Monday, August 5, 2013

Well Rested and Well Read

I have been silent for sometime now and you, my loyal readers, may have been wondering where I went.  Well I have been reading.  I like to take the summer, the nice weather and the long days to stretch out with a good book.  I read voraciously during the summer.  Books, articles, magazines, anything I can get my hands on!  I recently read an article in the New York Times Educational section about educating the children of India.  The article talks about the shortage of affordable and qualified teachers for the Indian public schools.  It then describes a system of recruiting and training mostly uneducated, poor, women to be trained specifically to teach in these educational settings.  The idea of specific training programs, apprenticeships if you will, for teachers seemed so innovative—and yet we have been here before.

We hear so often of the children who failed in school who go on to be super successful.  Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Todd Rose I could go on…
 leads me to another book I read this summer is called Square Peg, by Todd Rose.  In this autobiographical work, Rose speaks of his schooling growing up.  He recounts failure after failure in his school career until he ends up a drop out with a dead-end job.  Spoiler alert: (Eventually he realizes that he needs to advance his education in order to make a living for his growing family and he goes back to school.  After many years of hard work he is a successful Professor of Education at Harvard University, and an author of a very engaging book!) 

What do these women in India and Todd Rose have in common?  They each seemed to be on a fairly predictable path towards poverty and struggles but something helped to pull them from this trajectory and into a career of educating others.  Neither of them could have told you in their youth that they would be responsible teachers or professors, professionals or a role model to others.  They were, from an early age, on a trajectory towards failure until some large, unexpected, event threw them out of orbit.

How can we ensure that all children end up on a path like Dr. Rose?  How can we take these children at a young age and ensure success?  Do we risk pigeonholing children at a young age if we knock them off their orbits?  Can we see red flags or early predictors before these failures become reality?  Do we need to reevaluate our educational system to ensure more children end up on the successful path rather than the path of failure?  Should we revert back to an apprenticeship model?  Is there a way to identify children’s strengths earlier in life and allow them to focus on these areas?  Do we sell children short by only ‘generally’ educating them until they are 18 or would forcing them to focus earlier on make them miss out on the ability to flexibly shift later in life?  What is our goal of education?  What do we hope for children to accomplish at the end of middle school? High school? College?

As we start this year, like all years, with a clean slate, I think we need to take a lesson from ourselves in backwards design.  Let’s paint a picture of success and from there work backwards to make our portrait of success in an educated American child.   Let’s ask ourselves these questions about our schools, our classrooms, and our students.  Let’s make sure that Todd Rose or Bill Gates are not exceptions to the rule but true definitions of what it means to be educated in our classrooms.

Friday, May 3, 2013

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Well obviously someone can make this up because they did, but I definitely can’t make it up.  I was browsing the internet (as I so often do) and low and behold this image popped up on my screen.  I couldn’t help but laugh out loud (and email the picture to many of my friends—something I also do often) but then I got to thinking.  Someone is making a business on this.  Someone is selling parents a cover for the swing at the playground and alongside it a healthy helping of fear.  This product is meant to assuage the fear in parents of the notoriously dangerous playground swing.

Parents are so worried about protecting their children that they would purchase an absurd product like a swing protector.   We know parents love their children and want what is best for them, but doesn’t this seem extreme?   It might begin with the swing—or actually the sister product The Shopping Cart Cover—but it quickly turns into ‘that horrible influence on my child’ or ‘the terrible teacher who didn’t push him.’  There are so many horrors out there I can’t even tell you.  As we sit down with parents for parent teacher conferences we need to keep this ‘playground fear’ on our shoulder.

Some teachers think of parent teacher conferences as a time to showcase the growth of their students with the adult partners who love them so dearly.  Others of us teachers dread these conferences, what unexpected horror is going to befall me this year?  Which parents are going to leave thinking I am a horrible teacher?  But we often forget to think about the parents.

Every parent brings something to the table during those conferences.  Kids are about as personal as it gets.  Every critique you have about a child is taken straight to the heart.  Every improvement that is needed is one thing that a parent did ‘wrong.’  Parents see themselves in their children and you have the raw data and the professional opinion that can make or break their life’s work. 

As you sit down in those tiny chairs (come on people, go get the big chairs that are in storage…) remember these vulnerable parents sitting with you.  There is no formula that will guarantee a successful conference, but I believe that taking the perspective of every parent who walks in your room will certainly be a strong start.  Not every parent is there to judge your teaching or your classroom or your grading scale. Every parent, however, loves his child to the point where he would do anything to protect her from the dangers of the world.  Show these parents that you are indeed partners working together to help their child and allow them to resist putting up a barrier—a ridiculous swing cover if you will—between you and their most prized possession.

Happy Conferencing!

Friday, April 26, 2013

You Changed the What?!?!?

We have a constant need to do better—or we should.  If we don’t try and do new things better than last year then we are not ‘good’ teachers.  We become stagnant in our work.  We become the washout of the school, the teacher no parent or kid wants to be subjected to for a whole year… 

It is your first year teaching fifth grade.  You have taught third grade for four years but you are now moving up in the world to fifth grade.  The last fifth grade teacher retired with much fanfare and many tears from adoring students and parents—and look at that here you are. 

The material you received from him was a jumbled mess.  You know there is a method to his madness, but you cannot for the life of you figure it out.  You do see the big file called “State Projects.”  Youknow about these state projects, they are famous, legendary.  Fifth graders have been completing them for centuries.  There are model projects in this folder from at least 10 different years!  As you plod through the planning of the year you realize a really cool way to integrate this years state project with your science unit.  ‘This is going to be so cool.’ You think to yourself.  In fact, it takes the project to a whole new level.  You spend months building it up in your head and in the minds of your students.  They cannot wait to start.  Finally, in February, you hand out the assignment, rubric, and timeline.  The students have to bring it home to review with their parents and bring it back with a signature that they all understand what is expected. 

Monday morning one student brings it back with a post-it note from his mother “I would really like to speak with you about this project.” The note says.  An email is waiting in your inbox from another parent about your ‘new idea.’  And yet another approaches you at pickup.  The message is the same from each of them:

How can you change this treasured tradition of the fifth grade project?

By now, I am sure you have a similar story from your own experience in mind.  Whether it is changing an assessment, book choice, unit of study, or routine I am sure you have heard people resistant to your change.  Change is uncomfortable, it is unsettling but yet we know we need to keep evolving to thrive in our jobs.

How can we reach a balance with this tension?  When do we need to drop what is comfortable for something new and challenging?  When do we need to maintain routine and structure for the sake of our classes and ourselves?

I think we need to ask ourselves the biggest question of ‘why?’

In the scenario I painted above the new teacher had a need that she was trying to meet.  She was entering a world of unknown trying to make sense for herself—to own the classroom she was about to guide.  Her need was strong and real and she wouldn’t have been able to teach the students well if she didn’t feel in control of the classroom material.  Had she just taken over the jumble of files her year would have been a jumble of lessons. 

Many new teachers starting out feel one of two things.  One new teacher needs to prove to herself and to those around her that she can ‘do it on her own.’  She wants to separate herself from the person who had been there before and prove that she is just as worthy of the position if not more.  She may abandon what has worked in the past for the sake of being ‘different, innovative, creative.’  The other new teacher clings on to what he has seen.  He anchors himself in the known even if he knows it isn’t was is best for his students.  He knows what he would like to do, but is uncomfortable making any changes for fear of failure.

As you can imagine, neither of these teachers are ideal.  As with almost everything in life we teachers need to balance.  We need to balance the old with the new, the innovative and the routine and most importantly we constantly need to be asking ourselves ‘Why am I really doing this?  Is it best for my students?’

So let’s go back to our new fifth grade teacher.  Was she wrong to change the project?  Is she expecting too much changing this beloved project too soon?

She needs to listen to the parents and understand that change is hard and uncomfortable but ultimately if she can answer the ‘why’ with confidence and compassion she is off to a successful start.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring has Sprung

It is spring! (sort of)  Although the weather may not be cooperating, in the life of a school it is definitely spring.  Children know it, parents know it, and we as teachers definitely know it.  Springtime in schools is when we begin to think about next year.  What will I be teaching?  Who will be in my class?  Will I be in the same grade?  Will I have to start a new math curriculum—again?  I want to challenge you to also ask yourself this spring: “What can I do better next year?”

It is very easy to get stuck in a rut.  When we find something that works, we often stick to it, and move on to ‘fix’ something different that needs fixing.  We never revisit the first fix and it just becomes something we do because it works.

I recently visited a beginning teacher’s High School English class.  She had never taught the Great Gatsby before, but she told me she wasn’t at all concerned about beginning the unit.  Curiously, I wondered why she felt so confident about this book.  “Well I still have my notes from tenth grade.” She told me. 

You may be laughing--even outloud--at this naïve comment, but this new teacher is not alone.
Ever met a fifth grade teacher who is suddenly shifted to kindergarten because the numbers have shifted in the school?  Ever been handed a ‘brand new amazing’ curriculum in August and told that you need to teach it? 

We are often thrown into situations that we are ill prepared for, sometimes we know how little we know and sometimes we don’t.  The new teachers’ naïveté is humorous, but her situation is not unique.
So lets go back to those ruts I was talking about before.  I can picture this new teacher in five years. 
In one scenario she is still using her tenth grade notes to teach the Great Gatsby.  She is clinging to what she knows and what feels comfortable no matter the value.  I can see that fifth grade teacher who is now a kindergarten teacher still adapting her fifth grade routines and activities for her younger version of her former students.   

The next scenario shows a fifth year teacher who has reevaluated the way she teaches different units.  She has a method and a philosophy that she applies to every book she has her students read.  She is ready to tackle any new piece of literature that may come her way because teaching literature is an art form.  The kindergarten teacher has a shelf filled with literature on early childhood education.  She has an early childhood guru who she often turns to with new ideas she has been wondering about. 

So here we sit at the beginning of Spring, counting the days until summer vacation.  We are all thinking about next year and what new challenges it will bring.  I want to challenge you to take this opportunity to also think about how you are going to tackle these new obstacles in a strategic and proactive manner so that next year you will be able to answer the question

“What am I doing better this year?”

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Luxury of Time

This past week a brave new teacher opened his ninth grade all-boys classroom to myself and a group of other experienced teachers (the brave part is the all boys 9th grade, not necessarily the team of teachers who joined!).  The veteran teachers and I split the task of observation, each taking another area of classroom life to watch as the new teacher was going about his day.  A subject matter expert paid close attention to the delivery of the material, another mentor watched the students for ‘on-task’ and ‘off-task’ behavior trying to capture what happened before and after each instance, and I focused mainly on who was doing the intellectual work at any given moment in the class. 

These three areas of focus were all of interest to the new teacher so we decided to divide and conquer.
After the 42 minute observation (A huge shout out to the scheduling masters in each building I work with) the veteran teachers and I sat down to debrief our observations.  It took us 45 minutes to prepare a reflection for the new teacher that one of the veterans—the new teacher’s mentor—was going to deliver on our behalf. 

During our debrief, the other veteran teachers and I each tried to address what we saw in the new teacher’s class.  We were focused on presenting evidence, and backing up opinions with data.  We had some healthy debate about the interpretations of our data, and we saw different areas of focus for the new teacher.

So you may ask, why did we spend so much time focusing on one lesson and one new teacher?  What did we gain?

Well first off, I think the new teacher gained a lot from our observation.  He got to see his classroom through our eyes, and understood that our observation was to help him think about growing in his practice, not about judging his classroom. 

The veterans and I learned a great deal about our own teaching.  We were pushed to think ‘how would I do that differently,’ ‘what do I do that he doesn’t do,’ and even ‘I never thought of doing it that way, it is so much more effective.’  (All of these are comments I thought about during my observation). 
What was also incredibly valuable was the time afterwards to debrief.  We really gave ourselves time to be openly reflective about what we saw in the classroom.  We pushed one another to use evidence, and point to the facts.  We backed one another up with anecdotes from other parts of the lesson.  We were all in all colleagues.           

I realize that time is truly a luxury in schools.  We are all pressed for time, trying to make every second count and there truly isn’t enough time to accomplish all that we want.  But I cannot say enough about the value of a splurge.  These veterans and I really overindulged in this luxurious conversation in which we really took the time that was needed to learn to better our own observation practice.  I recognize that we can’t do this every week, but I also know that we cannot afford to never do it again.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Let it Snow

So I am on a roll here talking about books I have read/am reading.  I recently just picked up a book called “Free Range Kids” which came out of a popular blog with the same name.  The book is really geared towards parents with helpful tips about letting our caged children run free.  It is filled with facts and advice such as “Drop your third or fourth grade child and a friend at an ice cream store with money for sundaes.  Pick them up in half an hour.”  There is even has an encyclopedia in the back of the book entitled “Safe or Not? The A-Z Review of Everything you Might be Worried About.”  Which includes ‘metal bats,’ (I’m assuming of the baseball kind) ‘death by stroller’ and ‘eating snow.’


As I sit here in Boston looking out my window at the snowy landscape (in early March) I am drawn to this last bit about snow.  Everyone who grew up in certain parts of this country (and many other countries of the world) has a childhood story or two about snow.  There is something magical about the break in pace, and the change of landscape.  I remember waking up in the morning only to realize school was canceled and I was going to be able to spend the entire day outside (I did indeed eat snow—usually with maple syrup on top).   I remember walking up that terribly steep hill pulling my sled behind me, and the rush of the snow on my face as I sped back down.  I don’t, however, remember playing in the snow at school.  I can’t imagine that it never happened, but I just don’t remember it.

This past week many schools in New England had school despite the white stuff falling from the sky.  Yesterday I heard a kid saying that “this was the best recess we have EVER had” when he came back in from 45 mintues of playing in the snow with his classmates.  The little kids spent the entire recess body sledding down a big hill of cleared parking lot snow.  You just can’t beat it!

It is easy for us adults to be annoyed at the streets, the fact that we have to stand outside for outdoor recess, or the hour of our cancelation call.  We may even worry about the safety of our students eating the snow, or staying outside too long.  But before we do, lets just step back and remember the magic of it all—and maybe, if you can let our inner child out for just a minute you can  have a little taste of the snow yourself (I highly recommend adding some warm maple syrup).