As a first-year classroom teacher in Harlem, I struggled in many, many ways.  My school was equipped with few resources to teach a very underserved population.  As a beginning teacher, support was wanting – the one and only time I was observed in my first year was in April for my formal evaluation….  Curricular materials? Nope. Working photocopier? Safe school? Chalk? No, no, no.  There was next to nothing.  Pretty much the only thing that seemed to work well was the metal detector – somehow I don’t think airport-like security is quite the version of “threshold” Doug Lemov envisioned when he was writing Teach Like a Champion.


Through happenstance, I stumbled upon something that would forever dramatically change my perception of what is possible.  My enthusiasm for work skyrocketed. As my excitement soared, so did the engagement of my students.  Discipline challenges dwindled, academic performance increased, and family support rose.  Moreover, all of us involved were having a lot more fun.

As I looked around at other schools, I discovered this same phenomenon. I began to see classrooms of excellence, and sometimes schools of excellence, that allowed students to become anchored and rooted in something.  My wife taught at KIPP Bronx, and it had something.  My own high school had something.

So what is that something and how do we bottle it up and get it to schools everywhere?  The something that matters, I believe, is an incredible passion that inspires others to share in that love, whatever it is.  My urban studies professor at Penn, George Thomas, so loved Philadelphia architecture one couldn’t help but fall in love too – Frank Furness, I now know, is truly amazing because of George’s love for him and his work.

At my school in Harlem the chess program we started became that something. At KIPP Bronx, it was and remains a tremendous orchestra. For my high school, it was successful mock trial and Model UN programs.


At Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School 1 (ES1), one of our somethings is the music program.  Starting in kindergarten, scholars begin to learn rhythms, music, and note values.  Explicit “music math” is introduced in K – essentially we teach five-year-olds to solve algebra problems (we’ll save my take on “developmentally appropriate” and the need to teach algebra for different blogs).  Last year, K-2 scholars performed concerts at local nursing homes.


The power of that ES1 something was on display a little over a week ago when our cafeteria was packed (literally standing room only) on a Thursday night as families came in to school to sign out their scholar’s violin.   The enthusiasm and excitement in the room was palpable.  Parents and teachers – yes I saw some of you – were brought to tears of joy.  As one of a handful of elementary schools in Rhode Island that can now boast a strings program, we definitely have a something.  Indeed, while some schools are (rightly) celebrating 1:1 technology with ipads and the like, at ES1 we are a little more old-school: our 3rd graders are now 1:1 with the violin thanks to support from Bristol County Savings and our amazingly passionate teachers.

So, my question for those of you still reading, what is your something, and what is keeping you from making something happen in your classroom, school, community center, neighborhood, or church?

P.S. And speaking of music, check out our scholars as they join other music lovers during Pronkfest on October 8th on the streets of Fox Point in Providence!