How #FightHotCheetos Became a Thing

How #FightHotCheetos Became a Thing

Often the best way to address real challenges our students face, is to offer better, more intriguing alternatives.

This is how #FightHotCheetos became a thing at our middle school.

We know that obesity occurs at alarming rates in our youth populations. Nationwide, 17% of children and teens are obese (12.7 million students). On top of this, students in urban contexts are disparitly affected. More specifically, students who are Hispanic, non-Hispanic black, from low-income or less educated households are far more likely to become obese (CDC). Students attending my school, in particular, live in a “food desert.” Food detrimental to their health and well-being is offered on nearly every corner of the block.  But organic fruits and vegetables are neighborhoods away. Knowledge about how to work them into an everyday diet, might even be further away.


What we eat affects how we learn.

We know that what students eat affects the way they feel, how much they are motivated, and what they learn. In response to this reality, our school moved to serve breakfast in the classroom.  Our district even worked to improve nutritional offerings during the lunch time hour.


But it wasn’t enough.

The discolored fingertips, lethargic bodies, and neon-red post-run throw up (don’t ask to see the photo!) told us that we needed an intervention. Kids were still making poor food choices. So Ms. Burns and I took up the fight. But we didn’t take Hot Cheetos on directly. No, we were smarter than that. For an entire school year, we worked to present students with ‘delicious but nutritious’ alternative options every Tuesday.


We called it “Try it Out Tuesday.”

And kids ate it up! A majority of students proved brave enough to try on new tastes, new flavors. New fruits. New vegetables.


From dried mangoes to broccolini, from seaweed to tangelos, sparkling water to air-popped popcorn, students tried it all.


Their reactions were priceless.


Their palate increased.


Their consciousness around ingesting lab-created quasi-food (Hot Cheetos) heightened. The pictures tell our story well.


What out-of-the-box efforts are you seeing educators make to meet critical needs of their students?

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off:  Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off: Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Bluuuooop! Bluuuuoooop! Bluuuuuooooop!

One moment I was teaching, pointing out brilliant uses of figurative language in literature. The next moment, I was flustered, confused about the piercing noises. Once I remembered that the fire alarm was indeed scheduled to occur, I was able to locate the emergency backpack, line students up, and get them to their designated safety location.

By the time I got students back into our room, the class’ limitations became apparent. Learning for that period was over. Soon enough, the passing bell rang, desks were straightened, and students filed out.

Fire drills occur roughly once a month in schools across America. But what would it be like if these were daily occurrences at our schools? What if alarms sounded multiple times throughout your school day, often without warning? Would you switch schools? Would you contemplate a career change? At what point would you deem it intolerable?

This is, in fact, how many of our students experience learning in our classrooms. Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma. These early life experiences, some of them in-utero, have fundamentally changed their brain make-up and wiring. Working with these children, educators and leaders must work to recognize the look and sound of these alarms. We should also work to understand what sets them off, wherever this is possible.

Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma.


What Happens in the Brain
Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, in The Whole-Brain Child describe two floors of our brains. The “downstairs” brain is formed at birth and functions for the purposes of survival. The “upstairs” brain isn’t fully formed until the age of twenty-one and is where thinking, decision making, emotional control, empathy, self-understanding, and morality happen. Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.

The amygdala, an almond-sized part of the downstairs brain, is a key player in the limbic system. It functions as a watchdog, sensing possible danger and quickly alerting the body to either fight, run away or freeze. The amygdala pulls the fire alarm of the brain and effectively cuts off the upstairs brain. While this function is critical for human survival, it happens all too frequently for children who have experienced trauma in their lives.

Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.


Impact on Learning
In our classrooms, hardly noticeable interactions or even environmental factors, set off alarms in the bodies of children. Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time. In the words of Siegel and Payne Bryson, “…not only is the upstairs under construction, but even the part of it that can function becomes inaccessible during moments of high emotion or stress.” It’s helpful for us to remember that this shift is often outside the control of our students. They are often stressed, anxious and dysregulated for reasons that even they are unaware of.

Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time.


Recognition is Key
If we, as educators and leaders, acknowledge that this dynamic is occurring frequently, for students we serve, then we are closer to supporting them. When we recognize fight, flight or freeze responses in our students, we know that self regulation is needed before deep learning can happen.  And if we recognize that, “….kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have,” then we are that much closer to increasing learning for our kids!

“Kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.”

Image by Jim Nix via Flickr.
Beyond Required Reading:  “Between the World and Me”

Beyond Required Reading: “Between the World and Me”

Toni Morrison calls it required reading.  For school leaders, especially those of us in urban settings, I’d even go further.  For the leader, pushing themselves towards cultural competence, I’d go further than that.  And for those of us raising black sons in America, I’d go further still.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is beyond required reading.   Here’s why:

  1. Your limited perspective will grow.  Chances are, African American students and families are among the diverse population you serve. And like me, perhaps you aren’t African American.  So you are limited in your perspective. Perhaps you never had to navigate mean streets and urban schools.  I didn’t.  But this is where I gladly live and lead now.  Comparing both spaces, Coates shares, “I suffered at the hands of of both [streets and schools] but I resent the schools more.” How could this be? Read on.
  2. You’ll get a nuanced, passionate, unbridled perspective of a black parent.  One reason the book is so compelling, is because it is a letter written by Coates, to his son.  The worries and convictions and conclusions he shares approximate those of parents we likely know and respect. He is adamant, for example, that, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. [They] are all we have, and they come to us endangered” (82).  He also goes on to share that black parents, “tell their black boys and black girls to be ‘twice as good’ which is to say, ‘accept half as much'”(90).  I recoil when Coates shares with his son, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels” (107).  While this shouldn’t be, it probably is. And while Coates is one of 40 million black voices in our country*, we, as educators, should still take pause.
  3. You’ll wonder if our structures are too restrictive.  Perhaps our educational structures and approaches are too inflexible and impersonal.  We, myself included, expect our students to behave and fit into our school cultures.  Sure, we prioritize their learning. But many of our students struggle with being quiet, staying glued to their seats, and being led through pre-scripted learning activities. Coates interpreted his K-12 journey the following way,  “To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly.”  He shares, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity.  They were concerned with compliance”(26). We have to wonder how many bright lights are being dimmed by worksheets and uniform classroom expectations.
  4. You’ll be reminded that establishing relevance for learning is critical.  As educators, we have a duty to answer the “why” for our students.  One of my professors, Dr. Douglas Fisher, calls it a justice issue. Students have a right to know why they are learning what they are learning because we will stand in judgement of them down the road. Coates shares a frustration about disconnection between learning and relevance.  “I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea of why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would” (26).  What would our classrooms look like if all students were convinced that their learning had future relevance?
  5. You’ll witness how a thirst to learn can transform a man.   While Coates plodded through his early education, his college experience proved transformational.  At Howard University, which he affectionately calls the Mecca, “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.” Burning questions pushed Coates well beyond required reading.  Writers and thinkers throughout the ages confirmed some beliefs and debunked others. They incited further questioning.  His thirst to learn is clear in the statement, “I was made for the library, not the classroom.”  What if this thirst to learn were adequately engaged in his early educational experience?
  6. You will be a better, more culturally competent, leader.  Cultural competence is a non-negotiable for urban school leaders today.  We lead students and families with unique histories, stories, passions and wounds.  Between the World and Me reminds us that realizing student achievement and meaningfully engaging parents will take a whole lot more than freshly published curriculum and morning ‘Coffee with the Principal’ meetings.  We’re going to have to spend time with families, listen well, and sit with their critiques.  A good start may be to assent that many families, many kids are ‘up against’ more. We should honor student interests, fan the flames of their curiosity, and push for more flexible school structures.  If we dare to make some drastic changes, we are more likely to end up with more brilliant minds, like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

*Statistic cited by Eugene Robinson on Morning Joe on 2/13/2016.

Trauma Took Me to School

Trauma Took Me to School

Raising Traumatized Minds
I didn’t set out to become an expert on childhood trauma. But I did choose to adopt. And this journey, taken together with my wife and children, has led me into deep, deep waters. I’ll be more clear:  Trauma took me to school.

Like all parents, I want the absolute best for my kids. I want to see them thrive. As a loving father, I am charged with guiding and teaching and supporting my kids. For our family, this has required far more than rides to soccer, help on homework and a balanced diet.

Because our children experienced significant, nay horrific, childhood trauma, our supportive efforts look much different. In addition to soccer practice, we’ve kept regular attachment therapy a priority. Along with annual well check-ups at the doctor, we’ve spent time with neuroscientists, interpreting brain maps. In addition to Fruity Pebble multi-vitamins, we’ve had to monitor psychotropic medication. And alongside teaching respect for elders, we’ve worked hard to give our kids skills for self-regulation.

In my own home:

  • My learning around this trauma and kids has approximated graduate level action-research.
  • My kids have functioned as master teachers.
  • Evenings of reading books about childhood trauma and attachment and brain functioning, have felt like cramming for finals.
  • Office hours with clinicians. therapists, and residential treatment staff have given our family hope, and taken us to school.

Impact on Teaching and Learning
And now, I bring this earned perspective and developing expertise to the world of education. Here, scores of children and families face similar challenges. The effects of trauma aren’t isolated to a child’s home experience, of course. Our kids, not just those fostered and adopted, bring trauma into our classrooms.

In fact, two million youth in our country are abused and neglected in our country each year. 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffer from mental illness. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, calls trauma, our most urgent public health issue.

Here’s how it plays out: We know (via the Ace study) that early abuse and neglect disrupts healthy functioning of the physiological systems. It ends up ravaging the physical and mental health of young people. It cripples their ability to function well socially. And it rewires the brain, seriously impairing areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. With only limited capacity to stay self-regulated, learning in our classrooms suffer.

But van der Kolk reminds us that, “…we [now] have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively” (358).

The Charge
As educators, we have a responsibility to be trauma-informed. Beyond being informed, I believe that our school communities should be trauma-equipped. That is, we should employ practices, that we know to be effective, with kids who have faced early life trauma.

In the words of van der Kolk, “The greatest hope for traumatized, abused, and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves, and where they can develop a sense of agency” (353).

I want to play a role in helping learning communities like mine accept the challenge to be #trauma-equipped. Will you join me on this journey of preparation and understanding?


Photo by Ian Burt via Flickr.

Getting ‘Set Up’ with a Co-Teacher

Getting ‘Set Up’ with a Co-Teacher

Co-teaching can feel a bit like an arranged marriage at first.
Administrators (like parents) set you up. The partnership is purposeful in nature, namely to support students.  And…it has to work.

He burst into my door, right along with the kids, shortly before the first school bell of the new school year. “You and I are going to be working together this year,” he stated matter-of-factly, hand stretched out to shake. It wasn’t a choice.  Without warning.  Without a runway.  Without fanfare.

Just like that…we became an instructional couple. 

In an honest moment, I knew this was a good thing for my students. I needed the help desperately. Thirteen, of thirty students on my roster, had special needs and formal Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  This ratio (43%) of students with special needs in a single class, is high by any standard (I’ve since learned that 33% is the upper threshold in our district). Students deserve quality support. To deliver for them, I had to get over some relational awkwardness, territorial tendencies, and inexperience, real fast.

As the lead teacher of record, I had a whole new set of questions to answer in the coming days.

How could this look in our classroom?  Multiple models exist for support of students with special needs in the general education classroom. The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, highlights five models. Each has its own benefits and challenges associated with it.

  • Team Teaching is a model where teachers share the instructional role, playing off one another in real time.
  • In a One Teach/ One Support model, one of the teachers leads instruction, while the other teacher supports students who need additional help, gathers data, or assists in the management of the classroom.
  • Parallel Teaching happens when a classroom is split into two and both teachers are teaching the same lessons in different parts of the classroom.
  • Station Teaching features both teachers, working in small groups of children who rotate.
  • In an Alternative Teaching format, one teacher works with students in a small group while the other teacher leads whole class instruction. The small group of students in this case are engaged in either remediation or enrichment.

How/ when will we communicate best?
It seems obvious that having a shared prep period would be most advantageous, allowing co-teachers to plan, assess, and reflect together. In a short exchange, we realized that our prep periods do not line up. Big bummer.

How much co-planning will precede the co-teaching?
Since we do not share a prep period, we will need to collaborate before or after school. While effective teachers assume that work exists outside contract hours, some teachers resist collaboration outside traditional school hours. Administrators cannot, by contract, demand it. Uh-oh.

How are other teachers collaborating in a way that maximizes student benefit?
I made a beeline to the most experienced and effective teacher on campus, during my lunch. “You’ve worked with this teacher before. What approach do you guys take in your Math class? What is working for you?” This conversation was helpful, for sure.

But I still had other questions, like:

  • How will I get to know this teacher?
  • Is the co-teacher highly qualified in my content area?
  • What strengths does this teacher come to our classroom with?
  • What will I need to just “get over?”

As an aspiring school leader, I have an additional question that should be answered well.
How can administrators facilitate the cooperation of co-teachers on their campuses?

I intend to take my best shot at this in my next post.

What are your experiences setting up and supporting co-teachers?


Image by Scott Webb via Unsplash.

Getting Schooled on Differentiated Instruction

Getting Schooled on Differentiated Instruction

Today I got schooled on differentiated teaching and learning.
By the end of the day, I realized that I have been doing it all along…in parenting.

Each of my children, all adopted, arrived in our family with profound strengths. But they also arrived with specific needs for support. Additionally, they have preferences and interests, which make parenting them fell less like arithmetic, and more like a Science experiment. In a word, they are diverse.

My wife and I have been differentiating now for years.

Just so we can enjoy dinner as a family, one of our children needs a sensory chair and limited opportunities to speak, so others have oxygen to breathe. Another child needs evenly portioned amounts of food and language prompts so that he will share in conversation.
We have even learned to differentiate the kinds of birthdays we throw for our kids. One child thrives with a large gathering, even if cupcakes are the only special treat served. Another child enjoys a celebration with a few friends, a lot of laughs, and a gigantic cake.

We have the same general hopes and expectations for our kids in these arenas. We want them to connect with family and receive nourishment at dinner. On a birthday, we want children to feel loved and celebrated. But we get there different ways.

This, I learned today, points to the essence and need for differentiation in education.

Today I got schooled on differentiated teaching and learning.
By the end of the day, I realized that I have been doing it all along…at school too!

After some reflection, I realize that I differentiate when I clearly communicate what students “must do” as well as what students “may do.” Where a particular student needs more of a challenge, they are encouraged to move on to “may do” extension activities, like adding content to their learning blogs or additional research.

Teaching Physical Education, I differentiate by offering multiple ways students can demonstrate aerobic capacity. Some students are able to reach competency, via the Pacer test, while others succeed in a mile-distance run. In English instruction, I purposefully differentiate when I plan lessons with a healthy mix of whole class, small group, and independent settings.

Trying to ease the potential anxiety of educators in the room, Paula Rutherford reminded us that there are many ways we differentiate each day. In fact, she exclaimed with some levity, “You can differentiate in your classrooms without losing your life!” But our students will benefit at increased levels if we have more mastery and awareness of strategies used to differentiate instruction. “Know that you are doing it so that you can be more purposeful about it,” she encouraged.

In Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners, Rutherford communicates that differentiation is not about adjusting expectations of students. To the contrary, all students can learn, including those who have historically performed at low levels.

Differentiating effectively means that we think proactively about our diverse students and, from the beginning plan and teach lessons which include more than one avenue for success.


Image by nathanmac87 via Flickr