My Brain Won’t Write What I Think

My brain won’t write what I think.”, Alex said to me at our first counseling session.  The 4th grade boy did well with math in school and was a good reader, but struggled with writing tasks, particularly those in social studies. His class was learning how to answer Data Based Questions (DBQ’s), a form of constructed response question students would face on state assessments starting at 4th grade.  The stakes were high, and his teacher felt Alex ‘could do it’ based on his class participation and his oral responses in discussion with her.  She would work with him discussing the questions, and he would come up with great answers orally.  She would move on to help other kids telling him, ‘Ok just write down what we talked about’. Ten minutes later, he would have but one sentence written, often a simple rephrasing of the question.  She assumed he was goofing off. Instead, Alex struggled with linguistic intelligence. Hearing and writing might be wired together for most of us, but not for Alex.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 8.58.52 AMHoward Gardner’s 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, described intelligence as a composite of eight intelligences: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Alex’s brain simply didn’t work like other kids’ when it came to writing, or verbal-linguistic intelligence, and he was as frustrated as his parents and teachers. Alex was motivated, social with classmates, and hardworking, but just couldn’t put the words and sentences in his mind on paper.

Alex required targeted interventions to strengthen the neural pathways associated with writing. Much like a muscle when exercised regularly, Alex’s brain required specific exercises that would make writing more automatic and seamless, consuming less valuable working memory and energy in the process. The boy also needed a safe environment free of stress or anxiety associated with writing tasks. It is the system activation or arousal which humans experiences as stress and/or anxiety that impairs the ability to focus on the task – in Alex’s case, writing. For children, and adults, the outcome is task avoidance. Hence the ‘he won’t try’ refrain or blaming the victim for doing what the brain tells you to do in anxiety provoking situations – get the hell out of there.

Fortunately for Alex, he had a caring and able teacher, loving parents, and a competent psychologist. His teacher collected data to document his needs, his parents supported their son and the school through the entire process of remediation, and his psychologist understood Gardner’s theory and the deleterious impacts of stress on brain plasticity and neural pathway development. The supportive environment provided in school and home helped Alex process his unique challenges that could otherwise have spiraled into a full-blown fight or flight case of learner helplessness. Alex would become more proficient at DBQ’s and writing, though his strengths would remain in math and other academic areas. Over time, his writing would no longer be problematic as his other intelligences thrived.



  • Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: BasicBooks.


Professional Teaching Standards To Live By

Don’t smile till after Thanksgiving.”, “Turn the lights off if the kids get out of control.”, and “The text book publisher’s teacher’s guide has everything you need.” were but a few of the many suggestions the Unorthodox Teacher received from peers and veterans during his first few months (and years) of teaching. Though he had a state syllabus to guide him on the required content of his classes, he lacked the pedagogical frameworks that would shed light on best practices. In 1987, things fortunately changed with the founding of The National Board for Professional Standards (NBPTS).  And even though Madeline Hunter was doing significant work around Effective Teaching Models, and despite Charlotte Danielson’s release of her Frameworks for Effective Teaching a decade later, the Unorthodox Teacher would identify the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as having the greatest impact on his pedagogy and practice.

For those unfamiliar with NBPTS, there are two must-read cornerstone NBPTS products: The Five Core Propositions and The Architecture of Accomplished Teaching. I discovered both in the late 1990s when asked to help a cohort of North Country Teachers pursue National Board Certification, and though I myself moved into administration before I could pursue Board Certification, I did enjoy helping others achieve Certification. The five core propositions are as follows:

  1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
  2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
  4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
  5. Teachers are members of learning communities.

And the Architecture of teaching shows the helical blueprint (think DNA) structure underlying quality teaching:

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Each state may have its own set of teaching standards and certification protocols, but like the Medical profession, National Boards are the linchpin for the teaching profession. For novice teachers or veterans, the Five Core Propositions and Architecture for Accomplished Teaching encapsulate the essence of our profession. For the Unorthodox Teacher, NBPTS clarified standards for best practice to the benefit of his students.


My Teacher is a Russian Communist

“My mom said you are Russian Communist”, commented Audrey, one of the brightest 8th grade students in my physical science class as I handed back the classification of matter quizzes. The unorthodox teacher of Sicilian and Hungarian ancestry smiled and asked, “Why does your mom think that way?”. “It’s because you make us take tests in groups, and we only do as good as the group. And that’s not fair.”  Hmmm. Audrey did have a point, but the unorthodox teacher was innovating, trying something different to engage more reluctant learners. Attempting to break the cliques he saw forming. He guessed the stakes were too high. Lesson learned. No more group tests.Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 9.34.00 AM

An observant teacher will figure early in their career how important grouping is to teaching and learning. One can make or break a lesson, classroom culture, or a student’s self-efficacy by randomly grouping students without rhyme or reason. In my early attempts at grouping strategies, I did have heterogeneous groupings for many activities, including, on occasion, tests. My logic was the less successful students were underperforming, and putting them in a mixed abilities group would inspire them to work harder. The high-end student had more at stake, and would work doubly hard to do well and to motivate their group members. I found the end results to be mixed, and nixed that group testing strategy (after the communist comment) in lieu of other, less high stakes ones.

There’s a time to group students by ability, and a time for mixing groups up. I am a firm believer in heterogeneous classrooms, as long as the teacher has effective strategies for differentiating instruction. Students need to learn how to work with people of varied abilities, interests, ethnicity, and gender; and that must start long before they get into the workforce. Strong teachers can vary tasks, assessments, and products to challenge all students while keeping them in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development–that narrow learning channel that makes the porridge not too hot (too rigorous), and not too cold (too easy), but just right. For proponents of homogeneous grouping, rest assured children will naturally group by ability and interest as they get older and enter middle and high school. Meanwhile, maintaining diversity within groups is essential for our students to graduate high school appreciative of the diverse range of peoples in this wonderful world and able to productively contribute as members of a democratic society.


Lesson Planning for Desired Results

Anxiety and eagerness for Monday morning classes and another week of teaching motivated the unorthodox teacher to toil long and tirelessly each and every weekend. The immense responsibility he felt for his students led to hours of meticulous planning for the “desired results”. He worked on “lesson plans” at 45 minute intervals (the time to play one side of a music cassette tape) with ten minute breaks, and even though he hadn’t learned lesson planning strategies as a science major in college, he had his thoughts on what students should learn–and it was much more than science content.IMG_2586

I’d be fooling you and myself by not admitting the Regents Exams for Physics and Chemistry didn’t matter. On the contrary, they mattered very, very much to me, my students, and their parents. Regents scores were the trimmings of student transcripts for college applications, particularly those from the sophomore and junior years, and nearly everyone was destined for college in my classes. The trick for me was how to weave into lesson plans the other “desired results” I sought. Results that would engage my students, make them feel comfortable with science, push them to think deeply and differently about science, and ask them to communicate thoughts and positions through writing and speaking. I wanted my students to have the instruction that would inspire and motivate them, something I felt was amiss for many students.

Lesson planning for the unorthodox teacher always began with a highlighter, textbook and state syllabi.  After highlighting in the syllabi what students should know and be able to do based on the textbook chapter material, I’d then ask myself “How can I make this relevant for the students?, How can I ratchet up the rigor?, Are there connections I can make to prior content, or to lessons being learned in other subjects?, How can I bring humor into the lesson?,  Are there any “experts” I could invite to present on the content?, What challenging labs or performance tasks can I create for teams of students?, and How will I know the students have learned the material?” It was no wonder I spent most of my weekends the first two years prepping for classes. For one thing, I didn’t know the material that well (I hadn’t had chemistry or physics classes in over eight years), and spent half the weekend doing problems in the textbook so I could “confidently” teach the material. The other issue was how to manage the limited student contact time to realize all my “desired results” for the lessons.

I would learn the tricks and skills of lesson and unit planning over many years practice, and would ultimately teach others strategies for planning and preparation. Interestingly, the lesson planning and “desired results” questions I had asked myself those first two years of teaching would stay consistent throughout my career, which suggests there are priorities in teaching and learning that span the ages. As educators, we must always ask ourselves, “Who are my students?, How can I make this rigorous and relevant?, How can I engage students to interact with one another on challenging, authentic tasks?, How does this all align to the state/national standards or the district curriculum map?, How do I know my students are learning the content and skills, and what are my plans to address learning gaps?, Do I fully understand the content, and am I open to integrating that of other subject areas? Are there experts I can bring in to my classroom?,” and so on.  The unorthodox teacher found great joy in identifying and sometimes realizing his “desired results”, and though the process got simpler over time, the passionate investment of sweat and time barely wavered when he realized the scope of his responsibility to nurture and inspire young people to realize their fullest potential.



Teaching with the End in Mind

Open the textbook, look at chapter one, and work through the content and student problems section so there are no doubts in your mind. Review what the state standards have to say about the topic, and be sure the chapter “covers” all critical key ideas. If not, plan on supplementing. Regardless, figure out ways to make the material engaging through humor, passion, and possible relevance. At chapters end, devise your own assessment or use one from the teacher’s resources. Move on to chapter two. And so it goes for the unorthodox teacher.cropped-p1000221.jpg

Having made an abrupt career shift from oceanographer to high school science teacher (Physics and Chemistry, initially), I didn’t have the background knowledge of lesson planning. There were no models or graphic tools to organize the standards, content knowledge, information from the textbook, or other relevant information. I was rudderless and unprepared. But for private schools such as St. Mary’s Academy in Glens Falls, NY, state certification rules allowed one to teach without state certification or an educator preparation program degree. I was hired not for my pedagogical prowess, but for my science background and practical experience working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office.

My students somehow survived my early fumbled attempts at teaching. Lessons were flawed, and I usually flew by the “seat of my pants” staying one chapter ahead of the students. Assessments were inauthentic, low rigor, and used solely to get grades in my grade book that would satisfy students and parents. Remarkably, I found my students were learning, though mostly for their parents’ expectations. SMA was and remains a prestigious school in the city, and many parents continued the tradition though the high school class numbers were rapidly declining.  No, the only problems were my lack of experience.

Reflecting back, the saving grace for me was a passion for teaching and a mindset that Stephen Covey would aptly call, “Begin with the end in Mind”, and which Wiggins and McTighe described as Identify Desired Results.  I did have a goal for my instruction, and the state syllabi for physics and chemistry were my bibles. I highlighted each concept covered throughout the year in the syllabi, to ensure there were no gaps at year’s end, and I persisted when the lesson was a dud or if one or more students still didn’t understand. Failure was not an option. I’d found my passion, and I loved it–in spite of the bumps. My overriding goal was that every student would pass my class and the Regents exam, and we’d have fun along the way.  Eventually I would discover the practitioner tools to lesson plan and build units of instruction. Meanwhile, for my two years at SMA, I often thought at the end of a long day, “How lucky was I to be a teacher!!” And believe it or not, Mondays couldn’t come soon enough.

Finding My Calling To Teach

How did you discover your career? Was it one you dreamed of in grade school, or one that happened serendipitously later in life? Here’s my story on how I found teaching.

In August of 1987, my boss at the United States Naval Oceanographic Office came to my work space one afternoon and said, “Bay St. Louis Middle School called to request a public speaker at their fall assembly.  They want one of us to talk about what it’s like being an oceanographer. Steve, would you like to go and speak there?” My candid response: “Not really. I don’t like being in schools and don’t have time to talk with kids.” My boss gently reminded me, “Steve, since no one else wants to speak at the middle school, and since you are the last to be hired, it’s not really a choice.” I replied with a  smile, “George, I’d be happy to speak at the assembly.” And from that short conversation would come a life altering and fortuitous change of career from well paid oceanographer to under paid secondary school science teacher.screen-shot-2016-08-09-at-2-06-58-pm

I will confess I prepared for my fall assembly “What’s it like being an oceanographer?” speech with great confidence and cockiness. After all, I thought to myself, I was an oceanographer, and this was a speech at a public middle school. Plus, I knew from my 13 years experience as a student in K-12 education that teachers finished work at 2:30 in the afternoon, had generous vacation time, and the entire summer off–Wrong!! Though I wasn’t looking forward to taking time from work to do a presentation, I did know in my heart the talk would be a piece of cake. Boy was I mistaken!

The assembly was scheduled for 1:30 PM, and I arrived early to get my bearings. There are two schools that serve middle school students in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi: a private school where those with the means send their children, and the public school for those who can’t afford the private school tuition. My speech would be at the public school in a hot, humid auditorium. No problem. I came prepared with suit jacket, short sleeve shirt, and my speech neatly typed. I was ready.

At 1:2o, the intercom blared out for all teachers to bring their classes to the auditorium for the assembly. Within minutes the quiet, subdued auditorium with its fading and chipping painted walls and ceilings sprung to life as 250 high energy white, black, and hispanic students spilled in and began filling rows of seats beginning but 10 feet from the stage. I eyed them with curiosity and a little resentment as they scampered loudly to their seats, their teachers clearly exasperated with the noisy interruption of the normal day’s routine. Within ten minutes the students and teachers had settled into their seats, I’d been introduced by the school principal, and so began my speech.

Humility is a funny thing. It sometimes comes unexpectedly and from unforeseen sources, and so was the case with my talk. After a mere five minutes into my presentation, two boys but 15 feet away from the stage starting laughing and heckling me. Their teacher cast them a stern look and gave them a loud “SHHHHHH”, which worked for about 30 seconds before a few others in the audience started to heckle. I knew I was in trouble. My confidence and sense of authority dissipated quickly into one of fear. Was the auditorium getting hotter, I wondered, as the heckles continued and drips of sweat rolled off my chin and onto my typed speech. I was free-falling down a path I had not been on since adolescence. I was petrified and unsure what to do. The speech clearly wasn’t working, and so I took a leap of faith, dropped the air of superiority, and spoke earnestly from the heart.

It was as if a light had been switched on. As I opened up and shared my excitement about oceanography, the funny and scary stories of work out on open waters or along coastlines of foreign countries, I relaxed and connected with the students. And they did the same. The more I let my guard down and opened the floor to their questions, the more I felt a surge of satisfaction and self-actualization. The assembly ended with laughter, more stories, and thankful applause. I didn’t want it to end, but the principal reminded students school would be out shortly with busses waiting to take them home. I left Bay St. Louis Middle School on a high. One year later I was teaching physics and chemistry in a small Catholic school in upstate New York. How lucky was I!

A lot has happened over the ensuing 30 years, but to this day, I always urge students, colleagues, friends, or anyone else willing to listen to follow their hearts. Chase the work, not the money. Money comes later as you thrive in a career that is satisfying. A career where Monday morning is a good thing because you’re back doing what you love.  Peace.