Challenge Is Uncomfortable. Live With It.

Published by — Kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.


Speaking at the RIMA’s High Expectation’s Conference, keynote speaker Kate Gerson says, “The number one way we love our students is by rescuing them from struggle.  We hate and feel so uncomfortable with kids struggling.”

When you pose a challenge just out of a kid’s reach, she’s forced to think.  She’ll have to sort through what she already knows to come up with an educated, if not necessarily correct, answer.  The kid blinks at you, deer in the headlights.  You assure her she can figure it out, but the wait for her to wrestle through the problem is nerve-wracking.  Often we spare her the struggle and give her the answer, which she’ll never remember.  Had she dug around in her prior knowledge and figured it out — or even come up with a wrong but thoughtful solution — she’d have exercised her mind.

Gerson, teacher, principal and now CCSS Fellow with the NY Regents, explains that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) encourage just this kind of challenge.  They cover fewer topics, allowing time for a deeper understanding of each.  (CCSS offer clearly-written one-pagers about their philosophies about math and ELA that cut through a lot of the noise generated by the media.)

Gerson distinguishes between “productive struggle and toxic struggle.”

Productive struggle is about thinking.  By protecting kids from thinking, we accidently produce toxic struggle.  She gives the example that when high schools set low standards in order to improve their graduation rates, they “send more kids to college who aren’t ready, and those kids take more remedial courses, grow debt and don’t finish.”  The easy standards gave those students a false sense of their own mastery.  Then they hit a wall.  That’s toxic struggle.  If they’d learned to persist at hard tasks early, they’d have a sense of self-mastery and confidence that pushing themselves will pay off.

The Standards are big, broad, and now under fierce attack, even though few people know much about them, including most of their attackers.  I too have my issues with certain specifics, but on the whole, they challenge American education in a healthy way.  Gerson says, “The CCSS demand that every single student gets smarter.  This is something they can achieve when you slow down, unpack what you’re doing, and get intentional about how it’s done.”

Most current curricula are a mile wide and a centimeter thick.

CCSS are designed to help students analyze texts so they can understand them, not merely pick out bytes of information.  Ten correct facts do not add up to comprehension.  Gerson sees “students who know what you [the teacher] are looking for, so they know what words you want them to use.  But do they actually get what’s going on?”

As a high school English teacher, Gerson all but danced Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to convey her own passion for the book to her students.  She looks back now and realizes that likely they remember only her performance.  They engaged with her, not the book.  She didn’t have them dig into the historical period or the political conflicts.  They didn’t have enough background to comprehend what the book was saying.

Such books are demanding.  Many teachers who are not natural performers turn instead to easier, “high-interest” literature, like Harry Potter.  Reading for pleasure is great.  But during the school day, the kids need to be working on materials that are out of their comfort zones.

Figuring stuff out for oneself is the definition of smart.

Math is similar.  Teachers tend to model how to do the problem; kids practice.  Little to no thinking.  Teachers feel they can’t take time to allow kids to wrestle their way to an answer.  But no matter where they start, such struggle makes them smarter.

As teachers, “we were taught to explain things to students over and over again.  So now we need to unbraid wrong answers, and do so publicly.”  I love that.  Don’t just let the wrong answer be Wrong, but unpack it.  Where did the kid’s thinking go wrong?  And even better is teaching publicly.  Bleeding red ink on a paper or quiz is a ton of work for a teacher and does not get the kid invested in the intellectual puzzle at hand.  No one wants to humiliate a kid in front of a class.  But having students see each others’ thinking, right and wrong, is far more instructive than letting them blow off a teacher’s red-inked corrections.  Learning publically helps kids be more thoughtful.  Rich thinking is a better goal of education than acquiring a canon of right answers.

Honestly, I think kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.  Achieving mastery with intellectual persistence is an acquired taste that needs to start early.  They can’t be lured into education the way they’re lured into the media.

CCSS is a complicated subject; Gerson did a good job.

[Photo: Christine Lopes Metcalf]

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Inquiring Minds Want To Know Science

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During their sophomore year, biology students at William M. Davies Career & Technical Center fan out in teams to swab things all over the school.

They’re on a quest to address this question:  Since schools are breeding grounds for disease, exactly where would you be most likely to find pathogens, the infectious agents also known as germs?

Translation to teen-speak:  What is the grossest thing at school?

Welcome to “inquiry science.”  Yes, “inquiry” is just asking good questions, which is what scientists do anyway, right?  But K-12 science has far too often depended on textbooks that pile on facts, formulae and procedures.

Adam Flynn was Chair of Davies’ Science Department during the years of changes that recently yielded a fat bump in the school’s test scores.  He says, “When I was in school, they’d hand you a procedure.  First you do this, then that.  A trained ape can follow a procedure.  It’s not engaging.”

Instead, “inquiry science” poses a question, and turns the kids loose to figure out how they’re going to find ways to arrive at credible answers.  And when they have data results, how they’ll synthesize the information and present their findings.  Very different animal.

Teaching and learning the habits of “inquiry” became more urgent in 2007 when the statewide science NECAP exam was introduced.  Each year’s test is roughly 60 percent multiple choice, but about 40 percent of the score depends on the students’ abilities to complete an inquiry task.  The test poses a problem, and expects students to hypothesize an answer, describe how they’ll get their data using the tools given to them, and formulate a conclusion.

The initial results statewide were not pretty.

At Davies, by far the weakest domain was inquiry.  “So we made inquiry the lens through which we teach all courses now.”  Flynn talks about the science department’s switch from textbook dependence to backwards design.  It took the form of three questions asked of each science teacher:

1.  What are the desired results?  What, exactly, should students know and be able to do?

2.  How will you assess your teaching so you’re sure the kids got it?

3.  And only lastly, given numbers 1 and 2, what’s the lesson plan?

The faculty started the work by taking stock of what was already in place, conducting a bit of inquiry research of their own:  What standards did each teacher and each course address?  How often?  When addressed, were those standards formally assessed?

“We found we had lots that we were teaching and not assessing.  Again, in teacher prep, we didn’t focus on why you assess.  If it’s Friday, that’s just what you do.  And if the kids don’t pass, oh well, we’ve got to move on.  We realized we needed to become assessors and not activity planners.”

So whole chunks of the curriculum, including some beloved units and projects, were evicted to make room for assessable units that did support desired results.

“Kids are always asking why we need to learn this.  If I have to pause to answer, I’m not engaged.  Better to put it on them by asking why the universe looks the way it does and let them come up with, and own, their answers.”

Flynn asks his juniors:  “Where will the next earthquake strike?”  Some kids find the U.S. Geological Center or other online sources.  Some comb through the news.  They can collect their data however they like, but they have to find hard evidence to back up their prediction.  It’s weird to hope for a disaster, but if an earthquake does strike during that class, it speaks to the predictions.  Kids have a blast with how right some of their answers are.  The experience of having reasoned out a pretty good guess is educationally impressive to students.

Finding the grossest place in the school has similar appeal.

Flynn says, “It really doesn’t matter what the content is, as long as they’re using scientific thinking.  It engages them so much more.  Assignments like that help the kids to practice really good science skills.  And the way we have it designed, they have to do and show their work just like they do on the NECAP test.”

As a vocational school, it’s not uncommon for a majority of Davies’ students to enter the 9th grade reading only at a 6th-grade level.  Science tests are hugely dependent on reading and writing abilities, so for Davies’ students to jump 15 percentage points in a year is no small potatoes.

Flynn has since become Davies’ Supervisor of Academic Instruction.  Wonder why.

Okay, okay, what is the grossest thing at the school?  Answer:  the basketball.  That was a surprise.  Keyboards and mice come in second.  The toilet, a common hypothesis, is one of the cleanest places in school.  Why?  Because — and you knew this one already — it gets cleaned.  So that was a whole different kind of lesson in itself, prompting more inquiry and more interesting answers.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Teachers’ Angry Comments Can Stop Education In Its Tracks

Published by — Dr. Martin Haberman, pioneer of the ‘Star Teacher Interview,’ analyzes teacher attitudes — and hurtful words — toward students.

At the end of Dr. Martin Haberman’s most recent monograph on teaching is a collection of ugly comments made to actual students. He introduces them: “One of the questions which the (teacher-preparation) trainees are asked in the course of their training is the following: ‘Looking back on your own K-12 schooling, has any teacher ever said anything to you that hurt your feelings and that you remember till this day?’ We have never had a single educator who could not remember one or more of these hurtful comments.”

Thereafter follow two dense pages of these cringe-worthy quotes, selected from among the thousands of educators trained by the Haberman Educational Foundation.

“You’ll waste your money in college.”

“You’re not as smart as your sisters.”

“You’ll never amount to much.”

The comments are variations of the abuse secretly videotaped by a special-needs child that went viral recently.

The one I most remember was a teacher in a crowded hallway braying to a seriously overweight, misbehaving teen, “With breasts like that, how can you call yourself a boy?”

Under the right circumstances, such statements will kill a kid’s education then and there.

What’s the difference between the teachers who make such comments and those who wouldn’t dream of it?

Dr. Haberman’s answer: teacher beliefs.

For example, do teachers really believe “All children can learn,” as asserted by district and state websites?

Or do some educators believe, as Haberman puts it, “I can help those who want to learn. I can’t do anything to teach kids who don’t want to learn.”

Some teachers believe kids who “don’t want to learn” need a well-deserved “dose of reality.” Other teachers don’t question their right — even obligation — to fight back when they feel attacked. In any case, such beliefs justify making devastating comments.

From the 1960s, the beginning of his long and distinguished career, Dr. Haberman’s good instincts – and research – zeroed his work in on teacher beliefs as the foundation of teacher effectiveness. He invented the “Star Teacher Interview” that probes the beliefs of would-be teachers on several dimensions, including persisting with tough kids. Research has found the Interview highly predictive of effective teachers. Hundreds of school districts and universities use it faithfully.

The recently published 62-page monograph is aptly named “When Teachers Face Themselves.” It looks through the interesting lens of research about teachers’ relationships to themselves, specifically their beliefs, feelings, and tendency toward defensive reactions.

Bear in mind that all defensive people have gettable goats. They ignite into anger easily and feel victimized. Without thinking, they fight back. Kids LOVE to get adults’ goats.

Haberman states, “The school is, in effect, a judgmental pressure cooker in which all who participate are both victims and generators of anxiety. Unfortunately for students, large numbers of teachers remain in teaching who cannot function under constant pressure.”

While some schools have reached a counter-productive level of stress, Haberman notes, “A reasonable amount of anxiety is helpful for teaching and learning anything.”

However, “Teachers who exceed their tolerance for anxiety demonstrate angry behaviors when they cannot achieve the level of control they feel they need. This engenders angry student responses which in turn fuels the teacher’s anger still further.”

And there you have a retributive cycle that will inevitably undermine learning.

Haberman identifies the four goals of disruptive students: “to get attention, to exert power, to inflict revenge, or to not participate by displaying inadequacy,” aka “feigned helplessness.” Obviously, some students have more than one goal.

So the ability to deal with kids’ provoking behavior involves a combination of teachers’ beliefs – “I know I can reach this kid eventually” – and some classroom management techniques. Haberman is big on asking the kid disarming questions.

“Could it be that you want special attention?” “Could it be that you want to hurt others as much as you feel hurt by them?”

Indeed the monograph mainly consists of illustrative dialogues between rude students and teachers who either escalate the tension or don’t. The dialogues show why problematic reactions to students only make the situation worse. Other dialogues show educators how to de-escalate those same insulting or disruptive situations, without adding their own anger’s fuel to the fire.

Clearly, retributive or insensitive habits must be confronted, broken and re-learned.

If educators don’t face their beliefs and reactions, “they no longer benefit from more experience. Such teachers may claim to have ten, twenty or thirty years of experience. What they really have is one year of experience thirty times. Teacher growth, like student growth, is the result of learning and practicing new behaviors. It is only when learning is at hand that growth appears. … As teachers deepen their self understanding they are less and less likely to demonstrate behaviors which are hurtful to themselves, their students and others.”

Educators, like anyone, have a right to their feelings, whatever they are. But indulging in making negative comments can wreck the potential of precisely the students we most want to reach. We all hate facing ourselves and our flaws. Still, this powerfully destructive adult habit must stop.

In Memorium:

As I was drafting this column, Dr. Haberman died. Such a loss. I will continue to learn from him through his work. Still, new expressions of his commonsensical, practical attitude toward teaching will be sorely missed. May he rest in peace.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.




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Rattled Teachers Renew Confidence, Love of the Craft

Published by — A combination of listening and creating a culture of ownership in a 1st grade class has helped teachers love their job — and make more progress with the kids.

“This is the first year in my teaching career that I didn’t start the year off with a sore throat. This year I talk less and listen much, much more. My kids feel trusted and want to make me happy. With an orderly, natural structure in place, and much better behavior, there’s nothing my kids can’t learn.”

Tasha White’s kids are inner-city first-graders at Fortes Early Learning Center.

This year she’s loving her work. So are her colleagues Julie Slater and Christen Ahern, co-teachers in a first-grade, special-education inclusion class. They all had a nightmarish year last year. But a gifted professor from Rhode Island College, Dr. Martha Horn, gently helped them put the work of learning back onto the kids, where it belongs.

Recently one of Ahern’s kids was trying to shove his fat backpack into his skinny classroom locker. As a special-education teacher, her old impulse was to swoop in and help. “I don’t want kids to struggle. But I wasn’t teaching them anything that way. So I asked what he thought might work. After a moment, he said he needed to take some stuff out of the backpack. Good! Try that.”

She adds, “Now, If they ask a question, I ask one right back. Kid says, ‘How do I spell this word?’ I say, I’m not sure; how would you find out? Kid thinks and says, oh, it’s on the word wall. Good!”

Not only are these teachers’ kids doing their own thinking – what IS the point of school, after all? – but they’ve started to seek out their own answers before bugging the teacher. Kids help one another. Being independent makes them feel smart and capable.

Ahern says, “This year we really enjoy the kids.”

Mind you, these three women had to go nuts first. Which is what goaded them to accepting their principal’s offer of Horn’s help.

To accommodate changing needs at their school, the principal had asked her strongest 4th and 5th-grade teachers to teach 1st grade instead. Okay. No biggie. How hard could the little kids be?

Horribly hard.

Ahern laments, “The kids didn’t know anything! They couldn’t write their names, tie their shoes, be quiet. We were very structured with them. We lined up and had rules and consequences and points for doing the right thing. But all we did all day was put out fires.”

Slater groans, “I was driving myself insane with all the focus on what I had to get THEM to do.” The days often ended with tears.

Education’s conventional mind-set is that the wise teacher stuffs children full of knowledge like little sausages. New teachers rarely learn anything about how to build on children’s strengths, harness their interests, or midwife their best thinking. The paltry instruction they get in classroom management usually focuses on how to control kids into compliance with a big set of rules, so teachers can plow through an ever-growing curriculum. Relying on external controls to discipline kids is exhausting because it needs constant reinforcement.

Horn shows teachers how to help students learn the self-control and self-reliance that allows them to be independent learners.

Horn has a calm, Zen-like presence. Neither judgmental nor prescriptive, she models the value of asking questions and listening hard to the answers. For example, “What do you think of the arrangement of your classroom?”

Pre-Horn, these teachers decorated with posters and learning aides they found attractive. They labeled shelves, areas, lockers and assigned seats. Their rooms were highly controlled, just as they’d been taught.

But the classrooms didn’t belong to the students.

This year, instead, they painted and made bright, but simpler, homey rooms. Kids create any necessary labels, signs and posters. The big, long alphabet poster ubiquitous in every first-grade classroom? Made by kids.
Students named the learning centers. The writing center is “Marksalot” because, duh, that’s where you make a lot of marks with markers.

Teachers say, “If someone is rolling on the rug, can you do your best work? If not, what should we do?” It’s no longer the teacher’s problem, but the class’s. There’s no designated time-out spot. A disruptive child needs to figure out where to pull herself together. She chooses.

When teachers say, “Does anyone notice anything?” kids look around and might see straws left on the floor after snack. It’s their classroom to use properly. Without being asked, kids wipe down tables, pick up trash, push the chairs in. They hear the question, do the thinking, and respond.

White says, “Everyone in my building tells me my class is sooo smart. But I administered the DIBELS (a reading-readiness assessment) and most of my class was in the red (seriously at risk). Until you ask them to think, you don’t know what the kids can do. Being present and a listener is about reading your audience. I can tell when I’m losing them. I listen to get them back. This listening has change life, with my own children and as friend and a wife.”

Julie Slater says “The help I’ve been getting from Martha has been an investment in me as a teacher, and that helps me invest in the children. Now I’m a learner.”

These teachers’ enthusiasm is infectious. Their adaptations of Horn’s techniques give me hope that the profession can become more effective and fun for everyone involved.

Education at all levels needs lots more listening.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at

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