Breaking Rules – Chuck

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy
Community Director

On Creating Change

(With A Little Help From My Friends) 

– Chuck Sandy

We all want to change the world, but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out. – Lennon / McCartney

When I was six, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Spenser, passed out a farmyard worksheet and told us to color the barn, red, the donkey, grey, and the chickens, white. I had no problem with the grey donkey, but why a red barn and white chickens I asked?  Mrs. Spenser explained those were the rules and everybody, including me, had to follow them.

I thought about this, and then colored my barn black and my chickens brown — not realizing as I did that I was committing a revolutionary act that would result in my mother being called. When Mrs. Spenser explained to my mom that she could not tolerate rule-breakers, my mother said, “Well, we live across from a black barn and we have a brown chicken. What would happen if you tried to understand that?” Then she hung up the phone. My mother became my hero.

A rule breaking, activist, change-maker is not a rabble-rouser

Activism came next. Having to sit in assigned cafeteria seats seemed like a rule worth fighting, so I got lots of kids to sign a petition and then got everyone loudly chanting “No more assigned seats!” This resulted in Mr. Anderson, the school principal, changing the rule. I won! From that day on, we could sit anywhere in the cafeteria we wanted. I basked in my hero status for a few moments, until Mr. Anderson told me I was now cafeteria monitor, responsible for making sure everyone kept the cafeteria clean and our voices down. He tried to make it sound like an attractive job, but I knew I’d won the battle but not the war.

Out in the world a war was happening far away  in Vietnam, but TV news brought it home every day. I was 11. Woodstock happened, and Country Joe led 300,000 people in the Fish Cheer and a rousing antiwar song. When I brought that experience to my school’s playground by climbing the jungle gym and leading my classmates in the Fish Cheer, teachers panicked and pulled me down. Later, the principal called me a rabble-rouser and sent me home. At home, my mom handed me a dictionary and asked me to look up the word:

rabble-rouser NOUN (plural rabble-rousers)  A person who tries to stir up masses of people for political action by appealing to their emotions rather than their reason. A demagogue.

This was not what I wanted to be. In fact, as a kid I had no idea who I wanted to be, what I was doing, or why. Now, however, as a man in his 50s, I clearly see how these early experiences shaped me and how they eventually lead me to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom, Mark A. Clarke’s A Place to Stand, and John F. Fanselow’s Breaking Rules as I made my way through the years to become who I am: a teacher working for positive change by exploring possibilities within communities.

While there are certainly rules that need to be broken and problems in our schools and society that need to be changed, we cannot go around rabble-rousing and expect to create change by, in Friere’s words, “causing the alienation or demoralization of anyone.” Change becomes possible when we consciously break a rule in Fanselow’s exploratory spirit of wondering what would happen if we do, and then comparing results, or in Clarke’s sense of wanting to “create disturbances that wobble the system” enough to get everyone talking.

Consciously breaking a classroom or school rule to explore what happens and actively wobbling the educational system enough to encourage discussion are positive acts that can lead in hopeful directions. On the other hand, noisily refusing to follow rules, going off on one’s own, or leading a rabble-rousing revolt often just scares people and sometimes leads to the alienation and demoralization of everyone involved.

While we cannot force change, Clarke points out that as teachers we can “manipulate variables in the learning environment and observe the consequences of these manipulations.” Fanselow says essentially the same thing when he encourages us to make very small changes in our classrooms, compare results, and act accordingly based on the reality of what’s going on rather than on some preconceived notion of what learning is and how a teacher should be or behave: not to be different or distinctive, Fanselow wisely points out, but to explore.

When you break a rule or wobble a system, make sure you’re smiling … and that everyone’s eyes are shining.

I believe we can and should be doing exactly the same thing in our classrooms,  school systems and educational organizations, and it’s here that I’d like to add something else I learned from John F. Fanselow: When you break a rule or wobble a system, make sure you’re smiling and that in Benjamin Zander’s words, everyone’s eyes are shining.

At this point in my life, I’ve learned to stand in front of a class or a group of teachers and say with a laugh, “well that didn’t work out like I thought it would. Let’s try this instead” or “does anyone have any ideas about how this could work.” Then, just as importantly, I’ve also learned to step back far enough to let others shine as they show everyone a way forward. I’ve also learned that by doing this, my own eyes shine brighter, too.

The key to lasting change is the release of joy and possibility.

The key to lasting change in education is not just rule breaking and system wobbling. The key to lasting change in education is the release of joy and possibility that comes when we work collaboratively in community to change ourselves and cause positive ripples in the world around us.  So break some rules, wobble some systems, but do it with a smile. Just keep at it and by all means, don’t worry that you might sing out of tune. That’s fine as long as everyone’s eyes are shining and you have more than a little help from your friends.


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Challenges in Teaching – Chuck

A Look Back And Five Challenges AheadChuck Sandy

When I first started working in education in the early 1980s, it was as the sole ESL teacher at a community college. I was given a windowless office all by myself down in the basement, and in these pre-internet days, the only way I had to connect with other teachers was to come upstairs, wander around and hope to have a chat with someone who happened to be free. There were problems with this approach. Usually no one was free, and whenever someone was, it was usually someone who wasn’t all that interested in the same things I was interested in.

Then one day the dean suggested it would be good for me to attend an upcoming regional conference for English Language Teachers and even give a presentation. The idea terrified me but somehow I wound up saying yes, came up with an idea for a presentation, and even got my proposal accepted.

Over the next several weeks, I spent every evening in my windowless office sitting amidst a pile of books researching and putting together my presentation. The more I worked, the more terrified I became. Who was I to be giving a presentation?  What if the ideas I was putting together were wrong? What if I messed up?

By the time the day of the conference arrived I’d convinced myself my presentation was going to be a disaster, yet somehow I got myself to the conference site, took a deep breath, and opened the door.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a couple hundred ESL teachers milling around having coffee. Wandering around, I didn’t see anyone I knew, but spotted some famous people whose names I recognized from articles and books I’d read.  As I couldn’t imagine what I would say to such people, or to anyone for that matter, I got some coffee and went off into a corner to practice my presentation one more time.

Before long, it was time.  My heart already was pounding with nervousness as I walked into the room where I was to give my presentation, but things got worse when I saw that among the elevenpeople who’d come to hear me speak, one of them was one of those famous people I’d been too shy to approach earlier.

To my amazement, this famous man whose books were required reading greeted me warmly and told me how much he was looking forward to hearing my ideas. His manner caused me to relax, yet as I started my presentation, all my fears came back and I began faltering and stumbling over my words.

Each time I made what I thought was a terrible mistake, someone asked a question and got me back on track.  By doing so, they shone a light. At one point when I wasn’t even sure I had a point worth making, the famous man said he’d been thinking along the same lines and asked me what I thought about an idea he had. By doing so, he held a ladder and allowed me to climb higher. That’s when I realized I wasn’t there to tell anyone anything. I was there to share ideas, enter into a conversation, and become part of a community. I set my presentation aside, joined the evolving discussion, had a marvelous session, and then enjoyed the rest of the conference immensely – for the first time ever, as part of a community of educators.

This was the day I began my professional journey, and the lessons I learned then are still valid today. Given how technology’s opened up the world of professional development, these lessons are even easier to follow now.

If you’re just starting out on your professional journey, I have some challenges for you. Even if you’re well on your way on this journey, I have challenges for you, too.

1.   Attend a webinar online or a conference offline. Then, put yourself forward and give a presentation. You’ll learn more than you can even imagine. Presenting at a conference isn’t about giving the correct answer to a question no one asked. It’s about entering a conversation, developing your thinking, learning to collaborate, and becoming part of a community. Take a risk.

2. Even the well-known people in our profession are teachers just like you. Don’t be afraid of approaching them. There’s no reason to work in isolation when the world’s full of good people willing to help you develop your thinking, your teaching skills, and your personal development. Reach out.

3.  Relationships are central to our work, and one of the very best ways to develop strong relationships with other educators is by joining and being active in professional communities online and offline.  Once you’re joined, take on leadership roles within such communities. Get involved.

4.  Leadership in education isn’t about one person leading a group of followers. It’s about communities working together. If you are already involved in professional communities and presenting at conferences, then reach out and mentor someone who isn’t doing this yet.  Be a leader.

5.  Never look down on anyone — especially on those just starting out.  Make everyone feel welcome. Build others up. Hold the ladder. Be a light.

What I learned in 2012 – Chuck

Undone Business        —      Chuck Sandy                           

Chuck Sandy

All this new stuff goes on top / turn it over, turn it over / wait and water down / from the dark bottom / turn it inside out / let it spread through / Sift down even. / Watch it sprout. / A mind like compost.  — Gary Snyder

Recently I’ve been thinking about my teachers. I haven’t been remembering. I’ve been learning what they taught me, and learning in ways I never imagined I would. Ideas I heard more than thirty years ago rise from the bottom of my mind and combine with what I’m learning now in new ways.

Perhaps it’s my age. I’m 54 and so it’s natural I should think back. Perhaps it’s the year I’ve lived through as I battled illness, resigned from the university where I’d been a professor for almost 20 years, and helped launch iTDi. Who wouldn’t reflect? Or perhaps it’s the season, the darkening winter days when news could make the darkness darker. Whatever the reason, a lot’s come together this year and made sense as I’ve continued the undone business of becoming the teacher I believe myself to be and am becoming.

One of the teachers who helped me on this journey is Winston Fuller.  Although it’s been 35 years since I sat in his poetry workshops, I’ve recently heard him saying:  “All teachers teach what they most need to learn” and “it is only by letting go enough to trust ourselves and others that we finally learn who we are.”

This is why I talk and write and give so many presentations about motivation. That’s what’s been most challenging for me recently. Illness and university stress had gotten me so down that it became a long jump up from where I was to where I needed to be. It’s because I needed to figure this out that I began my public conversations about motivation. This need led me to read widely, reflect on my current and past practices, and not only think about Winston Fuller, but to pull out a folder of my work at 21 that included a long typed comment in which Winston wrote:

As I read your work, I sometimes hear the voice of a guilty man accusing others of sin. We all do that of course. More often than not I find myself teaching in the evening what I have been telling myself in the morning. You might review your work with an eye to seeing how much of what you say to others amounts to a conversation with yourself. All serious people do this. What’s needful to know is that you’re doing it”.photo 

All serious people do this? Winston meant me, and he meant me at 21. As I read his words again, I see him in class, pulling a chair close, looking the gathered students over with a twinkle in his eyes as he begins telling us what’s on his mind. As he talked, he’d weave the poetry we’d written and were learning about into what was going on in his life, the lives of the people he loved, and our lives — as if there was no gap between the classroom and our lives – and of course there wasn’t. He asked questions. He listened. He was entirely present as he talked repeatedly about soul making —  by which he meant being a writer, a teacher,  and a person who takes life seriously even in the midst of a culture that does not.

“We must take our lives and the lives of others seriously,” Winston said.  “If we do not do this for ourselves and others, who will?”

I realize now that Winston talked so much about soul-making because this is what he was teaching himself.  It is what I’ve been doing myself this year. It’s why I’m telling you about it now.

Recently I read an essay about how alienation, loneliness, and the lack of community just might be  the root cause of the horrifying world news we’ve recently heard about. As I read that essay, I thought of that circle Winston Fuller built for us in his classes, and of the importance that community still holds for me.

Then, I thought about the iTDi community we’ve been building and the work these teachers do as soul-makers — forming a circle and learning together the steps we can take towards healing each other, our students, and this world. This is what gives me hope on this day as my mind turns it all over and watches it rise up, sprout, and stretch out across the seas.

A year ago I did not even know most of the people I am working with now, and yet we have formed this circle of hope that for me goes back to Winston’s class, where we learned what I’m learning now, what I will be continuing to learn, as I hear Winson’s voice read the Charles Olson poem Maxiumus To Himself that ends without conclusion with these lines:

It is undone business

I speak of, this morning,   

with the sea

stretching out

from my feet.



Learner Autonomy – Chuck


Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a reader, and anyone who’s a reader knows that reading what you’ve chosen to read is an act of rebellious autonomy.

Reading makes you think, and the more you think, the more you’ll question the way things are. You’ll then start wondering how things could be different and before long, you’ll be making changes in the way you live, think, and teach.

I give you fair warning: if you read the books I’m going to tell you about, you’ll no longer look for ways to encourage learner autonomy. Instead, you’ll wonder how anything less could be called teaching and why school systems the world over work so hard to discourage autonomous teaching and learning.  Allow me to introduce you to some old friends.


Teaching As A Subversive Activity
 – Postman & Weingartner

When Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote Teaching As A Subversive Activity in 1969, it was news. It still is. This book is as valid an attack on lock-step teaching and unimaginative schooling now as it was when they first declared that, “There are trivial ways of studying language which have no connection with life, and these we need to clear out of our schools.”

This is something I remind myself of every single day. Above my desk is a  card on which years ago I copied these three questions from the book:

What am I going to have my students do today?

What is it good for?

How do I know?

Reflecting on these questions before teaching a class or writing an activity has forced me to constantly rethink the way I teach, the activities I write, and the reasons I’m a teacher. You might like to try this yourself.

On Becoming A Person 
- Carl Rogers

Roger’s beautiful book opens with these words

“I speak as a person, from a context of personal    experience and personal learnings” 

To offer yourself, as you are, to a group of learners is the greatest gift you can offer them. This is at the center of Roger’s work and at the core of what I believe about authentic teaching and learning.

For me, being a teacher means constantly working to become who I am while openly sharing that journey with others. My experience has been that the more I  offer who I am on any particular day, the more likely it is that others will do the same. Under these conditions, real learning and teaching become more possible.

This is not an easy thing to do, and so it’s only right that On Becoming A Person is not easy reading. It asks questions like: “What is the meaning of personal growth? Under what conditions is growth possible? How can one person truly help another? Is it really possible to teach anyone anything?” Rogers grounds his work in a lifetime of practicing psychology and teaching to share the answers he’s arrived at. In the process of reading,  you’ll likely discover your own.

A Place To Stand: Essays for Educators in Troubled Times – Mark Clarke

Like many teachers, you might be experimenting with non-traditional ways of teaching. In Clarke’s words you’re “a change agent” promoting not just change in your learners as you create conditions that make autonomous learning more likely. You’re also promoting change in the way things are done. Fantastic!

Be ready, though. People are going to notice, and not all of these people are going to be happy. I know this from hard experience. Reading Clarke’s book has saved my career more than once. If you’re doing non-traditional things in your classroom, get this book and take the following advice to heart:

Invite others in to see what you’re doing in class, but be sure to prepare these observers for what they’re going to see. Then, as your students are huddled up  around laptops gathering data, while others are in some other corner practicing their presentation, while still others are doing something else all together noisily,  be ready to “help others see the structure and order of events and how these build upon each other toward a coherent experience for the learners.” Then be ready to be accommodating. Sure, I’ll get them to quiet down. Of course, we’ll use the textbook sometimes. Yes, I’ll make sure students learn what we’ve all agreed needs to be covered. Then smile, make sure you do those things, and get back to work.

How Children Fail   – John Holt

I’ll let Holt speak for himself, but as you read, replace the word children with the word teachers and the word learning with teaching.  Watch what happens.

“Schools assume that children are not interested in learning and are not much good at it, that they will not learn unless made to, that they cannot learn unless shown how, and that the way to make them learn is to divide up the prescribed material into a sequence of tiny tasks to be mastered one at a time, each with its appropriate ‘morsel’ and ‘shock.’ And when this method doesn’t work, the schools assume there is something wrong with the children — something they must try to diagnose and treat.”

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that … My work is to help it grow. ”

That’s my work, too, and since you’ve read this far, it’s probably your work, too. The good news is, we’re no longer the one percent. We’re a movement whose members do not quite make up a majority yet, but we’ll get there in my lifetime. I’m sure of it.

Breaking Rules  – John F. Fanselow

Twenty-five years ago, this book set me free to become the autonomous learner/teacher I’m still becoming.  It helped me see what was really happening in my classes, while also giving me permission to explore alternatives. John’s premise is that, “Only by engaging in the generation and exploration of alternatives will we be able to see. And then we will see that we must continue to look.”

I’m still looking, and what I see gets me looking more.  My teaching is an ongoing experiment. I never do the same thing the same way twice. This way of being has extended into every aspect of my life. I live for learning and radiate that energy. I’ve got these old friends like John F. Fanselow to thank for that.

If you’d like to experience some of this buzz, I invite you to join me in taking Breaking Rules Live, a five-week online course led my John F. Fanselow himself. I’ll be taking the course. It’s a never-ending journey, and you’re welcome on it.

Editor’s Note: iTDi’s Breaking Rules Live course with John F. Fanselow, begins on November 10th.  For more information and registration, please click the link above.  A limited number of seats are still available.



The E-books or Print Books Debate – Chuck

What’s Real Reading? The E-books or Print Books Debate

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy
iTDi Community Director

If you want to start an argument among a room full of reading specialists, ask them what reading is and how best to teach it. The reading wars have been raging for decades, and no one has ever really had a correct answer to these questions even in the pre-digital age when books were books and the printed word was all there was. Now in the digital age, the questions have become enormously complicated. What is reading? What actually happens when we read? Does the brain respond differently to flat words on a printed page than it does to hyperlinked words on a digital platform that lead us to interactive graphs, reader reviews, YouTube Videos, and more? Is reading online really reading? Is Google making us stupid?

Although I have spent the greater part of my professional life trying to figure all this out, what really interests me now is why some people become readers while others will openly tell you that they don’t like reading, or even that they don’t read. As a person who can’t leave the house without a bag full of books and a fully loaded Kindle, I find this hard to understand. What do they mean they don’t read, I wonder, and so I ask them. They usually mean books, particularly the kind of books people read in school or for pleasure. Then I wonder how might it be possible to turn non-readers into readers and since this is such an important thing to do, does it really matter whether new reader read printed books or e-books or band fan sites or hotel reviews on the Internet? It’s all reading, right?

My own position is that somehow it’s all reading and that it doesn’t matter what people read as long as they read, and I’ll tell you why later, but right now I’d like you to read what Christina Markoulaki and Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto have to say about e-books and printed books, and how they approach reading in their classrooms. Then I’d like you to go to and tell us what you think by posting a comment in the E-Books or Print Books Debate. You’ll find my answer there. You’ll need to log-in to the site and  thenclick on Forums to get there, but that’s pretty easy to do.

From time to time we’ll feature a debate like this one on the iTDi Blog with the hope that you will join in the discussion. Feel free to respond to any of the points Christina and Barbara make in their thoughtful posts or to any of the questions I’ve raised here. Also, we’d love to know more about what you read and how you read it, but more importantly, what and how do your students read?

If you’d like to do a little more, you might like to conduct a reading survey like the one proposed by Katherine Schulten and Shannon Doyne in their New York Times article on the future of reading.

They suggest “keeping a 24-hour reading journal in which you note everything you read, as well as in what setting and on what device you read it …  At the end of the day, tally how much of what you read was on a device or in a format that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Then ask yourself, which of these reading experiences would you say counts as real reading, and which doesn’t? Why? Do you think your answer would be different than the answer of someone in a different generation?” I’ve been doing this myself throughout the day, starting with the Facebook posts I read soon after getting up this morning, continuing on through the articles I read while writing this, a bit of news here and there in-between,  Christina and Barb’s blog posts which of course led me to other blog posts,  translating the directions I needed to read on a medicine bottle, scanning the lyrics to a song, sorting through a whole bunch of email,  and reading the novel I’ve been enjoying for weeks, a little at time. What I’ve found out is that I read even more than I thought I do.

How about you?

Photo by @aClilToClimb on