The art of balancing expression

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Given my history, readers can assume I am a strong believer in free speech and expression. In order to achieve growth and progress in education, there needs to be a balance between professional responsibility among teachers and educational policy. Unfortunately, in my district it seems as though the scales are increasingly becoming tipped toward personnel policy management.

This past summer, my district passed a new employee speech policy. The policy went into effect without much fanfare or publicity, which is another disappointing lack of transparency. The first line of the policy states “Speech made as a school district employee is not constitutionally protected.” The policy also includes “Speech made by staff in their official capacity as school district employees shall furthermore be in keeping with the district’s mission statement.” Incidentally, my district mission statement is “Educating today’s learners for tomorrow’s world.” Guidelines and policies governing employee speech are a necessity in today’s reality; however, these restrictions seem to not only be legally questionable, but also an effort to suppress employee expression to protect district liability.

The legality of the first statement in the policy is concerning. Supreme Court cases Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) reveal that this statement is inaccurate. In fact, the Tinker majority decision states “students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door.” Overreaching statements stating employees are “not constitutionally protected”(and the last statement of the student publications policy) cause unnecessary self-censorship and result in an educational learning experience that fails to meet the district mission.

To complicate the speech restrictions, district officials also implemented a social media policy where it explains “… all West Fargo Public Schools social media accounts are a voice for the school district.” The social media requirements include creating the account with a district email and sharing the password with district officials. In addition to the security red flags, this system of communication is neither authentic nor meant to continue a conversation about improving the academic environment. If employees feel they can’t share their opinions openly and honestly in a public forum, any organization will struggle to improve.

In his book Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros encourages administrators and leaders to “create the conditions where innovation in education flourishes.” He adds “Our job as educators and leaders is not to control others but to bring out the best in them.” It’s important to remember that a “pile on” of restrictive policies can hurt teacher retention and prohibit innovative thinking from both students and teachers. Just as strict Internet filters limit a student’s ability to stretch his/her thinking via limiting resources, strict policies on employee speech prevent a free flow of ideas to assist with improvement of the overall educational experience.

My advocacy for student expression is directly related to my philosophy that students need to operate in an environment that will help them sharpen their citizenship skills and prepare them to be productive members of their future communities. In this same way, district administrators should foster expression among staff members to encourage fresh ideas and innovative changes. If staff members are leery of expressing their challenges on the status quo, creating a digital footprint or using controversial current events for class discussion, it only serves to weaken this citizenship standard and short-change our students.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.






Value in transparency 

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I have always been a firm believer in transparency. That’s probably what drew me to journalism early in my career. I believe in the role of the press to keep public entities accountable and always respected those organizations that operated with true transparency.

This is why scholastic journalism plays such an important role in today’s schools. Students are telling stories that some might consider controversial. These stories lead to a bigger dialogue on the issue covered. Last year, a student published a story about a student who had been bullied and sought freedom by transferring schools. Obviously, not terrific PR for the district, but an important issue to discuss. A local media outlet picked up the story and other students started stepping forward, feeling more courageous after seeing this young man’s bravery. It all began with the student press.

In August of 2015, North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act went into effect. It protects student journalists from being prevented from telling these stories. It also requires all school districts create a policy outlining their students’ press freedoms. Ironically, in 2008, before being terminated as newspaper adviser, I asked my district to create such a policy in order to provide transparent direction and guidelines. The legal counsel for the school board informed me that the district would prefer to not have a policy because they like the “flexibility” they currently have. That was disappointing to hear at the time, but made more sense after being removed. Transparency obviously was not valued at that time.

In late August of 2015, I offered to assist in the creation of the policy, figuring my years of experience and certifications in the area might help. I was informed the district is seeking input from its legal counsel (that’s right, same legal counsel from 2009) and the North Dakota School Board Association. A spokesperson told me they would seek input from district media advisers soon. A meeting was set with advisers and administrators for the end of October. We met and I voiced my concerns about the final line of the policy “The superintendent’s decision is binding.” I explained this seemed a little undemocratic and, while we currently have a superintendent who would remain objective, that might not always be the case. Afterall, the former superintendent was the primary factor in my removal in 2009. I was told these concerns would be discussed with the current superintendent. Unfortunately, I discovered that the student publications policy was officially adopted Sept. 29th, a month before we met. This was far from transparent.

I understand the district schedules meetings and evaluates policies based on a predetermined timeline. The disappointing factor in this scenario is the lack of clarity on what had already been accomplished. Failing to provide a clear picture of their policy direction should not be surpising for a district that has seven policies governing general public relations and only one policy governing organizational communication. If district leaders truly value professional input and advocate for teachers, they would reconsider the current organizational communication method.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The reality of transition

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Yesterday I was visiting with my wife, an instructional coach in the same district, about the difficult days leading up to the school year. Our three daughters are adjusting to different schedules, we are trying to prepare professionally all while trying to soak up the last summer days together. My wife, Tamara, eloquently calls it “the reality of transition.”

It reminded me of this:


This transition is made more difficult due to a documented lack of engagement in the profession. A “Fast Company” article by Brandon Busteed references a Gallup poll stating that 69 percent of educators are engaged in their work and “teachers are dead last among all professions Gallup studied in saying their ‘opinions count’ at work and their ‘supervisors create an open and trusting environment.'” With these numbers, it’s no wonder that almost three quarters of teachers dread the coming school year.

Teachers are not alone in the tumult of transition. This same Gallup poll found engagement drops dramatically among students as they progress through school. In elementary school, 76 percent of students feel engaged, while only 44 percent of high school students feel engaged. The lack of engagement among both teachers and students should alarm all educational professionals. It is hard to quantify the countless hours I spent modifying curriculum requirements to attempt a more engaging approach with students. Now I’m beginning to think we need to start reimagining the process, rather than enhancing the existing strategies.

In his TedX video “The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools”, Will Richardson quotes author Seymour Sarason when describing the learning process. Sarason wrote “Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive.” The term “productive learning” resonated with me. In my career, I have struggled to instrinsically motivate students to engage with my curriculum. I used to joke, “if I could solve student motivation issues, I would be rich.” I even went before ND English teachers and presented various tools to help students engage with curriculum. I now think I was searching for solutions within the prescribed curricular box.

While reading George Couros book “Innovator’s Mindset” he discussed the topic of engagement. He writes “Engagement is a good thing, but I’ve since learned that we must also empower students and equip them with the skills to learn. It is imperative that we teach learners how to be self-directed and guide their own learning, rather than rely on others to simply engage them.” He uses this graphic from Bill Ferriter to clarify his message. 

Transitioning into the upcoming school year, I do not consider myself in the 69 percent of unengaged teachers (although that may have been true in the past). This is primarily because I’m in the process of reimagining my classroom. I’m hoping students will be surprised when they discover their student-centered English course is unlike anything they have experienced before. This will involve a student-centered approach where they will be managers of their own learning experience. It will involve professional community mentors to help students bridge that gap to their next steps. And it will involve authentic products for authentic, real-world audiences.

Late summer has a new feel in my household. My wife, in her new role as a coach, is excited to assist new teachers in their quest to provide the best possible instruction for their students. It is also the first time in years where I have been excited to get back into the classroom. I’m always searching for new strategies and philosophies to provide my students an advantage upon graduation. Offering opportunities for “productive learning” will provide the transforming transition I need, but more importantly my students deserve.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The antsy time of year

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We are two-thirds of the way through our school year. Usually, this is the time period in which students start to get antsy. Winter is dragging on, gray skies remain consistent and school breaks are rare. While that may be the case again this year, I also find myself becoming increasingly unsettled as the year progresses.

My uneasiness this year is a culmination of years of reflection on my classroom mission. My district has taken on new initiatives the past few years (as all districts do) to solve the well-documented, disconnected nature between high school graduates and work place preparedness. One emphasis has been allowing teachers to communicate with business professionals in the area, discussing the skills they most want to see in potential employees and focusing on the four C’s (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication). Another emphasis is more data-driven and focused on curriculum continuity and viability. We have aligned ELA curriculum to the ND Common Core State Standards and redesigned units to address possible gaps. We have created common unit assessments, focusing on what we believe to be the most important standards, and we are required to meet and discuss assessment results to evaluate our teaching effectiveness. The implementation of these two areas no doubt costs money and time. However, these initiatives are becoming increasingly  contradictory.

The research and literature discussing skill-building for today’s work force mostly addresses the same concept: schools are missing the most important factors for encouraging future success. In his book Why School?, Will Richardson argues that schools are becoming obsolete. He says we are still operating under an “old world” system when teachers and information were scarce, instead of the current abundance of information that is reality. He says we should be focusing on “preparing students to be learners, above all, who can successfully wield the abundance at their fingertips. It’s a kind of schooling that prepares students for the world they will live in, not the one in which most of us grew up.” Instead of creating “learners”, it feels like we are putting an emphasis on the most assessable skills, not the most important.

Earlier this year my team created a learning goal for students for the purpose of evaluating our own professional growth. Of course, like many districts across the country, it needed to fit the parameters of a SMART goal (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). We were told to look at the skills we value most at our grade level and attempt to build student growth. Here’s the problem, as a freshmen English team, we struggled to find ways to measure the most valuable skills we wanted students to attain. This struggle was multi-faceted: 1) the goal window consisted of 60 school days, or one-third of the year 2) we needed the assessment to be uniform and 3) it had to be an important skill set. As the graph below represents, the most important skills are the most difficult to assess, especially given the time parameters set forth by a SMART goal.




As a team, we settled on improving students’ comma usage to meet 80 percent proficiency according to a uniform scoring rubric. I can barely type it without getting bored. Ironically enough, an administrator rejected it and explained that “comma usage did not seem like something we have a passion for.” That is 100 percent correct. Unfortunately, all the areas we are passionate about are difficult to assess given the SMART goal parameters: critical thinking, resiliency, empathy, curiosity, creativity, etc. To appease the process, we broadened the goal and focused more on student growth than students reaching proficiency. It was still a “basic skill” on the “less important” side of the scale, but definitely easier to provide a uniform, viable assessment.

The process reminded me of a post from a couple of years ago by Dean Shareski (@shareski). He says I’m not anti-measurement. I’m anti- simple. It’s the same reason I hated SMART goals. When the concept was first introduced to me as a teacher it seemed to make sense.  You can’t improve what you can’t measure I was told. However, in all the years I was subjected to that idea, I don’t think I ever wrote one that I cared about. The moment I tried created a goal I realized it would be hard to measure. So instead I focused on writing goals that were easy to measure just to be able to say I had a SMART goal.” Like Shareski, I believe in accountability and student growth, but it should be more flexible to meet the needs of today’s learners. 

We need to align our purpose. We can’t continue to restrict student assessments to a simplified, out-dated system and expect to prepare them for an ever-changing employment environment of complexity and “abundance.” In his book, Richardson refers to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) definition of 21st Century Literacies. He argues that the majority of students today are graduating “illiterate” by these standards. It is hard to disagree when we are required to narrow our focus to meet a restricting criteria.

It won’t be as simple or cut and dry, but we should look at systems that evaluate today’s 21st Century literacies. This also means examining a self-directed professional development approach and a longer, messier process to measure professional effectiveness. In the end, it will allow us to evaluate whether we are really developing “learners”.  It will provide more meaningful results that will have an impact on student learning for years to come.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

A professional courtesy

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In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Twitter. That once blurry, unfamiliar space for sharing ideas has flourished into a terrific resource for information – especially for teachers.

I have worked in my current school district for 11 years, since before Twitter existed. In that time, the district-driven professional development for teachers has changed only slightly. The state still decides the number of PD days districts need and officials have allotted time for individual buildings to decide how to use predetermined time increments. Still, this “sit and get” approach fails to put growth in the hands of the teachers. What makes memes so funny? They speak truth.

With major advancements in technology and communication methods, it’s time districts look to reevaluate professional development strategies. There is always talk about “elevating the teaching profession” or “respect for teachers”, but the current model of professional development falls well short of those sentiments. District leaders should trust that teachers want to improve their instructional practices. To show that trust, leaders should look at self-directed professional development.

Self-directed PD would be a pretty big shift from our current paradigm, where attendance is taken at all events and strict accountability strategies are in place. However, I always go back to the phrase I heard about academic rigor in the classroom “If a student can simply copy answers, is the skill being assessed really valuable?” So I ask, “If a teacher can gain the information through other means (email, media, etc.) is the PD really valuable?” The most successful PD has been described as continual and content-specific, with time for implementation and support. This model could be achieved by allowing teachers to search out their own growth via any number of sources, while still providing district support for the teacher when necessary. Again, this requires trusting that teachers are intrinsically motivated to improve in their professional practice.

Let’s use technology integration strategies as an example. In a survey by Samsung, 90 percent of teachers believe technology integration has a strong impact on student achievement. However, two-thirds of these teachers think they are not adequately trained to effectively implement new technology. My district, West Fargo Schools, has tinkered with alternative methods for improving teaching effectiveness and varying professional development experiences. We have allowed master teachers in our buildings to share best practices, incorporated walkthroughs to see other environments, visited community businesses and collaborated through Professional Learning Communities. Those are great strides from the large blocks of meetings we would sit in a decade ago. However, these strategies are still restrictive in the fact that they assume professional learning only takes place on those designated days with those activities.

In this Freakanomics podcast, Dave Levin, a former teacher and co-founder of the KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) says  “…we are not training teachers right now to meet the challenges of our kids today. Right? So to this extent we are sort of still training teachers for classrooms of the past. So we’re not teaching teachers well enough how to effectively differentiate for the vast range of skills the kids have. We’re not teaching teachers effectively enough how to use technology to further teaching, and we’re not teaching teachers how to make school relevant for what kids are really needing to succeed in the colleges they may go to or the careers they may pursue 20 years from now.” My district prides itself on the varied learning opportunities provided to students (AP, dual credit, STEM, AVID, intervention, etc.) and rightfully so, these are great programs to help achieve academic growth. It’s interesting that the same avenue has not been provided to teachers. The “one size fits all” model restricts growth.

Self-direct PD would also be more cost effective for school districts. Professional development is an expensive line item for most districts. The 50 largest districts in the country spend $8 billion annually on PD. Eric Schulzke (@eschulzkeexplains how the current model of PD is widely excepted nationwide, but shows little improvement in student achievement. The lack of results would be why my district has tried multiple PD methods in the last decade, all different variations of the “sit and get” approach. It’s time to let teachers drive their own learning. Authors @Myers_Berkowicz provide a variety of resources for teachers who are seeking to independently continue their professional growth. It’s time districts allow teachers to seek out their own learning opportunities instead of continuing the “one size fits all” approach. Growth would be driven by teachers’ instructional needs rather than district initiatives.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The bottom line: compassion

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Introduction: This post was written on August 17, 2013. It was originally intended to be posted that week. However, events transpired that made it difficult to publicize a post with a theme centered on compassion toward students. Since two and a half years have passed, the topic of this post has caused me much reflection. I will post the original post as intended, but I will include editorial comments in italics.

As the next post on this new adventure called blogging, I would like to spend it as many educators do – looking to the year ahead, full of possibilities and excitement. Personally, I have a couple of new classes on my plate this year, which have me delving into new curriculum and scanning the worldwide web for new resources to help enhance my students’ learning experiences. 

However, it wasn’t until last night that I came to realize the one key ingredient for every successful classroom. As teachers, the content comes easy for us. We have a passion for our subject area and we want to share that passion with our students. Last night, I attended the wedding of a former student and it was the second wedding this summer that involved former students (I know I’m getting old-but that is for another post). This particular wedding was different – not in the expected way such an event separates itself from the rest. No, this wedding was held in the same church where I had attended a funeral eight months prior for a current student who passed away during the school year.

These two events, although common in their location, obviously reside at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Last night, I found myself reflecting on another, more abstract, factor they had in common. As I sat and witnessed these former students express their devotion for each other, I couldn’t help but notice the immense love that transpired throughout the room. It was obvious that each person there cared deeply for this couple and each person wanted the best for them. This was not unlike the other occasion, where the same room, which was standing room only, was filled with individuals who cared deeply for the deceased.

That common factor of deep, unwavering affection slightly surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to draw such a similarity between two drastically different occasions. It helped me to reflect on the connection I had with each of these students. The importance of developing a strong relationship with students started to become clear. 

Since this post, a colleague of mine has described this investment in student learning as emotional currency. Teachers often are deficit spending when it comes to their emotional investment in students. Creating a balance becomes essential, but it is difficult to maintain.

I hesitate to use the term “caring” for this relationship because it really depends on the specific teaching management style of each teacher. However, in every classroom it should be evident that the teacher has a passion for the content, but a stronger passion for the students. At a conference a few weeks ago, student speaker Kayla Hill mentioned “Teachers who do a good job, not only have a passion for what they’re teaching, but for whom they’re teaching.”

As the school year begins, I will not only search for ways to make the content come alive for my students, but I’ll make an effort to make sure each student in my classroom understands the passion I have for them.

This post, although written years ago, has been difficult for me to publicize. The time that has passed since I have written this has forced me to reevaluate my commitment to my students. My philosophy centers on student growth and preparing students for their next step. However, I have realized that it’s impossible for me to perform my job without giving my full commitment to my students. 

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The most disheartening fact


The most enjoyable part of my role as a co-curricular adviser is the opportunity for students to participate in the publications program for multiple years. It is different than a traditional class. Throughout their time in publications, I can witness them grow as young adults and journalists, but also as human beings. This extended time together allows me to become more familiar with them and their families. They also become extremely familiar with me and my family. This unique connection is what has made this past 20 months the most difficult of my professional career.

As students graduate and move on from my co-curricular programs, it is my deepest hope that they not only gather the skills necessary to be a multimedia journalist, but they also gain an understanding of how to function ethically and morally in their future communities. I try to model these skills for my students, even supporting their right to free expression to the point of being fired. In the publications classroom, we call ourselves a family. We commit to each other every year and it is always my hope that the bond never fades.

However, since a flawed investigation led to five criminal complaints against my friend and colleague, it has been difficult for me to grasp that certain students no longer feel that connection. This separation has been the most disheartening. During this last year, I received this note from a former student:


At this student’s graduation party in 2009, a parent told me that if it wasn’t for my publications class, the graduating student would have dropped out long ago. There was a bond within that publications environment that tied everyone together. That’s what made this message so difficult for me to read. Aside from the fact that this student takes aim at my daughters, it crushes me to think this student believes I would express anything but the truth.

Whether they are aware of it or not, by believing the accuser’s allegations, former students are indirectly calling me a liar. The accuser’s allegations, which were not specific until long after the investigation, involve situations where I was present. The most difficult aspect of the past year has been dealing with this mistrust.


It was difficult for me to understand why former students would suddenly assume I would turn my back on my moral code. Recently a colleague of mine shared a quote from renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview – not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The really striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases…but people prefer reassurance to research.” My students’ worldviews have changed since they were in my classroom and that has made it easier for them to consider me a “mysogynist”.

This worldview concept is evident in other former students’ discussions regarding this situation.

IMG_7036 peterson post schwark 3

To me, the sad reality is no amount of fact-based information will sway these perspectives. In fact, as someone responded on a previous post, “It is extremely important for me as an ally to stand with the women who have been violated in any way.” As a teacher, it’s hard not to stand up and clap for this former student’s convictions. However, it is also extremely disheartening that these convictions grasp so tightly to a skewed worldview and are void of the “research” deGrasse Tyson mentions.

A friend and supporter of the accuser posted this article on a social media site. The lines that speak to deGrasse Tyson’s philosophy include, “Many, many, many of your opinions will turn out to be uninformed or just flat out wrong. No, the fact that you believed it doesn’t make it any more valid or worthwhile, and nobody owes your viewpoint any respect simply because it is yours. You can be wrong or ignorant. It will happen. Reality does not care about your feelings.” It hurts that some of my students, who prided themselves on fairness, truth and accuracy in my classroom, would think I would stray from those same core values. I am proud of them for expressing their strong “feelings”, but disheartened that these feelings ignore the truth and “reality” they were taught to pursue.

It has been an emotional 20 months for me as I have reflected on my role in the classroom. These last few posts about this situation have provided me a means to share those thoughts. Moving into the new school year, I will return to my original intent of starting this site: to share my efforts, successes and failures in the ELA classroom. As the year begins, it will be a little harder to form that “family bond” we know so well in the publications environment. It takes time and effort to develop strong trust in these relationships. Knowing that an altered worldview can easily break that trust has been the most disheartening realization.

Stay tuned for:  “The bottom line: Compassion” Editor’s note: This was going to be the next post after my post on August 8, 2014 until the last year caused me to reflect upon my profession. 

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his nine year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us

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