaded with my students that the curriculum should not make them want to join ISIS), I wondered about what they really seem to be objecting to, the “liberal takeover” of history education. Is education, especially higher education intrinsically liberal? Do the opponents of the curriculum want a nationalist curriculum? Or am I misunderstanding them? Is it liberal to consider how liberal my curriculum is? It can not be that simple. Maybe it is. I used this current event to discuss historiography, and the idea of revisionist history, but also the importance of looking for point of view in everything.

We started first with a list of quotes about the study of history, several from the approved documents list from the Oklahoma Bill.

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. –Harry S Truman (approved source)

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! –Patrick Henry (approved source)

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. –Alexis de Tocqueville (approved source)

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. –Thomas Jefferson (approved source)

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. –Mark Twain

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. –Maya Angelou

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. –Aldous Huxley

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. –H. G. Wells

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. –George Orwell

There is an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but it is good. –Stephen Colbert

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) “The New Colossus” [titled “Sonnet” in notebook] 1883. Manuscript poem, bound in journal. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (41)

Jacob August Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–“Five Cents a Spot”, 1889, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Then we looked at the composition of the sources on the Oklahoma bill. Many reports about the bill noted the lack of diversity in the sources (which my own quote list above probably wouldn’t stand up to either) nearly every article about the bill highlighted fact that the ten commandments made the list of 52 documents, the 4 documents by women, the single document (of surrender) by a native American, and the five documents from non-white men (non from non-white women). Of these 52 documents, only 2 are truly critical of the United States. What many articles and reports failed to note however, is that within the new curriculum framework, I taught 90% of these 52 documents, however I also taught many documents that showed an alternative “America”. For example, their summer work included a document-based question about American exceptionalism, which they wrote after reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. They read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” but they also considered a Jacob Riis photograph. As we considered the Oklahoma Bill I had the students check off which ones they knew, highlight in different colors those sources that were written by members of a minority group, and asked them to try and come up with a primary source that might contradict or challenge each of the 52 sources. It became a review lesson as well.

I was left wondering, is the critique of with the new curriculum that the conclusion many students come to after a consideration of both sources often finds America lacking? A student last year came into class a few weeks in and said, “Ms. Berry, I like this class, but I do not like America anymore.” Georgia students protesting the legislation to limit funding to the AP had an interesting take on this “anti-America” trend in AP textbooks, “As someone who is directly affected by this class every day, I must say that statement is false. Students in Gwinnett County are taught about the positive effects the United States has had on the world since we are in elementary school.” 

In trying to understand the bill, and the impulses in American society behind it, how do I avoid the liberal bias? By naming it? Is it “liberal” to name bias, even if it is reflective?

More links:


Design the Revolution! Step 1: Who is the User? Reflections on NAIS Conference


Traditional Classroom (Wikipedia)

Modern American Classroom (Wikipedia)

My Classroom- Video Conferencing in Comparative Government with Wen Ho about his trip to North Korea (a connection made at KSI!) Photo by Emily Magnus

“Education is the only thing a person from 1915 would recognize” serial educational entrepreneur Brian Bordainick said at the annual NAIS conference this past weekend. But ever since I tweeted it I have been wondering about the implications of this statement. My classroom doesn’t look like it did in 1915, and I know this is not just because I work in an independent school (which can actually be more “traditional” at times in classroom architecture but I acknowledge has more room to maneuver). What about the art classroom? The Harkness Table? This critique isn’t entirely original, and has been a common comment of our educational system since, well, forever. I also hesitate at that idea that education is the “only” thing that would be recognized by a 1915 time traveler. What about class divisions? hymns? the recreation of bygone eras for amusement?(see footnote 1 for the digression). One of my favorite time-traveling observers is Simon Rich’s “Herschel” character. While historical fiction and imagining time-travel or subjunctive history it is a great way to test a student’s understanding I wonder at the co opting of the historical narrative for any argument… because often it is portrayed singularly, and there is danger in a single story as Chimamanda Adichie reminded us. The next day at the conference Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc referenced the leveling of the music industry in the 1990’s and the surge of innovation that followed, and noted that the “schools at the bottom” have the gift of “urgency and a sense of crises” that push innovation. However, I think both of these observations fail to recognize that while the goals of the music industry have remained the same (to make music and money), and that innovation seems to start best as a response to failure, the goals of education have fundamentally shifted while at the same time staying very much the same.

This shift/non-shift is in the “user” of education. This is not a simple answer, who are the users of education in America? The variability and complexity of the answer to this question is what makes it so hard to define a solution. Sir Ken Robinson’s comment about needing to move beyond the industrial model of education resonated, because something has changed, and the model needs to adapt, but what precisely has changed? How has it changed? Why has it changed? Should it change?

The theme of the conference was centered around design thinking. I still can not clearly define it, but I did have some experience with this framework at KSI this past summer- see my post about redesigning the first day of school here. If we were to actually “design the revolution” what might it look like? The panel on the future of education in the general session was fascinating (I particularly enjoyed Nannerl Keohane’s citation of Alice Freeman Parker’s Why Go to College? Essay ) but too often it seemed to start not with the first step of design thinking, empathy, but with a definition of problems. This is not to say that the panel hadn’t practice plenty of empathy behind their ideas, but if we, as a society, do not define the user, we have a glaring blind spot in the design process. The definition of the user is, perhaps the hardest part. Liz Davis at EdcampIS last Saturday described it well: “Design thinking doesn’t start with the problem, you have to define user first, empathize and then identify the problem.” Let me restate that: If we define the problem before the user we are working in our blind spot. For example, if I start by asking the questions: what is the problem with education in America? or What is the problem with the schedule at a residential school? There are the initial answers if you don’t employ the empathy step first…Much like trying to define the “user” in a “schools” schedule, the variety and definition of the user for education in America becomes the central issue. The entrepreneur isn’t afraid to try new things, and is an important approach as Brian Bordainick has reminded us, but that step comes after the definition of the user in design thinking (the test stage). John Maeda, another speaker at the conference shared his leadership style as including not only the willingness to fail and try new things, but also the importance of empathy and having office hours and time to listen (first college president on twitter too!)

I am left with many questions. Thank you NAIS for keeping me thinking.

  • Locally what role does design thinking have for Holderness School? For my classroom? [Stay tuned for a post about my experiments with Mastery Based Assessment]
  • What does the “revolution” look like for
    • a residential independent boarding school? How are our traditions, and intentional community counter-cultural? What does this mean for the future?
    • a residential liberal arts college like the one I attended? cost-value of the $60,000/year price tag
    • the economy? Does the educational model drive the economy or does the economy drive the educational model?
    • for society? How does society change through education, or does how education change through society?

Education in America Schedule at a Residential School
Defining the problem pre-empathy….working in the “blind-spot”??? (summary of common statements about the “problem”)

(from my limited teacher perspective)

  • Not enough time in the day
  • We don’t go to school enough
  • Kids and Teachers are over-scheduled
  • Can’t do everything well as a “triple-threat” faculty member
Empathy Who is the user?

  • Teachers (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Students (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Administrators
  • Families
  • The World (via MOOCS?)
  • Employers?
Who is the user?

Faculty Families
The often-small town communities? (remember non-profit tax benefits)

Define How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first? How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first?

I do not have the answers. Please comment if you are interested in sharing any projects that you know that are in the ideate, prototype or test phase! = any sort of innovation that is trying to solve problems in education, casting a wide-net here. How would you define the user?




1. For example the 18th century costumes in To Catch a Thief  and the modern obsessions with the Gilded Age and the 1920s.

Back to the Drawing Board

Back to the Drawing Board

I was recently reminded I even have a blog by a mentor I was lucky enough to run into at the NAIS conference in Boston yesterday. I just counted: 15 drafts of posts each awaiting my perfectionism to publish. The demands of life always seem to come first… putting that reality aside for a minute, here is my foray back into the virtual world of online teaching and learning. (Also I recently remembered I had a Twitter handle, when asked what it was after beginning to tweet again yesterday, I had to look it up.)

This experience of feeling like I am somehow failing at my goals of being an innovative educator is a representative of how my classes have gone this year, post Klingenstein Summer Institute. My classroom is my laboratory, in theory and in practice. I hope to post soon about my trials and errors with competency based assessment experiments with seniors and sophomores. Yet, in my AP US class, I feel like I am the Benjamin Button of innovative teaching, I started with all of these ideas and goals, and have become more traditional, not the other way around. Sure we use tech every day, and there is a Harkness discussion once a week, we use multimedia, and different platforms to go over the content, but it is still teacher centered.

What happened? Why did my twitter handle fall silent? Why did I stop innovating in that class? Why did I fall out of the blog-o-sphere? Well here is what happened.

I wanted to do a good job.

I wanted to prepare my students for an AP exam to help catapult them to the college classroom and in doing so I reverted to the traditional, teacher centered model of education.  My diligent students are suspicious and often resentful of paradigm shifts. They (and this is cultural) are so focused on college and outcomes rather than process that my student-centered approaches were too scary and new to use on an unwelcoming audience.  I can easily empathize with their outcome-driven mentality- I felt that pressure as a student–it is the culture they are in. They have signed up for my AP class with the college process in mind, even if they genuinely love history.  I let my empathy for the students in the “sausage machine” of college admissions distract me. They were/are more comfortable with my role as the “bastion of knowledge”… perhaps I was/am too.

What is even more disappointing about my “regression” is that the new AP US curriculum doesn’t require you to have a content driven course anymore. Although the textbook companies haven’t quite caught up, (even my excellent new text Give Me Liberty! by Eric Foner isn’t structured to support it.) I don’t have to teach the way I was taught. But I do. I teach via my relationships with the students, a bit of personality, and knowledge of the subject. But too rarely do I give students the opportunity to drive the course.

A new colleague reminded the entire school in chapel talk last week of the importance of optimism. He is new to the school this year, and he commented on the common-place phrase he has picked up over the past six months “that will never happen.” I am reminded at NAIS, as I am inspired by the innovation around me, of the importance of rejecting that statement.

How do I shift the paradigm about teaching and learning from the bottom up in my classroom? How I do I counter all of the grade-motivated, college motivated, outcome based culture even in my AP class? Of course I hope we can do this on an institutional and cultural level, but in my “cog” of School House classroom #3, how can I shift the paradigm?

I have to go back to the drawing board. Practice some design thinking. Doodle. And most importantly never again say, “I can’t do that because it is AP.” I can do it. What “it” is I am not sure yet, but I will let you know.