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GO PUBLIC Film Offers Inside View of Schools

March 4, 2014

GO PUBLIC offers an authentic fly-on-the-wall perspective of a public school district that every voter needs to see. This fresh and recent documentary film gives the viewer a frank, and sometimes painful, look inside the lives of the people in Pasadena Unified Schools – and it’s a long shot from the tree-lined lawns of the famous Craftsman neighborhoods we know from Rose Parade week. This is the nitty-gritty of public school life. The focus on quality, real quality, from everyone at school, is a heartening lesson for any viewers, voters, district decision-makers and educators. Could every school district, every classroom, every office, withstand this kind of exposure? Could our own ethics pass the documentary film test?

Watching GO PUBLIC takes you through the sisyphean day (May 8, 2012) of a public school professional. It begins sweetly enough, with glimpses of parents gently waking their kids, teens shuffling to the bathroom, a principal girding himself with black coffee while he talks about all the testing in the day ahead, and the challenges of managing “one more thing.” It’s gratifying to get to spend time with the “others” at a school: the tattooed mom in the parent center, the librarian, the janitor, and best of all, the campus security guy who chases down truants and “those kids” who seem to have out-of-the-classroom priorities. There is no narrator; you hear the stories from the people whose lives are shown. The film is a 90-minute documentary built from 50 short films that you can see on the GO PUBLIC website. The directors are brilliant at showing the essence of both educators’ and students’ lives.

There’s the expected stuff, but then we begin to notice all the hands-on learning going on, all the extra things that make school better than surfing the net, such as ceramics and yoga and music, brought to you through the dedication and grit of the adults and educators in PUSD. Just when we’re winding down for the happy ending, school kicks into its second shift. The hard-case security guy morphs into the choir and band sponsor, the principal swigs the same black coffee (cold now) while heading to the varsity baseball game and the literature teacher becomes acting coach, producer and director of the next school play. And then just as you’re really ready to call it a day, everyone goes to the school board meeting where union speaks to management and tries to preserve as much as possible in the face of budget cuts. (My favorite person in this segment is the only Latino school board member, whose short documentary on the GO PUBLIC website reveals an activist side. My hero.) Even after that, the baseball coach is still reviewing stats while his wife tries to get him to stop, just stop! being at school. At the end of the film, we discover that many of our favorite individuals will be gone due to budget cuts, and that should generate a feeling of loss if our moral compass is properly set. We are emotionally and physically exhausted. And that’s just one day. Probably not even a Friday.

Two things need to be said about GO PUBLIC, two lessons in it for the rest of us. First, could every facet of our work withstand this kind of exposure? If not, why not? What needs to change, and who would be the change agents? Second, we are looking at a public school district in the middle of affluence. Why are they struggling to keep the library open? Shouldn’t people with enough pocket money to fund the librarian’s position be doing it? The PUSD superintendent spoke to the audience after the January 2014 screening in Pasadena, along with the filmmakers, the foundation president, and two of the 50 featured people, teachers at local schools. This is a microcosm of the situation of public schools like mine, fighting to ensure equitable distribution of Prop 30 funds to high-needs schools. Jon Gundry, the PUSD Superintendent, was very frank about answering questions about the divisions in places like LAUSD – I won’t share his heartfelt comments except to say that Gundry totally gets it. He gets the need for his district to cooperate with the Pasadena teachers’ union in order to wring out the best possible education and support for his school community.

The educators also get it, which addresses the first lesson of GO PUBLIC – every classroom, every office in the district, should offer effective, if not exemplary, models of professionalism. But it takes money, which is the second lesson. As long as we’re funding things other than site support, we’re selling our kids short. This goes for iPads, random reforms and cursory reorganizations or closures of public schools.

Go see GO PUBLIC, and take a voting citizen with you. The GO PUBLIC March screenings calendar is full of Southern California opportunities. The film eloquently makes the point that public education is critical, its quality, and it’s worth the little bit of interest, protection and action from everyone who wants to live in a democratic society.

Teachers as Trustees, Part 2

March 3, 2014


InterACT Guest Blog Post by Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

InterACT features many blog posts on the topic of teacher leadership, but very few teachers are able to view the field from the perspective of elected office – especially one held concurrently with their teaching position. This guest blog post is number two in a series of three. The prior installment in this InterACT series was written by Christopher Chiang, and Part 3 is coming soon!

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

This post comes to us from Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, an elementary teacher in the Folsom-Cordova School District and a school board trustee in her home district, Washington Unified School District, in West Sacramento. She wrote this guest post for InterACT, and was also featured recently in California Educator. (By the way, that link features information about several other teachers on school boards). 

Like many educators, I have been baffled by some education policy put in place by people who clearly don’t have an understanding of how things will play out in the day-to-day workings of a classroom. In frustration, I explored ways to be a teacher leader and set long-term goals.

Last year I found a special election for school board would be happening in my town, and the mayor was holding an information session. I didn’t think it was my time, but went to the meeting for more information and to show my interest. According to Emerge California’s website, “women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office and are less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.” It took me sitting in that room and looking at the other potential candidates to realize I was absolutely qualified to run for school board, now. When I heard that someone who worked at Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First, was running and would probably be the mayor’s candidate it only motivated me further. There was absolutely no way I wanted my daughter, or any child, in a district where questionable philosophies of folks in “edreform” were making their way into local policy decisions. Running for school board was a lot of work; in the end I was outspent 2:1. However, the hard work paid off and we won every precinct, despite the odds. I found voters were eager to support a teacher, and intuitively understood the importance of a teacher’s voice in this role.

Teachers have a unique perspective on the school board. We know what high-quality professional development looks like, and what it’s like to have our time wasted sitting in subpar training. Working with educators in other districts as well as throughout the state gives us a sense of the big picture and keeps us connected to what others are doing. We also know that the impact on student learning is our highest priority, and that good teaching and learning can look messy. I draw on these experiences and knowledge when making decisions, and there have been a number of times I’ve felt my perspective as an educator has made a difference on the outcome of board votes.

A single board member cannot make change – there needs to be a majority of votes to get anything accomplished. Since it’s a violation of the Brown Act to talk with more than one member outside of the board room about a particular issue, you have to make your case in the board room and persuade people who may not see the world the way you do. This job is much easier when you have colleagues who come to the table with an open mind, and this is why it’s so critical that teachers play a part in the process and help get board members elected.

Being on school board has carried over into my life as a teacher. I know there have been times I complained of policy, but never reached out to those making it. When we fail to communicate our concerns with board members, we can’t blame them for not understanding the issues before they vote.  Educators also need to look at the big picture, and fight for lasting change, not simply the school-year calendar or other topics that don’t have much bearing in the scheme of things. Not only do we need to reach out to board members when we have concerns and issues, but also when things are going well. If they recently approved a new position or program and great things are happening as a result, let them know! They need to hear from us.

I’ll end with a plea to those of you who teach in different cities from where you live. Conflict-of-interest laws prohibit teachers from serving in the districts where they work. If you live elsewhere, consider running for school board. You can make a difference, and your voice is needed.


Few Great Picks Among Teacher Movies

March 1, 2014

Over at Edutopia, there’s a discussion brewing about which film would deserve the Oscar for Best Teacher Movie. The conversation spilled over to Twitter a bit as well. Some of the movies are more broadly about education, not just teaching, of course. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of any of the leading contenders – at least, not if we think of them as teaching or education movies. Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips seem to lead the pack among purely fictional stories, while Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds are the based-on-a-true-story leading contenders.

Some of these are fine films, dramatic and compelling, well-written and full of good performances. But looking at them as teacher movies, only Mr. Chips leaves me with an unambiguously positive feeling. (I haven’t seen Dangerous Minds). The other movies show passionate teachers, but their passion becomes the centerpiece of the story; that might make for good narrative, but it doesn’t capture what I love about teaching or would want other to understand about good teaching. There’s also a significant cost – teachers sacrificing health, family time, jobs and marriages.

When it’s fictional, or a dramatized version of real life, it’s easy for viewers to shake their heads about the downsides and celebrate the good. In reality, the burnout and familial discord have lasting effects not only the individual but also on the future students.

Coincidentally, I just received an email from someone seeking a recommendation for a good education documentary for use in a public event. This person had read my negative review of “TEACHED” - which is actually a series of short films. (See also, follow-up with Kelly Amis, director of those films). This person wondered what I thought would be a better option. So, here are a few notes about some education documentaries that might be worth a look.

American Teacher - a documentary film that grew out of the Teacher Salary Project, American Teacher follows four teachers and documents their lives in and out of the classroom. The broader argument of the film has to do with the working conditions and salaries of teachers, and how challenging it is to remain in the profession. I had the pleasure of viewing the film as part of an event I helped plan at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. I wrote a blog post that includes some pictures from that event, along with my approximation of improvised remarks I made at the end.

Mitchell 20 – this documentary focuses on National Board Certification as a school improvement strategy. That might sound a bit narrow or “wonky” but the film really does a fine job of capturing the promise and the challenges of certification as they played out in Mitchell Elementary School in Arizona. While the film is decidedly pro-certification, I think what distinguishes this type of advocacy from something like TEACHED is the commitment to documenting the challenges and dealing honestly with imperfections, rather than simply pushing an agenda through implications and distortions. (Although, unfortunately, their website includes a tagline that reads “Teacher quality is the answer” – and while the question is unstated, any kind of oversimplification like that bugs me a bit). Again – I have a blog post on this film if you want more information.

Teach – CBS made this film last year, directed by Davis Guggenheim, returning to education with a film less antagonistic than Waiting for Superman. I can’t give it a hearty endorsement, (especially with part of it serving as an embedded promotion of Khan Academy), but there might be enough good in it that you could get into some conversation about the current state of teaching. Yes… blogged.

I’d love to hear your reactions about these or other movies in comments below.

Relating to Students, and Staff

February 27, 2014

I dropped in to the English Companion Ning last night – something I used to do more often and realized I was missing. It’s a thriving online community of English teachers from all over the country, created almost five years ago by über-English-teacher Jim Burke. (I think I was one of the people who signed up in the first couple days of its existence). By random chance I read a post from a pre-service teacher trying to connect with a class of second-semester seniors. I decided to offer a little support, and before I knew it, had composed some thoughts about relating with students that I realized might make a good blog post. I realized I don’t write many blog posts that are strictly about classroom practice – but then I also realized that my advice to this pre-service teacher is similar to advice I’d offer to a school leader trying to work effectively with a teaching staff. Post a comment at the end and let me know if you agree.

Here’s what I wrote on the English Companion (with minor edits).


Hello! Sounds like a challenging situation! You hit on one key point on your own: it takes time for relationships to develop. You seem to understand where seniors are at in life, and why this teaching placement will be a challenge. I would suggest focusing even more on them, and on the curriculum, and less on the idea of students having an interest in getting to know you. Not to suggest they shouldn’t get to know you, but let it happen on its own rather than as an intended focus.

You didn’t mention what type of class it is, or if you have any input regarding the curriculum. I’m guessing there’s only so much you can do coming into a class in late February. However, I’d suggest focusing as much as possible on essential questions and themes that might speak to where your students are in life right now – transitions, independence. You might also look for some opportunity to engage around social issues they’re confronting or will soon.

Dan Pink

Dan Pink, addressing the NBPTS Conference in July, 2011 (photo by the author)

One last thought regarding motivation – try to find a copy of Dan Pink’s book Drive, or read some detailed reviews of it. I’ve never met an educator who didn’t find it useful. In a nutshell, the book demonstrates that people are generally most motivated and successful when they are in situations that offer three key conditions:

  1. autonomy
  2. mastery
  3. purpose

What does that mean? Give students as much autonomy as possible. If you are required to use certain texts, see if you can give them autonomy over assessments, projects, extending texts, etc. If you are required to use certain assessments, see if you can allow more autonomy over content. Or autonomy over groups (if appropriate), or autonomy regarding timelines. People are motivated when they’ve had a say in what they’re doing.

Mastery is motivating because for the most part, people want to be successful at meeting challenges. For seniors, fewer assignments/assessments with elevated expectations for mastery would be appropriate anyways. Raise the bar a bit, and offer everything you can to help them reach it. (And remember, if you can put some autonomy in the mix regarding what to master, how, when… so much the better).

Purpose is tricky, but important – especially at the end of senior year! What’s the point? Why do this work? You have to draw that out of the students. Is college preparation a satisfactory purpose? You might think so, but probably not, for many of them; they’ve been in that mode for a long time, and there’s not much you’re likely to impart that hasn’t been covered already in some form. Is there a purpose that’s personal, relevant, and still fresh or new? Perhaps more community-oriented? A social issue or cause, a chance to bring attention to something important? For students who don’t find the coursework inherently purposeful, attaching it to something that matters might help. But be careful – don’t confuse interesting and important work with effective work. The purpose that engages the students might be different from your purpose, so don’t forget that whatever you come up with must still meet the appropriate educational goals for your students.

Okay – one more last thought on motivation: it’s not something you can give students, or do for them. Our job is, in the words of another über-teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, helping students motivate themselves.

I wouldn’t suggest trying to do this all on your own. Have some discussions with colleagues, supervisors, and peers. And draw as much as you can from the students themselves. Establish the parameters that are least negotiable, and then work with them to fill in everything else. Hopefully you have good support at the site. Once there’s a clear picture of what’s necessary, try as much as possible to say yes to their suggestions in other areas.

Come to think of it, this advice might apply to school leaders as well – so feel free to “manage up” and share this!

Blogging and Tweeting and Edcamp – Oh My!

February 25, 2014

My most recent post was looking ahead to Edcamp Silicon Valley, which we pulled off a few days ago now. I’m still kind of processing and decompressing, and hoping to gather my thoughts for a blog post about the experience of organizing and edcamp and bringing it to fruition. I also want to share more information about the level of support we garnered from our local teachers associations, and how we attracted a little bit of media coverage as well (14 minutes into this radio newscast).

But for today, I’m going to highlight a couple #edcampsv summaries and reactions that made it online ahead of mine. For starters, please read this post by my colleague Christina Nosek, a fifth grade teacher in my district and fellow edcamp organizer.


In a succinct blog post, Chris manages to recap what has happened in the past couple years since “I decided to finally take professional development into my own hands.” Her examples and reflections capture where I think many teachers are right now in a shifting professional landscape. And more teachers need to move in this direction. Our schools, districts, teachers associations and policy makers need to recognize new realities about how we pursue professional learning and what it does to improve teaching.

Enough from me – please read the post on Chris’s blog!

Another good blog post on Edcamp Silicon Valley comes from Edcamp veteran Craig Yen – read his post to see how many edcamps it takes to be a veteran, and his thoughts on face-to-face interaction with people we mostly “see” online.


Edcamp Silicon Valley Tomorrow

February 21, 2014

After several months of planning, the first ever Edcamp Silicon Valley is only hours away. I’ve been working with a wonderful organizing team made up of colleagues from within my school and district. Maybe it was a bit of a reach for us to think we could pull this off without much collective edcamp experience, (and no prior edcamp planning experience), but it looks like we’re in good shape for Saturday – getting by with a little help from our friends!


Palo Alto High School (photo by the author)

I suppose every edcamp is a little bit different, and here’s some information about our plans, in case you’re coming, or interested in running your own edcamp. We’ll be at the Palo Alto High School library, and starting a little bit later than some edcamps, with a 9:00 a.m. arrival, with time for a light breakfast, networking, swag-browsing, and suggesting sessions. Some edcamps go with a voting process to allow the attendees to select the topics with the highest interest level. Others take all suggestions and look for ways to combine topics so that everyone has a chance to help lead. We are going with the latter approach. With the first session starting at 10 a.m., we’ll have time for two before lunch. At lunchtime, we’re suggesting that edcampers head across the street from Palo Alto High School, where the Town and Country shopping center has a multitude of good lunch options. After lunch, we’ll have one more session, and then reconvene in the library for the “eduslam” where participants share their best or favorite resources and tips in a rapid review format. Finally, we have a raffle to thank our guests for coming and participating.

One feature about our edcamp that I’m particularly proud of is that we are sponsored by several local teachers associations, and we had some help from the California Teachers Association as well. CTA Vice-President Eric Heins is also scheduled to stop by and say hello. At the risk of generalizing, it seems to me that many of the edcamp enthusiasts I know have less interest in union activity, and many of the teachers I know who are more active in unions are less knowledgeable about edcamps or other newish forms of networking and professional learning. The union leaders I talked to, however, were anxious to support teachers interested in connecting and learning. Hopefully the innovative and actively networking teachers at Edcamp Silicon Valley will consider the possibility that our associations have more of a role to play in our professional development in a variety of ways, and will engage with unions to explore new possibilities. Hopefully, our association members and leaders who are now learning about edcamp will continue to support the idea, and future iterations of it; the potential benefits to our associations and our profession are self-evident, as we promote teacher connectedness and new modes of working that expand our capacity for learning and leading.

Follow the event on Twitter:

@EdCampSV and #edcampsv

EdCampSV organizers:

David Cohen, @cohend
Roni Habib, @Roni_Habib
Kirk Hinton, @kirk_hinton
Smita Kolhatkar, @SKolhatkar
Ellen Kraska, @KraskaE
Matt Lindner, @TheMrMLindner
Christina Nosek, @ChristinaNosek
[edit 2/21/14 - minor clarification at end of 2nd paragraph]

InterACT: Photography

February 19, 2014

The focus of this blog is the intersection of education practice and policy, and the amplification of teacher leadership to improve education. However, one of the most enjoyable parts of blogging is that it also provides and outlet for some of my photography. I try to use my own photos as much as possible in blog posts, and every time you visit a page on this site, the banner across the top shows one of my pictures cropped to fit into that format. (Actually, a couple of the pictures were taken with the blog banner in mind). Below is a collage of some of my favorite pictures relating in some way to schools and education, or maybe learning more broadly (i.e., kids having fun!). There are also a couple pictures here that I’ve previously used on the blog to capture something more California, but not necessarily educational, and one that’s none-of-the-above, but I took the picture during a trip to an education event so it sits in the same folder on my computer.


All photos by David B. Cohen. All rights reserved.


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