Engaging English Language Learners in Mainstream Classrooms


In classrooms throughout the country, we hear of the challenges associated with engaging English Language Learners (ELLs) in mainstream math and science learning. Research shows that ELLs in mainstream classrooms tend to talk and participate less than their peers (Zhang et al., 2016). Curriculum supports like those in Agile Mind can help—such as real-world contexts, manipulatives, use of multiple representations of concepts, and guidance for teachers to create meaningful opportunities for students to listen, speak, read, and write about new content. But the districts and schools that best serve the needs of their language learners do so by considering them from the outset and systematically structuring classroom communication in ways that promote classroom talk for all students, including ELLs.

Build a Team Early

Creating an inclusive classroom community begins not by doing math, but by building a team. The first weeks of school can be dedicated to establishing a classroom culture in which everyone is recognized as a valuable member and is expected to participate fully and contribute to the team. First-week team building, with activities such as the well-known human knot, no-hands cup stacking challenge, and helium sticks, allows students to learn about each other, open lines of communication, and practice working with all students–not just established friends or fellow ELLs. These fun and often-humorous activities enable students to build rapport and trust, and give them repeated opportunities to fail, work as a team, think divergently, and try different approaches to solve challenges.

Normalize Mistakes

Teachers can establish a culture of “failing forward” in the first month of school by engaging students in experiences that develop their identities as learners who understand the importance of productive persistence and a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008). Students can also benefit from understanding SEL concepts like motivation, persistence, and the nature of intelligence, and applying them—along with proven problem-solving strategies, routines, and tools—to rigorous experiences in mathematics. Through this work, students come to better understand themselves and their learning, including the importance of making mistakes, reflecting on progress, persevering, and trying again. In any classroom, teachers and students can embrace this idea:

Mistakes are expectedrespected, and inspected.

Because many ELLs experience language-related embarrassment, anxiety, and fear of making mistakes that can impede their willingness to communicate (Pappamihiel, 2002, 2016), repositioning mistakes as part of successful learning can alleviate these emotions and remove barriers to participation. Mistakes by students in class—either linguistic or mathematical—are valuable and essential to the learning process for everyone, and can be positively reframed as opportunities to “grow your brain.”

Develop Communication Structures & Routines

Beyond conveying that imperfect communication is still important communication, teachers can share other norms and routines to help facilitate classroom discourse. One strategy is to establish voice volume expectations (Level 0 is silence, Level 1 is for small group talk, and Level 2 is public-speaking volume which the entire class can hear); another is to use bring-backs—or call-and-response techniques such as “clap once if you can hear me”—to transition students between activities.

Educators can also teach students how to interact with one another in small groups and engage in standards-based mathematical practices, such as explaining individual and group thought processes, asking questions to other students, creating viable arguments, and critiquing the reasoning of others. Many literacy strategies, such as paired readings and ‘think-alouds,’ provide opportunities for students to have specific roles in the learning process. These roles serve to distribute conversational responsibility across all students as well as to “translate” mathematical language into more student-friendly language.

Some teachers organize their class using a “back and forth” style where students spend the majority of time working in small groups, and frequently come back together as a whole class before returning to groups. This modified think-pair-share is often initiated by the teacher posing a question, then saying, “just think silently for 10 seconds, silent Level 0 [10-second pause]. Okay, go.” This silence gives all students time to both develop initial understanding and prepare to produce language before being expected to speak, rather than creating situations in which English-fluent students contribute quickly while ELLs are still interpreting the question.

Routines like these enable all students to engage in academic talk and to quickly and seamlessly transition between activities. This collective effort reinforces the understanding that everyone is learning something new and together establishing a new set of expected behaviors for the class. In this way, ELLs are not positioned as outsiders who are unfamiliar with the language and culture of the class, but rather as fellow insiders and knowers who understand the local language and customs.

After learning teamwork and communication norms, students can apply these ideas in all their classroom every day. Unlike many activities and strategies that are used in isolated lessons, these routines are deeply embedded in the classroom culture: they are used every day, several times a day – and give structure to student interactions and participation.

Value Divergent Ideas & Voices

One key strategy to increase the likelihood that more students engage with the whole class can be applied after students have been working in pairs or small groups. Many teachers bring the class back together and do one of two things: they “cold call” on students, or they ask for volunteers to give an immediate response. Instead, the NCTM’s 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions encourages teachers to “warm call” on students. With this approach, the teacher strategically selects a few students, including ELLs, to present and explain their answer to the whole class, and informs these students of the expectation to share beforebringing the class back together. Students can then use the last minute of pair/group work to double check answers and practice language before being asked to speak in front of the whole class. After using a bring-back to transition to whole-class, teachers can strategically sequence sharing by the students who were pre-selected to highlight different approaches to the problem or interesting explanations and debate processes.  As teachers pre-select those who will share, they might include one or two students whose answers demonstrate common mistakes, to help clarify misconceptions that other students may share. Finally, teachers should use focusing questions to help students make connections among ideas and strategies. This approach elevates the value of mistakes, the diversity of mathematical expression, and the understanding that every student contributes to the group’s mathematical knowledge.

Using the classic advice “never say anything a kid can say” (Reinhart, NCTM, 2000) and rejecting perceptions that teachers are the gatekeepers of knowledge, teachers should consider the value of choosing to rarely confirm right answers. Further, teachers can strengthen focus on the mathematical meaning students share and encourage, validate, and preserve ELL voices by avoiding the practice of summarizing or repeating student answers, or recasting ELL speech into “correct” English.

Whole-class time is space for students to explain concepts and ideas to each other, not simply for the first student with a raised hand to state the correct answer for the teacher to confirm and move on. For ELLs specifically, this structure provides time to interpret questions, clear guidance on the mechanics and expectations of group talk, and opportunities to prepare language before being asked to speak in front of the class.

Though some may view routine-based pedagogy as restrictive, these norms and routines serve to empower students by teaching them how to communicate with each other, not what to say. And these structures do not force participation; instead, they reduce ambiguity and anxiety by offering clear guidelines, ensuring students know what to expect and what is expected of them. Further, by participating in every bring-back routine, carrying out small group roles, and explaining ideas to classmates, all students—including ELLs—have the opportunity to be routinely recognized and affirmed as knowledgeable members of the classroom community.

Educators can and do create classrooms where ELLs have the time and space to speak, where their voices are heard, and where they are never excluded, ignored, or left behind. The approaches described here have been successfully used and adapted in middle and high schools across the nation. We believe all students deserve to be heard and valued, and we hope more mainstream teachers will examine their own practices to find ways to consider ELLs in their classroom culture, structures, and everyday routines.

Authors note: This piece was adapted from an article co-written by the author with Meghan Odsliv Bratkovich, which can be found here: http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolc/issues/2021-04-01/3.html


Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Hill & Flynn. (2006). Classroom instruction that works with English Language Learners. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Pappamihiel, N. E. (2002). English as a second language students and English language anxiety: Issues in the mainstream classroom. Research in the Teaching of English, 36, 327–355.

Pappamihiel, N. E. and Lynn, C (2016).  Adaptations for English Language Learners: Differentiating between Linguistic and Instructional Accommodations. TESL-EJ, Volume 20, Number 3.

Reinhart, S. C. (2000). Never say anything a kid can say! Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, NCTM 5, 478–483.

Zhang, J. N., Chunling, N., Munwar, S., Anderson, R. C. (2016). What makes a more proficient discussion group in English language learners’ classrooms? Influence of teacher talk and student backgrounds. Research in the Teaching of English, 51(2), 183–208.

Pura Vida from Costa Rica

At one of the beautiful national parks of Costa Rica

Tonight is my very last night living in Costa Rica. Over the course of the past several months, I have been living in Playas del Coco, Guanacaste to try to find some normalcy in the context of the global pandemic. I was originally supposed to come down here to complete my Scuba Diving instructor course in April, but Covid, of course, had other plans. 

This past decade, Scuba Diving has become my favorite pastime, as words cannot adequately describe what it is like to experience life 100 feet underwater. Although I thought I was only going to be here for two weeks, I fell so much in love with the “pura vida” lifestyle that I extended my trip by a few months – and with most schools operating remotely right now, why not work from Costa Rica?

The term pura vida, I have learned, means a lot more than the direct translation of “pure life.” A lot of Ticos around here use the phrase to say hello and goodbye, to be grateful for what they have, and also as a way of saying “it is what it is,” like when you get a parking ticket, I suppose. I felt the pura vida hospitality from the Costa Ricans and fellow travelers as soon as I landed in Liberia.

With a White Tipped Reef Shark, taken by my friend Manuel

As part of my instructor course, I have been living in a house with other dive masters and instructors from all over the world. Lucy is from the UK, Bo is from the Netherlands, Ashley is from Australia, and Luis, René, and Manuel all live in Costa Rica. I have loved getting to know this group so much – and am so happy that we were able to celebrate Thanksgiving, my birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s together. 

Celebrating Thanksgiving with my new friends
Teaching during the IE

My Instructor Development Course – or the IDC, as we refer to it as, was a fun, stressful, exhausting two weeks that ended in the Instructor Exam, or IE. During the IDC, our group truly came together as a family and helped each other out tremendously. I was the weakest diver in the group but found that I was able to support my friends with the teaching part of becoming an instructor, and they all helped me with practice skills in the pool long after the IDC part of our day was over. 

Our Course Director, with a background in the Dutch Navy, had very high expectations of us during the IDC and kept on telling us that the IE jokingly stands for “it’s easy.” Although there were many moments where I honestly did not know if I was going to be able to finish the IDC and pass the IE, all six of us passed with flying colors! 

Celebrating on the beach after a successful IE!!!

Between attending scuba classes, working remotely, and exploring the country these past few months, Costa Rica has truly lived up to my wildest expectations. Truth be told, I do not think I have ever felt so grounded in my entire life. While I have mixed feeling about going back, and is mainly motivated by my desire to finish my doctorate, I think my next scuba trip is going to be a big one – maybe to the Galapagos? We shall see what 2022 has in store for me. Until then, as we say in Costa Rica – ¡Pura Vida!

¡Pura vida from Costa Rica!

Here Travels the Brave at Sea

As we close out this decade, I am blessed that I had the opportunity to spend the past two weeks in Norway to learn about my cultural heritage. Although both of my grandfathers were Norwegian, I never learned anything about Norway while growing up; as such, I was excited to learn about the indigenous Sami culture of northern Norway, the incredible valor exhibited by the Vikings, the history of the Hanseatic League, and the culture and customs of modern day Norway. 

Exploring the majestic fjords of Norway

First off, Norway is so incredibly beautiful. One of the biggest highlights on this trip was our boat trip through the majestic fjords in the northern part of the country. Perhaps Rick Riordan put it best: “Pretty doesn’t do it justice. I felt like we’d sailed into a world meant for much larger beings, a place where gods and monsters roamed freely” (The Ship of the Dead, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3).

God jul fra Norge! 🇳🇴 (Merry Christmas from Norway!)

While I appreciate my Norwegian heritage now more than ever, my favorite part of the trip was learning about how significant naval navigation was throughout the course of Norwegian history. On one rune stick that was carved out during the Medieval Ages, a runic inscription proudly boasts that “here travels the brave at sea.”

The Rune stick at a museum in Bergen

Norwegians have always led the world in exploring the unknown: the Vikings created trade routes connecting three continents, there is considerable evidence that the Hanseatic League traveled to North America and traded with Native Americans centuries before Columbus, Roald Amundsen was the first person to explore both the North and South Pole, and Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated the possibility of Incan contact with Polynesian Islands by sailing on a raft made of balsa-wood for over 100 days (see image below).

The original Kon-Tiki boat

This past decade, I have been so privileged to continue this legacy and graciously had the opportunity to visit over 30 different countries, each with their own unique history and culture. In my travels, I have grown to tremendously appreciate the wealth to be found in diverse cultures. In doing so, I have learned so much about our country, our world, and perhaps most importantly, myself.

Standing in front of the Royal House of Norway

Perhaps Andre Gide said it best: “Man cannot discover new oceans until he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Godt nytt år! Here’s to another decade of exploring the world. 🤙🏼

Perú: Un Viaje Maravilloso

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to Peru and visit a country with a tremendous history, culture, and of course, cuisine! Lima has recently been named a world-best “foodie-paradise,” thanks to all of the diverse climates that can be found throughout Peru. The fusion of Asian, South American, and European culture is prominently on display in the architecture and food throughout the Peruvian capital. I had the opportunity to eat at Central – an incredible restaurant that was recently ranked as the fourth best restaurant in the world. Our 19 course “alturas mater” tasting menu featured food from 19 different ecosystems throughout Peru. Central – and executive chef Virgilio Martinez – was prominently featured in the third season of the incredible Netflix docu-series “Chef’s Table,” an episode that I highly recommend checking out!

After visiting the Plaza de Armas, the famous Museo Larco, and eating some delicious ceviche, we had the opportunity to visit the “El Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social” (meaning the place of memory, tolerance, and social inclusion). The museum was part of the Peruvian government’s efforts to put the tragic recent history of Shining Path and MRTA behind them and bring those responsible for the country-wide terrorism to justice. Shining Path was originally apart of the Peru’s communist party; inspired by Mao, Lenin, and Marx, Shining Path quickly radicalized and put forward a violent ideology that suggested that progress will only come “from the barrels of guns.” 

Standing in the “Plaza de Armas,” the main public square in Lima

Unfortunately, this era issued-in one of the darkest chapters of Peruvian history. After forming a coalition with MRTA (another terrorist group in the region), Shining Path started conducting car bombings in Lima and would ultimately “be held responsible for the deaths of about 30,000 people during a 20-year period, according to a Peruvian commission responsible for documenting the violence.” After Peru was put under Marshall Law in 1992, the leader of Shining Path (Dr. Abimail Guzman) was captured, tried, and imprisoned. Unfortunately, the then-President of Peru (Fujimori) exploited the situation, defying civil liberties and kept the country under Marshall Law until the year 2000. He was also later sentenced to prison for corruption and human rights abuses, and is currently serving his prison sentence in a corrections facility outside of Lima.  

As with my experience in traveling to countries like Cuba, Cambodia, and other places around the world, I reflected a lot about how little I knew about this horrific history before visiting Peru. Truth be told, the parallels between the Khmer Empire building Angkor Wat and the more contemporary history of the Khmer Rouge is eerily similar to the Incan Empire building Machu Picchu and their recent history with Shining Path.

Although the trip ended with a solemn effort to learn about the recent political history of Peru, we started our trip in Cusco, the former capital of the Incan civilization. It was here that I saw the brilliance of Incan architecture for the first time. Although much has been written about Incan architecture, experiencing these incredible stone walls in person is truly remarkable. One of my favorite stories that I learned was that in 1950, a major earthquake hit Cusco. Although many of the Spanish colonial buildings in the area were destroyed, all of the Incan structures were left completely intact; because the Quecha people used precision-fitting stones, they did not need to use any mortar. During the earthquake, the stones “rumbled” safely, and then returned to their original place without any damage like magic. 

An example of a wall built with Incan Architecture – there is no mortar between the bricks!

The Incan empire was incredibly advanced for their time and age, as “it stretched north to south some 2,500 miles along the high mountainous Andean range from Colombia to Chile and reached west to east from the dry coastal desert called Atacama to the steamy Amazonian rain forest. At the height of its existence the Inca Empire was the largest nation on Earth and remains the largest native state to have existed in the western hemisphere.”

According to many of the local people that we had the opportunity to talk with, the Incan empire fell when the Spanish exploited a brewing civil war that was fought over who was the rightful heir to the Incan thrown [the word “Inka” means “King” in Quecha]. Dominated by advanced weaponry, the last Inka ordered his remaining troops to delay the Spanish Inquisition so that their civilians could destroy bridges along the Incan trail leading to Machu Picchu. 

The entrance to Machu Picchu, which was once heavily fortified and guarded 24 hours a day.

Although many local people knew about the existence of the site, the lack of a written language and the purposeful destruction of bridges and trails meant that the Spanish never found the so-called “city above the clouds.” Machu Picchu was largely forgotten about by the world for centuries. Although the legend of the “lost city of the Inka” continued throughout the 20th century, scholars debated whether the site was real or of mythological origin. In the late 1800’s, German engineers, who were hired to support the construction of the Peruvian railroad, came upon the site accidentally, unaware of the what they had found. Reading their travel logs, Yale historian and anthropologist Hiram Bingham conjectured that Machu Picchu could be real and set sail to explore the site. Through the help of the indigenous people in the area, Bingham “re-discovered” the site in 1911.

The Sacred Valley en route to Ollantaytambo (the main train station to Aguas Calientes)

Machu Picchu, which means “Old Mountain” in Quecha, was truly one of the most breathtaking places that I have been privileged to visit. It is no surprise that the Spanish had difficulty finding the city – to get to Machu Picchu today, for example, you need to take a series of planes, trains, and automobiles to get to the famous citadel; it was truly surreal witnessing and walking around one of the seven wonders of the world in person.

Contrary to popular belief, Machu Picchu served primarily as a pre-Columbian university that educated aspiring leaders throughout the Kingdom of the Inka how to manage their communities. Remnants of the advanced Incan civilization are scattered throughout the Scared Valley, including agricultural lab sites, vast temples, and advanced understanding of astronomy and mathematics.

Left: Moray, a Center of Incan Agricultural Research; Right: The Maras Salt Mines

What I found most thought-provoking was the value the Inka put on a cross-disciplinary approach to education. Without a written language, leaders had to literally hike the Incan trail to get to Machu Picchu to learn about what we today call agriculture, business, politics, and astronomy. Truth be told, there is plenty that our modern schools can learn from the Incan society. Specifically, I am worried that public schools and universities have lost the value of this cross-disciplinary approach to education, as we have bucketed content now more than ever. Moving forward, we should consider ways we can broaden our curriculum and modernize the interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts that Greek philosopher Aristotle put forward over two thousand years ago.

Overlooking Machu Picchu from the “postcard-perfect” citadel

Perhaps Anthony Bourdain put it best: “It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence… for a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there and lived to see it.”

“Anchoring Down” on my current reflections about leadership

After returning home from my Fulbright experience abroad and starting a new job as a Senior Advisor with Agile Mind, I learned about an innovative Doctor of Education program at Vanderbilt University. Housed within Peabody College’s top-ranked Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, this new doctoral degree (with a concentration in leadership & learning in organizations) looked to bring together a diverse group of people from throughout the country. Vanderbilt’s website noted that the vision for this new doctorate was to help graduates “identify, assess, and resolve organizational challenges from a learning and design perspective” with three main focus areas: leadership & organizational development, data & analytics, and learning & design.

Vanderbilt University at sunset in Nashville, TN

Having previously graduated with a degree in public school leadership, I was particularly intrigued that Vanderbilt offered a program that helped leaders apply the theory of improvement science and organizational change into practice. I quickly became excited about this prospective program; as we move forward in the 21stcentury, we will need new ideas and divergent thinking to solve the plethora of adaptive challenges that our global community is currently facing. Vanderbilt’s website noted that, “effective leaders provide the support and direction necessary to foster development, leverage resources, create solutions, and resolve complex systemic challenges.” Needless to say, I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program, and I could not wait to get started this past January. 

My acceptance letter!

For this blog post, I want to offer some reflections from my very first class at Vanderbilt: LLO-8110 Leadership Theory and Practice, and specifically, how my thinking about leadership has changed over time. My first class at Vandy brought together a group of people that are all looking to challenge the status quo, and while most doctoral candidates in my program have backgrounds in education, some of my peers have led large organizational change efforts in other sectors outside of education. In my current role with Agile Mind, I often provide consultancy support to school districts that are looking to transform the teaching and learning of math and science. This real-world experience has allowed me to test new ideas in leadership and improvement science throughout my first semester of grad school at Vanderbilt, and has also uniquely helped me bridge the “education” world with the “business” world. Because of the dual-background nature of my current position, I have learned so much from the diverse leadership experiences of our entire cohort, no matter what field they are currently working in – I genuinely cannot wait to meet them during our first convening later this year!

Getting ready to lead a Student Council meeting during high school.

Before this class, it had been a couple of years since I last had the opportunity to think about leadership in a formal academic setting. Put succinctly, my personal thinking of leadership has evolved tremendously over time. The first true memory that I have about leadership was during third grade, as I still vividly remember being elected as a “peer mediator” by my class, and subsequently had the opportunity to attend “leadership trainings” that helped my third-grade-self diffuse conflicts amongst the class. Throughout middle school, I ran for and was elected to a number of positions during after-school clubs and for class officer positions. In high school, I thought I had everything “figured out” about leadership by the time that I finished my tenure as Student Council President (I mean, what teenager doesn’t have everything figured out?). If you would have asked me then, I probably would have said something like: “a great leader organizes events, runs effective meetings, and keeps a tight budget.”

Speaking at a press conference during my senior year of college.

As with many other people in this field, academic and extracurricular experiences during my undergraduate career started pushing my thinking on leadership in ways previously thought unimaginable. From an academic perspective, I had the opportunity to take a class called Leadership Communication, which formally introduced me to leadership theory for the first time. We spent a lot of time in that class – undoubtedly one of the most influential throughout my undergrad experience – talking about innate and emerging leadership theories, and looked at a plethora of case studies that highlighted different examples of transactional and transformational leadership. From an experience perspective, I truly learned what it meant to be a peer leader through my work as a Resident Assistant for two years in a freshmen residence hall. Working as an RA helped me grow as a person tremendously, but perhaps nothing pales in comparison to the leadership opportunity I had during my senior year of college, when I served as Student Body President of Marist College. Though I learned a lot that year, I was well-aware then that I still had a lot to learn about leadership, but I still believed in this “filling of the pail” perspective of leadership. 

Almost a decade removed from my undergrad experience, I still call on key learnings from that time of my life, which has deeply impacted my perspective on leadership throughout my entire adult life. These days, I believe in the idea of distributive leadership more and more, and inherently believe that everyone has the ability to lead in some capacity. I also look to advocate as much as possible, as the more we are able to empower others, the better off we all are. Power, as I have come to learn, is not a fixed commodity, but rather something that collectively increases the more we share ‘it.’ After all, leadership is not a position; rather, it is all about empowerment. 

Presenting my Fulbright research to the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and American Diplomats

During my travels throughout Asia last year and working around the country consulting with all different types of schools districts this year, I have learned this truth over and over again. It could be argued that there is dearth of transformational leadership in many of our public schools throughout the country, which is extremely disconcerting, as the “quality of a school system is largely determined by the quality of the principals.” Anecdotally, many principals over-rely on “legitimate” power instead of trying to inspire their staff through expert and referent power. School leaders also need to communicate in a way that genuinely gets their faculty excited about their vision. Without this essential communication, it could be said that a visionary leader is just a “lone nut,” as the following video explains:

Inherent in this notion is the idea of distributive leadership and restorative justice. Distributive leadership helps schools get rid of outdated top-down patriarchal models that are still pervasive in education, and restorative practices is one promising idea to help end the tragic school-to-prison pipeline. Recently, I have learned of the fractal metaphor of organizational leadership. In mathematics, a fractal is a geometric object that exhibits self-similarity. Applying this idea to organizations, Harle notes that “fractal leadership promotes organizational transformation through continuous and consistent repeating patterns of leadership… in this way, leadership occurs at all levels resulting in an environment of shared responsibility.” 

A Sierpinski Triangle, one of the most famous examples of fractals in mathematics.

In this “fractal” model of organizational leadership, principals need to model the behavior they want their teachers to take on, including empowering their staff through restorative practices and exemplar pedagogy. Actions really do speak louder than words. I also believe now – in large part to my professor and my colleagues pushing my thinking – that we need to stop bucketing school leaders as “managers” or “leaders,” because truly great principals need to be able to leverage both types of leadership to make their school transformational. 

So, what? Now, what?

I have learned so much through this program already, but this course made me reflect deeply on many of my connotations of leadership. That being said, I have so much more to learn, and especially how to combine these ideas of leadership with improvement science. I am already trying to “make sense” of these ideas, so that we can ensure that every student has an opportunity to attain a truly great education. Applying a critical lens, I believe now more than ever that talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not. To reference the Mann Gulch fire, I have quickly learned the value of sense-making, but am interested in exploring this topic even more. After all, who are the educators yelling at us right now to “drop our tools?” Maybe too many of us are blindly running into the fire…

But how does one help another make sense of any given situation? Is exemplar communication the same as sense-giving? How can I take the leadership experiences that I have had and figuratively ‘pay it forward?’ As someone that is tremendously privileged, I believe that the heart of leadership is about sticking up for the most vulnerable members of our greater community. We all need to work harder at becoming more self-aware, learn how implicit biases affect our daily decision-making, and learn more about the cynic cycles of oppression that continue to permeate throughout our country.

Overlooking the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Selma, Alabama in 1965. I believe now more than ever that to make sense of our current political climate, we need to confront our country’s horrendous racial history. A future blog post will take a deeper dive at these ideas. Photo taken February 2019 by Eric Vander Voort.

I have purposefully spent a lot of time this year traveling through the deep south, with the intention of learning about the issues that makes life in Mississippi and Alabama a whole lot different that the contemporary issues plaguing New York City (A future blog post will take a deeper dive in some of my reflections from my recent time spent in Alabama and the Mississippi Delta). Although knowledge may be power, knowledge without action is useless. We need to leverage our collective leadership and use our positions of privilege – whatever they may be – to speak up for those that may not have a seat at the table, yet.

We need to work harder to make our world a more just place. 

Perhaps we need leaders that will make an impact on this world, the starfish way.

The Science of Reading

From the very beginning of the public-school movement in the 1840’s, educators held heated debates about the most effective teaching method to help children learn how to read. Early in the history of our public schools, Horace Mann and his opponents argued over different reading philosophies, but these disagreements were all based on arm-chair psychology, as no legitimate reading science yet existed. Over time, this disagreement developed into the so-called “Reading Wars,” a vicious disagreement between educators and non-educators alike about the most effective way to teach young students how to read. Some teachers supported a phonics-first (or code-emphasis) approach, while others subscribed to a pedagogy known as whole language. Unfortunately, as the science on reading has improved dramatically since the 1840’s, the application of the science has not. Stuck in a centuries-old debate, many educators fail to understand and apply what the scientific research indicates about how students can best learn how to read, and teachers often remain in a philosophical debate devoid of any empirical evidence. 

In 2019, the lack of reading ability prevents far too many students from reaching grade level standards; research from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy finds that about one in seven American adults struggle to read a children’s picture book (White & Dillow, 2005). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development subsequently found that 50 percent of American adults cannot read a chapter book written for an eighth-grader (Strauss, 2016). This post will review the contemporary peer-reviewed literature on the science of reading and conduct virtual empathy interviews to look to uncover why many American educators do not implement the science of reading into their classrooms and pedagogy.L

Reading Science

First, let us define the difference between reading science and reading pedagogy. Reading science is a hard science, often executed by medical psychologists and research linguists that utilize brain imaging techniques and controlled experimental studies to discover the neuroscience behind how people learn to read. Over the past 80 years or so, hundreds of peer-reviewed articles printed in scientific journals have found that reading does not come naturally because the human brain is not hard-wired to read, and that students must be explicitly taught how to read by phonics, which means connecting sounds with letters (Hanford, 2018). From an evolutionary-biological perspective, humans roamed the earth for thousands of years before the first proof of written language was found in ancient Mesopotamia. Brain imaging has found that when children learn how to read, their brains physically re-wire themselves; as such, “reading isn’t a subject that can be studied all by itself. It’s a mental activity connected with one aspect of the English language” (Flesch, 1955). Over time, reading scientists have formed a “remarkable consensus about the basic theory of how reading works and the causes of reading success and failures” which has led to “the development of methods that can reliably help many children who struggle how to read” (Seidenberg, 2018). The research from the National Academy of Sciences indicates that there arefive main components of learning how to read: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension; these “five essential, scientifically-proven reading fundamentals that incontrovertibly underlie the ability to learn to read accurately, fluently, and with comprehension, an ability that eludes far too many school children today” (Strauss, 2013).

Other researchers have found that a heavier code emphasis is also effective for students coming from lower socio-economic households (Chall, 1967). Unfortunately, “Most school-children in the United States are taught to read by the meaning-emphasis method. Yet the research indicates that a code-emphasis method produces better results” (Chall, 1967). This is because students that are taught by the whole-language method “never catch on to the letter-sound relationships of the English Language” (Flesch, 1983). Although there are plenty of aspects of a whole-language approach that are important in developing student’s literacy abilities later in elementary school, there is “no debate at this point among scientists that reading is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught by showing children the ways that sounds and letters correspond” (Hanford, 2018). If this science is so clear on how students best learn how to read, why are educators not teaching it? 

Reading Pedagogy 

Although there is overwhelming consensus amongst reading scientists as to how students best learn how read, this research rarely finds its way into the classroom. It has been noted how there is a “profound disconnection between the science of reading and educational practice. Very little of what we’ve learned about reading as scientists has had any impact on what happens in schools” (Seidenberg, 2018).  In a landmark report from 2018:

“It was found that the prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again”

(Hanford, 2018).

By now, it is clear that there is a rather large disconnect between the reading science and the pedagogy teachers utilize in classrooms throughout the country. One of these disconnects can be attributed to the fact that the culture of science is different from the culture of education, where personal experience is often given more value than empirical research.

The culture of education

The culture of education is one of the main culprits for the disconnect described above. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers are not taught the science of reading; some argue that this is because “many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it… as a result of their intransigence, millions of kids have been set up to fail” (Hanford, 2018). 

To this point, a recent study performed by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that less than twenty percent of teacher licensure programs at graduate schools of education addressed the five fundamental components of reading and provided adequate instruction in the science of reading to pre-service teachers; even more disconcertingly, only five programs in the entire country were designated as a “strongly designed” program (Rickenbrode, R. & Walsh, 2013).  During one interview, a teacher noted that:

“To earn my [masters of education in teaching], I had to demonstrate my ‘passionate commitment to learning’ and show proof that I was a ‘reflective practitioner…. there’s no visible evidence, in my portfolio or in my memory, that suggests any attention to psychology, cognitive science, language development, or the rich body of research in those fields that might shape our views of teaching and learning”

(Will, 2018)

Indeed, although many leading experts on the science of reading work in the same universities that have robust graduate schools of education, reading researchers and education researchers rarely interact, and often attend different conferences and publish their findings in different journals (Hanford, 2018). Some have even put forward that professors of education have “largely ignored the scientific knowledge that informs reading acquisition… as a result, the pre-service teachers who are being educated at these institutions fail to receive the necessary training” (Hanford, 2018). 

This means that, in far too many programs throughout the country, pre-service teachers “who enter the field of education do not gain exposure to modern research in cognition, child development, and cognitive neuroscience” (Seidenberg, 2018). Graduate Schools of Education often do not explicitly teach the science of reading, and many principals and teachers alike have expressed great dissatisfaction with course syllabi and the lack of reading science given in colleges and universities (Will, 2018; Chall, 1967). In addition, many textbooks for pre-service teachers do not adequately cover the five fundamental components of the science of reading, and the related instructional procedures for teaching them (Joshi et. al., 2009). In addition to the paucity of information available about teaching these five main components, some education textbooks even present inaccurate information about the science of reading (Joshi et. al., 2009). 

All of these factors have contributed to a toxic vicious circle that leads to educators de-valuing empirical research published in peer-reviewed journals outside the field of education. To this point, “many teachers and administrators [have never been] influenced to make a change by an article that reported an experiment or that described a finding about the reading process. It seems that research findings, carefully selected for the purpose, serve primarily to back up decisions and commitments already made” (Chall, 1967).

Curriculum companies also have tremendous power in how students are being taught how to read (Chall, 1967). Many educators, and especially early career teachers, over-rely on these curriculum companies for guidance on how to best teach, some of which are highly effective, others of which are not (Flesch, 1983). By now, it is clear why many American educators do not implement the science of reading into their classrooms and pedagogy, but the question remains: how do we change this paradigm?

Looking Forward

In many ways, the “Reading Wars persist because of the continued dissemination of false information about the process of becoming an effective reader.” Put succinctly, this problem of practice needs to be addressed. We now offer a possible course of action to help connect the science of reading to help educators teach reading more effectively. We bucket organizational change efforts into three main categories – Graduate Schools of Education, teacher professional development, and education culture. 

Graduate Schools of Education

Author’s Note: Although this Review of Knowledge for Professional Practice has used the term Graduate Schools of Education throughout, we also include all pre-service teacher programs, including alternate route programs, that have the authority to offer teacher licenses; we will use the acronym GSE moving forward in this post. 

It seems as though GSE often confuse the philosophy of pedagogy with the science of reading; this paradigm needs to change. Every Dean at every GSE in the country should look to ensure that the syllabuses for classes that teaches pre-service teachers reaffirms learning science and ensures that their pre-service teachers are learning about the five fundamental aspects of reading. GSE’s should follow the NCTQ report and emulate the five most effective teacher preparation programs in the country.

Perhaps more boldly, GSE should look to diversify the instructors of their courses, and have professors with backgrounds in neuroscience, psychology, and linguistics teach the applied science of reading to their degree candidates. To this end, Deans must also ensure that their professors are “deeply familiar with the body of research-based knowledge about what will work to better educate children. The five early reading components are part of this knowledge. New teachers need to receive this expertise from the institutions charged with training them” (Rickenbrode & Walsh, 2013). 

Teacher Professional Development 

This critique was heavily focused on the disconnect between empirical research and practitioners through the lens of graduate schools of education. Though this post has found some legitimate problems of practice and offered possible solutions, a new line of inquiry has opened up: Teacher Professional Development. How are teachers developed, and why does the education field seem to trail the development in other professional fields such as medicine or law? A new question seems critical for the improvement process of literacy; a question that looks at the efficacy of teacher professional development and how we can develop practicing teachers more effectively. A future post will look consider teacher development to understand this separate yet related problem of practice. 

Conclusion: Changing the culture of education

The existing culture of education remains one of the biggest challenges that holds many teachers back from achieving the highest level of pedagogy possible. While we do not believe that following the recommendations of this Review of Knowledge for Professional Practice will solve all problems with reading and literacy, helping teachers understand how to apply the science of reading remains a tremendous opportunity that has yet to be realized. By implementing learning science, we can dramatically increase our country’s fluency and reading ability.

Works Cited

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College.

Flesch, R. (1955). Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It. New York: Harper & Row.

Flesch, R. (1983). Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A new look at the scandal of our schools. New York: Harper Colphon Books.

Hanford, E. (2018). Why aren’t kids being taught to read?APM Reports. Retrieved from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

Joshi, R. M., Binks, E., Graham, L., Ocker-Dean, E., Smith, D. L., & Boulware-Gooden, R. (2009). Do Textbooks Used in University Reading Education Courses Conform to the Instructional Recommendations of the National Reading Panel? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(5), 458-463. doi:10.1177/0022219409338739

Rickenbrode, R. & Walsh, K. (2013). Lighting the way. The reading panel report ought to guide teacher preparation. American Educator. 36(3). pp. 30-35. 

Seidenberg, M. (2018). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.

Strauss, V. (2013, September 17). Another blast in the reading wars. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/09/17/another-blast-in-the-reading-wars/

Let’s Be Clear: One Teacher’s Sensemaking About How to Make Sense

Authors note: This article was co-written by Meghan Odsliv Bratkovich, and was submitted for publication to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics research journal.

How students have been taught mathematics has changed over time. Algorithmic computation and formulaic memorization have largely given way to divergent thinking and emphasis on mathematical understanding.  The Common Core State Standards both reflect and guide corresponding shifts in the field of mathematics and in mathematics teaching, emphasizing communication, argumentation, and reasoning skills that are essential for college and career readiness.  Despite this, even highly successful teachers often lack the time and space necessary to make sense of what this means and ways it might positively affect their practice–how students are expected to express, construct, and represent mathematical sense, how teachers are expected to make sense of mathematics for their students, and how teachers’ engagement in systematic sensemaking through inquiry can facilitate this process.

The interconnected considerations incorporated in Practice Standard 3 are integral to the construction, communication, and critiques of viable arguments in mathematics (e.g., appropriate processes, structures, proofs, formats, logic, and terms). Even very knowledgeable and highly effective teachers can leave these underlying strands of argumentation snarled between and knotted up in correct and incorrect solutions, sufficient and insufficient evidence, long and short answers, or clear and unclear writing. Unfortunately, this frequently places the burden on students to disentangle the ambiguous, vague, and unspoken, yet structured language and logic of the discipline.  Students must often master these language-laden mathematical practices through trial and error, all the while developing conceptual understanding, evaluating arguments placed before them, and attempting to craft viable mathematical arguments of their own.

The Common Core State Standards describe mathematically proficient students as those who are capable of “breaking [situations] into cases,” and able to “build a logical progression of statements,” and “justify their conclusions [and] communicate them to others” (CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3).  Developing this student proficiency can be facilitated when teachers actively engage in the same types of systematic sensemaking they expect of their students.  By similarly inquiring into their practice as math teachers, these teacher researchers can break down mathematical practices, build pedagogical practices that purposefully attend to mathematical content and expectations held by the field, and justify and communicate their conclusions to students, colleagues, teacher educators, and other stakeholders.

This article traces one practitioner’s sensemaking around viable arguments from two perspectives–a high school mathematics teacher (Andrew Paulsen) and a university-based researcher (Meghan Odsliv Bratkovich).  To organize this discussion, the following sections each speak to one facet of knowledge for, in, and of practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999, p. 250).  In the knowledge-for-practice section, I (Meghan, university researcher) break down the sensemaking process by which Andrew enhanced his understanding of mathematical argumentation.  In the knowledge-in-practice section, we speak jointly about how making sense of unnoticed aspects of mathematical reasoning reconstructed our understanding of content.  Building this more refined understanding of what mathematical reasoning involved catalyzed changes to Andrew’s teaching practice that purposefully attended to the previously-unseen language expectations central to determining argument viability.  In the final section, I (Andrew, practitioner researcher), communicate a vision of knowledge-of-practice that invites other teachers to engage in similar collaborative, multilayered sensemaking.

Sensing that his ninth-grade, Algebra I students seemed to ‘understand the math,’ yet struggle to craft arguments he could see as ‘effective,’ ‘clear,’ or ‘viable,’ Mr. Paulsen (as he is known to his students) began to question what he could do to help students meet Mathematical Practice 3.  Revisiting previous arguments that he used in class as exemplar models, I challenged him to figure out and name what it was specifically that made him view them as ‘effective,’ ‘clear,’ or ‘viable’, (as opposed to ‘right,’ ‘accurate,’ or ‘correct,’) in the first place.  This led to an ‘aha’ moment about what it means to ‘understand math’ that eventually led Mr. Paulsen to three takeaways: deeper awareness of his own expectations, new perspectives on his content, and growing appreciation of the importance of attending to how sense is constructed and conveyed in mathematics.

Mr. Paulsen had always held expectations for argument clarity.  However, he selected exemplars based on how convincing or moving they were to him and had never unpacked the components and criteria that led him to judge them as clear or unclear. He expected arguments to meet a tacit threshold for clarity, much like Supreme Court Justice Stewart, who famously did not attempt to define his threshold for obscenity, instead stating “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964).  He essentially held up arguments with the hope that his students would be able to intuitively sense why they were clear—what made each exemplar exemplary.

To move beyond this, I encouraged Mr. Paulsen to apply similar systematic reasoning skills to those he teaches, aiming to explicitly define his de facto ‘know-it-when-I-see-it’ criteria for clarity.  Guided by little more than my simple questions such as ‘what about this part makes it clear?’ he identified discursive patterns between and within his exemplars.  He noticed how sentences built on one another and played specific roles within each argument, and for the first time realized his implicit reliance upon mathematical language structures when evaluating argument clarity.

Mr. Paulsen deduced that his exemplars often follow an answer-definition-example structure where a claim is made, a mathematical rule is stated, and an explanation linking claim to rule is offered.  This parallels the Toulmin ‘claim-evidence-warrant’ structure common to many disciplines, and recently adopted by other departments at Mr. Paulsen’s school.  He also found that exemplars were less reliant upon mathematical terminology like multiples, domain, and functionthan anticipated, and surprisingly, that some ‘everyday’ words (e.g., must, any, since, because) strongly influenced argument clarity.

This noticing of mathematical language, however, does not imply that expertise in linguistics or English Language Arts is necessary, though mathematics teachers often view language as outside their content (Harper & de Jong, 2009).  On the contrary, Mr. Paulsen’s sensemaking process highlights the sophisticated language expectations teachers already hold and reveals unseen expertise in the language of mathematics.  Many aspects of mathematics, such as the argumentation discussed here, simultaneously require discipline-specific structures, patterns, and word usage.  Therefore, socializing students into these mathematical discourse practices (Moschkovich, 2007) falls under the purview of mathematics teachers because it is not the teaching of language, but the teaching of mathematics.

Mr. Paulsen’s efforts invite other practitioners to undergo their own sensemaking process and seek their own ‘aha’ moments.  This process positions teachers to notice the overlooked language of mathematics, see their own language expertise, and reveal unseen facets of their existing content knowledge. This sensemaking empowers teachers to see themselves as those best equipped to sense, make sense of, and become sensitive to the language of mathematics.

Once Mr. Paulsen felt he had a better handle on how mathematical sense was made and constructed, we considered how this information could be used to give more meaningful instruction and formative assessment to his students.  Instead of planning to simply show another exemplar argument, we chose to create and juxtapose two different arguments for his students to discuss in class.  Using language inspired by multiple student work samples, we created two viable arguments for an adapted MARS Task (Toy Trains) his class had recently completed (see image below).

Maria says that a train set from Julio’s Puzzles has 40 wheels.  Can Maria be correct?



Maria is correct because Julio’s Puzzles only sells trains with exactly 8 wheels. In the real world, stores only sell full train sets.  This means that any train sets Julio sells must be sold in multiples of 8. In this example, Maria claims to have a train set with exactly 40 wheels. Since 40 is a multiple of 8, Maria is correct. Maria is correct that she says a train set from Julio’s Puzzles has 40 wheels.  Maria must buy a plethora of train sets. Trains from Julio’s Puzzles do not necessitate an engine, unlike Alex’s Toy Shop.  Therefore, Maria’s argument is affirmed, and she will be able to obtain a train set from Julio’s puzzles that has 40 wheels.

Mr. Paulsen’s goal was to draw on his own knowledge and sensemaking of mathematical argumentation to push his students to notice and focus on the overall structure and discourse-level features of a viable argument in mathematics rather than the word- and sentence-level features that both he and his students had focused on in the past.  Knowing that his students tended to regurgitate phrases in the question and fish for vocabulary, we crafted Argument B to use many of the “big words” and question re-phrasings that the students associated with good answers, but contain little logical structure.

We were careful to use the word mustin both arguments to show how a word can contribute to mathematical reasoning in one case (Argument A), but not another (Argument B), and was careful to make each argument of approximately equal length to avoid another common student misconception that better arguments were simply longer.  Argument A used more simplistic words, but included a claim, a statement of mathematical base case or universal truth, and how the specific case related to the base case.  In short, it used the internally cohesive structure consistent with a viable mathematical argument that Mr. Paulsen had previously identified.

The class on creating viable arguments opened with a Do Now we created in which the students were asked to reflect on what it means to “construct a viable argument” and to identify the structural components of a viable argument in English class.  This was intended to focus the students on reasoning and to link the structure of mathematical argumentation with a similar claim-evidence-warrant structure the students were familiar with from ELA.

Mr. Paulsen then presented the structure of a viable argument to the class, mapping his own sensemaking onto the claim-evidence-warrant structure used throughout the school.  Narrating a smartboard slide, Mr. Paulsen described a claim as the answer to the question, evidence as a universal truth, and a warrant to show how the specific case is an example of the evidence.  He then guided students through a sample argument, focusing specifically on the new and unfamiliar component of a universal truth by using a comfortable and familiar example–that all even numbers were divisible by two.

After leading a discussion about this straightforward example, students were then given the two Toy Train arguments we had created.  In addition to comparing and contrasting Argument A and B, the students were asked to identify the components of each argument and make a conjecture about which argument they thought a college student would use.

As expected, the students initially focused on specific words they associated with academic writing, such as the words ‘plethora,’ ‘necessitate,’ and affirmed,’ but the class soon realized that “fancy vocabulary” did not necessarily equate to a “viable argument.”  However, Mr. Paulsen did draw students’ attention to certain specific words, namely since, which signaled the base case was the reason that the specific case was true.  He emphasized how sinceshowed the causality between the evidence and warrant in a way that and, a transition word commonly used by the students, did not.

Importantly, though Mr. Paulsen provided a structure for argumentation and attended to specific words, he was careful not to turn the writing of mathematical arguments into a prescribed procedure.  He repeatedly pointed out multiple ways an idea could be expressed and challenged students to provide different word choices as the class co-constructed viable arguments.

By the end of the class, most students were able to choose Argument A as the more viable option, and identify the claim, base case (evidence), and specific case (warrant) within Argument A.  Thoughmany students still tended to describe Argument A using the same vague language often used by teachers (it needed to “be clearer” or “elaborate more”), some students were able to express specific ways that both Argument A and their own arguments could be improved to better mirror the structure and viability of Argument B.

What began as an attempt to create an intervention for my students to make sense of constructing viable arguments quickly revealed the need to better understand my own sensemaking.  My advice to students to “show your thinking,” “say how you got there,” or “be clear” did not provide sufficient scaffold for students to be able to craft a viable argument.

After Meghan asked me to reflect on what it means to ‘be clear,’ I recognized that I needed to dig deeper and unpack my own knowledge and expectations about the argumentation process that I had taken for granted in my practice.  I shifted from evaluating the arguments my students were producing to systematically reasoning through my own mathematical understanding and expectations for arguments.  By engaging in this process, I could see my own expectations more clearly and was able to articulate what I had been pushing my students to do.  I then worked with Meghan to develop a modified claim-evidence-warrant structure to scaffold arguments for my students and guide my student feedback to be more meaningful, specific, and actionable.

Though Meghan’s questions prompted this journey, her asking about clarity led me to my own questioning about mathematical reasoning. I am now more cognizant that my previous instruction was only sufficient for students who could adequately guess what I meant when I told them to “be clear.”  This process of inquiry helped me peel back the layers of mathematical expectations for argumentation and scaffold students beyond the sentence or vocab level so that they can make arguments at the discourse level.

The process of sensemaking was just as important as the product of the intervention. In other words, instead of jumping over the process (my inquiry) to get to the product (the intervention), it is just as important to focus on the sense-making process.  The intervention we produced met my intent to better prepare each of my students to access Mathematical Practice 3, but that was not the only valuable takeaway. As a teacher and lifelong learner, engaging in this inquiry not only prepared me to better understand one concept or teach one topic; it prepared me to go back and investigate any mathematical practice (such as what it means to “attend to precision”), which motivated me to share this sensemaking process with other teachers.  In the same way that Meghan’s inquiry kick-started the reflection on my teaching practice, I hope that this research can model and scaffold sensemaking in a way that can support other math teachers trying to come to a better sense of their own mathematical expectations, assumptions, and practices.


Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24, 249-306.

Moschkovich, J. N. (2007). Examining mathematical discourse practices. For The Learning of Mathematics, 27(1), 24-30.

Harper, C. A., & de Jong, E. J. (2009). English language teacher expertise: the elephant in the room. Language and Education,23(2), 137–151.

Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)

Reflections from the 2018 Agile Mind Academy

“Mathematics has the greatest and most indefensible differences in achievement and participation for students of different ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic income levels of any subject taught in the United States.” Jo Boaler, Mathematical Mindsets

During this year’s Advisor Academy, Agile Mind brought together advisors that offer services for partners districts and used Mathematical Mindsets to ground our thinking for the week. The quoted text above was particularly eye-opening for me, and reinforced the importance of our work as we look to transform the teaching and learning of mathematics and science throughout our country. Vice President of Professional Services David Savage kicked-off the Academy with a session that made us think critically about the need to “double-up” our impact and pushed us to consider what we need to do to support more teachers and students. To help us achieve this bold vision, we use intense data-mining to help determine exactly where we need to go. As Agile Mind CEO Linda Chaput put it, if you want to build a garden, you need to watch where the people walk.


To that end, we engaged in critical conversations throughout the week about how we can continue to impact change in science and math classes everywhere. Linda asked us to reflect on the resources that are available for aspiring doctors, lawyers, and engineers as they learn their craft, and wondered why the same quality of materials are not available to pre-service teachers. While I have often talked about how Agile Mind was developed to help improve achievement for some of our most vulnerable students, our organization truly values educators and looks to empower teachers with high-quality resources to achieve this end.

During this inspirational and informative week, we also had a chance to learn about cutting-edge research from leaders at the Charles A. Dana Center. This year, we took a ‘deep-dive’ on the concept of ratio, rate, and proportional reasoning. Susan May, Lisa Brown, Susan May, and Kathi Cook helped explain a big mathematical shift from elementary school to middle school, as students move from working mostly with additive relationships (how much taller is John than Matthew?) towards multiplicative relationships. In the common core state standards, sixth grade is where this major change in thinking happens, but many math teachers take this important shift for granted (ask any middle school teacher what topic students struggle with the most, and they will undoubtedly say, “fractions”). These leaders explained that students need to develop an understanding of ratios without using a fraction notation that can cause confusion, which was a major “ah-ha” moment for many of us.

We also had a chance to think critically about how to unleash all students’ power through differentiation with Abby Neumeyer. I believe now more than ever that we need to re-think our connotation of what differentiation really means and looks like in classrooms. Traditionally, many teachers have thought of differentiation as offering different tasks to different students. While this may be an effective method in certain limited situation, Abby encouraged us to instead re-think our definitions of what effective differentiation really is, and pushed us to ensure that we are upholding high expectations for every student.

I also cannot thank Abby enough for her dedication to make a professional services hub that will help empower our advisors moving forward.

Joyce Boubel leading a session on serving emergent biliguals

Joyce Boubel led a thought-provoking session which highlighted that our public schools are becoming increasingly more diverse and more students than ever are emergent bilinguals. As such, it is crucial that we consider how to best support these students as they progress throughout their formative years. In collaboration with the Dana Center, Agile Mind has published research-informed best practices to best reach students learning the English Language while upholding high academic expectations for all students. Joyce shared many of these best practices, and feel free to read a summated version of this resource here.

Massie McAdoo also led an informative session on formative assessments, and highlighted this passage from Mathematical Mindsets: “[Paul Black and Dylan Williams] found something amazing: a form of assessment so powerful that if teachers shifted their practices and used it, it would raise the achievement of a country, as measured in international studies, from the middle of the pack to a place in the top five… if teachers were to use what is now called ‘assessment for learning,’  the positive impact would be far greater than that of other educational initiatives such as reductions in class size.”

Massie shared how every Agile Mind course program encompasses thousands of formative assessment items, many of which can be automatically scored and reported in real time, thus providing instantaneous, targeted feedback for learners while enabling teachers to use data to impact instructional decisions in the moment. One of the great things about working at Agile Mind is that we are always talking about scale. In fact, “to date, almost 4 million students have engaged more than 3 billion times with our embedded assessment tasks. Data on their experiences are used to enhance tasks to ensure they fulfill the promise made by assessments: that if learners have mastered the necessary knowledge, they will succeed.”

Talking with Susan May from the Dana Center

Although this was my second time attending the Advisor Academy, it was my first time attending as a Senior Advisor. I was excited to share some ideas I had about leveraging social media to increase our outreach with school leaders, facilitate an NCTM-inspired ‘Ignite!’ session, and lead a workshop on best practices from the research of adult development theory; I can only hope that Dr. Drago-Severson would be proud!

Overall, it was truly an inspirational week with such a talented group of educators that are making a difference in schools throughout the country. After a busy two months, I honestly could not be prouder to be part of such an incredible team and I look forward to working and learning with them as we continue our critical work in improving our public schools throughout the country.

Exploring Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder

Cambodia was one of my favorite countries that I have ever been privileged to visit. I started my trip last month in Siem Reap, a small city in the middle of the country that has hundreds of well-preserved temples that are thousands of years old. Thousands of years ago, the city was called Angkor, a megacity that contained 0.1% of the world’s population at its heyday. Angkor served as the capital of the mighty Khmer Empire, an empire that was a powerful state in South East Asia. The kingdom was so large, in fact, that between the 9thand 15th centuries, the Khmer Empire covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.

Cambodia - 1
Standing in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Exploring Angkor Wat, Bayon, and other structures around Temple Town was truly an indescribable experience. After all, “Angkor evokes the image of a giant palimpsest – like a medieval parchment erased and overwritten repeatedly. The capitals of the Khmer Empire were established here one after another, one on top of the other, almost continuously for over seven centuries, profoundly shaping the entire landscape. Over time, a dense and complex matrix was created, evidenced primarily by the spectacular succession of monumental temples. These grandiose structures made of brick and sandstone have survived the passage of time, unlike the greater part of the cities whose houses and palaces, built of wood and other perishable materials, have disappeared into the jungle leaving behind the skeletal remains of the Angkor civilizations seen today. Nonetheless, the remaining skeleton is so impressive that naturally everyone tries to imagine the temples at the time of their splendor, bustling with life and color” (Angkor Guide Book).

Angkor slowly started losing its influence during the 15th century. Although many historians still wonder what exactly brought down the mighty Khmer Empire, we know now that the neighboring Siamese kingdom in Ayutthaya (modern-day Thailand) conquered the kingdom during the mid-1400’s. The Kingdom of Angkor slowly drifted into irrelevance, until the French colonized “Indochina” in the mid-19th century. Cambodia was placed under French rule for almost a hundred years, until Prince Norodom Sihanouk (who claimed Angkor King lineage) won independence for his country. The United States, upset over his rise to power, helped Lon Nol set up a successive military coup, which led to a brutal capitalist form of government. Many Cambodians hated the US-backed Nol and supported an up-and-coming rebel group that called themselves the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge.

Under the brutal leadership of “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia on April 17th, 1975, immediately renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, and started a brutal genocide that tortured and killed anyone with alleged ties to the former government. By 1980, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge were well-known: Pol Pot ordered the execution of two million of his own people (about one-quarter of the population), including 80% of teachers and 95% of doctors. Cambodia, as Pol Pot liked to say, was returned to “year zero.”

During my time in Cambodia, I humbly visited one of the mass killing fields and “Security Prison 21″ (S-21), also known as Tuol Sleng, “a former high school in central Phnom Penh that the Khmer Rouge had turned into a torture and death house. Vietnamese journalist and soldiers first walked in to find rotting corpses still in shackles. Gruesome torture implements lay about, and in an outbuilding the soldiers found thousands of pages of records, including photographs of the victims. At least 15,000 Cambodians had been taken there, tortured until they confessed to being an enemy agent, and then killed – whacked on the head with an iron pole” (Cambodia’s Curse).

Unfortunately, Pol Pot was successful in returning Cambodia to year zero, and the country has never fully recovered from its dark past: By the tenth grade, 87% of students have dropped out of school. In fact, most Cambodians today over the age of 35 have had little formal education; the average family makes about $3.00 USD a day, and Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Visiting this high school turned death camp turned genocide museum is an important reminder to all of us as to what can happen when we allow a narcissistic autocrat to separate families, make false promises, scapegoat immigrants and political opponents, lie to their citizens, and make a free press the “enemy of the people” (as a side note, we are often mortified when we look at the horrors of the past, but too many of us remain silent about the injustices being carried out in the United States of America right now).

Yet in the midst of this deep oppression, I somehow found myself at the most special place I have ever visited in my entire life: The LaValla School. Amongst all the devastating poverty and oppression that has long crippled the Cambodian people, lies one of God’s greatest treasures, where you can hear the laughter and feel the joy of the children from beyond the gates. The LaValla School is (somehow) the only government-approved school in the entire country of Cambodia that provides a full primary education to children with physical disabilities. Founded by the Marist Brothers over twenty years ago, the amount of genuine joy and happiness at this place is truly remarkable.

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The second I arrived at LaValla, students came running up to me and gave me a big welcome hug. One of the students took my hand and started showing me around the school right away; I have never felt so welcomed during any school visit in my life. To be fair, this place is more than just a school – it is a true community.

The Kingdom of Cambodia truly stole my heart this week. After decades of genocide, corruption, oppression, and extreme poverty, the Cambodians that I met were some of the most resilient and welcoming people that I have ever known. That being said, all of us are “guilty of romanticizing squalor and imagining that a simpler life must be happier and more content than our own. It is simply not true when the measure of that simplicity is no access to medicine, education or clean food and water . . . [yet] there is no denying the subtle charms of lives lived with a careful attention to the present and the everyday” (Walter Mason).

On the day of my flight back to Kaohsiung, I never cried so hard leaving a place in my entire life. Perhaps Mike Duffy, who visited the Lavalla School for two months last year, put it best: “I have obviously struggled to put into words the soulful beauty of life here, where God is ever so vibrantly present. It is something that I will do my very best to continue to share with you all, as this experience has already changed the man I am. With a filled heart and tremendous pleasure, I am adding some pictures to try to encapture LaValla, the children, and their joy to be alive.”

Thank you for a truly transformational week, Kampuchea! This school, these amazing children, and this beautiful country will be in my heart forever.


An American Abroad

This past memorial day, on my flight from Kuala Lumpur back to Kaohsiung, I had the privilege of sitting next to an active-duty member of our U.S. military currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan. During our four-hour flight, we had an incredible conversation that covered just about every topic, including the role of America’s military in 2018, the current geo-political climate of the world, and yes, Mr. Trump. The marine I sat next to told humorous, informative, and enlightening stories about being stationed in Romania, training troops in Bulgaria, and moving to Japan. Towards the end of the flight, I asked him what his current responsibility in the military was, and he talked about how, in his perspective, the U.S. military’s greatest strength is in soft diplomacy. He talked about the need for our soldiers to gain trust in foreign lands by getting to know the locals, understand their culture, and grow to mutually understand one another. Although we were the same age and had taken radically different paths in life, we both somehow ended up on the same flight, headed to the same destination, with the same goal in mind: to advance the virtues of the United States through the use of soft power.

Decades ago, Joseph Nye originally coined this term – soft power – in his critically-acclaimed work Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He wrote that, “if a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow… when one country gets other countries to want what it wants, [it] might be called soft power, in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” More recently, Nye has suggested that the “best propaganda is not propaganda,” and that “credibility is the scarcest resource.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates believed in this vision, and advocated that the Bush administration consider “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development.”

Not a day passed by in these last eight months that I did not work hard to advance the soft power efforts of our country. As a cultural ambassador for the United States, I was invited to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, had an interview with Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, and gave a presentation to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce. On a daily basis, I had the opportunity to interact with ordinary people that have never met an American before. I visited at least one high school (in Tainan) that told me that I was the first American to ever visit their school. On many occasions, I was asked representative questions about the United States, and while I always strived to be welcoming and open to dialogue, I always made it clear that I was sharing my opinion, as there is no such thing as a representative American perspective. In truth, I was trying my hardest to avoid the danger of telling a single story.

I also had the opportunity to visit the cold war outpost of Kinmen and even played basketball with students that are living in a former warzone – talk about true soft diplomacy! Kinmen (formerly known as Quemoy) was the site of the last battles of the Chinese civil war, and was later shelled heavily by the PRC’s Liberation Army throughout the 1950’s. The Taiwanese island is so close to the mainland that my cell phone network automatically switched to a mainland Chinese phone carrier! This trip also served as an important reminder of the urgency to study our history so that we may never repeat the mistakes of our past. For me, I still question how I somehow have made it through 13 years of public education (and an additional 8 years of university) without every hearing about the role Quemoy and Matsu played in the Taiwanese Strait Crisis.

Speaking of learning about our past, I also saw the atrocities of war first-hand when I visited Vietnam. Unlike many conflicts, including World War II, the Vietnam War ended in the 1970’s. This means there are millions of people still alive that remember the war like it was yesterday, and one cannot walk a single block in Ho Chi Minh without seeing someone that has been negatively impacted by Agent Orange. It was sad standing at the War Remnants Museum, next to captured American tanks and airplanes, and asking whether all these deaths, destruction, and birth defects were worth it. At the time, many Americans subscribed to the so-called “domino theory,” and believed that if one country were to become communist, all of Asia would quickly become communist. In hindsight, it is clear just how wrong many of those leaders were in our past. In some ways, America in 2018 in similar to America in 1968, because during the war, “the United States was widely unpopular around the world, as it is now… Yet despite unpopular government policies, our openness and self-criticism allowed the American idea to retain its appeal. A free press, independent courts, and a Congress willing to confront the executive branch can provide a similar measure of soft power today.”

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Standing at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City next to a U.S. Army helicopter captured during the Vietnam War.

It frustrates me to no end when people accuse me of being anti-military because I am anti-war. I have the deepest respect for our armed forces and will be forever grateful for their sacrifices. But we must question, why do we constantly get involved in meaningless conflicts that put our brave soldiers in harm’s way to begin with in the first place? My grandfather, who meant the world to me, served in the Korean War. While we only have a few photos of him during this time period, look at how happy he looks when he is with his fellow Koreans. I particularly love the photos of him standing with Korean children. To me, I have no doubt about it: my grandfather fundamentally believed in the idea of soft power, and worked hard to win over the hearts and minds of the Korean people.

In fact, I was the first person in my family to visit the Korean peninsula since he was honorably discharged almost 70 years ago. Standing in the de-militarized zone and briefly walking into North Korea was an experience that brought many personal feelings to bare. I can only hope that he would be proud of me.

Nothing, however, was as powerful as visiting Hiroshima.

At 8:15am on August 6th, 1945, a U.S. army B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and our world was changed forever. It was surreal being one of the few Americans to ever walk around the atomic bomb dome and the Peace Memorial Museum, and I was at a particular loss for words when I was standing directly underneath the hypocenter of the bomb. When visiting the memorial, it was interesting that the memorial did not solely blame the United States, but rather both countries, for putting their egos in front of the lives of innocent citizens. For me, the hardest part of the day was visiting an elementary school that survived the initial impact, where a majority of the young students were killed instantly.

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“I heard what others have said about Hiroshima. Now I have seen for myself, and I am utterly devastated.” -Desmond Tutu

While visiting Hiroshima was without question one of the most difficult places that I have ever been to, there were many difficult conversations I had throughout my time in Asia. When I met with Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce, I told her how difficult it was being asked questions about the current administration or our country’s absurd obsession with guns everywhere I went (I encourage all of my fellow Americans to read an op-ed I wrote that boldly declares that our problem with gun violence is #NotNormal). Truth be told, I was asked questions about school shootings and Trump on a daily basis during my time abroad, which were unequivocally the hardest to answer as a representative of our country. It is not necessarily because of Trump’s policies, as I am all for a political disagreement – dissent and diversity of thought and culture is what truly makes America great. Truth be told, it has been embarrassing to be an American abroad during the so-called era of Trump. Simply put, our president does not represent our country well, and respect for America around the world is in an objective freefall (well, except for in two countries: Russia and Israel). As I told our Assistant Secretary last month, it has been hard serving as a cultural ambassador for the United States during this tumultuous time period under an administration that does not believe in soft power.

Why has it been so hard answering question about Trump? Maybe it is because he praises dictators while he is incredibly hostile with our closest allies. He openly mocks disabled people, and makes lewd remarks of women. His Secretary of Education knows nothing about schools while his EPA Director has repeatedly abused his authority. After complaining for years about how much golf President Obama has played, he has played more golf than any other president. Trump and his administration lie about everything, including paying off people that he had had affairs with and meetings during his campaign. He is a proponent of separating vulnerable families at the border and wants to widen the death penalty for drug dealers. He calls African nations “sh*t-hole countries”   and calls immigrants of color, “animals.” And to put the figurative sprinkles on top, he neither believes in the power of soft diplomacy nor the mission of the Fulbright Program.

On the contrary, I have seen the innate power of soft diplomacy first hand. I have gotten to know so many amazing people, in a part of the world that is greatly misunderstood by the west. I have come to have a deep appreciation for Taiwanese hospitality, and the importance of standing up for what is right.

At the end of the day, the “greatest threat to the American idea is what we may do to it ourselves. Terrorism is like jujitsu: The small players win if they make the large player use his strength against himself. If we respond to terrorism by becoming less open—economically, socially, and politically—we lose. As George Kennan warned in 1946, at the start of the Cold War, the greatest danger that can befall us is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Here is my charge to my fellow Americans: We can do better. Scratch that, we must do better. I encourage you all to get your information and news from objective news sources, such as BBC and NPR, and stop watching outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, or FOX. If you have the opportunity, travel abroad as much as possible, and strive to really get to know the people of foreign countries and their culture and way of life. Try to listen to others more, especially people that do not look like you or may have different worldviews. Push your thinking by watching documentaries and reading books and attending local lectures and talks. Perhaps most importantly, reflect critically on your belief system, and constantly ask yourself why you believe what you believe. If there is anything that I have learned in my first 27 years of life, it is that people are people everywhere. At the end of the day, everyone I have ever met wants their family to be healthy, their kids to be successful, and to be treated fairly and justly. Is that too much to ask?

When President Obama visited Hiroshima, he reminded us that, “we have long known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace and pursue a [better] world.” Perhaps I am an eternal optimist (and pacifist), but I fundamentally believe that we can make this world a better place if we try. I mean, why not aim to create good instead of evil? Why not look to make peace instead of war? Why not try to spread love and compassion instead of hate and arrogance?

Now (especially now) is the time for an effort like never before to achieve peace.

Let us all take hands.

This post is dedicated to Anthony Bourdain, someone that knew how to travel and celebrate life better than anyone. He worked relentlessly to show us that we should not be afraid of strangers in our global community, and that people are people everywhere. Thank you for inspiring so many people (including myself) to take this world by storm, Mr. Bourdain.