Friday, September 14, 2012

Rose Gardening

Have you ever received a flower? A single rose, say. No doubt you thanked the person who gave it to you. But have you ever considered all the other people who made that rose possible? The florist, the person who delivered the roses to the florist, the mechanics who maintain the delivery truck, the gardeners, the pruners, the waterers, to say nothing of those who cultivated that rose and all of nature that went into designing it. Dozens and dozens of people and events.

More frequently than not, a student stands in front of us in full bloom. At a time when educators talk about "student growth measures" and the "value added" to a student's development by a teacher in the span of a year, we would do well to recall the many other contributions that have led to that student's success. Clearly, teachers in the immediate vicinity are accountable (isn't it fun to see that word in a positive way?) Less clearly, though no less true, there is an accumulation of accountability. Dozens and dozens of people and events.

A teacher in one of our school's in Akron treated us to this video of student Kristen Hess, a member of the Aspirations Team (and, it would seem, everything else!) We are grateful to be part of this young lady's story in some small way. We are even more impressed that, mid-bloom, she is turning into something of a gardener herself.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


I just did an orientation to Aspirations work for new teachers in one of our 42 Demonstration Sites.  Do you remember it?  Standing on the edge of starting as a teacher--either for the first time ever or for the first time in a new school?

I do.

I recall the butterflies.  I recall hoping my students would like me as well as hoping they would learn from me.  I wanted to be cool, but I also wanted to be engaging and effective.  I recall thinking I had to be strict, but also that I had to show I cared--and as a newbie I couldn't always figure out how those two went together.  I  also remember being anxious around veteran colleagues and drifting (in retrospect, unhelpfully) away from their wisdom and experience and towards teachers who were new like me.

Here's what I don't remember as I took my first steps in a career that is now nearly 30 years long.  I don't remember hoping my students would do well on my tests.  I don't remember standing in front of the room on any of those first few days wondering how my students would do on standardized tests later in the year.  I never once thought during the first month of school: "I should go ask a veteran teacher what they do to help their students choose the one right answer from among four possible answers."

Why did you become an educator?  Why are you starting your [fill in the blank] year in education?  These first few days and beyond, reconnect with what the butterflies were all about so that your students can blossom.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Monday, May 7, 2012

Professional Development Debate

I sometimes run into a debate about professional development for teachers that takes the form of content vs. pedagogy.  As with any debate, the lines are usually too sharply drawn and the arguments pro and con typically too simplistic.  Should schools spend time and money on helping teachers learn more about and stay up to date with content in their field?  The latest in genetics for biology teachers. Cutting edge social science for the social studies department.  Review and analysis of the latest and greatest in literature for those entrusted with teaching our students to read and write. Or would resources be better spent on teachers learning to deliver content they already know in ever more effective, more creative, and more 21st century modes?  I have known teachers who know everything there is to know about a particular field and are not that great at communicating what they know to young people.  I have also met creative, student-centered teachers who seem to barely grasp what they are teaching. With increasingly limited resources, how should schools spend their PD resources?

Clearly outstanding teaching involves both: compelling up to date content combined with effective teaching strategies. However, I do believe that the ground has shifted. Once content was king and pedagogy played a subservient role.  Good teachers could get away with engaging lectures, checking for understanding with Q &A, and ultimately testing to assess whether content had been mastered. But now that the latest content is generally accessible to anyone with an internet connection, do teachers really need to be the master's of content?

If the answer to that question is "no," PD priority should be given to pedagogy.  In other words, schools should spend what  available resources they have in time and money teaching all teachers a contemporary framework for learning--sound and, let's say, multi-media methods for educating (not just instructing) students.  Teachers should be in the vanguard of social networking, not breathlessly behind.  Schools should be on the cutting edge of mobile computing, app development, and cloud use not banning smart phones. PD time should be devoted to technologies that help teachers with podcasting, screen casting, video editing, etc. not to reviewing (yet again) test-prep strategies. Once content was everything, now it's everywhere. Have we taken that difference seriously in our classrooms?

There really is no debate.

Friday, March 30, 2012

On Tears and Tests

I spoke to a teacher recently and she told me this story:

One of the better students in her AP English class approached her desk teary-eyed and accompanied by a close friend. The girl said, "I am leaving school. My mother is moving us closer to the boyfriend"--the last two words dripping with distaste. The teacher admitted regrettably that her first words in response were: "But we need your test score!" She recovered with "I am so sorry to hear that" and other words of consolation and support. But she was shocked and dismayed at how co-opted she had become by a mindset that puts tests results ahead of students.

I firmly believe that no teacher ever got into teaching to raise standardized test scores--given once a year--as high as possible.  I firmly believe that teachers were and are called into this profession and remain in this profession for an incredibly rich constellation of factors that include everything from passion for a subject to love for young people and a desire to help them reach their full potential.  And I firmly believe that teachers, like the one with whom I spoke, recognizing that they have been co-opted can and will make choices in words and actions that express that calling.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Composting Lessons

How about this for a parent child exchange?  A friend of mine related a conversation he had with his fifth grade daughter after school.

Bill: What did you do in school?
Emily: Oh, we didn't do any work.
Bill: No work? What do you mean? What did you do?
Emily: Some friends and I spent most of the day learning how to compost. We built this compost box. And they gave us this list of everything you can compost.  We asked some middle school kids for help and got their ideas.  We wrote all these down on some paper and are starting to figure out how we can get more stuff to compost from maybe restaurants and stores. Then we had to go to the library and I checked out these books on composting.

So no "work" just a whole lot of learning. One key to student engagement is to blur the line between the work of learning and what creates Fun & Excitement for students.  Finding lessons and activities during which students lose track of time and consider the day to have been work-free helps develop a joy and passion for learning that can be lifelong.  

Nearly 7 out of 10 (69%) students on the recently released National My Voice survey agree that learning can be fun. While this is a clear majority of students, it should makes us wonder if the 31% of students who could not agree think learning is only work and drudgery. Learning does take effort, but that effort need not be a dull affair.  Learning that is hands on, interactive, has an everyday life application, and makes a difference engages students in a way that makes effort seem easy.  How can you compost lessons you know need recycling into something rich, useful, and nurturing for your students? 

By the way, my friend Bill reports they are now saving egg shells and coffee grinds.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Study Period Period

I can't tell you the number of study periods I have observed in which studying was scarce. I have seen study periods held in traditional classrooms, in cafeterias, in libraries, and in the bleachers of a gymnasium while phys. ed. class was in session. I have seen study periods with 6 students and a few with over 50.  Inevitably one or two students seem to be studying, another couple are doing homework, and the majority are sleeping, listening to an iPod, or quietly chatting.  The adult at the front of the room rarely seems to mind. In one study period the teacher and some likeminded students were watching a video about dirt bikes that the teacher had brought in (I am not at all against teachers and students sharing common interests in this way!) In one urban high school, we were told that some seniors had 3 study periods a day because they only need a few classes to graduate. Disruptions seem to be the only unallowable.

I want to make a bold recommendation: Study Period full stop. Let's get rid of it. Let's start by being honest and admit that in most schools it has decayed into a glorified teenager-sitting session (I really can't use "baby-sitting"). The students who are "studying" are either doing homework (which I suppose is fine; that's when my 2 kids said they did their homework) or cramming for a test they have later that day. So much for "home" work and "studying" for tests. But for most kids it is the idlest part of the day. And if kids need idle time let's keep it, but let's not pretend it's anything other than recess for high school students.

What if we trusted kids? What if we said: You are going to have this free period every once in awhile in your schedule and here are some options: You can go to the library to study or read. You can go to the media center to watch an educational video (TED talks!) or look up something you are struggling with in a class (Kahn Academy!). You can go to the computer lab and do anything educational online. You can go to a teacher for extra help. You can form a club. You can help out a secretary, or the librarian, or the media center coordinator, or the cafeteria staff, or the bookstore staff, or the custodian.  No; you don't get paid; it's your school, too. You can take a nap. You can listen to music.

What if instead of pretend study periods we had IEP (Individualized Education Plan) Periods for every student? Every student makes a plan for something they want to learn during that time and are held accountable to learning it.  What if instead of mock study periods we had Portfolio Periods during which each and every student and to work with an advisor on building a portfolio on interests and skills that could be used as part of a college or job entry process?

What if we stopped pretending and ended study periods period?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Akron to Sidney

Last week I was in schools in Akron, Ohio (population 199,000) and this week I was in a school in Sidney, Montana (population 5100).  Whether inner city or rural as they come, we seem to be facing the same puzzle.  Teachers who care and students who don't perceive that care.  Teachers wanting to engage students and students who are not engaged. Teachers who believe education is the key to the future and students who don't quite get the connection between what they are doing in school today and what they will be doing in the real world tomorrow.

The more I see and study our country's schools the more I believe that those who see either teachers (lazy, inadequately trained, etc.) or students (lazy, over stimulated, ill-mannered, etc.) as the problem are misguided.  I suppose if one only looked at test scores and saw them stagnate or falling, one would be inclined to blame one of the two parties involved in producing those scores. And if the whole system is set up with those test scores as the only indicator of success and it was becoming clear "success" was unattainable, you would have to grant waivers or else admit you had set schools up for failure.

But if you talk to teachers and to students, it becomes clear quickly that the very rules of the game are a cause of its own inability to produce a successful outcome.  Imagine a baseball game that required touchdowns from each team to declare a winner.  Who would you blame for a baseball team's inability to produce touchdowns?  The players?  The coaches? The umpires? Or the one's who set up the game that way?

Teachers seem not to care when students think they care more about them as students (i.e., test takers) than they do about them as persons. Teachers find it impossible to be engaging when pacing guides keep them relentlessly driving toward various pre-test markers.  And when schools have become nothing more than test taking factories, it's no wonder students don't see the connection between being successful test takers and the real world in their future.  So let me ask (a rhetorical question): Are students more likely to succeed academically in a school they believe is caring, engaging, and relevant or one that is so "ridiculously focused on the state test"--as one student put it--so as to inspire only effective test taking?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Role and Goal Confusion

One thing I have noticed in schools is something referred to as "Role and Goal Confusion."  The more I talk with school staff, the more I see it as a cause of tension and even disrespect.  Consider this thought experiment (or try it for real):  Have teachers write a job description for themselves, including their goals as professionals.  Have administrators write a job description for themselves, including their professional goals.  Now have the teachers write a job description for and the goals of administrators.  And have the administrators write the job description for and goals of a teacher.  Finally, compare notes.

One thing I see frequently is that the lists do not match.  Sometimes the differences are dramatic.  "No wonder I don't think you are doing your job!" What do we do when a cause of tension or disrespect is my thinking you are not doing what I think your job is? Or when you think I am not doing what you think my job is?

This confusion is not limited to those in different positions (e.g., teachers and administrators, support staff and teachers, etc.).  It can creep in among teachers themselves. Sometimes it breaks down along department lines (in high schools) or grade level lines (in middle schools still struggling between junior high and middle school philosophies) or even along "old school" "new school" lines.  We can converse with trusted colleagues in the parking lot about how other people are not doing their job. Or we can clear up the confusion face to face, colleague to colleague, and learn how we are each doing our job as we understand it to the best of our ability.