Sunday, September 29, 2013

It's Not Your Parent's Classroom Anymore

There has been a lot of chatter lately in the Twittersphere and at conferences about two ideas that seem to be slowly gaining traction in education: 
1. Project Based Learning (PBL)--and you might as well include 20% Time in that conversation, and 
2. the notion of schools being THE best place to allow our students to fail.  
I have been ruminating on both of these concepts a lot the past few months.  In this post I am going to attempt to tackle both succinctly and intelligently

Let's start with the first one: PBL/20% Time.  finally came to the realization that this is the way to approach learning at all grades.  And it only took my 7 year old and a talking bus to help me realize this.  After all, I'm a history teacher by trade so how exactly does one teach the French Revolution or the writing of the U.S. Constitution or the origins of civilization or the causes of WWI as a project?  I know that all you PBL evangelists are moaning at the notion that it has taken me so long to convert and for that I apologize.   But I at last understand and fully embrace the reality that in this day and age of Google and the internet I don't have to teach any of that because students can search that information and have the answer in a matter of seconds.  Education has to take learning to the next level.  Period.  

So what do my son and a talking bus have to do with my epiphany?  Simple: every day my son brings home worksheets for homework.  We all did, right?  His approach: just get them done and move on to play time.  Does he actually retain anything from these worksheets beyond the need to use "good" (I use that term loosely!) penmanship  and be sure to put his name at the top?  In a word, "NO".  So why have I supported this?  Quite simply, because that is the way I learned, so clearly that is the way he will learn.  

Well, guess son DOESN'T learn that way.  He actually has learning differences and every week I see a little more of his enthusiasm for learning being squashed due to this very thoughtless (yes, I will be that harsh) method of instruction.  So, enter the talking bus.  There is a bus that is just beginning a tour of catholic schools around the country.  It is sponsored by Notre Dame University.  And the bus has a Twitter handle (you can check it out for yourself: @theACEbus).  So what if my son's class was following the bus and they began to learn some math, geography, history and science based on the bus route and Tweets?  The bus could tweet the cost of gas (or the class could tweet the bus and ask) and they could chart the prices.  They could then discuss why gas prices might vary from place to place.  They could look at the next stop on the bus itinerary and predict the cost of gas in that city.  Older students could learn word problems by finding out the speed and the next destination and then check their calculations against Google maps.  They could then engage in discussions about why their time calculation may or may not match that of Google maps.  

Here are some ideas that could work for any elementary grade: How about learning about the state the bus is in?  Learning the map of the US by following the route?  What about planning alternate routes for the bus and talking about why students designed that particular route?  They could learn about the seasons in different parts of the country, or the customs of different regions that are based on the ethnicities of the groups who first populated that region.  The possibilities seem endless.  

Then, the students can build on these fun conversations (which are learning in disguise) and identify what they are most inspired by to then propose their own 20% project to pursue for that quarter or semester.  Maybe it has to do with learning their family history or answering the question: "If I could visit anywhere in the country, it would be...", or perhaps they want to develop a new mode of transportation (flying cars anyone?), or...  Kids have a great number of questions that they would just love to answer if given the chance.  

Now, I realize that talking buses don't come along every day but there are many ways to simulate something about picking a college or pro sports team to track when they are on the road, or look at the routes traveled by produce grown locally vs. produce that is trucked in from other states or even other countries.  These are just a few ideas.  But you can see how this would be so much more interesting than doing worksheets every day.  And at the end of the day, if my son had to continue his learning because tomorrow he is reporting back to the class on how long it takes grapes (one of his favorite fruits) to reach his table from Argentina when they are sold in our supermarket out of season, I guarantee he would be MUCH more excited about that than filling out a problem worksheet.  

So this leads me to the second half of my musings: failure.  We make a big deal about ensuring that students master material so that they don't earn the dreaded "F" on an assignment or assessment.  And we make a point to tell students that we don't "give" grades, they "earn" them.  Wow!  How is that for a mood killer?  A student tries their best based on their understanding of your expectations and all you can say is "F"?!  Well, news flash: in the "big bad world" you go through a process of trial and error.  You solicit feedback from your team, you get a result that you don't like and you go back to the drawing board.  Your boss doesn't give you an "F", your boss tells you to solve the problem.  

We are not preparing our students for the "real world" when they are so fearful of failure that they become paralyzed by and indifferent to the actual process of learning.  Students need to be willing to keep trying until they find an answer that solves the problem.  Teachers need to be willing to let go of "one right answer" and both model and encourage creative problem solving.  If I was in the classroom this year, that would mean very few multiple choice tests (only in my AP class because, well, let's face it,  it is going to be a long time before ETS and the College Board realizes that facts do NOT need to be tested any more) and more open-ended assessments that are NOT timed tests.  How often do any of us as adults face a situation where we have a set amount of time to solve a problem with no resources other than what is stored in our brain and a #2 pencil? NEVER.  So why do we still insist on following this protocol at school?  I am really quite dumfounded by the whole thing the more I think about just how archaic and out of touch the school room is with reality.  Yet I am willing to bet that every single educational institution promises it's parents, students and communities that their graduates will be "ready for the world".  Really?

And as for making sure students learn what they are "supposed" to learn.  Aren't our students supposed to ultimately learn how to interpret information, draw conclusions, think critically, and be able to express their conclusions succinctly?  Any authentic (I use "authentic" instead of "creative" because I feel that  creative implies something a bit unusual and I do not believe that I am discussing anything unusual, but rather what should be the new norm) approach to learning will definitely accomplish this.  Students will learn the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic along the way, not because they have to, but because they WANT to and NEED to in order to solve their problems. The "three R's" become embedded in the learning rather than distinct subjects taught out of context.

The solution is daunting as it requires reprogramming teachers, teacher credential programs, state education offices, national tests, our parent communities, and our students.  But, we know that every journey begins with a single step and I believe that if enough of us are willing to take that first step at our own institutions, perhaps before my son graduates from college we will have accomplished that change.  And that would be a pretty awesome accomplishment.  So spread the word, begin to plan your innovation and take your first step.  Our students are counting on us.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

The End of the One-Room Schoolhouse

I was reminded that good coaching is not about dynamic coaches serving as heroic educators, but rather stems from the simple habits of connecting teachers to resources and asking them reflective questions.  ~Shane Safire  July, 2008

This week has consisted of a lot of coaching.  I know that last week I reflected on coaching.  However, I think our Monday #edleadchat topic on coaching and observing kept this topic in the forefront of my mind.  That coupled with a number of issues on campus related to new teachers seems to have forced my hand to circle back to this topic once again.

I was not able to observe as many classrooms as I would have liked this week.  But the ones I did get into provided a real range of experiences and helped me to really think about the reflective process.  I realized that it isn't enough to observe a classroom and pen a few notes of gratitude and "way to go-s" for each teacher.  There were some real opportunities for growth in most of the classes I observed and that was not just in rooms with new teachers.  In addition, I have found the new teachers begging for feedback and direction while the veteran teachers have been rather indifferent to feedback.  After all, some of them have been teaching much longer than I!  

So this week I took a new tact with my comments.  Every note opened with a thank you and highlighted a few of the points that I thought were really good from the portion of the lesson that I saw. 

Then I jumped into the shallow end with floaties.  

I posed a question about what I saw that I didn't fully understand because it isn't my content area or because I had missed the opening/ending of the lesson.  With the question, I invited the person to share some times with me that would be good to actually talk about my question, allowing the teacher face-to-face time to teach me.  As teachers have been only too eager to share their wisdom with me, I have been able to open up some doors for some great dialogue about approaches, and given the teachers a chance to reflect on their practice.

This is definitely a much softer approach than a formal evaluation with a list of mandated improvements before contracts are issued.  And not every teacher responds immediately to my request for a F2F.  But overall, the teachers who I have had the opportunity to chat with have been much more receptive to the conversation and suggestions than they ever were to formal feedback.  

The "downside" is that conversations take time (but as I said last week, this is the heart of my job so I don't consider time to chat with my colleagues about our craft a true downside) and the change is slow.  The "upside" however, is that I feel I am building a team and since the changes are generally presented as a menu of options, the teachers have a choice in what they will adopt.  I don't really care which of the menu options they choose because I make sure that every option I suggest will improve, rather than maintain, their craft.

Any sports coach will probably tell you that coaching takes time but the results are priceless.  I realize that this is a long-term process but I want to be part of a strong team so am looking to invest the time and effort. Fortunately for all of us, we are well beyond the one-room school house where the teacher was a lone-wolf, hoping to get through each day with more need for individualized instruction than most of us ever have to contend with, and no colleagues to share, plan, or commiserate with.  

We have the opportunity to collaborate F2F on our campuses, as well as via social media with teachers around the world.  I want every teacher to be able to take advantage of these opportunities.  However, as all leaders know, you must model expected/desired behavior.  Thus, if I talk teaching with the teachers, eventually they will talk teaching with each other.  That has happened on a small scale at our school for years.  I want to ramp it up considerably this year.

 If I could spend my time coaching and never again engage in a formal evaluation I would be only too happy.  I know formal evaluations have their place but hopefully enough coaching will have taken place prior to that day to allow even that experience to be one of excitement and welcome dialogue.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Benchwarmers Don't Win the Game

This week I feel as though I began my real work: observing and coaching.  It was a great experience and I referred to it as my "play time" rather than walkthrough time.  Why?  Because in just 4 days it has become my favorite part of my day.  I was in 20 different rooms this week.  I saw different subjects, different methodologies, different grade levels.  It was so exciting!  The benefits I found this week include:

  • no "canned" lessons because I just showed up in peoples rooms rather than scheduling a formal visit
  • I would spend only about 10 minutes in each room so I was able to see so much more teaching and learning in a short period of time
  • the students were only too happy to fill me in if I had questions
  • because it was more informal, I felt as though I was really seeing the "true" nature of the teacher at work
  • I was able to provide timely feedback via email and this (and here is the truly awesome part) led to conversations between colleagues and between me and the faculty
I had no idea walkthroughs could be so much fun!

But it isn't just about getting out of the office to avoid the emails and voice mails.  There is a significant purpose to visiting classrooms: coaching.  This was what I knew I had to do, what teachers expected me to do.  However, I was completely unprepared for the faculty response to my process.  

Let me back up a minute and explain the system that has been in place since time immemorial (well, maybe not quite that long but it probably feels like it to the veteran teachers!): every year you were scheduled to be observed by one of two people: the Associate Principal or the Instructional Observer.  As the "observee", you were to review three different forms and select the area that you would like your observation to focus on.  A meeting was then set when you would sit down with the observer and you would discuss what you wanted them to focus on, schedule a time for the observation and then review the lesson you would be teaching.  The observer would come in for anywhere from 40-80 minutes (we are on a block schedule) and then after the observation, the observer would contact you when they had written up their notes, the two of you would schedule another time to meet, the observation would be reviewed, any corrections would be made and then you would receive a copy for your file.  This is an incredibly enriching process when you have something specific that you want to improve on.  However, it can turn into a very labor-intensive process, the feedback is not very timely (often a 2 week gap could exist between the observation and receiving the feedback) and you didn't always see authentic instruction and learning.

So, this new system that I have implemented this year is a rather radical departure from the tradition. However, it has been quite well received this year by veteran and new faculty alike.  They appreciate the immediate feedback and are already informing me of changes they are implementing based on my observations!  WOW!  A coach--because that is really what my function is in this capacity--can't ask for a better response.  Now, don't get me wrong, I have seen the entire spectrum of teaching in my 20 visits this week.  But I work to provide constructive feedback that is accompanied by real ideas that can be implemented.  I have also made sure to provide a selection of suggestions, not just one (no "my way or the highway" here) and also make sure I point out the good things that I see before making suggestions.

It is important to me that I get out to classrooms every day.  It is important that I hit different times of the day.  It is important to me that I provide timely feedback.  Why are these things important to me? (A professor of mine from my credentialing program would have called these three my "non-negotiables")  Here is why:
  • It is important that I am visible every day to teachers, students and staff.  I can't stay hidden behind my computer or there will be no respect for my office and I will quickly lose touch with what is happening on my campus
  • We all know that high schoolers are very different animals at 8:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. so I need to be sure to visit different blocks each day to get a feel for the changing mood and also better see what the teachers are dealing with from the same kids at different times of the day.  This will only help to inform my observations and allow me to provide more meaningful feedback
  • If I can give teachers feedback within 24 hours, they will still remember the lesson and what they did in that particular class.  This will then give them relevant data upon which to build and improve their practice.  It also allows them an opportunity to adjust future lessons in that unit if necessary.  The process is then meaningful, not something to check off your "to-do" list.  And, most importantly, if it is meaningful and relevant, then it is useful and will lead to improvement.

As a coach, I want to develop all of my teachers, veterans and newbies alike.  I do not want to hire benchwarmers.  That does no favors to the students or to our school community in general.  While it takes time to develop elite athletes, I fully believe that I am working with a whole building full of them.  It is my job to make sure that each teacher gets what they need to become that elite teacher.  And if I have elite teachers in every classroom at every period of the day, how can our students not win?

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