STEM: “Career readiness” in elementary school—really?

“When do we get to be engineers again?” is not something you would expect second graders to ask. But when Woodland Elementary School in Ohio completed a grade-wide engineering unit, that’s what teachers reported hearing for weeks afterward.

Even as a novel part of their school lives, engineering lessons can make a mark on kids’ imaginations and shape their desire for what to learn. And even without anything like the kind of training they get in language arts and math, elementary school teachers can make engineering work with the right program and a bit of professional development.

Oh, the places you’ll go

“Career readiness” is an imperative being written into state learning standards all over the country. In my state, Pennsylvania, for example, the “Future Ready PA Index” details “career education and work” standards that apply to all levels of K-12 instruction.

The Woodland students’ response shows how well engineering (and technology, I’ll suggest) can serve both students’ intrinsic learning preferences as well as schools’ needs to fulfill mandated compliance with standards. Career readiness activities, such as these students experienced, can enlarge and enrich both their learning and their sense of what they can become in the world.

First steps, first

But how to get started? What can teachers do, as individuals or cohorts, within the confines of their already-bursting day to show their students what being an engineer is all about?

Awareness is the first stage of career readiness: building students’ understanding of what people do for work, what these jobs are called, and how school learning connects to these jobs. That is why the construction “be engineers again” is so notable; it signals students’ incipient formation of a career identity, which research shows to be crucial for persistence in STEM fields. If students use the language of a career exploration exercise to express a desire to be something, it shows the learning experience has shaped their sense of who they could become or even already are.

Playing to teachers’ strengths

This moves us to territory already familiar to every elementary school educator – language arts. Grafting practical engineering career themes onto language arts exercises turns out to be a great way to meet both literacy and career readiness needs.

Engineering, as a practice, is pretty easy to explain at a basic level. “Design under constraint” is one construction of it, as William Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, is famous for saying. More fully, engineering involves using technical knowledge of what can be done with available resources and materials to build a solution to a problem people are having, resulting in something generally categorized as technology.

In fact, the logic of engineering has much in common with a basic approach to reading a story: identify a problem facing a character, understand how details of the story define the elements (constraints) of the problem, analyze how a character does or does not solve the problem, and reflect on ways the story touches, even shapes, one’s own experience of the world.

But in practice?

Okay, all very abstract. To get more particular about how an actual story can serve as the vehicle for delivering a lesson in career awareness in STEM, let’s consider Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.

The story’s narrator and his sister Sally have been tasked with shoveling snow while their mother goes to town for the day (hello, social services?!). The Cat in the Hat shows up, settles into the bathtub with a piece of cake, and leaves a ring of pink…something…behind him. He solves successive cleaning problems by removing the pink… something…from various surfaces with a series of apparently inappropriate, but surprisingly effective, household items: mother’s white dress, dad’s $10 shoes, and a carpet runner. The final series of cleaning problems—bed, TV, snowbanks—requires the help of Little Cats A through Z, conveniently stored in the Cat’s hat. Little Cat Z, too tiny to see, deploys cleaning “technology” par excellence, Voom, to affect the final, once-and-for-all clean-up job. 

In each instance of cleaning, the Cat in the Hat practices the engineer’s creed—use technical knowledge of available resources to solve a problem. Moreover, his persistence in the face of inadequate solutions exemplifies a central dictum of engineering: learn from failure. The Cat optimizes his use of cleaning technologies to meet changing circumstances and arrive at a solution that ultimately meets his kid clients’ needs. In the best tradition of challenging engineering jobs, final success requires a collaborative effort melding team members’ distinctive abilities, all of which add up to an accomplishment beyond what anyone could do on their own.

For the teacher’s purposes, framing the story within the language and episteme of engineering and technology work is fundamental. Such a lesson connects a fun, accessible reading exercise to a career field that might otherwise seem strange and alienating. Making this connection requires teachers to develop only a rudimentary grasp of engineering and technology principles, readily available from numerous sources. “Engineering design process” is a search phrase that will deliver abundant sources of educator-oriented learning on the topic.

Next steps

Extensions to this exercise are easy to formulate: ask students to identify characters’ problems, taken from any text, and then have them design and prototype their own engineering solutions with materials at hand. Popsicle sticks, paper clips, pipe cleaners, paper, and masking tape, among much else, have been known to yield a wealth of imaginative classroom-built technologies.

PBS has built a STEM-focused learning program around the Cat in the Hat at The lessons do not meld story and STEM in the way described above, but the characters and setting will serve to usher early elementary kids into a world familiar enough to smooth their entry into learning about simple machines, force and motion, and properties of materials, among other topics.

Career readiness can seem like a wildly out-of-place burden to place on elementary education. We ask so much of educators at this level already. But STEM learning, and engineering in particular, can play to interests kids already bring to class. And connections to career themes are there to be made in all kinds of learning situations, especially the language arts curriculum. So, as the Cat in the Hat would urge, rev up the career readiness thing-a-ma-jigger hiding in plain sight somewhere in your curriculum, and see where you can go, go, go with it.

Eric Iversen is Vice President for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering, a print and digital media company that develops materials and services to help educators integrate STEM education and career learning into K-12 education. He has worked in education for over 25 years, as a teacher, writer, publisher, and administrator, and he has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. By coincidence, his first job out of college was at W. W. Norton.

STEM: Leveraging SEL Skills to Improve Science Instruction

Let’s begin with a conversation among fourth graders. These students were sitting in a group of four and discussing structural and behavioral adaptations in plants and animals.

DeVon: Hawks have sharp claws that kill their prey.

Casey: What is this? (looking at a worksheet)

Reshma: Bear?

Diamond: A artic fox has…

Reshma: Insects are shaped like a leaf so predators think they are real leaves.

DeVon: A rosebush has thorns to…where’s this go [inferring the question: is this a structural or behavioral adaptation]?

Reshma: Frogs have long strong legs to hop really far.

At first glance, this sounds like a conversation. The students are talking about the science topic and they are facing one another around the table. But, unfortunately, this isn’t a conversation at all. To qualify as a real conversation, students need to talk to one another, listen carefully to each other, and take turns in the discussion so that one idea builds upon another. This scenario falls short. Although it is terrific to see students actively engaged in a science activity, there is so much more that is possible and necessary in a science classroom so that students get the most out of the instruction. High quality science discussions require students to use social and emotional skills (Hunt, Rimm-Kaufman, Merritt, & Bowers, in press). Without those skills in use, students remain focused on their own ideas. The quality of their answers reflect individual, not collective knowledge.

Good conversations are crucial in science. Children and youth face tremendous challenges now and in the future as they address a wide variety of environmental crises. Global warming, limited availability of non-renewable resources, food shortages, climate-induced forced migrations, and increased inequality across the globe—not to mention the challenges posed by pandemics like the current COVID-19 crisis—are pressing problems. They need all the skills possible now and in the future to gather knowledge, think through trade-offs, and collaborate with others to work toward solutions (Merritt, Rimm-Kaufman & Harkins, 2020; Sanson, Van Hoorn & Burke, 2019).

The Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; National Research Council, 2012) have set us on the path to support students’ development of collective problem-solving skills. Designed for K-12 teachers, NGSS has three elements: Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross-cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices. The Disciplinary Core Ideas identify content needs for understanding different science disciplines. The Cross-cutting Concepts are ideas that appear across disciplines, like cause and effect and use of systems. The Science and Engineering Practices are eight behavioral expectations for students that mirror the authentic work of scientists.

The NGSS Science and Engineering Practices differ from traditional science instruction. One practice involves asking questions and defining problems. Another involves developing and using models. Yet another involves planning and carrying out investigations. When teachers use these practices, they facilitate child-centered learning experiences designed to lead to deep conceptual understanding. Students interact with and make sense of scientific phenomena, a process that typically involves teamwork, experiences of uncertainty, and respectful communication even in the face of disagreements.

NGSS-aligned instruction relies on effective social and emotional skills (Rimm-Kaufman & Merritt, 2019) and without these social and emotional skills in place, the lessons fall flat. In this post, we describe two Science and Engineering Practices and provide insight into the ways that teachers can teach social and emotional skills so students can leverage those skills during science instruction.

Developing and Using Models

Developing and using models helps students represent their ideas. This can be as simple as drawing a circuit (including a battery, wires and a lightbulb) or as complex as a computer simulation. When teachers challenge students to develop their own models for scientific concepts, students explore new ideas and make their existing knowledge visible to the people around them. Often, students’ first models are not scientifically accurate. For example, when fourth graders initially draw a circuit, it might be incomplete or have the wires going to the wrong place on the battery. But, once they’ve had the hands-on experience of creating a circuit to light a bulb, they improve their models.

Understandably, students can get upset when they get something wrong and their initial models lack accuracy. Teachers can alleviate the angst by framing errors as an opportunity to learn, not a personal failing. Students need to feel safe with other students in class; they need to feel sure that if their initial understanding has flaws and they share their model with peers, no one will make fun of them.

Teachers can prepare students to give and receive feedback so that these interactions among students turn out well. Teach simple sentence stems. For positive feedback, for instance,  “I like that you ….” or for constructive criticism, “I notice that you could change…” Then, when students are faced with giving feedback or receiving criticism for their models, they have the language and skills to do so respectfully in a way that advances their understanding.

Asking Questions and Defining Problems

In science, students learn how to create the kinds of questions that guide scientific exploration; in engineering, defining problems means students learn how to identify constraints and criteria so they can design solutions to problems. Asking questions and defining problems are essential skills as students figure out how the natural and designed world works, This process requires initiative and courage. Students need enough confidence and optimism about their own ideas and knowledge about the world to take a risk, toss in their ideas, and see where a new idea takes them.

As teachers, we spend a fair amount of time and energy urging louder and bolder students to settle in and give other students a chance to talk. But, we seldom give much thought to the difficulty that some students have talking about their ideas and asserting themselves. If students have a hard time talking about what’s on their mind in low stakes situations, they are unlikely to speak up in situations where they are exploring new ideas, testing the parameters of a problem and questioning others about their ideas.

We recommend giving students a chance to practice talking aloud about their ideas in small group. This type of practice (combined, of course, with a supportive and kind classroom environment) can set the stage for future risk taking and sharing of new ideas. Start having students talk about their ideas in situations where any answer is correct until even the shyest students seem comfortable talking and thinking aloud. If it is still too difficult for some students, perhaps have them say what they are thinking in writing or whisper their ideas in your ear and then you say it aloud. The goal here is to work up to a point where students are willing to wonder aloud and assert their ideas about a phenomenon, even if they are incorrect.

Four Key Principles for Teaching Social and Emotional Skills

We offer four principles to keep in mind as you teach social and emotional skills with the goal of improving your science instruction.

First, learning social and emotional skills is a gradual process. We recommend that you model, teach, and practice each skill before helping students apply these skills in content-based lessons. Asking students to talk about simple topics that do not take a lot of thinking can help them perfect the communication skill before asking them to apply them in science class.

Second, even students with incredibly advanced social skills will not necessarily use them as planned unless they are in classrooms where teachers have worked hard to create and sustain a positive classroom culture. (Good social skills can help students be very effective bullies!) Take time to create a supportive yet rigorous classroom atmosphere where students feel safe taking academic risks and making mistakes.

Third, the relationships you have with your students are foundational to your success, even in science class (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2015). You can spend hours on SEL instruction, but if kids do not think that you have their best interest in mind, all your efforts will be a waste. Knowing your students’ interests, empathizing with their experiences, and understanding why they respond to people in certain ways is essential as you support their development of social and emotional skills.

Fourth, students watch what you do more than they listen to what you say. Demonstrate how you manage your own frustration when your model does not work. This helps your students understand acceptable ways to respond when science is challenging. Give an example of how you changed your mind about an idea in the face of new evidence that you received from a friend or book. This helps your students understand what to do when they receive new information that questions their assumptions.

Explicit teaching of social and emotional skills and then encouraging students to apply those social skills to their academic work will elevate science instruction. Let’s revisit the example in the beginning of this post. Here’s an invented conversation — one that we expect to hear in a classroom where students have learned and practiced key social and emotional skills.

DeVon: Hawks have sharp claws that kill their prey.

Casey: Would that be structural or behavioral? Let’s look at the worksheet..

Reshma: A behavioral adaptation is something they do. They kill their prey, so I think it’s  behavioral.

Diamond: I disagree, Reshma. The claws are part of their body…

Reshma: Oh, a structural adaptation is part of the body! I see now.

DeVon: Just like how a rosebush has thorns.

Reshma: And frogs have long strong legs to hop really far!


A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2019). Core SEL Competencies. Retrieved from

Hunt A., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Merritt, E.G., & Bowers, N. (in press). “Because the sun is really not that big”: An exploration of fourth graders tasked with arguing from evidence. The Elementary School Journal.

Merritt. E.G., Harkins, T., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. (in press). Empowering elementary students through environmental service-learning. Clearing Magazine.National Research Council (2012).

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E. & Merritt, E. G. (2019). Let’s power our future: Integrating science and social and emotional learning to improve collaborative discourse and science understanding. Science and Children, 57(1),52-60.

Rimm-Kaufman, S.E. & Sandilos, L. (2015). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Support for Learning. Published on-line at:

Sanson, A. V., Van Hoorn, J. & Burke, S. E. L. (2019). Responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth. Child Development Perspectives, 13(4), 201-207.

Sara Rimm-Kaufman is a professor of education at the Curry School of Education & Human Development. She has been studying social and emotional learning in schools for the past two decades. Her forthcoming book for teachers, SEL from the Start, will be published by Norton in November, 2020.

Ashley Hunt is a doctoral student and IES Pre-doctoral Fellow in the Virginia Education Science Training Program at the University of Virginia, Curry School of Education. Her research focuses on the intersection of equity, social, and academic issues in elementary STEM.

Rimm-Kaufman and Hunt were two members of the development team of Connect Science, a curriculum and professional development program that integrates social and emotional learning, service-learning and science. See for more information.

STEM: Pi Day and Other Irrational Math Ideas

Pi Day is an annual fun day wear people employ a homophone connection and celebrate there day with pie. Irrational? It has taken me by surprise a few times. The most notable was when a popular breakfast restaurant publicized that they were honoring Pi Day. My family begrudgingly put on the Sweetie-Pi and Cow-Pi t-shirts I had purchased at an NCTM conference and wore them to the restaurant. Not a single employee of the restaurant even noticed we were dressed for the occasion (I had to ask a waitress to notice them). Still, I am a fan of Pi Day. In 2015, in fact, I had quite an irrational party, in which we all toasted with champagne at 9:26. (If you are wondering why, consider that Pi is infinite and look at its digits beyond 3.14) But wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate a little bit of the value of Pi and other mathematical ideas? At the very least, can we take on some of the irrational ideas that people hold about today’s mathematics and replace them with more rational ideas befitting the 21st century? Here are my top three irrational ideas I regularly hear from lay people and educators, and my suggestion for what is a more rational perspective.

Irrational Idea #1: The new strategies in math are silly/not needed/a political agenda. First of all, none of the strategies for doing this level of mathematics are new. What is new is that many newer standards in Grades K-8 ask students to “use strategies” to do mathematics. Let’s pause for a moment and do some math ourselves.

Let’s debrief. For #1, stacking the two numbers and regrouping is an irrational idea for a mathematical thinker. A mathematical thinker would notice that 98 is really close to 100 and use that idea to more quickly add those two numbers. One strategy is to add 100 + 45 and then subtract 2 from the answer. Another strategy is to move two over from the 45, making a new problem of 100 + 43. Done. It is certainly irrational to stack and regroup for number 2. Those numbers are only 9 apart. If your child or students are stacking and borrowing or regrouping, they aren’t thinking. Finally, fractions. Creating improper fraction(s) here is irrational. You have two and a half, maybe dollars. Two of those make 5, double again, and you have 10. So, the not-new strategies, now explicit in our standards, are there in order to help us create students who can select a reasonable strategy given the numbers in the problem. This flexibility is central to procedural fluency and a must for mental math, which is 90% of all the mathematics we do.

Rational Idea #1: Explicitly teach strategies, with a focus on making good strategy choices.

Irrational Idea #2: Timed tests make students faster. The only thing that gets faster with timed tests is students’ heart rates. Yes, timed tests cause math anxiety. And the anxiety they have leads to avoiding mathematics, not being good test takers, not pursuing mathematics-related professions, and so on. The most effective way to learn basic facts is through strategies (aha, see #1!). To add 9 + 6, for example, students first count up, then they learn to use a strategy like moving one from the 6 to re-imagine the problem as 10 + 5 and add. This strategy initially takes time to think through (in fact, at first it is slower than counting), but eventually the student masters this “move 1 over” idea and not only can they answer 9 + 6 automatically, they are set to do #1 above and beyond!  When under time pressure, it is hard to think, and students resort back to counting. [Sidebar: a 1-minute timed drill is not the same as the end-of-year timed assessments in which a fluent child has plenty of time to do all the problems.]

Rational Idea #2: Never use timed facts tests. Instead, play facts games to allow time for students to practice strategies.

Irrational Idea #3: Mathematics is genetic. In science, the nature/nurture debates are fascinating. So, here is one for the masses. How is it that math could be inherited (imagine hearing a parent saying “I wasn’t good at math either”), but that science, reading, and social studies are not? Mathematics is something everyone can do, but we struggle with a few cultural realities that have stood in our way. First and foremost, elementary teachers and parents must stop immediately with saying things like, “I was never good at math.” “I don’t like math.” “Math is hard.” Just stop. If you don’t like it or don’t feel good at it, you were probably a victim of the two irrational ideas above (only learning standard algorithms with no conceptual understanding behind them and timed skills tests). Math does make sense and it is learned well by anyone who has the opportunity to see why procedures work (and when to put them to use). Second, we have to quit grouping students by ability. Tons of research indicates that all students do better when put in mixed groups. Can we learn from our high-performing countries on this point?

Rational Idea #3: Communicate to all audiences, including yourself: Everyone can make sense of and do mathematics.

In the year 2020, when we might think of having a clear vision of our futures, the most rational way to proceed is to consider that mathematics is meaningful and useful. In the 21st century, computation is almost always completed mentally or using technology. Mathematics is used everywhere. We need every child to be competent and confident in mathematics. That idea may seem radical, but it should not seem irrational, as it is the way that we can ensure a future generation able to navigate the technology-rich, constantly changing world in which they will live.

Jennifer M. Bay-Williams is a national leader in mathematics education who has written over a dozen books and many articles about K–12 mathematics teaching, most recently Math Fact Fluency and On the Money. She is a mathematics teacher educator at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

The Elephant in the Classroom: Nature-Inspired STEM Approaches Go Global

At this very moment, I am at a workshop with educators from the United States and all over Europe, the theme of which is Nature-inspired approaches to teaching STEM. It’s gratifying: some 14 years ago, when I first started teaching educators about this pedagogical approach, Nature-inspired STEM in schools didn’t even exist. Today, hundreds of primary and secondary school teachers in schools all over the world wouldn’t think of teaching STEM any other way.

But for some of you STEM educators out there, I may have just said something a little surprising. Nature? What does the natural world have to do with teaching STEM? The short answer is: everything.

You may not know it, but STEM professionals today – chemists, biomedical engineers, video game designers, architects – regularly look to the natural world in their daily jobs. The practice even has a name: “biologically inspired innovation” (a.k.a. bioinspiration or biomimicry). The idea is pretty simple: the natural world is already chock full of effective, time-tested strategies for addressing a litany of challenges now facing humans, including how to clean water, fight microbes, reverse CO2 emissions, achieve energy efficiency, design high performance materials, and so on. It just makes sense to look to Nature for fresh technological ideas rather than reinvent the wheel.

Most people don’t know it, but bio-inspired innovation has played an instrumental role in the development of airplanes, computers, and the cell phone in your pocket, and more recently, in breakthroughs like machine learning and immunotherapy. In one bio-inspired lab, high school students make cement literally out of car exhaust, using a recently commercialized carbon negative manufacturing process inspired by coral reefs. Bio-inspired education not only brings cutting-edge technologies into your classroom, but also can help you explore vital sustainability topics with your students in ways that leave students hopeful and full of ambition.

“I thought that the course opened new doors for me into the future and for my generation,” said one high school senior. Primary students find Nature-inspired innovation just as engaging: “I liked this unit because there were some very cool things and it was interesting,” said one 5th grader. “I also think that it is cool that nature inspired so many things. It was fun and exciting the whole time.” Bio-inspired approaches to STEM learning, crucially, can also foster young peoples’ connection with Nature, at a time when young people spend less and less time outside, and may form that vital bond with the living world only through what they learn and experience at school.

As importantly, educators find bio-inspired approaches to teaching STEM subjects as fascinating and delightful as their students. “I feel that this class has offered me a mind-blowing professional development experience!” one teacher wrote after attending a training on using bio-inspiration to teach STEM. “A tsunami inside me is bursting to share all that I learned in our class with my students!” This kind of response from teachers is the norm. Who can contain themselves when they learn that sharks have inspired new ways to fight microbes without creating antibiotic resistance, or that humpback whales have inspired completely silent computer fans?

Let me give you a few more examples. Researchers from Caltech, after researching schools of fish, carefully arranged wind turbines in groups, improving their energy output by an astonishing 10 times. Film directors like Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) craft epic battle scenes using CGI software inspired by the swarming behavior of bees. Material scientists at the University of Illinois recently developed electronics that completely biodegrade, a potential game changer to the growing problem of e-waste. And Stanford engineers designed a material enabling people to literally scale the sides of glass skyscrapers, like Spiderman; the stunning breakthrough came from studying geckos.

In fact, bio-inspired approaches to technological innovation are so common in the practices of STEM professionals today, and have such a good track record, that a throng of colleges and universities now teach their STEM students using this method. This list includes, for instance, Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering; Georgia Tech’s Center for Bio-Inspired Design; MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds and Machines; Arizona State University’s Center for Bio-Inspired Fuels; Montana State’s Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials; Cambridge University’s Bio-Inspired Robotics Lab; and on it goes. Bio-inspiration is how today’s STEM college students are being prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. Primary and secondary school teachers who have adopted the approach are preparing their students for college and career.

Time to get back to the workshop! The teachers and I are taking a field trip to a carpet factory that runs on 100% renewable energy. This company’s fully recycled carpet, made out of other companies’ carpet waste otherwise destined for the landfill, is today one of the best-selling carpet tiles in the world. The company’s breakthrough came in the 1990s, when instead of trying to design its carpet tiles to look all alike, it redesigned the tiles’ patterns to be more random, just like the carpet of leaves on a forest floor that inspired the company’s landmark idea. You’ve walked over these carpets yourself at some point, in airports, offices, even schools, and probably never even realized the incredible story of innovation inspired by Nature they are part of. Bio-inspired technologies and designs are everywhere today – in the headlines, in the cell phone in your pocket, and in your students’ future. Maybe it’s time they become part of how you teach STEM?

Samuel Cord Stier is Executive Director of the Center for Learning with Nature, a non-profit organization providing STEM curricula and teacher training, and a faculty member at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where he teaches science and sustainable design.  His book Engineering Education for the Next Generation: A Nature-Inspired Approach (Norton, 2020) will be released March 17th.

Trending in 2020: Mindfulness for Adolescents

Twenty years ago, “mindfulness” was nearly absent from conversations in the education world. Fast forward to 2020, and we’ve witnessed an incredible surge of interest in integrating mindfulness from teachers, administrators, policymakers and researchers.  What accounts for this interest?

We suspect one key reason is that under the stress of expanding classrooms and standardized assessments, the teacher-student relationship has suffered. Sharing mindfulness helps reclaim the emotional poignancy of learning, which is, in the end an exchange between two people. The following excerpt from our book about teaching mindfulness to adolescents focuses on the power of self-disclosure by both teacher and student as they build and navigate an authentic relationship that facilitates deep learning.

Teaching mindfulness to adolescents is an art. It calls us to draw on all of our skills and faculties: our intelligence and creativity, our humanity, compassion, and humor. As educators, one of our primary tasks is to hone our interpersonal skills so that we can develop quality relationships of trust and mutual respect with the young folks we serve, with the purpose of fostering the growth of such relationships between and among students themselves.

Such relationships are deeply nourishing for us human beings and especially so for teens and adolescents who often lack the unconditional acceptance, love, and affection for which they long. The more solid our rapport, the more risks the kids will take and the deeper they can go in their practice and their healing.

There are myriad ways to build such relationships, from how we show up in the room to how we co-create a group with students, from creatively integrating art or music to playing games or dancing. Within this wide field of options, finding your own authentic voice and way of connecting is perhaps the most essential.

Young people have an incredibly sensitive internal meter for authenticity. As one high school teacher and mindfulness instructor noted in a conversation: “Teens can smell bullshit from anywhere.” If you’re putting on a front, trying to get their approval, or allowing your unresolved adolescent issues to take over, they’ll pick up on it and lose interest. They’ll either resist directly or avoid contact indirectly.

Bring your authentic self to the room. If you’re being real, they’ll recognize that and most likely be drawn to it. One of the most salient developmental features of this age is the process of psychological differentiation and identity formation. Peer pressure, social anxiety, and insecurity are daily visitors. In a consumerist society, where happiness and self-worth are equated with material success, in a world of disembodied, disconnected, stressed-out adults, young people are hungry for authenticity.

Given all of this, being at home in yourself is one of the most powerful things you can offer to teens. When you are authentic, it gives them permission to be themselves.

Develop your own language for teaching mindfulness that reflects your life experience and is appropriate to the context within which you teach. Incorporate what works from different sources (e.g., curricula, teachers, multimedia sources) while maintaining an uncompromising commitment to being yourself.

Powerful teaching is the result of finding and refining our own unique voice and style. While you’re teaching, pay attention to moments where you feel natural, moments where your physical posture and self-expression are in sync in such a way that you feel completely yourself. Take special note of those moments, letting the feeling of naturalness sink in. Use the wholehearted awareness of mindfulness practice to imprint that feeling in your consciousness so it becomes a reference point for your teaching.


Authenticity is the language, the currency for working with adolescents. In this context, your ability to be real and vulnerable with others is a strength. Many educators find it helpful to share some of their own story early in the process of getting to know a class, often during the first session. Dave Smith, meditation teacher and educator, will give kids a 5-minute biography. “I tell them a little about my life. ‘When I was your age, I had such-and-such trauma. I hated the world, hated my life, my parents…’ They’re like, ‘Me, too.’ If you’ve been through something real, you can use that to build trust.”

By sharing openly, the facilitator models strength through vulnerability, opens the door to a genuine relationship, and invites the kids to a deeper level of honesty. Self-disclosing can have a ripple effect. When done well, sharing your personal experience can build trust and safety and create an environment in which others are willing to take risks.

There are many creative ways to invite students to express themselves authentically. When we’ve done our job well, created the proper conditions of safety and trust and given teens permission to be real, they have the capacity to take enormous emotional risks. Many educators (ourselves included) feel regularly inspired by their raw authenticity, their willingness to share openly and unabashedly. Morris Ervin recounts the transformation of one very quiet student, a young man whose brother had been killed by the police. He rarely said a word in high school. At the talent show at the end of Morris’ three month mentoring program, he was dancing and reciting poetry on stage, in front of the whole school.

Creating the conditions for this kind of open sharing requires a level of vulnerability that a lot of adults don’t feel comfortable with in general, let alone with teens and adolescents. It requires walking a fine line between sharing openly and maintaining appropriate boundaries. The danger of sharing too much is that we take center stage, make the relationship about our own needs, or collapse the differentiation of roles into becoming friends. On the other hand, if we don’t share any of our vulnerability and hold the role too rigidly or opaquely, we limit the possibilities for learning and connection.

While powerful, self-disclosure must be done consciously and intention- ally, with an awareness of how it will serve. Different levels of self-disclosure are appropriate for different environments. Educators, mental health professionals, and mentors are trained to disclose personal life experiences carefully, with the primary aim always to serve the students rather than our own interests. We don’t self-disclose because we want to get something off our chest or to seek attention from adolescents.

Strategic disclosure builds connection and models a fluid, dynamic relationship to power. By sharing personally, we can demonstrate that we’re not holding too tightly to the authority of our role. (At the same time, this can be overused as a way of disavowing the power we do hold—and need to hold to—in our role.) If you feel drawn to disclose something personal, check your intention. Are you doing it because it will benefit the youth? Or are you doing this to get approval, be liked, or mask fear? As soon as the intention shifts to serving our own ends rather than the youth, disclosing may be counterproductive.

This post was adapted from the forthcoming book Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents by Matthew Brensilver, JoAnna Hardy, and Oren Jay Sofer (W. W. Norton, March 2020).

Matthew Brensilver, PhD, teaches meditation at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and UCLA. JoAnna Hardy teaches meditation to young people, offers retreats nationally, and works to build multicultural community with a focus on social and racial justice. Oren Jay Sofer, a meditation teacher, author, and communication trainer, leads retreats and workshops nationally.

Trending in 2020: To Teach or Not to Teach “Triggering” Texts

I confess. I still teach Sherman Alexie’s books. I value the quality of his work and the power it has on adolescent readers too much to give it up. That declaration has created confusion, consternation, and even condemnation by some fellow teachers who heretofore thought I was at least passably “woke.” How can I be a feminist and teach the works of such a serial abuser?  You probably still watch Woody Allen movies, they sneer.

Similarly, despite the reasonable reconsideration of the dominance of Shakespeare in literature curricula, I am not swayed by the argument that his plays shouldn’t be taught because they are “triggering.” From my perspective, both the rise of trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement have reshaped and perhaps diminished the landscape of the politics of teaching literature.

Given the powerful rise of #MeToo movement, it has become, for some, a politically incorrect choice to teach the much-maligned Sherman Alexie. Or Junot Díaz. Or David Foster Wallace. Or Garrison Keillor. Even the Holocaust survivor and author of Night, Eli Wiesel, has been shunned by the movement. These developments make left-leaning scholars like me strange bedfellows with New Critics as we may again need to evaluate the relative value of literature as it exists apart from the author. Can we separate the art from the artist, the writer from his book? I made a career out of eschewing the New Critical insistence on removing considerations of the author from the text (Appleman, 2014). Along with generations of progressive literacy instructors, I focused on the reader’s responses or other ways of viewing texts. I viewed biographical criticism as one of several legitimate theoretical lenses to read and interpret literature. I even ridiculed those radical New Critics who claim that the author’s life and times had nothing to do with the relative literary merit of his work. Now I want to keep reading and teaching The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and ignore everything I learn about Sherman Alexie. Am I a hypocrite?

In addition to the #MeToo movement, the call for trigger warnings has also prompted the removal of texts from the classroom, the curriculum, even the library. The call for trigger warnings, pre-reading cautions that literature might trigger previous trauma, complex memories, or unhealed wounds, clearly has its merits. After all, we teachers have our own version of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. Yet it is almost impossible to read literature, that unflinching mirror of the human condition, without touching on the kinds of issues that many students ask to be shielded from: death, violence, heartache, childhood and adolescent trauma, illness, and sexuality.  Examples abound of the chilling effects of trigger warnings on the teaching of literature. Teachers at every grade level are reconsidering the place of Shakespeare in the literature curriculum as they juggle complaints about violence and sex. A prospective English major who asked for assurance that nothing she would read would upset her was thoughtfully counseled to consider another major. A women’s studies professor who included The Bluest Eye on her syllabus was confronted by her students even before her class began. We won’t read this book under any conditions, they told her. It has incest in it, and that is triggering.       

Can literature be read without triggering, or, in fact, is part of the role of literature to trigger, that is, to wake and engage our complex set of emotions?  While it is, of course, imperative to consider our students’ well-being and to teach sensitively, I shudder at the thought that this strain of politics will banish some texts into silence.

Rather than banish those texts, perhaps we could adopt Gerry Graff’s (1993) instructions to teach the controversy. Christina Torres, despite her misgivings, still teaches Shakespeare, but encourages her students to trouble the text:

Teachers must be upfront about the problematic aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. We must call out the misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew, the racism in Othello, and the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice…. Students deserve to interrogate, disagree with, and even dislike Shakespeare’s plays. (Torres, 2019)

In a thoughtful essay that describes his preservice students’ resistance to Sherman Alexie, Jeff Spanke ruminates on the cost of not including problematic texts:

In opting not to engage with the text, our class became a text unto itself: a narrative not too dissimilar to the one we read for that night. Competing histories, conflicting values, minority voices, power and privilege and hope and loss, all coalescing for a precious moment in the social construct of school. Yes, through their frustration, my students reminded me that I can always point to other books to discuss. But that night’s class also reminded me that our frustration might be the point of discussing books. (2018, p. 107)

As I have argued elsewhere (Appleman, 2014), literature can help our students learn to read and resist ideology, a purpose that has never been more important. Literature provides a site of inquiry like no other for exploring the human condition. As part of that exploration, we can help students learn to read both texts and worlds with a nuanced and critical eye. We can teach them to discover how power and privilege are inscribed all around us so they can become the enlightened witnesses that bell hooks (1994) calls for and that we so desperately need in these particularly troubled times.

Yes, I am a feminist, and yes, I am outraged by what I have learned about Sherman Alexie’s actions toward women, but I am not going to stop teaching his texts. I want to have the conversation, not the silence.


Appleman, D. (2014). Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.

Graff, G. (1993). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts can Revitalize American Education. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Spanke, J.  Magnificent things and terrible men: Teaching Sherman Alexie in the age of #MeToo. English Education, October 2018.

Torres, C.  Why I’m rethinking teaching Shakespeare in my English classroom. Education Week Teacher, October 2019.

Deborah Appleman is the author of Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison (W. W. Norton, 2019). She lives in Minnesota and is the Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies and director of the summer writing program at Carleton College. Since 2007, Deborah has taught language, literature, and creative writing courses at a high-security prison for men in the upper Midwest.

Trending in 2020: Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Teachers?

Just after high school and before my first year in college, I taught mathematics in a rural village in Kenya. After a few months, the mayor of the town invited me to his home.  I sat in an anteroom that had a swept dirt floor and freshly whitewashed walls.  He left me to sit alone with a small battery-operated radio.  The radio played loud static.  There were no radio channels available.  After 5 minutes or so, he returned to ask me what I thought of his radio.  Being polite, I said, “Very nice, Mr. Mayor!” 

Why did he do this?  He had be aware that it was only noise.  To this day, I think he was showing me that he was looking towards the future.  The technology was an aspirational symbol. “I am taking this town into the future!” 

We see an analog of this when school districts spend large funds to ensure students have computers, even though there is limited infrastructure to support the technology and there is no compelling programming.  It is aspirational – a way to tell parents and children that they are looking to the future. 

In the last few years, people have started to look to the future of Artificial Intelligence in education.  I would like to clarify what that future could be, so the educational enterprise can set appropriate (and functional) aspirations.

By way of background, artificial Intelligence (AI) automates tasks that humans perform . AI applications range from reading x-rays to driving a car to understanding what you say to your phone. In education, this leads people to think about automating teaching.  Indeed, the earliest AI systems simulated human tutors.  For example, the computer assigns a child an algebra problem.  The computer tracks whether the child follows the correct steps.  When a child makes a mistake, the program intervenes to help.  The key intelligence is the ability to track student performance over time to recognize what sub-skills the child has mastered or missed. It can then move the student backwards or forwards in the content.  It is similar to what many tutors do, where they diagnose the gaps in student understanding, and back up to cover the missing material.  The expression “adaptive educational technology” refers to the software’s abilities to move a learner forward or backward in the content (or, the test questions, in the context of adaptive testing).  Notably, unlike the best tutors, adaptive technologies do not currently change the method of instruction to match individual student needs.  There is room for improvement.

Intelligent tutors have shown positive effects, especially for domains that involve the application of rule-based procedures, such as mathematics, programming, and logic.  They are a smart idea. Even so, I do not think imitating and eventually replacing the teacher is the right aspirational goal for educational technology.  Rather than focusing on the efficiencies gained from automation, we should think about how AI can support fundamentally new ways of learning made possible by the computer.  It is only in the past 20 years that students could learn by exploring computer simulations of natural phenomena, such as glacier formation, bird flocking, and gravity. How can AI support this, and other, new forms of learning? This is an important question to explore, because many current applications of AI dictate what students should do, often by giving them step-by-step instructions within a very fixed instructional model.  Ironically, these applications make students more like computers, so they too follow step-by-step instructions.  This is an old model of instruction largely suited to a different time in history.  What we really want for the future is students with rich knowledge bases who can make smart choices about what and how to learn.

Done right, AI can be exceptionally powerful in helping students to become independent learners, when there is no teacher available to tell them exactly what they should be thinking and doing.  How might it do this?  There are already signs.  AI can provide rich feedback.  For example, work at Stanford is making it possible for children with autism to gain feedback about the emotions of other people.  Children wear smart glasses that can detect emotions from the faces of other people. The glasses can also show messages to the children, for example, by labeling a facial expression as, “Happy.”  This helps the children learn to recognize emotions. AI systems can also observe whether students are using good design-thinking strategies and exploring alternatives, which is often hard for a teacher to monitor in a classroom of 25+ children. AI systems can even help teachers keep track of who is speaking the most in class, which alerts teachers to the possibility that they are talking too much of the time or that some groups of students are being systematically shut out.

More broadly, a great promise of AI in education is that it will provide a steady stream of evidence and feedback to students, teachers, and even policy makers.  With new sources of evidence, educators and learners will finally be in a position for continual improvement.  Education has always been a data impoverished field.  Once-a-year standardized tests are coarse metrics, and it is incredibly demanding on teachers to provide regular and rich feedback.  A kindergarten teacher once asked me to finish the sentence, “Practice makes ______.”  I fell for it and said, “perfect.”  She said, “No, practice makes permanent.  Practice with feedback makes perfect.”  AI systems are increasing in their abilities to provide meaningful feedback.  This ranges from feedback to improve writing, to improve critical thinking, to improve learning from open-ended tasks.  AI systems can also provide feedback to teachers, and not just about their students but also about their teaching.  Systems are being developed that can interpret transcripts and even raw video footage of teaching to help teachers notice missed opportunities or suggest new ways of asking questions.  AI systems can help policy makers and administrators, for example, by discovering early warning signs of potential failure.

My aspirational version of Artificial Intelligence in education does not replace the teacher with robots. Instead, future AI will work with teachers to get information they and their students need to learn and improve.  This human-centered approach to AI puts learning in the hands of people, and it puts AI in the role of helping people do what they still do best – learn when they have useful feedback.

Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, author of The ABCs of How We Learn (W. W. Norton, 2016) is the Dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and holds the Nomellini-Olivier Chair in Educational Technology. He is an award-winning learning scientist, who also spent eight years teaching secondary school in Los Angeles and Kaltag, Alaska. His special niche is the ability to produce novel and effective learning activities that also test basic hypotheses about how people learn.

Trending in 2020: Recognizing Teacher Professionalism and Expertise in Trying Times

Almost daily, it seems, our social media platforms blow up with yet another story about why teachers are leaving the profession. We read reports by think tanks and policy centers, personal narratives from discouraged teachers—both new and veteran—and calls for change from professional organizations. Teachers are leaving in record numbers for many reasons, these sources tell us, but prime among them is this: Once respected as professionals, many teachers now feel as if their voices have been silenced—that their education, experience, and diligent commitment to students no longer have a place in the conversations about education. Standardized tests lead to standardized curricula and standardized teaching practices in far too many places. They create “teacher proof” approaches that ignore teacher creativity and contradict research based practices.

            As former high school teachers and now teacher educators, we work with a lot of teachers. We hear their despair and we worry about their futures in this profession they have chosen and that they love. At the same time that we may fret, though, we’re intrigued by the committed professionalism we see among so many teachers:

  • Given the number of teachers who are leaving, what is it that keeps them in education?
  • Given the focus on mandated curriculum, why do they keep going to conferences and participating in twitter chats and reading professional books and creating professional learning experiences for themselves (different from the mandated versions of this in so many of their schools and school districts)?
  • Given an environment that diminishes their ability to make decisions about classroom practices, what makes them continuous learners, trying new and research-supported ways of teaching in their classroom; reflecting on why something worked and how to rethink something that didn’t?
  • And—most of all—how do they do this in the face of structures seemingly designed to erase them as professionals?

            We see teachers exerting themselves as professionals every day. Cathy has helped facilitate a group of teacher researchers for over 20 years in which teachers meet monthly outside the confines of their schools. These teachers share their deepest wonderings about teaching, conduct research in their own classrooms, bring data back to the group to reflect upon together, share resources, and make changes in their teaching as a result of their own and their colleagues’ work. These teachers don’t do it for graduate credit; they don’t do it for an increase in pay; they don’t do it to impress their administrators. They do it, they proclaim, for the shared experience, for the opportunity to talk with other teachers who share their values and commitment, and to get support from other experts in their profession—their colleague teachers.

Similarly, in recent work in collaboration with Nicole Mirra, Antero has engaged in ongoing participatory research with teachers and students from across the country. The Digital Democratic Dialogue (3D) study began as an initial focus on how teachers can support the complex civic dialogue that feels so distant from what teachers often feel comfortable engaging in under the political circumstances in the U.S. today. However, while our analysis of nearly two years of participation across the country emphasizes powerful lessons about civic learning, there is an equally powerful lesson that the 3D study helps illuminate about teachers today. Supported teachers, with caring colleagues and resources, thrive. Just as Cathy noted above, these teachers engage with one another for the love of the profession, for the thrill of intellectualism, and for the very simple fact that this study is guided by their expertise.

It’s About Respect

            What does this tell us?  We think it’s this:  When teachers are treated as professionals, when they are treated as the experts they are, they can help shift the conversations about teaching and learning. To that point, the National Council of Teachers of English is considering a resolution that seeks to name and honor teacher expertise, defining teacher experts as “teachers who make a commitment to intentional professional growth that is sustained over time and years of practice.” This resolution, created by the NCTE Resolutions Committee at the 2019 NCTE Annual Convention and passed at the 2019 Annual Business Meeting, is now awaiting approval by NCTE membership.

            The resolution further names teacher experts as those who:

  • Continually hone the art and craft of teaching by studying their own practice
  • Engage in teaching that responds effectively to particular moments in the context of their classrooms and work with students
  • Foster authentic, equitable, and caring relationships with students, their families, and the communities in which they teach
  • Seek leadership opportunities and professional learning within their schools and elsewhere, while remaining active classroom teachers

            It says a lot about where we are in terms of U.S. public education when a professional organization like NCTE must take the necessary stand of recognizing teacher expertise through a resolution like this. As we look to the work we do with teachers on a day-to-day basis, we recognize that we must act along two seemingly divergent lines:

  1. We must speak loudly of the importance for valuing teachers as experts and professionals; this must be a crucial and explicitly taught component in teacher education programs.
  2. We must also make the ways we value these teachers’ burgeoning judgments implicit and part of the invisible infrastructure of what teachers naturally do.

As we are just now entering the third decade of the 21st century, we hold hope for powerful shifts in the landscape of teacher accountability and evaluation. These are trying times for public educators, but we continue to hold fast to hope alongside the passionate teachers we work with and learn from daily.

Cathy Fleischer is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and special imprint editor at NCTE. Antero Garcia is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Their co-authored book, Everyday Advocacy: Teachers Who Change the Literacy Narrative, will be released this November.

Trending in 2020: Have Educators Privileged Argument Writing at the Expense of Personal Narrative?

Although the Common Core State Standards have lost something of their influence over the teaching and curriculum of the English Language Arts, I think it’s undeniable that a lasting legacy of the CCSS is that they increased the centrality of the teaching of argument in the writing curriculum.  You can see the CCSS architects’ justification for this emphasis in a subsection of Appendix A aptly titled “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards” (  You can see it also in this famous (or infamous) statement by David Coleman, the chief of those architects, that was reported in The Atlantic: “A boss would never tell an employee, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood’” (Goldstein, 2012).  Argument, Coleman argues, should be taught because it’s practical.

And not just in the world of work.  I’ve been among those who have encouraged teachers to give arguments its special place because I recognize that argument is “the most highly prized type of academic discourse” (Andrews, 2009, p. 1), that college writing placement tests are characteristically argument based, and that the increasingly common placement of students into developmental writing classes before they can take their required English composition class is enormously costly both for the students and for their institutions.  That’s why in our work with 11th and 12th grade students in an under-resourced neighborhood urban school my students and I have focused on argument.

I’m proud of our work.  We engage students in thinking about a variety of important questions like “What does it really mean to be smart?” and “To what extent am I responsible for others?”  To prepare them for the reading, writing, and arguing they’ll be doing as we explore those big questions, we have them engage with less weighty questions, like “Who makes the best burrito?” And “What supervillain would be the best one to enlist if you want to take over the world?” Students seem to like our approach, at least for the most part, and our data demonstrate that our students have made statistically significant gains in their writing ability as measured by their responses to prompts designed to resemble those given on our university’s placement test.  (See Smith & Imbrenda, 2018 for more details about the program.)

But recently the privileged place of academic argument has begun to be questioned. Turner and Hicks (2017), for example, make the case that argument in the real world (in memes and infographics, for example) works differently than it does in the academy. Smagorinsky (2018) worries that instruction in argumentation may fail to recognize that arguments are often more emotional than rational.  Hobbs (forthcoming) is concerned that schools have neglected the study of propaganda, which she sees as vitally important, because, when it is compared to argument, it is regarded as insufficiently complex and serious to be the subject of study.

I take these critiques seriously, but I think our approach addresses these concerns, at least in some fashion.  When you engage kids in evaluating a wide variety of arguments and in thinking about if and how they work, it seems to me that you are helping them understand both formal academic argument and informal digitally-based arguments, many of which appeal to emotion rather than logic. Imagine, for example, a lesson that asked students to list all of the evidence a local college website uses to attract applicants and then to rank that evidence in terms of its effectiveness.

But another criticism of the emphasis on argument worries me more. DeStigter (2015), for example, critiques what he see as an overemphasis on argumentation because it “renders illegible other, nondominant modes of contemplation and expression.” In so doing, DeStigter continues, “the ascendance of argument limits our understandings of who we humans are and what we are capable of because it attends to only a tiny part of the communicative spectrum we occupy” (p. 20).  Johnson, the employee in the Coleman quote above, may have stories to tell as well as analyses to write.

My concern with this critique was amplified recently by reading Deborah Appleman’s remarkable new book, Words No Bars Can Hold (2019).  In it she chronicles the work she has been doing with men who are incarcerated. And she shares their writing and their thoughts about it at some length.  We hear China, a lifer, say “I write because I don’t have a choice.  Who else is going to be my voice, tell my story, and show my pain?”  And Johnny, another lifer, who says “I believe writing can heal the deepest gashes and restore a fragmented soul.” Nobody says such things about an argument, no matter how engaging.  Deborah’s book is a powerful reminder of what our work as literacy educators can mean in the lives of students.

I’m not here to say that I’m going to rewrite our curriculum.  I find the arguments for argument compelling, and as I noted above, I remain very proud of our work.  But Deborah’s book has created more than a little niggle for me.  In a time in which the privileged place of academic argument in the writing curriculum no longer goes without saying, I need to think more about the extent to which I, recognizing that time is a zero-sum game, have privileged argument at the expense of personal narrative.  I wonder whether our students would develop rich writerly identities like those of Deborah’s students if we devoted more time to helping them spin out their stories instead of just using personal anecdotes in service of their argumentative claims.  I need to make sure that in looking to the future we are serving our students appropriately in the here-and-now.


Appleman, Deborah. (2019). Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

DeStigter, T. (2015). “On the ascendance of argument: A critique of the assumptions of academe’s dominant form.” Research in the Teaching of English, 50, 11-34.

Goldstein, D.  (2012). The schoolmaster.  The Atlantic.  Available at

Hobbs, Renee. (2020). Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Smagorinsky, P. (2018). Emotion, reason, and argument: Teaching persuasive writing in tense times. English Journal, 107, (5), 98-101.

Smith, M. W., & Imbrenda, J. (2018). Developing Writers of Argument:  Tools & Rules that Sharpen Students’ Reasoning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Turner, K. T., & Hicks. T. (2017).  Argument in the Real World.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Michael W. Smith is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in Temple University’s College of Education. He joined the ranks of college instructors after 11 years of teaching high school English. His scholarly work focuses on understanding what motivates and supports adolescents’ reading and writing both in and out of school. He has reported his research and the instructional ideas that derive from it in 16 books, two of which he and his co-author Jeff Wilhelm received NCTE’s David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English, as well as in a wide variety of articles and chapters.

Trending in 2020: School Discipline is Trauma-Insensitive and Trauma-Uninformed

I was asked to write a blog post about a recent trend in education that I find either exciting or concerning. I decided to write about a topic that is both exciting and concerning: the impact of trauma on learning and behavior.

First the exciting part: these days many educators are being trained to understand the impact of chronic stress and trauma on students’ development, behavior, and learning. Schools everywhere are devoting significant professional development time to this topic and prioritizing being “trauma-informed” or “trauma-sensitive.” Thankfully, as a result educators have far more empathy for how chronic stress and trauma can derail learning and be a primary cause of disruptive behavior in the classroom.

Now the concerning part: these very same schools often still rely heavily on punitive school disciplinary strategies. I recall visiting a school recently where the leadership proudly described their trauma-informed training and then proceeded to show me examples of the behavior contracts they use with their students. These traditional disciplinary strategies (including sticker-charts, time-outs, demerits, detention, suspension, and expulsion) aren’t very successful for the students to whom they are most often applied. Research has clearly shown that such disciplinary actions actually increase the likelihood of further disciplinary measures and are related to higher drop-out rates as well as lower academic achievement and even eventual juvenile justice involvement (APA, 2008).  And to whom are they most often applied? Sadly, to the most at-risk, misunderstood, and marginalized students including those with histories of trauma and exposure to chronic stress. Students who exhibit challenging behavior are often the students with trauma histories because being exposed to chronic stress or trauma delays brain development, causing lags in skill development which in turn result in challenging behaviors. As a direct result of their trauma, many of these students struggle with skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. They don’t lack the will to behave well, they lack the skills to behave well. No wonder traditional school discipline doesn’t work with traumatized students: motivational strategies don’t teach students neurocognitive skills they lack.

Even more concerning: not only do punitive interventions not work with traumatized students, they can do developmental damage and make matters worse. Nowhere in the trauma-informed practice literature have I seen anyone advocate for the use of power and control to manipulate a traumatized student’s behavior. Using behavior charts and rewards and consequences is doing just that. It is leveraging a power differential to increase compliance. Put more simply, traditional school discipline revolves around rewarding students when they do what we want and revoking privileges when they don’t: a toxic dynamic that many traumatized kids are already all too familiar with in their past relationships with adults. In other words, traditional school disciplinary strategies are about as trauma-uninformed and trauma-insensitive as it gets!

There are additional side-effects of this vicious cycle of chronic stress and punitive discipline (Ablon & Pollastri, 2018). When punitive discipline is ineffective, it adds more stress; which further delays skill development; which results in escalating behavior; which is then often met by raising the stakes with even more punitive discipline. Systems of escalating consequences are sometimes called “progressive discipline.” But this is a misnomer: when it comes to curbing challenging behavior, those systems are anything but progressive. In fact, I like to refer to them as “progressive dysregulation”, since both students and educators become increasingly dysregulated, with dire consequences for everyone including the teachers. Dealing with challenging behavior in the classroom is one of the biggest sources of stress for educators; it drives talented, young teachers out of the profession just when we need them most.

Thankfully there is still good news: we have the power to interrupt this cycle of chronic stress and trauma. We don’t have to respond to challenging behavior with punitive discipline. Proven alternatives exist. Instead of adding stress that further delays skills and escalates behavior, we can buffer stress, build skills, and reduce challenging behavior in a truly trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive way (Perry & Ablon, 2019). Effective alternatives, such as Collaborative Problem Solving and restorative practices, are relational forms of discipline that do not revolve around use of power and control.

Schools represent a remarkable opportunity to help our most vulnerable, traumatized kids. Students spend the majority of their waking hours—the majority of their youth—surrounded by trained professionals who are experts in helping kids build skills. So, let’s harness that opportunity and turn trauma-informed principles into concrete, actionable strategies that transform school discipline.


Ablon, J.S., & Pollastri, A.R, The School Discipline Fix. (2018). Norton: New York, NY.

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. The American Psychologist63(9), 852.

Perry BD, Ablon JS. (2019) CPS as a Neurodevelopmentally Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Approach. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham

J. Stuart Ablon, PhD, is associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of Think:Kids in the psychiatry department at Mass General Hospital.  Among his publications is The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (Norton, 2018), co-authored with Alisha R. Pollastri. Dr. Ablon will be speaking at the SXSW EDU Conference on March 11, 2020 in Austin, Texas.