In my last blog, I shared my beliefs about learning. I wrote about learning being organic, nonlinear, and unique to the individual. I have read books and articles that dare one to imagine what school could be. Podcasts, Ted Talks, and videos challenged me to question the relevance of school and consider what additions, changes, and/or approaches might improve learning for students. My mind had been churning for years with ideas and plans. Originally, I sought to start an intentionally nonaccredited school because I felt that policy makers and accrediting bodies had gone too far in regulating schools. I understood and agreed with holding teachers and administrators accountable for student learning, but I had, and continue to have, a problem with the definition of learning that was chosen - passing standardized reading and math tests. The starting-my-own-school idea was rolling along quite well until I realized that I wasn’t a multimillionaire with multimillionaire friends who would support the venture.
In my January 11, 2019 post entitled “Right Place, Right Time” I shared how and why I landed my second choice (after starting my own school) in order to change the system of school. I had grand ideas and even created a document sharing the ideas below with my principal and interview team. I felt that these ideas could realistically be carried out even with the confines placed on me by the policies and mandates at each level of government (national, state, district, and building).
What one could expect from me in a classroom position – Principles that would guide my work:
I was so excited to live my philosophy of learning. My administrator and colleagues were on board. I had an amazing co-teacher and a rock star paraprofessional with which to work. Everything was perfect until… the students came.
I was not prepared for the reality. My perfectly planned ideas were more difficult to implement than I thought. One of my plan imperfections was the idea of compliance. I loathed the way traditional schooling forced students to comply with so many rules. Stand in line; no talking; ask permission to get a drink or go to the bathroom; do the assignment this way; read this; don’t do that; etc. I was eager to give students more freedom, choice, and autonomy. I wanted them to read about topics that interested them, not stories in text books. I wanted to teach the scientific method with each student determining what experiments to set up. I felt that students should go to the restroom and get drinks when they, and their bodies, determined. The way I would combat these compliance requirements was to make learning so fun that students would be reluctant to waste time. I dreamed of students being so engaged that they would complain when an activity ended. They would go home and continue learning about their chosen topics without any direction to do so. Believe it or not, week one did not follow the plan. Nor did weeks 2 through 20.
I had expected that when I asked my students to respectfully listen to directions they would. I thought we would jump right into 4th grade level material. I expected that when I gave students nonverbal cues to stop disruptive behavior, they would stop. Boy was I naïve! I quickly found that while my students had minds of their own, which I wanted them to utilize, no learning would take place until someone exerted a modest level of control. Luckily, I had a teaching partner. Stacy Morley, a seasoned teacher with many solid strategies up her sleeve, rescued me from my idealistic self. Since the beginning of the year, we have found many ways to incorporate ideas from my list, but all of them have played out differently than I had expected. We are communicating with students in Spain and Kenya, although not as frequently as planned. We received a grant to support a classroom redesign project and are trying to find time to fit it in amongst competing obligations. We are also seizing upon student interests. Our class developed a fondness for books regarding civil rights issues. At indoor recess one day, several girls approached and asked if I had any more civil rights books. I handed them the book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison. By recess end, they had each identified themselves with a woman from the book based on shared hobbies and interests. After a short conversation, the girls begged to hold a wax museum event where they would become one of the women leaders from the book. They pitched the idea to the rest of the class and the event was scheduled. Had school not been canceled today because of extreme cold weather, that event would have been held. We will reschedule and our students’ plan will unfold, but like my plans for the year, it probably won’t turn out exactly as they envisioned.
As a teacher you need to dream big, so you know where you want your students to go and you are not inhibited by the day-to-day minutiae. You also need to be grounded and work hard to figure out the complexities, obstacles, and nuances that make a version of your dream come true.
What dreams do you have for your students? Do plans need to change if you want to include students’ ideas? I would love to hear about your best laid plans.
How often do you contemplate basic aspects of education? Do you question established practices and procedures, or do you simply comply? Have you ever thought about how you learn or your beliefs about learning? As a member of an online group called Change School, I was challenged to think and write about my beliefs, as well as how my school community would define learning. Here was my response.
I currently define learning as taking in new information that I care about because it is relevant to me at a given time, as well as developing skills and dispositions that I deem necessary for my current and/or future situations. To deconstruct this statement, I first draw attention to the fact that my specific learning desires reside solely in me because they are based on my needs and wants. Secondly, this learning changes over time and depends on many personal factors, which by definition are unique to me. For example, recently our area received several inches of snow so I wanted to know more about snowshoeing (minimum and ideal amounts of snow for snowshoeing, best places to go, how to dress for weather, exertion put forth, etc.). I had an immediate desire that fueled my motivation to learn. Last summer I traveled to Kenya so I was compelled to learn as much as I could about the people, climate, languages, education and political systems. In addition to the content learned in both situations, skills were learned and developed. In snowshoeing, techniques such as ascending, descending, and traversing hills were learned and practiced. The Kenyan trip inspired me to learn how to communicate (albeit minimally) in Kiswahili, navigate websites to book a flight and apply for a Visa, and embrace unfamiliar cultural rituals.
When I reflect upon the question, “how is learning defined in your school community?” I struggle to come up with an answer. I am not sure the question has been asked. It seems that rather than focusing on the core beliefs around learning, we, myself included, have focused on defining what learning looks like from an observable perspective. We, myself not included, tend to focus on those observations that can be easily measured so that we can assure progress and accountability. This may be a case where we have focused on end-goals without questioning why one would want to meet the goal, which circles back to goals being personal. Returning to my examples above, I wanted to learn about, and be able to, snowshoe because my environment provided opportunity and cultivated my interest. The trip to Kenya motivated me to learn, first as preparation and then as acclimation to a new environment. While others might be interested in snowshoeing or the Kenya trip, it is improbable anyone would replicate my exact learning choices, resources, or outcomes. In addition, even I would be unable to provide a measurement of what I learned. My learning is organic, nonlinear, and ongoing.
When I reflected on how I learn, I realized how irrelevant school can be for students. How often are students given the opportunity to pursue interests? How often is the learning organic, sprouting from seeds of interest, rather than top-down, externally determined content? Must all learning be measured, or even measurable? What are your thoughts?
Link to Change School (Modern Learners) site: https://modernlearners.com/
Welcome back to my blog, New World of School. It is an invitation for you to join me in changing the system of education in the United States and beyond. In my last post I shared my education and experiences which have brought me to a position of acting upon my critical analysis of the educational system. In this post I will share why I left a tenured university associate professor position for a 4th grade teaching position.
Work in the Clarke University Education Department fulfilled me. My predecessors and colleagues innovated and labored to give preservice teachers the best possible preparation for their teaching careers. My teaching partner and I met with our students for four hours each day at an elementary school, where they learned content and strategies which they immediately applied in their work with the elementary students. Courses were blocked and taken concurrently to allow this Professional Development School (PDS) approach. I felt anchored in both higher education and elementary education and truly loved the job. However, as I read books, listened to podcasts, and spoke to people frustrated with the educational system, I felt called to help change it. It seemed that my own education, ideas, and experiences had empowered me to take this challenge.
In a blog post entitled Lessons from Chomsky: Some Things I’ve Learned from his Writings, Nathan J. Robinson wrote:
The problem with utopians is that they’re not practical, and the problem with pragmatists is that they often lack vision. If you dream of elaborate perfect societies, but you don’t remain anchored in real-world realities and have a sense of how to get things done, all of your dreams are useless and you may even end up destroying the progress you have already made for the sake of an ideal you’ll never reach. But if you don’t have a strong sense of what the ultimate long-term goal is, you’re not going to know whether you’re moving closer to it or not.
These words echoed thoughts bouncing around in my head as I imagined “perfect” learning environments, schedules, content, and more. I felt I knew what learning should look like and how a “utopian” school would run, but I needed to put myself in a position to “get things done.” The position requirements I had determined to be integral for changing the system of education were: 1.) It must be in a public school. 2.) The school must have a high population of students on free-or-reduced lunch, the socioeconomic indicator for schools. 3.) Teachers must have autonomy over classroom decisions. 4.) The school administrator must be supportive of change efforts.
My public-school requirement lies with the fact that if I wanted to change the system, I would need to do it from within. Many private schools are progressive and innovative but operate by different sets of rules and have more freedoms than do public schools. In addition, there exist pockets of greatness within the nation’s public schools, but my goal is to have systemic change that permeates through all schools.
It is no surprise that schools serving the poorest students rank the lowest on accountability measures. I was drawn to these schools because I wanted changes to positively impact students who need the most. Also, if my ideas could work in the most challenging of schools, then they would likely also work in less challenging schools.
This career move wasn’t about a job. It was about “anchoring myself in real-world realities” to “get things done.” So, when I interviewed, I made sure to ask questions regarding mandated curriculum and teacher autonomy. I shared with the interview team a document I had prepared entitled What one Could Expect from me in a Classroom, which listed ideas I had planned to implement. After being offered the position, I met with the principal to confirm non-negotiables before signing a contract. She communicated a strong commitment to change that benefits students and a focus on what really matters. From my interview, up to this day, I have been blessed to be supported and encouraged by a smart, kind, and open-minded administrator.
I believe everything comes to one at the right moment. I am where I am supposed to be. I will make a difference in the world of education.
Robinson, N.J., (2018). Lessons from Chomsky: Some Things I’ve Learned from his Writings. Current Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/12/lessons-from-chomsky?fbclid=IwAR04D9gNJgJFKrKBdRApp4ZUDsnKwva5ohmhpm2c8MXJRFO3Qb8NXomEKO8
Welcome to my blog, New World of School. It is an invitation for you to join me in changing the system of education in the United States and beyond. You may be wondering what this means or how I plan to go about such an enormous task, but I doubt you would argue with the need for better preparing students for the rapidly changing world in which we live. In conversations with people from all walks of life, most agree that school is something to “get through.” Some enjoy the social aspects while others abhor stigmas suffered at the hands of teachers or peers. Those most successful at playing the game of school tend to defend its value yet struggle to identify specific skills and academic advantages resulting from traditional educational experiences. Students for whom education may be the only hope of future success have been failed the most. I believe that policies, wayward priorities, and an antiquated system of education are to blame and must be changed. Despite caring teachers and administrators and well-intentioned legislators, students from lower socioeconomic families have not closed the gap. In addition, they are most likely to spend time on low-level, drill-and-practice activities at the expense of ones that require critical thinking or innovation. Many students who are “successful” in school have not developed a love for learning or for reading. They simply tolerate their current educational situation with hopes that the promise of a better future is kept. I find this unacceptable and have already begun making changes.
How did I get to this critical juncture?
As a student, I did what was necessary to get by. With little effort, I could skim texts to participate in discussions and cram to pass a test. I didn’t care about the content addressed and found little relevance to the real world. I liked many of my teachers and enjoyed socializing with friends, but most of my real learning took place outside of school. For example, the summer before 5th grade I discovered gymnastics and set a challenging goal of doing consecutive back handsprings across the yard before the summer’s end. I took lessons, but more importantly, I practiced for hours every day. I begged an older neighbor to spot me on tricks just beyond my reach and convinced siblings to provide feedback on bent legs and flexed feet. I analyzed routines of more advanced peers, watched every televised gymnastics event, and poured over books and magazines that fueled my dreams. My most memorable in-school experience was a non-academic project another student and I took on. As 7th graders, we planned our school’s Fun Day. Responsibilities included determining activities and events, mapping the activities on the playground, assigning workers, ordering prizes within a set budget, set-up, tear-down, and documenting decisions for future events.
Despite my indifference regarding school, I stumbled into the teaching profession. I started as a gymnastics instructor and then springboard diving instructor. I loved working with children and gleaned satisfaction from seeing my students progress. As a private elementary school teacher in the mid-80s, I vowed to make learning fun and devoted many hours to preparing for daily instruction. I planned open-ended activities that enabled students to participate at various levels of understanding and focused on allowing students an array of options. This phase of teaching lasted 8 years and remains one that I reflect fondly upon because I had the autonomy to teach what students were interested in and to adapt curriculum and lessons to suit the needs of my students.
After an 8-year hiatus to care for my 3 young children, I returned to a public elementary school as a Gifted and Talented facilitator. In this segment of my career, I learned to appreciate the practice of differentiation, something I had previously done without much thought by simply responding to my students’ learning needs. I also became aware of efforts to standardize everything from curriculum and assessments to the number of minutes spent on various subjects. Decisions that had previously been made by teachers were more and more in the hands of district, state, and even federal officials. Teachers were required to use district-chosen curriculum and pacing schedules regardless of their students’ readiness, interests, or abilities. I witnessed daily erosion of both teacher and student energy and engagement, much like behavior changes you might observe after caging a wild animal. Sadly, this became the new normal. Teachers became less passionate because their opportunities for creativity and innovation were banished to the periphery. Students found it harder to pay attention and sometimes refused to do work they found meaningless or boring.
Subsequently, I took a position in the education department of a local university and completed a doctorate degree. Helping prepare upcoming teachers allowed me to observe hundreds of classrooms in multiple districts and gain a more global perspective. Additionally, college students easily shared reflections on their K-12 educational experiences, which ranged from dismal to strong. Learning about education/school/learning became an obsession. I devoured every article, book, podcast, and TED Talk on any topic that might intersect with learning. The ideas forced me to think critically about policies and practices that, at best, deter learning and potentially even prevent it. I saw so many well-intentioned people stuck in a system that creates winners and losers, de-emphasizes individuality as it prizes standardization, and suffocates curiosity and creativity. I would literally awake in the middle of the night internalizing my responsibility to somehow rectify these glaring wrongs that had revealed themselves to me. To better understand the educational system from multiple perspectives, I met with anyone who would give me time. This included parents, teachers, students, administrators, school board members, leaders of organizations that support schools, and legislators. I wrestled with the challenges of putting ideas and theories into practice and how to best do so. After much deliberation, I sought and obtained a 4th grade teaching position in a local public elementary school. The position was perfect, and in my next blog post I will tell you why. After that I will keep you abreast of my successes well as my trials and tribulations. I hope that you will contribute reflections and ideas through comments. It is my hope that together we can reimagine school as a place where students learn how to learn, love the process of learning, and have freedom to explore passions.