As you may know, I left a position I loved at a local university to change the system of education. My first stop took me back to a 4th grade classroom in a Title 1 school. While I only stayed one year, I learned valuable lesson that will contribute to my efforts in making school better for all. I hope my former students learned as much from me as I did from them. Here are 5 lessons I learned.
1. Behavior is like a foreign language. It is chock full of meaning and if you work hard and put in the time, you can learn the meaning behind the previously unintelligible. One child acts out at math time every day to avoid doing work that is over his head. No one likes to feel stupid and refusing to do work saves face. Another child needs attention and will get it any way she can even if it means facing negative consequences. Yet, another child needs to be moving and finds it difficult to sit or focus. It is important to seek the root cause of the behavior. If you fail to do so, you only address the symptoms and never understand or help the child.
2. Learning is personal. Children don’t learn simply because you teach. The content needs to be interesting to them. They need to care, to have a reason for learning - a purpose. Charismatic teachers can entice students to find concepts, skills, or ideas interesting, but teachers who build relationships with students succeed in connecting students to interesting content because they know what each student cares about. These teachers organize learning in a way that brings content to the students and allows each to apply it in personal and meaningful ways. For example, allowing students to apply physics concepts to various hobbies or pursuits (sports, Lego creations, nature, etc.) or relate comprehension strategies to self-selected texts. Students don’t need to be reading the same book in order to practice or demonstrate reading skills and strategies. They are more likely to read, and enjoy reading, when they choose the books. Personalizing learning is easy if teachers know their students and create an environment where student voice and choice are the norm.
3. Today’s society is harsh, even for students who live in the best of circumstances. I learned a lot about trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), as well as how these experiences interfere with learning and cause physiological harm. It is more important than ever to help children feel safe, reduce potential triggers, and strip away anxiety-causing practices. Establishing routines helps create a predictable and relaxing classroom atmosphere while maximizing learning time. Teaching students to recognize their feelings, and what might cause the feelings, is another positive step. Yoga and mindfulness techniques can be taught and practiced, equipping students with tools to combat negative emotions and experiences, and lessen the effect of triggers. All of us must fight the many educational practices that cause student anxiety and intellectual harm including, but not limited to, high-stakes testing, grades, narrow definitions of school success (reading and math), fixed timelines, one-size-fits-all curriculum, decontextualized content, standardized assessments, and the impossible number of standards students are expected to meet. No 8-year-old, or any-year-old, should be stressed from attending school.
4. Teachers and parents are on the same team. They are the starting line-up. When teachers and parents work together, students get the message, “You matter! We are going to make sure you succeed.” My teaching partner and I communicated early and often with parents. We especially worked to share good news and positive behavior. When students made bad choices, they would call parents (on speaker) to share what they had done wrong and how they were going to “make it right.” Having all parties involved in the conversation from the start minimized student editorializing of the situation. Our close relationship also, contributed to 100% attendance for parent-teacher-student conferences.
5. One’s heart is big enough to love many people. When students are assigned to your class, they become your children. You would do anything for them, and you want what is best for each one. The act of gracing students with unconditional love develops powerful relationships that allow tough conversations and high expectations. The most challenging conversation between my students and me began with, “I love you and I care about you so…” By the end of the year, the conversation might start with me asking the student to read my mind and him/her responding, “You love me and care about me, so you are not going to let me…” When students know you care about them, they more honestly reflect on their words and actions because they know you desire for them to become the best possible versions of themselves.
My 4th grade students will remain forever in my heart as I take the next step of my journey, principal of a private school, which includes a Spanish immersion program. As an administrator, I hope to enact my beliefs about learning in ways that honor and empower students, teachers, and parents. I will keep you abreast of my progress in blog posts to come. Thank you for reading this post!
Not long ago, I attended the dedication of a bench and little library at a near-by college campus. Members of a university club, focused on diversity and inclusion, spearheaded the project. As I listened to each speaker extol the benefits of diversity and inclusion in our society, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the standardization practices we have so willingly adopted in education, and other social arenas, extinguish the former.
This experience reminded me of a quote by Former President, Jimmy Carter, “We have become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” Because each one of us is unique, it is imperative that our educational system reflects this reality. Currently, it does not. The system values the “melting” of the myriad of possibilities into narrowly defined linguistic and mathematical skills. What about the multitude of other skills? What about the multicolored, multidimensional mosaic bits? If as humans we are to develop into the best versions of ourselves, how can we do so if we are schooled into standardized molds?
School systems have evolved to become more efficient and to ensure accountability through standardization. Both practices harm children by stamping out diversity and individuality. Recently, a person whom I greatly respect, questioned a comment I made regarding school practices harming students, implying that my comment was an exaggeration. Since then, I have reflected further on this idea. Although I believe many of our practices harm children, for this post I will focus on the practice of standardization.
First, humans aren’t meant to be standardized. We are each unique with various talents, skills, experiences, interests, values, and beliefs. Our society depends on such diversity. Yet, in our efficiency and accountability efforts we have prioritized a need to measure progress. How do you measure experiences, or values, or interests? How do you measure true learning, a naturally occurring phenomenon? You can’t, which presents an accountability problem. So instead, we measure what is easy and relatively inexpensive to measure. In elementary grades this is reading and math. To the average person this may seem benign, but as a teacher in the classroom with real, diverse human beings, I have witnessed, and even contributed, to inflicting harm.
Here are some actual examples. In order for tests to be “standardized” teachers prepare and proctor tests according to rigid directions. Teachers are not allowed to explain/expand upon anything that is not on the script. If a student does not understand a word in the directions, a teacher cannot reword it so that the student may gain insight because students in another district or state would not have that same accommodation. Imagine being 9-year-old Billy (not actual name) who truly wants to perform well on this test but doesn’t know what to do. Imagine being me, Billy’s teacher, when he says, “Can you please, please just tell me what this word means?” and having to say, “Just do your best.”
Picture Carly (not actual name) saying, “I don’t know what to do,” and me responding, “Just do your best.”
“But, I don’t want to fail 4th grade,” she replies as tears stream down her face.
As adults, we know that these tests aren’t about passing or failing a grade, yet. Even though teachers assure students that the purpose of the test isn’t to make pass/fail determinations, we can’t control what goes on in their minds when the pressure of performing well manifests itself in a myriad of ways.
Standard classroom assessments also harm students. They disguise themselves as objective and free of human error, but in reality, humans (often far-removed from students) create these assessments. They are rife with errors and alignment problems, yet regularly go unquestioned. Many questions confuse children by using unfamiliar vocabulary or requesting a superlative, for example, “What is the best answer?” Often the test creator’s “best” answer isn’t the same as the student’s “best” answer. Guess whose “best” wins out? No child’s self-esteem or self-efficacy should rest on being able to answer biased questions.
Learning is complex and contextual. In real life, when I am learning something, I ask questions, look things up on my phone and discuss it with others. My learning evolves and expands in a dynamic and nonlinear fashion. There is no standardized way of determining what I have learned. Standardized assessments can typically only capture one dimension of a multidimensional learning experience. Children often aren’t developmentally able to reduce true learning to meaningless parts. So, when they are asked test questions out of context and with no anchor to the real world, of course they struggle. And if they don’t, it begs the question of how much time has been diverted from enriching, personal learning to meaningless, melting-pot, information regurgitation.
In a staff meeting last week my colleagues and I were informed of the procedures and test security requirements for our upcoming standardized tests. District leaders, principals, teachers and students must all sign documents assuring ethical test administration. Classroom walls must be cleared of any potentially educational material. Do not discuss any test questions or answers for any purposes. Specify and document check-in and check-out procedures for test materials… I wanted to scream out, “What is wrong with us? How can we sit here and calmly agree to carry out these cruelties when every single one of us knows the absurdity? Why don’t we revolt? Why don’t we refuse to subject our children to this sort-and-rank game?”
According to our training documents, the purpose of the assessment is an annual summative measure of student achievement used to evaluate student learning and skills, and a measure of how Iowa students are performing on the Iowa Core. Our district has scheduled these “summative” tests with almost 1/3 of the school year remaining. Assuming that the Iowa Core could be measured via standardized test (higher-level skills cannot), is it fair to test students on what they haven’t learned yet and aren’t even expected to know until the end of the year?
In what 21st century job will the skills needed for standardized test-taking be applicable? I have never in my adult life had to solve any problem by going into a room, using no resources, or consulting no one. On the contrary, real life requires that one use tools and resources, as well as communication and collaboration with others. Additionally, when I read, I can quickly access the meaning, even synonyms and antonyms, of words or phrases with which I am not familiar via simply right-clicking or asking Google. Nothing in my world today requires me to have all information in my head.
If my student knows 50 idioms, but is not familiar with one she encounters on the standardized test, does that mean she doesn’t understand figurative language? If two answers make sense, but “the best” answer my student chooses does not align with that of the test creator’s “best” answer, is my student’s answer less correct? If my student isn’t conditioned to sit for 60 or 120 minutes to take the test, is he less smart? If my student chooses to fill in bubble designs rather than engage in the test, should my job security or wage be impacted? Should my school be identified as a poor performing school because many of the students refuse to take seriously tests they rightly deem irrelevant? The answer to all these questions, of course, is no, but these are the realities.
A quick call to the Iowa Department of Education informed me that our state legislature allocated $2.7 million to the University of Iowa and Pearson to develop and distribute tests to Iowa public schools for the 2018 – 2019 school year. I don’t know about you, but this would be my preferred budget cut. I wonder how much money the testing company spends on legislative lobbying and contributions.
Returning to my first series of questions, the reason most teachers don’t yell out, protest, or refuse to administer standardized tests is matter of financial security. Most teachers need their job. Most have bills to pay and families to support. We have been told, through policy, by legislators and decision makers at the Department of Education what we can and can’t do in our classrooms. People far removed from our students make many of the decisions that dehumanize our children. I am reminded of the Milgram Experiment (1963) which researched how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. Stanley Milgram’s interest in this topic stemmed from a desire to know how easily ordinary people could be influenced in committing atrocities like those of Germans in WWII. It turns out, people easily shift personal responsibility to another in authority. In his article The Milgram Shock Experiment, Saul McLeod summarizes the conclusions found in the experiments as follows.
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school, and workplace.
What I find disturbing is that in our current educational system, the people in “authority” are not teachers, administrators, or even parents of the children we serve. These “experts” are politicians, philanthropists, and business leaders who, through the very act of having attended school and “turning out pretty well” claim to have the answers to solve educational woes. Their answers tend to simplify and reduce problems to what can be easily measured and quantified yet fail to include social and economic factors which serve as root causes.
In conclusion, I offer a quote by Martin Niemöller as a wake-up call for teachers, parents and students.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Our children deserve better. How can you speak out? How can you help to derail this inhumane and expensive practice? Please share ideas and comments below.
You are likely thinking this post is about closing the achievement gap that separates low-income and minority children from their peers. It is not. Rather, I am referring the gap between my beliefs about learning and what happens in my 4th grade classroom. In an earlier post I shared some of my beliefs about learning, which do not align closely with traditional school practices. My goal here is to share some of my beliefs, as well as conflicting school structures; provide examples of actions I take that keep me from carrying out my beliefs; and identify possible reasons why the gap exists, and even grows.
To me, learning means 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. I think learning is organic, non-linear, and ongoing. True learning excites me, engages my senses, and compels me to learn even more. In contrast, schools are typically set up in a top-down, linear fashion with hard deadlines and focus on moving through content regardless of whether students are interested. My membership and participation in Change.School, an online community focused on modern learning and schooling, has introduced me to resources that have helped me better articulate my beliefs about learning. The work of both Russell L. Ackoff and Carol Black prove relevant in describing the angst I feel regarding real learning and what school systems inevitably produce.
"Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant." ~ Russell L. Ackoff
In a response to a question about her film “Schooling the World,” Black included the following.
We tend to forget that school itself is a cultural construct which alters traditional life in profound ways. Some of these ways include:
In my quest to make school relevant for my students, I straddle the chasm, planning units that focus on big ideas and provide layers of student choice and agency on one side and trying to comply with state and district mandates on the other. These directives divert time and focus away from potentially engaging learning experiences by requiring specific curriculum, pacing schedules, and/or assessments. The reductionism created by such mandates, at a minimum diminishes the student experience, and possibly, sabotages the more natural learning taking root. I find myself stopping an engaging conversation between students about examples of figurative language in their self-selected books in order to administer an assessment that requires them to read a passage they aren’t interested in and identify the meaning of one specific idiom. If they aren’t familiar with the given idiom, or fail to select the right definition, they supposedly don’t meet the given standard. Situations like this exist in many forms in traditional schools.
Other factors that widen the gap between what I know/believe and what I do in the classroom are the structures of school; time, subject area, and limited physical environment (which I will not address here). Because we continue to organize the day around subjects, a schedule is created to ensure each subject gets its due, with math and reading grabbing an oversized share in the elementary grades. I do believe that students need to learn how to read and develop number sense, but the rush to move quickly through the checklist of “requirements” counter in-depth, more-permanent learning. I find myself taking a “git-r-done” attitude with required math and reading computer programs so that my students can get to more authentic learning of the subjects. What I believe I should do is provide authentic reading and numeracy opportunities first, and not sacrifice valuable time on the artificial learning tasks.
Some of the “gap” results directly from my own inadequacies. For example, I don’t believe that places of learning should be silent or have students move from place to place in straight lines, but too often that is exactly what I require my students to do. I am not on-task every minute of the day, but I have almost unrealistic expectations that my students will be. I value strengths-based learning, but instead, frequently end up focusing on my students’ areas for improvement. Having explored and refined my beliefs about learning has left me with a proverbial blessing and curse. I know what I want for myself and my students but am more acutely aware of the vast distance between those desires and our current realities.
How about you? Do your actions in the classroom mirror your beliefs about learning? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Russell L. Ackoff, Daniel Greenberg (2008). “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track”, p.3, Pearson Prentice Hall
“Schooling the World” film website, https://schoolingtheworld.org/film/
Did she just call me a deviant? I silently wondered as my administrator responded to another of my unconventional ideas. “Have you heard the term positive deviance?” is what she actually said. I had not, but of course I soon checked into it. According to Wikipedia, Positive deviance (PD) is an approach to behavioral and social change based on the observation that in any community there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources. This approach to change is based on a set of principles that include, but are not limited to, the idea that people within a given community have solutions and are the best experts to solve their problems.
Past educational changes have not relied on the concept of positive deviance. Rather than looking to teachers, administrators, and students, changes to education have come from legislators, business leaders, and philanthropists. Another principle of PD is “It is easier to change behavior by practicing it rather than knowing about it. ‘It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting.’” It seems that everyone thinks they are experts in educational matters because they attended school. Many well-intentioned leaders “know” what “should be done” in schools and pass regulations or fund initiatives that they “think” will fix the problems rather than seek the collective intelligence of those inside of the educational community, those who, if empowered, could “act their way into a new way of thinking”. Sadly, those with the most potential to act have been excluded from the educational change conversations, seemingly because they can’t be trusted and lack accountability. It seems that most students and parents think highly of the teachers in their school, but teachers in broader terms have lost respect. Even though teachers know their students’ needs, interests, and preferences, the teachers are often required to teach with dictated curriculum, pacing schedules, and assessments.
But this doesn’t mean we (students, teachers, and administrators) can’t “act our way to change.” We can start small with something only a little outside of our comfort zones. In the book “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Changing Education,” Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica state, “…revolutions don’t wait for legislation. They emerge from what people do at the ground level. Education doesn’t happen in the committee rooms of the legislatures or in the rhetoric of politicians. It’s what goes on between learners and teachers in actual schools.
Perhaps we could offer students new and different activities like bringing in broken toys and asking students to fix, or repurpose, them; having students make a game and teach it to peers; having students analyze a school procedure (fire drill, recess, dismissal, etc.) and make suggestions for improvement. Maybe we teachers could make a suggestion to administrators regarding a topic we have researched, sharing the resources used to guide the suggestion. We could harness the potential of the Internet and collaborate on a project with teachers/students in another city or country. The possibilities are endless. We just need to embrace our positive deviance.
What ideas do you have for making small, or big, improvements to your classroom, school, or district?
In educational psychology classes we learn about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His theory asserts that motivation in humans generally moves in step with meeting various levels of need. From the most basic to the ideal, they are physiological, safety, belonging and love, esteem, and self-actualization. Today’s scholars contend that these levels often overlap and are not necessarily achieved in a strictly linear fashion. What does this theory have to do with my classroom, or yours?
Some students come to school having basic needs (food, water, shelter, sleep, health) met, and for those who don’t, our school system has made great strides toward supplementing the deficits. In schools identified as having a high percentage of students living in poverty, breakfast and lunch are provided free of charge with some students taking home groceries for the weekend. School nurses intervene to connect families with health services, medical supplies, and even winter wear. Many schools employ home/school liaisons who connect families with resources for transportation, housing, food, medical care, and more. Safety and security policies and practices protect students while at school, but what about…
… students who don’t feel safe once they walk out of the school doors?
… students who are bullied at, or outside of, school?
… students whose families suffer from food and/or financial insecurity?
… students who feel alienated by peers?
… students who feel inferior to others?
I could go on, but the point is that many students do not come to school ready to learn. Life situations, relationship issues, and self-image/esteem challenges interfere with the ability to learn. What is a teacher to do? Unfortunately, I don’t have a miracle cure because the problems are complex and multifaceted. I often feel overwhelmed with the needs presented by my students and my inability to meet those needs. The pressure to move all students to levels of proficiency compound these feelings of inadequacy. Of course I want all of my students to be proficient in reading, math, and other subjects, but how do I balance academic needs with the need to atone for shortfalls in self-regulation, communication, empathy, etc. when the latter often prohibit learning of the former? How much “teaching” time can I take to deescalate students who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, erupt and disrupt their learning and the learning of peers?
Why don’t our school districts assess students’ proficiency according to Maslow’s hierarchy, or better yet, the district’s ability to elevate students on the hierarchy? Students aren’t “standard” to begin with, but in the effort to attain “proficiency,” the process of standardization harms those most in need of help by creating a false standard of success. The focus is diverted from what students really need to a focus on preparing them for low-level, inauthentic assessments.
So, until policy and practice align with what might really make a difference, I will continue to prioritize caring for oneself, improving self-regulation, showing kindness, applying effort, and setting goals. I will remain committed to providing students with a safe and caring classroom environment and working to give students tools for dealing with environments beyond the school doors. And, perhaps most importantly, I will work to develop a societal culture that takes care of its most vulnerable citizens so that one day, all students come to school ready to learn.
I love TED Talks! I recently watched one presented by Seth Godin entitled “This is Broken.” In it, Godin shares examples, mostly from the business sector, where mistakes are obvious, yet the practice continues or the message is repeated. He provides examples such as a picture of a prescription bottle containing medicine for a dog that warns the consumer to avoid driving, operating heavy machinery, or taking the tablets with alcohol. Another image shows a street sign pointing the way to the “Secret Bunker.” Godin laments a movie theater with concession stand lines 12 deep because management needed to reduce costs, so cut workers even though 95% of profits flow directly from these purchases. In these and other examples, Godin proclaims that someone, often many people, recognized the “wrongness” of each situation, yet failed to fix the problem. A pharmacist knows that dogs do not drive, operate heavy machinery, or drink alcohol (at least not intentionally). Sign makers and installers see the irony of publicizing the location of a secret bunker. Concession stand workers and managers are fully aware that more workers would better serve eager customers.
These examples of brokenness got me thinking about the educational system and my mission to change it for the better. Because I am old, read voraciously, and have had the good fortune of observing and working with many educators and educational systems, brokenness exposes itself to me. These fissures in the system, beg me to notice them and apply epoxy. But I am the pharmacist, the street sign maker, and the concession stand worker. I don’t have the power to fix the brokenness. It’s not my job. Surely there are smarter and more powerful people whose job it is to fix the world’s wrongness. Ironically, this thinking is broken too. It should be everyone’s job to fix brokenness. Our educational system needs a lot of fixing. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of good things happen in schools, but too many of our practices actually impede learning and harm kids.
I believe the time is right for teachers to speak up, point to each element that is broken, AND find the solutions. The last part of my previous sentence is important. If we don’t find the solutions, someone else will. Policy makers, department heads, and corporate officers don’t know our students and often have disingenuous interests. I would like to propose a challenge to all teachers who read this post.
1.) Identify something in your daily work that is broken.
2.) Fix it or propose a solution to someone who has the power to fix it.
3.) Share with us in the comment section of this blog post.
Together we can fix the broken.
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