Friday, February 22, 2013

Choose Passion

When I read this excellent post by Angela Maiers (@angelamaeirs) about the passion gap recently, it helped me to reflect on how fortunate I have been to have some amazing mentors and teachers who have “metaphorically hugged me” by supporting and challenging me in support of my passions. (see @robinellis, @snbeach to name a few) I’ ve also had incredibly supportive colleagues and administrators as well. Sadly, I’ ve come to realize that my experiences are not typical in most schools or classrooms.

For many educators, William Butler Yeats’ classic quote “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” resonates with them. Yet how often do we, as teachers, use the proverbial pail to douse and extinguish that fire inside of our students instead?  How often do we pour cold water on our colleagues ideas instead of fanning the flames? How often do administrators forcefully snuff out the innovative fires burning inside their teachers? How often do school boards or other state and federal bodies completely extinguish the fires inside the bellies of administrators who see the potential inside their schools and classrooms?

Based on that last paragraph, it would be safe to assume that “passion killing” starts at the top and  rolls down hill. In the accountability-based, standardized test driven world of education, what one does based on their passion is rarely appreciated or valued because it often can not be quantified or evaluated. Yet, those of us at the bottom of the educational  food chain, who often complain about a lack of professional autonomy and choice, professional development that doesn’t match our unique learning needs and styles, and little personalized feedback and support from our overworked principals turn around and return the favor within our classrooms.  We punish students by giving them little of their own autonomy or choice. We do not support their learning in personalized ways. And as overworked teachers we rarely give them the timely and necessary feedback needed to help them grow.

Many of us don’t want to admit this, but every one of us has a choice. Choosing to be passionate and providing that space for our students to be passionate learners is not easy in the current educational climate. It requires imagination and curiosity. It requires commitment and dedication. It requires data and evidence. It requires self awareness through reflection and adaptability to make necessary changes. It requires effort  and perseverance. It requires trust and faith. And most importantly, it requires courage. (See habitudes).

In all the rhetoric surrounding education reform these days, the words of Sir Ken Robinson always ring out to me:

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn't need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

As educators, we must love our students and one another enough to embrace this vision and work tirelessly to make it a reality for every child. We must create classroom and district  cultures and climates that embrace inquiry and authentic opportunities of learning. We must be reflective enough to see the many ways we destroy our students and colleagues passions and then have the courage to change those practices.  We must shine a light on and reject the systemic processes  that do the same and work vigorously, professionally, and passionately to change them. And we must do this together. Living in a world with a passion gap is not acceptable for us or for our kids. We all have a choice. Choose passion.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How transparent is your classroom?

If you asked teachers about the transparency of their classroom, it would most likely be low on their list of priorities.  And that’s a shame. In the high-stakes accountability driven world educators currently operate in, the tendency has been to hunker down, close the door, and hope that no one notices you long enough to make you endure yet another series of frustrating changes.  At the same time, what if instead of crawling back into the caves, we took another approach?  What if instead of hiding, we did the opposite? What if chose to shine a light on  the learning that is occurring in our schools and classrooms?
The philosophical shift to building a more transparent classroom is not an easy one. It takes courage and resolve and a belief that by sharing everything (warts and all), the classroom will become an optimal learning environment for both a teacher and their students.  There is a vulnerability that comes with transparency as well as humble acknowledgment  that we may not have control of or even understand the magic of learning in our classrooms. Let’s take a look at some ways we can begin to move towards more open and transparent classroom environments.

1) Document everything.  Evidence of learning comes in many shapes and sizes these days.  Technology affords us the ability to document all of it. Use your cell phone to take photos, video and audio recordings. Instead of focusing on grading student work, provide feedback to them while “collecting” it.  Focus less on recording numbers in a gradebook and instead focus more on what these artifacts mean for your learners.  In itself, documenting everything does not make you transparent, but it is a necessary practical first step. Record your mini-lessons and small group conversations so that absent students can view them later on. Remember, students who need extra support also have this resource to go back to and view at their own pace. They have the advantage of pausing, rewinding, and re-watching the lesson.  Even more important than teachers documenting evidence, we must provide students the opportunity to document their own learning journeys.  Let them give one another feedback through digital collaboration tools or peer evaluated rubrics. Let them pull out their cell phones and support them in creating their own understandings through media and evidence collection. Again, documenting everything does not make your students learning more transparent, but it does begin to create larger conversations about quality, revision, and publishable products.

2) Create a digital learning community. Many teachers have moved towards Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard, My Big Campus, Schoology, and Edmodo (for example).  These environments allow for continued collaboration and communication and provides opportunities for students and teachers to continue to interact after the school day ends. Most LMS’ are “gated” communities which allow for students to have a safe place to share their work without making it available on the web immediately. Think of these as playgrounds or sandboxes for kids to work and play. They should be places where kids can take academic risks and make mistakes. While many teachers and students prefer to have these communities be open to students and teachers only, some of them provide opportunities for parents or community members to participate as well.

3) Digital Portfolios of Learning.  Student portfolio’s are not a new idea but have often been locked away in a classroom closet or drawer only to be pulled out at parent-teacher conference time. We need to be helping students create digital portfolios that are dynamic, visible, and showcase both evidence of the learning journey as well as published final products. Through the use of google sites or wikispaces (though there are many others), students can create spaces that provide opportunities for feedback from peers, teachers and/or experts. What is key is that no matter what tool you use, the students should determine the visibility of their work, while you encourage openness.

To do this though, we need to practice what we preach. Imagine that teachers modeled this by making their lesson plans, brainstorms, assessments, and rubrics available for colleagues. What if teachers recorded their most effective strategies and best practices as exemplars for peers to view?  What if teachers posted videotaped  parts of lessons to receive constructive feedback from their colleagues? How could digital teacher portfolios of learning help us to continuously improve?

4) Blog. Teachers and students alike should consider blogging because it helps make our thinking and learning visible. We need to be more reflective as professionals and we need to model and encourage reflection for our students.  The best teacher blogs are ones that share insight into the classroom experience, sharing the ups and downs, the successes and failures.  Consider that by having a blog, other teachers just like you might have the courage to try something or learn from you.  Blogging is one of the most transparent and scary things we can do as educators. It is also one of the ways we can regularly communicate with and invite parents into our classrooms and the insights we bring to our profession. For students, it provides them a voice and an opportunity to very publicly wrestle with questions and concepts for an audience far greater than their teacher and classmates.

5) Use Social Media.  It is becoming more common for districts and schools to use social media to communicate with parents and the community . Teachers should consider the use of social media not just because it can be effective communication tool with students and parents, but also because it provides us an opportunity to model how to use these tools for learning. Twitter and Facebook (for example)  provide platforms to share resources and information as well as celebrating the fun and learning occurring inside of our classrooms.  

In the end, transparency in teaching is mostly about sharing. Sharing learning spaces with kids, sharing ideas with colleagues, and sharing success with parents.  As educators we must challenge ourselves to be more open to sharing and transparent in our thinking so that all stakeholders can continue to learn and grow.

(This blog is cross posted at the Digital Learning Blog as well)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How do we maximize student effort the first time around?

Being a part of a school district who made the commitment to be fully K-12 standards based five years ago has (to put it mildly) brought many ups and downs.  Implementation of any one radical educational shift and philosophy can bring heartache and struggle, let alone attacking multiple sacred cows at the same time.  Removing zeros from our repertoire, separating academic achievement from behavior, and eliminating extra credit just to name a few.  Although some of those shifts were easier than others, there are a few places where we are still trying to take the ideal (and ultimately best for our learners)  and make it real inside our classrooms.  We know that providing students multiple opportunities to show evidence of their growth or learning is right and best for kids, but what does that look like with jam packed classrooms and jam packed curriculum's?  And what do we do when students who know they will have opportunities to revise or remediate take advantage of that by not doing their best work the first time around? 

We have been very fortunate to have some experts help define our core philosophies and support us in our learning journey over the past few years: notably Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli) and most recently Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam).  On Tuesday,  Dr. Wiliam answered questions and engaged in conversations with teachers and administrators at all levels  around some of the issues mentioned above, but the conversation weaved its way into many concerns and questions above and beyond assessment practices.  I have done my best to summarize and categorize  Dr. Wiliam's perspectives and the learning that occurred from this unique experience.  (My apologies to Dr. Wiliam if I didn't quite get it all right.) Below are my takeaways. 

1) A student's willingness to complete work to the best of their ability (or at all) is a reflection of the culture a classroom teacher creates for that individual student. As teachers we have a moral obligation to know each of our students as people and more specifically as learners. When students are not learning, we need to question and challenge ourselves to not only diagnose what is getting in the way, but do something about it. Many of us believe that daily conferencing with a child is important (and could help us determine what is getting in the way for that child) but the structure of our classroom may not allow for that to happen. If our structures (re: too much teacher directed lecture) get in the way, we must change them. We need to be open to asking ourselves if we are getting in the way of our students learning and then be courageous enough to get out of the way.
2) A teacher does not have the ability to motivate a child to learn intrinsically. This will be a hard pill to swallow, but ultimately the best we can do is create a climate or culture that supports each students ability to learn. How do we do this? Dr. Wiliam gives us a clue when he tells us that this happens through "engagement and responsiveness". We need to provide actionable feedback that encourages effort and growth. As teachers, we must also question whether our use of extrinsic rewards (ie. grades, bribes, competition) are detrimental to our students ability to tap into their intrinsic desires to learn. 
3) Students will complete tasks on time and to the best of their ability when they have skin in the game. How often do you provide students choices in your classroom? How much of what happens in your classroom is done without asking for student input? Do you allow your students to show what they know and can do in ways that make sense to them? How often do students have input in the creation of an assessment? What about the rubric or evaluative process? Do you encourage students to ask deep meaningful questions surrounding your curriculum and then support them in grappling and ultimately answering them? How much control are you willing to give to students in support of their learning?
4) Creating a culture that encourages and supports risk taking and failure is a place where learning happens. A classroom where students are encouraged to take risks and are supported when they fail (instead of sorted by grades and/or made to feel as if they aren't smart enough) will help students to want to try their best the first time because the goal becomes solving the problem and/or about improvement. As teachers, our job is to help students challenge themselves as well as pushing them to places they themselves did not think was possible. As Dr. Wiliam reminds us, "The difference between a good violinist and a great violinist is that while good violinists practice what they can do, great violinists practice what they can't do." Are we creating meaningful opportunities for our students to try and do what they can't yet do?
5)"We are preparing our students for a future we can't even imagine" (D. Wiliam) The goal of many "traditionalists" is to return us back to a place where memorization and lecture were king and that the only way our students can be prepared for the real world is to force them to learn information by cramming it down their throats, practicing things over and over through drill and kill, thus destroying any chances of a student being prepared for a world in which innovation and creativity are becoming even more essential for success. To those who seek to punish students into understanding the harsh realities of a world where deadlines are real and no one ever gets second chances, here is my challenge to you: Don't just settle at having real world consequences, make your classroom a place that reflects the kind of work done in the real world. Provide opportunities for your students to collaborate and design, create and problem solve, explore and troubleshoot, play and fail, innovate and celebrate. Have them do it for an audience that represents real- world conditions with real-world experts. Have them do it transparently so others can evaluate their work and provide feedback.
Remember: just because we can't quite envision the future for our students doesn't mean we should hold them back from creating and defining it for themselves.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A confession and a thank you to my PLN

When you are an educator, there are certain inevitabilities that come with the job. Your mama told you there were would be days like this, and if you are like me, when you have “one of those days”, it can be disheartening.  For too many of us, they paralyze and defeat us.  When I am feeling exhausted and broken, I look to “sharpen the saw”  and I seek inspiration. Traditionally, I have gone to my family and closest friends for counsel, advice and motivation. And while they will never be replaced, I have found myself  going to my twitter PLN for inspiration more and more these days. On the surface, twitter can seem like a whole lot of noise, a lot of style with no substance, and the vast amount of links and resources shared can be incredibly overwhelming.

My PLN inspires me. It gives me hope. It shows me that the classroom and educational experience I want for all kids is a shared dream and that there are many educators “out there” who work incredibly hard to make that dream a reality for their students.   Connected educators (if this term means little to you, read this) are able to tap into the greatest community of knowledge, ideas, experience, and wisdom in educational history.  It’s not without it’s negatives, as Karl Fisch recently pointed out.

While my PLN inspires and motivates me, it doesn’t do the work for me. It doesn’t create change in my classroom and it doesn’t change my approaches in coaching and supporting colleagues.  It’s not a magic bullet. I still have to do the work. All those amazing ideas out there I want to play with? I still have to learn more about them. I still have to explore how they all fit  and work for my students and colleagues. I still have to spend hours understanding and experiencing  them.  I still have to try them and fail and pick up the pieces and try them and fail some more.

And there is the rub.
But this is also where the learning occurs.  

Far too many of us are waiting for a knight in shining armor to come rescue us from unfunded mandates and initiative fatigue. We are waiting for a hero to scoop us up and protect us. We are waiting for professional developers to hand everything to us on a silver platter. We are waiting for things to go back to the way they used to be.  

If you find yourself nodding along to any of these sentiments, you will be waiting for a long time.

It also means you might be stuck.

My PLN reminds me that while no knight in shining armor is coming, I must never give up the desire of continuous improvement for myself, for my students and in support of my colleagues.  They remind me that I want to be on the road that leads to awesome. (see clip above) They remind me that I need to be the hero of my own story. My PLN reminds me that I am the architect of my own learning journey. Most importantly, they illuminate a future full of possibilities that are far greater than any past we seem to remember.

I have a confession to make.  I’ve had an active twitter account for over 4 years now. I have tweeted only 417 times as of this post.  I have taken from my PLN far more than I have given. I have hoarded links and insights and silently observed. I have offered very little worth.  I could offer a series of excuses here as to why I haven’t shared a whole lot. The truth is, I was scared. I was afraid that I would add nothing of value to the conversation. I was afraid of how others would view and judge me.   These are also the reasons why I started countless blog posts only to delete them.   

For many in my PLN, hitting tweet or posting reflections publicly comes naturally by now. It just took me longer to get there. (OK, a LOT longer.)   So consider this my thank you for your patience. My PLN motivates me to be an empathetic and reflective learner with a passion for knowledge, understanding,and seeking continuous improvement. It inspires me to be a better teacher and colleague. Thank you to you all.