Vanessa got my 8-year old son excited and intrigued to dig deeper into his experiences and bring his thoughts to life. Now Evan’s words dance and sing, which makes me want to dance and sing!Sally Micelotta
Ms. Vanessa has challenged me to stretch my writing and I am excited for what I will do next.Evan, 3rd Grade
What our daughter values most about her time in Vanessa's class is being inspired to become an organized writer who could convey her thoughts in a meaningful manner.Laurie and Chris Harbert
The skills Vanessa taught my son--particularly the value of revising many times […] attention to detail, and high standards—are still with Nico several years later.Liz McNicoll, Attorney, Paramount Pictures
Ms. Ziff is always organized, resourceful, and ready for anything. She believes in a process, [...] the best of all being the Ms. Ziff approach, which makes her spectacular.Kenneth 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake
Whether it’s teaching a student to become a more vivid creative writer, a more effective analytical writer, or a more selective business writer, Vanessa can do it all.Meli and Stephen Rose
Vanessa’s methods are creative, thorough and innovative. She makes writing fun and has turned our daughter’s “like” of writing into a true “LOVE”.The Altmans
Vanessa has a gift for inspiring even the most reluctant writer and her passion for writing is infectious. She is a favorite workshop leader at our Young Writers’ Conferences.Julie Moore & Rena Svetic, Young Writers’ Conference Founders
Having an eight-year old highly gifted boy was not enough to make him put all those brilliant ideas on paper. Daniel feels constantly challenged by Vanessa and that ignites him.Liliana Benitez
I honestly don’t know what kind of a writer and reader I would be without the tools I learned with Ms. Ziff. She was always a very understanding, rigorous, and involved teacher, and an incredible mentor.Maddie 9th Grade, Marlborough School
Vanessa is high-energy smarts and charm, the kind of writer and teacher who captures and captivates readers of all ages.New York Times bestselling author, Cynthia Leitich Smith
All of us remember teachers who inspired us to greater heights and who influenced our lives. Vanessa Ziff Lasdon has played this role in my daughters' lives.Jack Tauber, M.D.
I know that the many fun and challenging lessons I’ve learned from Ms. Ziff will help me achieve my goal of one day being a professional writer and filmmaker.Jaren S. 7th Grade, The Buckley School
Ms. Ziff maintains a good balance of knowing when to give more help and when to insist that you rise to the challenge of the learning situation. She instills confidence, honors excellence, and respects effort.Kenneth 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake
I learned as much from teaching with Vanessa as any of her students under her guidance. Where so many others fall back on old tricks, Vanessa taps into her extensive experience to invent new methodologies for each and every one of her clients.Patrick Kieffer, Fifth Grade – English & History, The Packer Collegiate Institute
The writing skills my daughter, now excelling in ninth grade English Honors, left Vanessa’s class with continue to be an invaluable set of resources.Betsy Leva
Vanessa is a true master of her craft. She is a blast to work with, completely trustworthy and utterly authentic. To work with Vanessa is a privilege; you just want to soak up all her talent, and bottle it up for yourself! She is an inspiration.Sarina Fierro, Head of Lower Elementary, Curtis School
Vanessa is truly a one-of-a-kind teacher. She’s extremely organized, communicates ideas effectively, helps motivate, and has a lively, engaging teaching style that brings out the best efforts in all of her students.Howard Tager
My son learned more about writing and literary appreciation from Ms. Ziff in fifth grade than in any other year of school. I wish all teachers had Vanessa’s passion for teaching and inspiring!Kim Ford
Ms. Ziff always pushed me to do my best, and never let me slack off.  She introduced me to my love of writing and gave me the confidence I needed both academically and in myself.Georgia 9th Grade, The Buckley School

Vanessa is an outstanding writer and a joy to work with.

Aimee Trudeau, Web Developer, Kizmato.com
Vanessa captured the essence of what I wanted to relay on my site without sounding trite, unlike my experience with previous writers.Martin Pugh, Musician
While we continue to be impressed by Vanessa’s many attributes, it is her high energy level, extraordinary patience, and passion for what she does that make her truly unique.Melissa and Rob Weiler
Ms. Ziff’s friendly demeanor and enthusiasm made communicating easy and learning exciting. She taught us to understand and appreciate the material, and have fun in the process.Alivia 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake
Vanessa’s greatest ability is to help each student realize his or her own untapped potential. It’s the stuff that changes lives!Jacqueline Frohlich
Vanessa’s vast skills, complete dedication, and clear purpose construct a solid core for every student she teaches. Her passionate nature produces both a fun and rewarding learning experience.Michele Noble, Director, Writer, Filmmaker
Ms. Ziff set the foundation for my analytical, constructive, and creative skills. Whether writing a sonnet or writing an essay, I still have her lessons in my mind.Kenneth 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake
Vanessa Ziff Lasdon possesses the dynamic combination of an incisive intellect and boundless passion when it comes to teaching her craft and sharing skills with her students.MaryLynn Richmond
It's obvious that Vanessa is a wordsmith: "Write. Observe. Revise. Discover...W.O.R.D."  These are the four essential ingredients for becoming a writer; two of them about the work (writing and revising) and two of them about the joy (observing and discovering.) Vanessa accomplishes it all.  Julie Larios, award-winning poet and children’s author
Ms. Ziff is definitely not just my teacher and tutor; she is my mentor.Lexi 7th Grade, Harvard Westlake
Vanessa transformed our son Josh from a decent writer into an excellent writer.  We wholeheartedly recommend Vanessa and her ability to draw out the best in your child’s writing ability.Jill and Larry Krutchik

I Pledge Allegiance to the Cause

Ongoing Observations on Progressive 21st Century Educational Philosophy & Practice

I had planned to hit the hiking trail yesterday as my reward for teaching two weeks of intensive writing workshops over spring break. Both workshops are still in their infancy. Before this spring, I’d taught the Writing Skills Intensive only once last summer and the Tabletop Moviemaking course twice previously. But I’m a fanatic about research, revision, and reflection. Throughout the workshop weeks I’d constantly tinkered with my curriculum, adjusting its scope, sequence and delivery into the wee hours of the morning, making note of future changes like a mad scientist on the brink of a breakthrough.

Writing Skills Intensive Tabletop Moviemaking

So like I was saying…hiking. That was the plan on a glorious Monday morning. Coffee in hand, sneakers tied, I rifled through a few emails, browsed my favorite blog feeds, and well…one thing led to another (damn you, Internet Rabbit Hole.) Anyway, I found myself –- by way of the righteous GOOD.is – first at the articles written by, then at the personal website of, my friend and ex-colleague, Chris Thinnes.

GOOD.is

A.)  Wow. Chris never disappoints. He’s one of the most articulate, intelligent and exciting guys I’ve ever met.

B.)  Serendipity? Chris’ recent guest post on GOOD, (“Stop Exploring ‘Innovative Education Models’: We Need Action Now”) made me jump on the couch in bounce position. Forget the hike. I was already headed to church.

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I love discussing Great Ideas. Chris’ idea campaign in support of a transformative educational “master plan” taking shape now at a local level in both public and private schools through collaborative design and courageous implementation echoed so many of my own thoughts, but with far more grace and clarity than I could ever muster.

I thought back to my time in the classroom. Whenever I’ve decided to pilot a new lesson, unit or workshop, I instinctually draw from my deep-seated educational belief system to extract the purpose, value, and experience I hope to provide my students. These core principles form the framework of my teaching approach. The first time I implement the experience in front of students, my ideals may not quite match up to the reality of all the factors at play. Thus, I tend to hold tighter control, as I feel my way through my own narrative, along with the natural nuances and inclinations of the classes I’m “experimenting” on. Over time though, through trial, error, and trust in process, control gives way to intuition, guidance and greater creativity; the experience becomes more student-centered and more gratifying for everyone. I’m always eager to reach this point in my own teaching (whether it takes a day, week or year), since it’s when my approach finally aligns with my ideals to create the most authentic and enduring learning experience I can provide.

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In 2012 I founded my own educational company, W.O.R.D. Ink. Now my teaching approach must not only be my own, it must also radiate out to my entire team, so that we share the same vision and actually make a real difference in the education and personal growth of the students we mentor; and so that we meet the high standards we set for our teaching practices. W.O.R.D. Ink is true ‘ninja warrior’ team built of resiliency, ingenuity, humility, and spirit. Yet we are still in infancy, finding our footing much in the same way the Collective ‘We’ of Educational Advocacy are carving our path past rhetoric and into practice on the front lines of all classrooms and one-on-one mentorships.

word_ink_logoAs Founder and Executive Director of W.O.R.D. Ink, I’m compelled to ask:

WHAT ROLE DO I ENVISION W.O.R.D. INK PLAYING IN THIS NEW GRASSROOTS PROJECT-BASED LEARNING ERA?

W.O.R.D. Ink is a Do Good Company that believes Every Voice Matters. We design education programs for clients at all ages and stages to develop thriving writing talents, personal expression, and voice. The W.O.R.D. Ink team wants to empower our students to “Make Their Mark” by providing an invigorating approach to writing workshops, tutoring programs and editorial services whose results endure and inspire. We hope that, in turn, the students we serve realize that learning is a joyful, boundless process that serves not only oneself, but also one’s greater community.

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For K-12 students in particular to thrive (ie: learn, create, lead, serve) in a world of constantly evolving conventions and expectations we must teach them how to see themselves as lifelong learners who value process, observation, reflection, inclusivity, resourcefulness, creativity, versatility, courage, change, and collaboration.

These ten elevated principles are not learned through rote routine and teacher-centered approaches, no matter if the student is a fourth grader, an eighth grade teacher, or a forty-year old father. Conversely, they are ten principles that must be extracted from within the learner himself in an ongoing project or problem-based, student-centered learning environment and with the guidance of coaches who capitalize on teachable moments along the path to self-discovery.

VCFA

Earning my own MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults as an adult validated the truth about what makes an authentic learning experience. For two years I engaged in a student-led, project-based environment that required me to study these very same ten principles outlined above. The principles were not discussed outright. Rather, they emerged through my own successes and failures as necessary and motivating steps to achieving, by the program’s end, both critical and creative writing goals that I had personally set for myself.

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On the website CFEE (Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School), Founding Director Chris Thinnes, Head of Upper Elementary & Academic Dean at Curtis School, as well as a public school parent, explores the research, theory, and practice that will transform 21st century elementary education. Chris notes that while best practices in the most basic proficiencies of “the three Rs” must obviously be developed, we as educators (teachers, parents and thought leaders alike) must devote our collective attention to ‘the four Cs’ (collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking).”

On both the CFEE site and in his insightful article on GOOD, Chris points to other educational thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson, Grant Lichtman, Wendy Mogel, Alfie Kohn, Yong Zhao, Jonathan Martin, Bo Adams, Chris Lehmann, and Carol Dweck to drive home the shared belief that collaborative design among parents, advocates, and educators in a sort of “crowd-sourced” atmosphere of input, further ignited by the speed of communication (thanks, social media!), will set us on the path to accomplishing several key educational objectives and moving past the stale pretext of “easier said than done” by:

  • Pooling resources from a fusion of diverse talents, concerns, and experiences to implement actionable and ambitious change in education now at a local level, rather than waiting for state or nationwide efforts

Chris further highlighted Sir Ken Robinson’s sage words, which truly sum up our collective and personal directive to make change happen now:

“The ‘Education System’ is not what happens in the anteroom to Arne Duncan’s office, or in the debating halls of our state capitals […] If you are a school principal, you are ‘the education system’ for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are ‘the education system’ for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice—if you change your way of thinking—you change the world for those students. You change ‘the education system.’ […] And if enough people change, and they’re connected in the way they change, that’s a movement. And when enough people are moving, that’s a revolution.”

YES! YES! YES!

While a “Unified Vision of Education” does not in itself outline the actionable steps towards achieving a goal, it does state the overarching purpose and principles required in creating an authentic and indelible learning experience. Therefore, Vision is a necessary first step in developing one’s personal commitment to a larger cause.

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This gets me thinking about Big Ideas IN ALL CAPS for W.O.R.D. Ink: 

  • WHERE DO WE FIT INTO THIS CONVERSATION ON EDUCATION? HOW CAN WE CONTRIBUTE TO THE DISCOURSE AND DYNAMIC, BOLD NEW PRACTICES?
  • WHAT ARE PARENTS & EDUCATORS ASKING OF US?
  • WHAT ARE WE PROMISING IN RETURN?
  • HOW HAVE WE SUCCEEDED SO FAR? (HOW ARE WE HONESTLY WORKING ON CRITICAL THINKING AND CREATIVE CONTRIBUTION? HOW ARE WE DISPLAYING OUR PHILOSOPHIES AND RHETORIC IN OUR LESSON PLANS? HOW ARE WE PERSONALLY REFLECTING ON OUR PRACTICES AND ALSO EVOLVING AS A TEAM?)
  • WHERE DO WE STILL FALL SHORT OF OUR PRACTICE MIRRORING OUR BELIEF SYSTEM?

As with the learning process, such questions have no final answers. But W.O.R.D. Ink values process, observation, reflection, inclusivity, resourcefulness, creativity, versatility, courage, change, and collaboration. Thus, we can only make a concerted commitment to steady growth and innovative practice by asking ourselves these very questions with our core principles in mind.

AND MEANWHILE…THERE’S THE REALITY OF…

The World We Live In: A Critical Crossroads for the Gatekeepers of Education

“For folks who are arguing for a more humane, more inquiry-driven, more citizenship-minded, more modern education, it seems daunting [….] The very language of our best ideas often seem co-opted by those who, in the end, seem to be creating a very different kind of schooling than what our best ideas are really about.” –Chris Lehmann

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, CFEE asked Curtis School teachers, parents and students to “describe the very best they hoped to become.” Chris noted the results in another of his inspiring guest posts on GOOD, “Revolution From the Ground Up: A Framework for the Education System We Need”:

  • Teachers used words like: compassionatecooperativecreativecritically thinking, and curious.
  • Parents used words like: independent, open-minded, self-motivated, resilient, and engaged.
  • 8 to 12-year-old students used words like: balanced, flexible, enthusiastic, honest, cooperative, and determined.

“Yet nobody used words like accountable, competitive, distinguished, or exceptional. But when we take a close look at most schools’ practice—to say nothing of the current national dialogue about education, as represented in the mainstream press—which of these value systems is actually promoted? And what message are we broadcasting to the children in our care?

Our world has changed in ways that make the predominant models of learning in our education system irrelevant. Public schools are prevented from making transformative changes because of their obligations to high-stakes testing and accountability policies. Private schools are theoretically more nimble, but serve a dreadfully narrow spectrum of our population and are beholden to antiquated ideas of ‘excellence.’

Teachers are invested in supporting all the learners in their classrooms, and weary of mandated practices that are often incompatible with learning. Parents welcome their children’s more meaningful engagement at school, but worry whether their children’s grades and test scores will qualify them for high school, college, graduate school, or employment. And thus our education system—leaving aside the growing promise of some creatively subversive examples to the contrary—has, broadly speaking, changed at a painfully slower pace than our ideas.”

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Research has shown that being tutored is one of the most effective ways to learn.

The key is finding a great tutor.

One who shows students how to “make their mark” without inadvertently “making the mark for them.” As Chris puts it, “less sitting and getting. More choosing and doing.” And as Grant Lichtman states, “Don’t we know at least that much about motivation, relevancy, cognitive commitment, heartfelt conviction, grit, and perseverance?”

To support educators at school and parents at home, tutors and mentors must also share in the ongoing dialogue, principles, and practice of education reform. Whether in a workshop setting or one-on-one, we must nurture both the emotional and academic growth of our mutual students. It’s our team’s imperative to help children and young adults:

  • Always do their personal best
  • Lead by example
  • Think deep
  • Listen with compassion
  • Notice what they notice
  • Build meaningful relationships
  • Honor their word
  • Write. Observe. Revise. Discover.

AND

  1. Foster control over their learning & command of material.
  2. Challenge students at a level of difficulty that is within their reach while encouraging resilience and displaying compassion in the face of ambiguity.
  3. Instill confidence and ethical decision-making by maximizing success (expressing confidence in their ability to tackle challenges great and small) and by minimizing failure (allowing mistakes when they provide valuable learning experiences, providing helpful rationale for mistakes, emphasizing the part of the problem the student got right.)
  4. Nurture curiosity, honor questions, and value opinions.
  5. Contextualize by placing the problem in a meaningful, real-world, interdisciplinary context.

(Read more about “The W.O.R.D. Ink Approach”)

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I love that Chris Thinnes likens our moral imperative to our children’s education to planting dates, even if we may never eat them,” and that Glen Lichtman considers We Who Educate as the “flamethrowers”, or warriors, “who try, knowing success may always be beyond their reach [….]” For, “to truly consider yourself a warrior, you must set your personal bar very high [….] At some point, you are going to fail in your fundamental goals, your belief system, your moral foundation, your self-view.  It is an inevitable result of setting the bar higher and higher. Redemption comes from trying, despite the sure knowledge that you will fail.”

Here’s to planting dates, throwing flames, and being of passionate service to others.

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