It’s not the’s the system..

Have you watched Hard Lessons on Netflix? To sum it up, the movie is a portrayal of the life of Dr. George McKenna. McKenna is a man that 30 years ago walked into a failing Los Angeles high school and turned it around. What may perhaps be most striking about the film is that the issues raised in his distressed inner city gang infested community include things like low student attendance, students arriving at school below grade level, lack of teacher buy in, and lack of community support and all still ring true today. I am not even in California and have taught at a school similar to the one that 30 years ago was considered in need of a turnaround.

Watching the film the question has to be asked, is the problem the kids or the system that sets out to educate them?

I have been a teacher in some sketchy circumstances and you may have too. That is to say that I have walked into a building and been expected to teach with no curriculum, no standards, and no money. Sound familiar? Teachers tell me often how they are expected to teach students but given little direction as to how to do it and little support as well. I have been a teacher in a school that was so gang filled I had two students in my class get into a school fight that led to one tragically murdering the other outside of school. I have also been a teacher and had one student tell me that she was being sex trafficked while another told me he was homeless and living in an abandoned house. Still in all of those circumstances, I believed that my students could learn. I believed that if I could just get them the resources needed to handle their most pressing basic needs we could then focus on learning what they needed to know to rise above their circumstances. That determination to see them grow led to MANY long nights after school and weekends coming in to make copies but I persisted because I loved each of them and I believed that if they were only exposed to the broader world they could come to see their capabilities as I did.

What I fail to understand in this moment when teacher pay dominates political rhetoric and technology has transformed the way we see the world and each other is why we have been unable to move the needle for children of color and children in poverty. If those two happen to come together it is very often a double whammy that few students can surmount. Sure we understand that children of color need teachers of color. There are a variety of programs that pump new and excited teachers into classrooms where students are under resourced and running out of time. Still, despite these efforts the achievement and opportunity gap persist. Not only does that gap persist but fewer people than ever before are opting to become teachers. We have a problem.

The elephant in the room is our mindset.

We cannot educate children that we are afraid to engage. That means that school models that strip children of their culture and voice are not ultimately lasting vehicles of education change. We are essentially saying that we must strip students of their personhood in order to make them safe enough to educate. The fact that as school systems we believe that we must lead the charge in “getting students ready for the world” without truly engaging their families is very heavy handed and narcissistic. On the other hand, we can’t assume that teachers arrive at our doors without any need of further development. We can’t put teachers into the classroom and fail to support them. Teacher support is more than just observation and feedback. It is clarity of expectations and funding as well. Too often we lay at teachers’ feet the baggage that comes with students living in survival mode but we don’t often consider what baggage that teacher may carry.

Until we have an education system that allows for teachers to receive the same support that we expect them to give students, we are going to continue to see gaps between kids. When teachers are better resourced and supported, students do better. When teachers are stretched too thin with competing messaging, obligations, and no support students suffer. Fired Up Teaching Inc is about providing teachers that support. We understand the need for it and the sacredness of the space because we created it. This organization is not just about “helping” teachers. We would like to think that we are the spark that starts the flame that creates the fire that changes the way we educate students and ourselves. Let’s not wait another 30 years to address the issue.

Are you ready for the new PBL?

Are you ready for the next phase of problem based learning? Finland has been taking the teaching approach that we all have grown accustomed to and made it even more nuanced. The new PBL is not problem or project based learning, it is phenomenon based learning. Yes. You read that right. Phenomenon based learning is an approach to learning that is student centered like its predecessors but broad, multifaceted, and interdisciplinary.

The goal with this approach is to push students to use the questions they have about the world around them to explore that world from different perspectives and contexts.

From the phenomenal education website

Phenomenon based learning is not new. It has been around for at least five years and probably longer than that. The Finnish approach to teaching aims to design students who will do well in the classroom of the future, a place where “The school of the future is not a building, it is a culture of competence development, a pedagogical culture that has an active role in the development process of the information society.” ~Pasi Silander

The move from project to problem to phenomenon should come as no surprise. As our understanding of teaching and learning increases our teaching practices must evolve. What must also evolve is our methodology and our resource allocation. Too often, teachers are unable to keep up with changes in educational approach because they are bogged down by a lack of focus at the administrative level. Conversely, many times students are unable to get the instructional experiences they deserve because teacher training lags behind current education pedagogy. It is up to us to be clear eyed in our focus on student learning and committed putting our resources fully behind whatever approach is going to move students from passive consumers of their education experience to active and informed participants.

Learn more about phenomenon based learning below:

We CAN prevent student suicide

Recently, the Washington Post covered the story of eight year old Gabriel Taye. Taye was a third grade student in Ohio who killed himself due to bullying at his school. According to school officials, they did not know the extent of the bullying. When Taye and his parents brought any issues of bullying or student disagreement to their attention they addressed it. The problem is that their communication to the family was not as free flowing. According to the article, Carson Elementary School administrators did not keep them in the loop with all of the incidents happening between Gabriel and other boys at school. As a result, Gabriel’s parents continued to put him in a school situation that was clearly causing him distress.

The truth is that this story is sad. Gabriel could have been any child in any one of our classroom. While this case works its way through the court systems there is one thing that stands out..Carson Elementary administrators and teachers could have done more to communicate with Gabriel’s family. I know. Teachers are busy and do not see all encounters between all students at all times. That however is not an appropriate excuse. Schools are responsible for keeping children safe while they are in the building and on school grounds. If school officials were aware that Gabriel had an issue with other boys in his grade, they should have taken more steps to keep not only him, but all students safe. In this instance, the day before he killed himself, Gabriel was allegedly beaten in a school bathroom. He lay in the bathroom for several minutes kicked and hit by peers before an administrator discovered him. According to that administrator, Gabriel said that he had fainted. Video footage showed that he had been hit.

Many times over the course of our work in education, we become numb to the children in our care.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t care for them. I am suggesting that we become so desensitized to student conflict, family need, and classroom dynamics that we can miss when a child is truly in distress. My hope is that Gabriel’s story helps to pull us out of that lethargy. If his administrators even after seeing him lying on the bathroom floor had began to have staff supervise the restrooms, had reviewed the video footage considering that a student was lying on the ground in full view of a camera, and had let his parents know that he was struggling, Gabriel may still be alive today. Instead he was helped off of the ground and sent to the nurse no questions or camera review needed. Not only was Gabriel failed here but so was his family.

The other issue at play here is the information we give parents about school choice. Gabriel was the only child of a nurse and an engineer.

Even with those impressive backgrounds my guess is that his family had no idea of how to determine if an environment was a good fit for their son and what to do if it wasn’t.

It is our job as educators to reach out to parents and let them know that we are invested in their child’s success. Hopefully that means keeping them at our schools but even if it doesn’t, we owe it to them to help them find a place where their child can be their best selves. I find that in our country we are torn between two moments in education. There is the “stiff upper lip everyone goes through it toughen up” school of education thought and then there is the “everyone needs to be seen heard and comfortable even if it is virtually impossible” school of thought. Somewhere between the two is what should have happened for Gabriel. Let’s not get so caught up in enrollment numbers, test scores, and curriculum that we miss the reason we show up in our classrooms in the first place. As educators we are daily in service to children and families. It is our job and I would argue our Divine calling to through the lens of our classroom environment and instruction, help children to become who they are meant to be. We can’t take that duty lightly or ignore those we are meant to serve. We never know which lives are at stake. RIP Gabriel.

Three Strategies to Support Teachers in the Classroom

More than ever before, the need for comprehensive teacher support is making itself apparent. While the above article only references the experiences of a few teachers in Houston, their stories ring true for many more. Teachers are being tasked with teaching to all student learning needs, connecting meaningfully with each student, creating lessons that are engaging and incorporate technology while grading work in a way that gives students the feedback they need for academic success. That is a tall order. Add to that the need to support students social emotional needs as well and you get why some simply decide to quit the profession altogether. Discussions about student supports abound in contemporary education circles. Teachers are being trained on strategies to support students who present trauma in the classroom. Teachers are being trained on strategies geared towards helping students to work well with others and process “big” emotions. Teachers however, are not being presented with those same supports.

If we want to stem the tide of teachers leaving the profession in five years or less we must think more critically about how to model for teachers the supports we want them to give to students. Teachers cannot be expected to take a human centered approach to teaching and learning if that same approach isn’t taken in their training.


  1. Begin with connection: Teachers are people too and doing a very difficult job.

2. Provide supports and keep providing them: Drive by pd does no one any good

3.  Listen to feedback: The support and connection make no difference if teachers aren’t heard


3 Mind Shifts for Teachers to reach classroom success

Recently, Edweek published an article about how difficult it can be for teachers to manage classrooms. In the article, the author talks about how teachers attribute student misbehavior to troubled families, inconsistent administration, and poverty to name a few. The goal of course was to talk about how suspensions accelerate students along the school to prison pipeline and we have to disrupt that with things like restorative practices.

The Current Situation:

The national conversation is swirling with ideas for supporting students in poverty. We are learning more and more about ways to intervene for students who have additional support needs and keep from pushing students out of the classroom. The thing is that while we are having conversation, true systems wide change has been slow in coming. Teachers feel unheard in classrooms that are outsized and under resourced. While no one would argue that restorative practices are not helpful with students, but they do require training and a school wide commitment to practice them with fidelity. In order for students to benefit from all of this adult talk, we must pair it with action.

We Need a Paradigm Shift:

We must remember our students are humans and so are we. As humans, we are prone to making mistakes and have to work at sharing what makes us vulnerable. That means in order for a classroom to “work” and both students and teachers to feel “seen” teachers must create an environment where it is safe to be authentic. The kind of relationship building needed to disrupt pipelines and keep teachers (not to mention students) in classrooms has to be built intentionally.

How to Create Change

  1. Be vulnerable. If you need any more convincing about vulnerability, its purpose, or its power take a look at this TED Talk by Dr. Brene Brown. Students need to see their teachers as real people so they know it is safe for them to be real people as well.



2. See your students as valuable people. At this point, we understand that if we are to make inroads with students, we need to step outside of our personal comfort zones and value what they value. We also have to convey that value in a way that students view as authentic. For ideas on how to do that check out this TED Talk from Dr. Chris Emdin on the power of hip hop culture in education. While the genre of choice might not apply to your students, the principles do.



3. Be flexible in your approach. Classrooms look different teacher to teacher year to year and sometimes day to day. Be willing to meet your students where they are even if it means leaving your personal instructional comfort zone. Your kids need as much exposure as they can to as many ideas as possible. We can never be sure which one may be the one that changes their outlook of themselves and the world.

The Literacy Diet in Early Childhood with Kelli Cronk

Join Dr. Kia and her friend Kelli Cronk at the lunch table! Kelli and Kia talk about what the Literacy Diet looks like in the Early Childhood classroom in this episode.Learn more about fluency and word study in pre-kindergarten! PROMISE it’s your FAVORITE weekly PD!


Get your tickets for Wildfire 2019[podcast src=”” height=”360″ width=”100%” placement=”bottom” theme=”standard”]

7 Brothers and Finnish Education Reform

I told you the last time we had book club that I had to know more about the 7 Brothers story mentioned in The Smartest Kids in the World. Anytime a single story can unite a nation around education reform, I have to look into it! It turns out that 7 Brothers is a pretty famous story in Finland…but difficult to find here in the States. While I found some videos, a few rough translations, and library books I still think there is more to this story and its implications.

Essentially the story goes that there are seven brothers who are uneducated, rough, and rowdy. Their parents die and leave them the farm. Rather than conform to societal expectations and become literate law abiding members of their community, they choose to rent their land out and live in the wilderness. During their time in the wilderness, they manage to cause all kinds of trouble for themselves and their neighbors. Nothing that they attempt to do works out well. Ultimately they decide to return to the farm, learn to read, and contribute to society. The implication here is that literacy is the path to a good least in my Americanized translation of the overall theme.

The other theme that sticks out here is this awakening of Finnish people as represented by the brothers. They are at first content to live dat to day with no thought for the future or education. When they learn to read however, they realize how important it is and how it allows them to see the lives they have been living in a new way. They have a level of societal access that they did not have before. The story points out that in order to make progress, one must understand the value of one’s contribution. That can only be done through being literate and engaged.

What I appreciate about the story is that it holds out the idea that we have only to want to improve our circumstances and we absolutely can. There is also a bit of pushback against the American idea that everyone can go their own way. In 7 Brothers, the community is at its best when everyone is literate and learning. When I think about what that means for American education two thoughts come to mind:

  1. We have to decide on a baseline- What I mean here is that in American education we have to agree that no matter what, all children should learn to do x in x fashion before y point in time. While I am a fan of allowing students to work at their own pace and respecting individual differences, we can all agree that literacy is a non-negotiable. What we need also to agree on is how children are taught to be literate, when we expect full literacy, and why it is important.
  2. We have to let go- We can’t all move in the same direction and all remain in our individual bubbles. I think of the uproar Arne Duncan caused with his introduction of Common Core standards. States wanted to continue teaching and learning in their own way no matter how disparate the outcomes. The same is true with approaches to teacher preparation. Some programs continue where they are comfortable despite teacher support needs.


The truth is that we have to be aligned and we have to be willing to let go of some of our demands in order for American to have the Finnish education comeback story. In an age with so many resources, there is little reason for so much academic disparity.

Here is one of my favorite TED Talks on literacy:


~Dr. Kia

Why the PISA Exam is the ONE test all kids should take

Hey Firestarters! Last week during book club we talked about the PISA Test. In her book The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley made a pretty strong argument about how what we view as “premiere education” here in the States does not stack up against the education received in other countries. She cited the PISA test as the data used to support her claims. After the reading, I was curious to see if the PISA test was still being taken by US students, and if so, how our kids are faring. I know that you probably already saw this coming but the results were eye opening. While US students have certainly made improvements, there are other take aways that I believe will help to inform our approach to education in this country.

First of all, the PISA test is absolutely still taken by U.S. students but unfortunately it is not taken universally. I pulled this directly from the site:

In PISA, each participating country is represented by a small sample of schools and students selected to reflect its population and educational contexts and provide valid estimates of student achievement. Schools in the U.S. are selected using a scientific process from a list of all schools in the United States enrolling 15-year-old students. The selection method ensures that the U.S. participants accurately represent the whole United States, not just particular types of schools or groups of students. In the United States, 240 schools have been randomly selected to take part in PISA 2015. In each school, up to 42 students will be randomly selected to participate. Also, 25 teachers in each school will also be asked to complete a teacher questionnaire.

In order to keep the process fair, schools and students are randomly selected for each country. I know that this really does help to provide a window into instruction but I wish that the test were something that schools could opt in to take. Even if their results were not reported along with the national ones, I think the information would be good for school and district leaders to have.

The PISA measures several things that we currently are struggling to quantify including:

  1. Problem Solving and Collaboration Ability
  2. Life Satisfaction
  3. Sense of Belonging
  4. School Related Anxiety
  5. Financial Literacy
  6. Parental Support

I think that we have an eye on these things in US Education but we are just now getting to a place where we all understand that students need more than “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic” in order to be successful. Schools are having discussions about inclusion, discussions about equity, and discussions about involvement. While all of those are needed they are essentially meaningless if we have no research backed way to measure our progress. If you took a look at 15 different SEL programs you would have 15 different ways to measure success. What we need is a universal yardstick and PISA provides that.

The questions are brain benders. While we have almost conditioned students to fill in the multiple choice bubble that best fits, the PISA looks at how students solve problem. Their process is as heavily evaluated as their answer and that is what sets the test apart. I took one of the free sample exams and it was structured like a group text chat! My gaol was to determine, based on the situation, how to collaborate effectively with my team. When was the last time your kids had to do that? Currently, US students (as of the 2015 exam) are outperforming their peers internationally in Reading and Science Literacy but lagging a bit behind in Math and even then boys are outperforming girls in every subject but Reading. We still clearly have work to do. U.S. students also have one of the largest gaps in school satisfaction and school related anxiety when results are filtered by socioeconomic status and gpa.

In this age of accountability and difficult conversations, we have to be willing to put all of our cards on the table. We have to use data to examine every facet of school function and student experience. That goes far beyond surveys issued via email.

For those of you looking to give the exam a whirl, they have free test items that you can take any time. Try it for yourself and then risk trying it on your students. Ultimately, the more we know, the better we will be. We can’t shy away from our students’ performance data in any area. By embracing PISA we are essentially saying that we are ready to move beyond academics into formally evaluating the well being of the whole child and that in my opinion is exactly where we should be.


~Dr. Kia