Effecting Positive Change from Tragic Reenactment

Two students dressed as the shooters from Columbine, 1999, attended Kentucky High School for halloween and reenacted scenes from that horrific day; the students were suspended. Comments on the report vary between praise and condemnation for the suspension. One comment called for the parents of the students to face criminal charges. Other comments called the actions of the school overreach, lacking specific reasoning for the suspension – admitting that the costumes were in poor taste.

Reacting to the reenacted Columbine shooting with a suspension and a statement, the school could have done more to manage and effect positive change. 

Two students dressed as the shooters from Columbine, 1999, attended Kentucky High School for Halloween and reenacted scenes from that horrific day; the students were suspended. Comments on the report vary between praise and condemnation for the suspension. One comment called for the parents of the students to face criminal charges. Other comments called the actions of the school overreach, lacking specific reasoning for the suspension – admitting that the costumes were in poor taste. 

The school additionally released a statement, as reported by Joyce (2018), “”We take the situation very seriously and our personnel are continuing to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding this matter,” Stephens said in a statement. “The students are currently suspended.”” 

This situation, from a public relations perspective, missed the mark. Releasing a statement is one-way communication that leaves the audience without a method of creating dialogue. That is all that the school did. This is shown by observing the comments in the article (Joyce, 2018); people responding to the report clearly needed an opportunity to speak their mind and the school missed a teachable moment. The school could have explained the reasoning for the suspension, Joyce (2018), gives none. Instead, a community meeting or town-hall may have been a valuable step to take. School shootings have long been a worrisome problem in the field of education and there is likely a community member that is apathetic to the topic.  

Kowalski (20011, p. 14 – 16) identities several goals of PR inside of education; three of these goals “encouraging open political communication,” “enhancing the image of the school district,” and “managing information” could have been served with a communication that fostered open-dialogue. There were clearly people upset with the restriction of the students, the school could have addressed freedom of speech in their communications about the incident and why reenacting the violence of an historic school-shooting would be restricted. Stapelton and Murphy (2018) reported on a shooting that resulted in the deaths of two students and the injury of 18 others, from January of 2018, just ten months earlier. The school could have used this halloween incident and suspension to improve the image of the district by promoting school safety. Creating a forum for open dialogue would have helped the school to manage the information and explain the reasoning with the community. 

Joyce, K. (2018). Two Kentucky High School Girls Suspended After Dressing Up As Columbine Shooters for Halloween. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/us/2-kentucky-high-school-girls-suspended-after-dressing-up-as-columbine-shooters-for-halloween

Kowalski, T. J. (2011). Public relations in schools (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. 

Yan, H., Stapleton, A., & Murphy, P. (2018, January 24). Kentucky school shooting: 2 students killed, 18 injured. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/23/us/kentucky-high-school-shooting/index.html

Missed Opportunities for Safeguarding Students

In 2018 teachers from the Middleton School District dressed as the border wall, presented the statement ‘Make America Great Again’ and coordinated with another group of teachers dressed as Mexican immigrants, photos of both these costume groups were posted to the district Facebook page; later the superintendent retracted the photos and replaced them with a recorded apology.

In 2018 teachers from the Middleton School District dressed as the border wall, presented the statement ‘Make America Great Again’ and coordinated with another group of teachers dressed as Mexican immigrants, photos of both these costume groups were posted to the district Facebook page; later the superintendent retracted the photos and replaced them with a recorded apology. 

The situation described by Maxouris and Gray (2018) was initially managed well; however based on the information provided there were many missed opportunities for school improvement and community relations. 

While political speech is typically protected, this case may be viewed through the lens of student safety and wellbeing. The school – and certainly the superintendent  – has a duty first to the students and their wellbeing. Given that this incident occurred in 2018, during the Trump administration, this political topic of imigration control and reform was certainly present in the everyday lives of students, even elementary students. Given that the Middleton School district is composed of 4,000 students (About Us/About MSD, 2020) and according to Idaho Ed Trends (as cited in Maxouris and Gray, 2018), almost 13% of the school’s population is Hispanic. 

The teachers dressed in a way that some parents “described as racist,” Superintendent Josh Middleton described the costumes as “clearly insensitive and inappropriate” and an immigrant rights advocate Beth Almanza commented that the photos were “extremely disheartening” and “heartbreaking” (Maxouris and Gray, 2018). This alone identities the controversy within the community and the potential harm to students. 

Given that there was potential harm to students, the retraction of the posts on Facebook, with the addition of an apology was a good first step in managing the incident. The Middleton School District states that it has a “goal to provide quality education… in an atmosphere safe for growing and learning” (About Us/About MSD, 2020). The retraction satisfies this portion of their mission. However, they also state that the learning should be completed “through the collaborative efforts of our staff, students, parents and community” (About Us/About MSD, 2020). 

The post from the Superintendent Middleton, creates what Grunning (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p. 12) would call two-way asymmetrical communication. It is not collaborative. It does not create a meaningful dialogue between the stakeholders in the school community. The superintendent’s post creates a message intended to persuade the public that the removal of the content was a reasonable response. Members of the Facebook page would be able to reply to the post and comment, though this function in social-media would fall short of symmetrical communication; it is unlikely that “mutual understanding,” as described by Grunning, (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p.12) would emerge from this lone response. 

This response falls short of the full force that public relations can have. The National School Public Relations Association (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p. 14) defines Educational PR as “a planned and systematic two-way process of communications between an educational organization and its internal and external publics designed to build morale, goodwill, understanding, and support for that organization.” It would be interesting to follow up on the impact that this incident had in the community or if the superintendent was able to spark conversation or further actions in the community that did promote understanding and support for the organization. 

Because the response does not create dialogue or meaningful two-way communication,  the morale and goodwill that could have come from this difficult incident is missed. 

Considering different actions and approaches to only the Public Relations components of the response, the school could have held a community forum to discuss the issue, integrated community voices into the classroom to discuss immigration reform, and discussed the issue directly with the teachers. However, given the bandwidth of working time and attention, this response from Superintendent to internally review and publicly apologize may be all the time that was actually available. 

About Us / About MSD. (2020). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.msd134.org/domain/32

Kowalski, T. J. (2011). Public relations in schools (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. 

Maxouris, C. & Gray, M. (2018). Elementary School Teachers in Idaho Dressed Up As a MAGA Border Wall for Halloween.  Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/02/us/idaho-teachers-border-costume-trnd/index.html

Subjective and Objective Student Assessment- A Thought Experiment on Student Learning

What assessment is fair to every student?

Imagine for a moment – you are a student, learning in a subject that you find to be difficult. Consider a time that you struggled to grasp the content; but, you ‘failed’ the mid-term exam. Can you remember a time in your life or the experience of your students that the ‘failure’ to learn at the mid-term actually motivated a positive growth in learning. What would be in the best interests of the student?

  • How would positive based assessment impact a student?
    • Why mark down incorrect understanding?
    • Why not reward correct knowledge?
    • Assessment at any time?
  • What would be the impact of students choosing their mode of assessment?
    • Unless the mode of assessment (a writing task in an English class for example) is germane to the assessment, why should the mode matter?
    • Can students show their understanding in multiple ways?
  • Could a student be assessed fairly at any time?
    • What if the student completes the learning task late? Does that change the amount they have learned?

What would be in the best interests of the teacher? The teacher has a set time-frame to assess every student – a semester, a week, a day perhaps. What would be fair to all of the students? If the teacher allows for maximum flexibility in assessment, are they setting the path to every student achieving their very best? What if the student does not display mastery at the same level as another student simply because the modality of the assessment does not allow for some expression of knowledge?

Suppose a science class is finishing a unit on the water cycle. One student might choose to be assessed traditionally by completing a paper based test. A second student may opt for more flexibility in how the information is presented and create a presentation with graphics and written paragraphs that explain the content. A third, less talented writer with test anxiety, may opt to create a dance that demonstrates the water cycle. All three students may have the same understanding. The mode of assessment will reveal different sets of knowledge.

The first student will show a prompted understanding of the knowledge deemed important by the teacher.

The second student – assuming they are a good writer – will be able to clearly articulate what they understand to be important in regards to the water cycle.

The third may be a highly accomplished dancer – and compose a dance that could be interpreted with all the same content as either of the first two students, but it is dependent on the teacher’s ability to understand the dance.

It seems there is a line between subjective assessment and objective assessment. Clear criteria, the correct and incorrect answers are set in one corner. As is the case with student one, accolades are given for reproducing the answer exactly as instructed. It is clear which student has the information and which does not. Some may argue that test anxiety gets in the way – a re-test on paper or even orally may be the remedy.

This is set against the modality of the student that creates their own mode of assessment and tells the teacher what they know. The second student clearly has done this.

The third student may need to interpret their work for the teacher, which is ultimately an oral report (a hybrid of student one and two); perhaps the second two students can even assesses their own work for their own grade. At what point is the assessment fair? At what point does the assessment support the learning of the student?

In life outside of school – which all teachers must consider in the instruction of students – the later, student created assessment, seems to be more applicable to growth. The answer to a real world problem rarely has a clear single solution. With the drive toward soft-skills such as flexibility and creativity this mode seems to be the most relevant. It also allows students to test how they want to be perceived in the world and how their ideas my be received. However, for the sake of teacher-ease and transparent fairness to the students, a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer is clearly the way to go.



Reflecting on IGCSE Scope and Sequence

My students have the IGCSE Literature coursework over two years. They meet for 3 hours per week in four class periods. This gives them about just over the recommended 130 hours of guided learning (168 hours of seat time over 28 weeks of school, less time for special events and school-wide testing).

Each novel we have studied this year was done over about five weeks: four weeks to discuss, analyze, and synthesize the plot, themes, characters, important quotes and other literary elements. The remaining week is used to revise and take a mock exam on the one novel. For drama, I tended to take seven weeks to unpack the text in a similar way. Regarding short stories and poems, this was generally done with a two class series to study and revise. Followed by a mini-mock exam each week on the texts that were studied up to that point.

The class has been directed to paper one and paper two. With a small class and inexperienced IGCSE teaching staff, internal examination was not selected. Supplementary materials have ebbed with student needs. My current class found use in watching the full stage version of “A Raisin in the Sun”, excerpts from “A Separate Peace” and excerpts from multiple move and stage versions of “Romeo and Juliet”. The class last year, did none of these elements. We have also borrowed this year from the IBDP program assessment of the IOC as another method for textual examination – giving students the opportunity to speak about their understanding, rather than just writing about it. Our text sequence is aligned with the IGCSE History course. For example, during the Key-Study of South Africa, we are reading “Cry, Beloved Country” and during one of the WWII units, we read “A Separate Peace”.

The Cambridge scheme of work has been effective for student and class reference. We use it often as a formative and informal progress check. We do not follow a text book. The order of texts is in alignment with the content in other courses.

Bell Ringers and Exit Tickets

The idea there is that the start of every class is the same with the Bell Ringer activity and the close of the class is always one of five activities. I leave it open because depending on the class, different closing activities may be appropriate. Tradition is important – and it creates closure that the students can expect and count on. The ‘shout out’ is nice because it teaches students to be complimentary of others and recognize their academic talents. I limit to it to academic activities in class: “I like the way Ali identified his personal connection to the metaphor in the poem.”

Lesson Plan – NBCT Style

After many years of teaching and four years of hard work, I became an NBCT this year. Upon reflecting – my lesson plan is really key to effective planning.

In my experience the most important sections of a lesson plan are as follows: 
– The standard(s) addressed by the lesson

– The language function or command word within the learning objective (e.g. analyze or identify)

– The syntax within the class provided for the student to complete the work (e.g. class notes, annotation of text, Venn Diagram)

– A logical sequence of events such as: 1) Introduction/Get Thinking/Bell Ringer quick activity 2) Instruction of content through lecture, group work, or individual work (this may connect to homework). 3) Extension and practice from the instruction. This may be solo or within a small group. 4) Demonstration and sharing of learning – students share out with class, teacher assesses and questions for development of work.

I rarely use my lesson plan in the actual class. I often review the plan in advance of the class, first thing for the day. I always start with the lesson objective following or as part of the introduction activity. When I am unable to get to the formative or summative component due to time constraints, I will either add this to the homework for the night or push out the plan for an extension into the next class.

Think – Pair – Share

An interesting and often useful strategy for teachers. 1) Students take time to think about their personal response to a question (I have found this works best with critical thinking); 2) Students share with another student – they share their response and their thinking process – they have an opportunity to refine and check their understanding; 3) Students or pairings share with the group their responses.

In my experience, TPS is enhanced when the pairing is not just with a random person. There are productive pairings within the Zone of Proximal Development. Two intermediate learners in the same group can support the information and understanding that they each bring to the conversation. A high level student and a low level student does not result in mutual learning – because the high level student draws little to no benefit from the low level student. The low level student will either frustrate the high level student with their lack of knowledge or the high level student will spend their time teaching the low level student and receive no parallel exchange of information. One critique of this is that it keeps low level students with low level students. However, the sharing is an essential part of the learning strategy. Here, students are exposed to the range of ideas. If the teacher solicits responses from a range of ability levels, all students get heard and the exchange of ideas is  supported across levels while allowing small pairings to support each other at the same point in development.


Does acting in acting class need to be authentic to the student?  I recently came across this question in a professional forum.

Certainly authenticity is good – especially in theatre. It is a creative process; the product is best when it is personal to the actor. However – I contend that this may only be the desired end product.

A novice actor needs skills to build from – guidance even clear direction to develop with. Ready, set, create… GO! Open ended creation can be difficult. Giving a student a framework, blocking, gesture, vocal placement, clear direction is not only good teaching, it is a real-world occurrence. In doing so, the teacher is supporting the skill level of the student and scaffolding from that point forward. Yes in theatre education, there should equally be as many opportunities to collaborate, devise, and create in an open-ended forum. These are key skills that theatre can main-line to the student; these later skills, require a prerequisite of experience to build from.

Consider instruction in English Language Arts. In middle school and high school, writing instruction is often prescribed. A teacher may say, “use these sign post words” or “use a first person voice”; they may further say submit your paper in 12 pt font and MLA format. And in the execution of that prescription, the student learns the structure, the form,  the style required and then can learn to write in that mode authentically. But, their first prescribed may not be authentic to the student.

I contend that the instruction of an acting student does not need to be much different. I am curious to see what other teachers of theatre may think on this point.

This approach of prescribed movements and highly directed or choreographed work could also be described as an “outside-in” style of acting. Physically based styles are widely used around the world. Included in this would be the Lazzo of the Fly from Commedia and the stylized movement and voice of Kabuki. Here are some examples.

You can see in the Lazzo, the movements are very planned, even choreographed in response to the music.

Here you can see an example of a planned combat scene in Kabuki. It has been done in this exact prescribed style for the past 400 years.




Year One, Term One: Reflection

After ten years at Explorer West, in Seattle, I transitioned my teaching career in one of the most drastic ways possible. I left a secure teaching position – one where I knew the ins and outs of each day – one where I knew the faculty and the community exceptionally well – and I took a position at a growing school in Casablanca Morocco.

My teaching was tested. I was tasked with setting up a new program in a school that was still finding its way in secondary education. A growing middle school program was my first charge; teaching new content and new lessons my second. Three content classes at three different levels made for six different preps and plans. Plus I had an additional course in advisory and community service. The program was growing. I was the only teacher dedicated to the secondary program. We lacked a math/science teacher. The position was filled by the Head of School while a search was under way.

It took an entire term to find the replacement. The first term we were metaphorically treading water. We were making the best choices we could to keep the program going. We wanted to create a community that was student driven – empowering students in a community that fostered intrinsic learning. But the challenges of building a secondary program from the ground up  was tremendous.

The work changed when a math/science teacher was hired and collaboration could truly begin.

How To: Writing Workshop for Performing Arts

Can a writing workshop work for any subject? Yes. Although, this assumes the liberal definition of a text, where anything with meaning, including but not limited to written words, can be composed or written. The “text” in question could be a traditional essay, a painting, or even a performance that eludes a fixed form.

The writer’s workshop allows for students work in relationship to a text by asking a strong question. For example, is Shylock, in Merchant of Venice, a hero or a villain? Students can build buy in by forming their own opinion about that question; they way they perform the text with the acting and character choices that they make will form a unique opinion that is expressed through a performance. The same is true for music. Students may be asked a question about the interpretation of a musical composition, or even be asked to compose an original score in response to an existing piece of music or in response to another piece of art. The performative interpretation becomes the student’s response.

A writing workshop depends on students setting their own goals. With a performance this is simple. The student must select artistic elements and skills that apply to the project. Individual work time is also a critical and simple step. With the given project of creating a performance in response to the question students can work on developing the selected artistic elements in their performance (such as character physicality or musical accent) by performing for each other and reflecting on the performances.

Through focused mini-lessons, derived from teacher observations, the teacher can direct the rehearsal process with a differentiated approach to the content. Further, guiding the meta-learning for the class, the teacher can introduce and model the learning target for the day as it relates to the project of answering the question. As students work, the teacher can provide one-on-one conferences with students by watching their work and asking guiding questions.

While this may not be a traditional writing workshop, it is certainly an effective adaptation for the performing arts. Likely, it would also work for Physical Education or any other skill based content that relies on a demonstration of skill rather than the presentation of knowledge in written form. I have seen it work in my class and can easily see it work in others.