Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Unexamined Life #edchat

Socrates has been credited with uttering the phrase, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This is an expression I have discussed many times with my good friend and fellow educator Chad Miller. In our many conversations we come back to the understanding that in life, reflection is crucial to growth and evolution of one’s being. As the new school year is fully upon us, with me in a new role, I think it has a lot of implications in my personal and professional life.

I see many people who do not examine anything in their life. That is not a criticism as much as it is an observation. One could argue in order to examine your own life one needs to be reflective. Reflection can take many forms but one is that of a critical eye. One must be willing to consume information and reflect on its contents and not lose sight of the bias, intent, source, and reliability. For example, I recently engaged with a family member on a well-known social media site. I should know better but sometimes there is nothing on TV and you feel like engaging in a heated discussion online. :) This individual was sharing content that was clearly biased and pushing an extreme political agenda that was completely false and inaccurate. While I am not going to engage in the politics of the content, the conversation was what mattered. I questioned the individual and engaged in a conversation about the source, intent, and validity of the content being shared. Admittedly, this individual eventually relented and claimed they just shared what they saw on their feed and assumed it to be true. Socrates would be rolling in his grave.

To connect this notion to the work we do in schools, I wonder how many of our educational lives are examined. I don’t mean examined by an administrator as we all know those are often more about completing documents than they are about teaching competence or true reflection. The truly examined life is one in constant reflection and struggling to find the path to improvement and self-evolution. I have always believed that if a teacher doesn’t see the need for growth in themselves, they are already a lost cause. Everyone has a space for growth and for the sake of their students, they need to improve. Everything we do in school should be examined, from the policies we enforce and the lessons we teach to the spaces we create and the people we hire.

Educators of high-quality are very reflective and teach the examined life. They are never content and always looking for ways to improve what they do and how they do it. Stagnation is the death of an examined life. Even more so, these teachers are the ones that instill this belief in their students. A reflective outlook on life is critical and maybe more so now than ever. We live in an age of information overload and content fire-hosing us all the time. It is imperative we are critical consumers and examine, reflect and analyze everything we come across. If we don't, we fall into the trap of believing everything we see and everything we hear and assume it is the truth. Worse is by not living the examined life we will fail to evolve which inherently perpetuates the status quo and antiquated thinking that prohibits growth and self-improvement. It is in this way that stereotypes are reinforced, that belief systems continue in antiquated fashions, and people never evolve or change.

Live and teach the examined life as that is our only hope of growth and evolving past the culture of ignorance, stagnation, and mediocrity which we can so often find ourselves in.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rose by Any Other Name

This month I officially started the next step in my teaching career. I have taken the position of Library Resource Center Director in the junior high which I have taught in for the past 13 years. Now some people might wonder, “What is a Library Resource Center Director and what do they do?” Basically, I am the school librarian. It really is as simple as that.

For some reason, schools are constantly changing the titles of individuals and programs. In some cases, I think it's to break away from old mentalities or ways of doing things. My own district is looking to rebrand the library space and create what will eventually be known as Learning Commons. I will then be known as the Learning Commons Director or some other variation. Apparently, schools don’t want librarians anymore. Or at least they no longer want a school librarian that sits at their desk and barks at kids about overdue library books or tells them to take their food and drink elsewhere. I am all about changing the role of the school librarian and creating a position that is more relevant to today’s schools and more specifically tailored to today’s student needs.

The problem I am seeing with this trend of new titles and positions is that it distracts from the work being done. What I mean by this is I think about William Shakespeare and the phrase “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. No matter what you call a position or a title or a program, it all comes down to the work being done. I fear far too many people are obsessing over what we title things and not enough time focusing on what we're doing. We see principals being called “lead learners” and yet doing the same thing principals have always done. Yet we all feel better with these new titles and shiny hashtags.

Rather than worry about what we call people or what their titles are maybe we should focus on the work being done. For me, I am a librarian. My job is to provide services and resources for students and teachers in numerous capacities. A librarian does check out books. They also manage resources that are increasing in amount and digital capacity. In addition, they teach classes and co-teach with other teachers. They provide professional development on literacy, science, math, technology or any other area in which there is a need. If you are lucky like me, you also manage a video production lab and eventually a robotics center.

My goal, among many other this year, is to not be defined by the title I am given but rather the work that I do. Many people have asked me if I went into this new position to get out of the classroom. They wonder if I'm trying to avoid the myriad of initiatives and new programs and expectations that are being piled on classroom teachers. Some think I'm just tired of working with kids and therefore I can go and hide in the library at my desk. None of these are true. I expect to be working with more kids, more regularly and on a deeper level than I ever have before. I also know that I will be providing more support and resources for staff than I ever could before as a classroom teacher. If this first month on the job is any indication, I am in for a long and busy year working with kids and teachers.

Yes, I realize there are stigma and stereotypes that I will need to overcome. My goal is to not do that with a new title or by trying to tell people what I'm going to do but rather just do it and let them see it in action.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Too Much Differentiation

Differentiation is nothing new but certainly a topic of discussion in many school faculty, department and PLC meetings. Teachers are constantly being asked to differentiate everything in their classrooms. This ranges from lessons and activities to furniture and assessments. The goal of differentiation is to create a more personalized learning experience for each child and create optimal opportunities for rich learning experiences. On the surface this sounds like a great idea and naturally would be in the best interest of all kids. But is it really?

As a classroom teacher you will have anywhere from 20 to 35 individual students in your classroom. They will range spectrums of cognitive ability, maturity, academic skills, hygienic awareness and many other personal characteristics. Naturally, this makes the task of attempting to differentiate for them all quite daunting. In doing so, or at least doing it poorly, I worry we may be watering down the learning for all students.

Have we gotten to a point where we want things so differentiated that in turn the quality of the learning is diminished? Teachers are spending hours trying to create a variety of learning activities but is the end result better learning? Far too often differentiation is done in a manner to help those students who struggle in our classrooms. As a result, the higher performing students are far too often left unchallenged and quickly become bored. I don’t blame teachers for this because in our test obsessed school culture the focus is almost exclusively on bringing the “bottom up”. On top of that, if we are being honest, there are more resources and support to help that population of students than there is to enrich those on the other end of the spectrum.

Another concern with differentiation is the manner in which our classrooms are set up. Class lists are generated based on a “born on date” that ignore the nuance and complexities of child development. As a result, our classrooms have such a range that it is impossible for one teacher to achieve a truly differentiated learning experience. There is just not enough teacher to go around. I recognize teachers have little to no control over this system, but it is a reality we must recognize.

My final concern looks at how much and what we differentiate. Teachers have become very good at providing choice, autonomy and modifying work so that all learners can access content. However, at times I wonder if in doing this we take away student’s opportunity to struggle and build skills such as resilience and perseverance. While I don’t want kids to struggle to the point of frustration, we need to make sure the end goal of differentiation is not to make learning easy for kids and provide every kid with the “easy A”. I myself have been guilty of stepping in too early when a kid struggles and not let them work through things like I know I should.

There are certainly solutions out there to these and many of the other concerns with differentiation. First, some will suggest we need to create more homogeneous classrooms which will make the spectrum more narrow and therefore easier to differentiate. I would caution against this as nearly all research indicates the positive learning and social benefits of heterogenous classrooms rich with diversity. For me, the solution is, as it often is to problems in schools, we need more teachers. Give every classroom teacher more sets of hands to help differentiate and support kids. Bring in parents and community volunteers to do reading groups or projects with kids. Hire more teaching assistants and co-teachers to maximize the abilities of the classroom teacher to support all learners.

Differentiation can be a game changer for kids and can provide authentic and personalized learning experiences for kids. However, if it is not supported or seen as only a way to bring the “bottom up”, it will fail and likely cause damage to the learning environment for all students.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Next Step

For the past 13 years I’ve taught junior high students English and History. As I walked out of the school building this week after the final day of school something was different. In the fall, I will not be returning to the classroom where I have spent countless hours trying to motivate students to learn and grow as people. Instead, I will be taking over as our school’s Learning Commons Director. Yes, I will be the school librarian. Please, insert cardigan sweater and reading glasses chain jokes now. :) As news of this broke with my students and community I was met with a variety of reactions.

“Did you get demoted?” a friend who is not a teacher asked me.

“Why would you do that? You are too good of a teacher to be a librarian.” a student shared with me.

“So, you want to sit down all day, read books and yell at kids for talking in the library?” mentioned a colleague.

These reactions and responses caused me to have mixed emotions. On one level I have a sense of guilt about leaving the classroom. I know I shouldn't, but in some way I do. Parents of my current students have reached out expressing a let down because their younger children will not have me as a teacher. Many of my current students were in shock and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. I tried to explain to them I will still be a teacher but with a much bigger classroom. But as 12 year olds, they didn’t quite get it. So I know I shouldn’t feel the guilt, but it is there.

On another level these reactions show me I have some work to do to change perceptions. Whether it's with my colleagues, my friends, or students, I want to change how they view the library space and what happens there. I am guilty of this perception issue as well when I was telling people about my new role. I was trying to come up with other names or terms for what I was going to be doing. I told people I was going to be a director of the learning services in my school. I told some people I was going to be a technology integrator and media specialist. I made up lots of different terms and definitions about the job that I was going to be doing. I think the reason I did that is because the term “librarian” traditionally has a stigma attached to it that I don't want. I am not going to be the old man in the library barking at kids about overdue books and spending my days at my desk making sure everyone's quiet.

Yes, I'm going to be the school librarian next year but my role will be so much more than the keeper of books and collector of fines. My district is rebranding and shifting the role of the library and creating what will be called Learning Commons. This is an intentional shift in the how these spaces will look and operate across the district. In my new role I will be the director of this space and everything that happens within it. I will be planning and leading professional development for staff. I will be teaching students and providing learning opportunities ranging from class projects and research to breakout EDUs and a makerspace. I will also be redesigning the space to encourage and promote learning beyond the traditional mindset into a more innovative and flexible learning environment. Yes, I will also be checking out books. :) These new learning commons will be the hub of activity and learning in our buildings and I am looking forward to being at the center of it all.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Failure to Change

If you read enough tweets, blog posts, education books or attend enough conferences you will likely come across many people who claim to have it all figured out. They will tell you schools are broken and the system needs to be changed. In some cases they'll go so far as to say the entire institution of public education needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Some of the less dramatic ones will speak about how teachers need to do more to initiate change in their classrooms. They will insist that innovation, creativity, risk-taking and failure are things all teachers should be doing, pushing and encouraging in their classrooms. While in many regards I agree with those sentiments and believe change is possible, I think we need to take a heavy dose of reality with these thoughts. Many of the people pushing forth these ideas about teachers needing to step up are not in schools themselves and lack the context or perspective of what it is actually like in a school. What’s worse is often these individuals will blame the teachers for their failure to change.

Personally, I have been fortunate to work in an environment where I have been allowed a lot of room and space to be innovative and creative. I have been provided opportunities to push back on status quo and try new things I felt were in the best interest of the students in my classroom. Having said that, I am not naive enough to think that the situation I am in is one many teachers find themselves in. Countless teachers can not push back or challenge the status quo. Many teachers have nearly no freedom to be creative or innovative and instead are stuck following very rigid protocols, curricula or are micromanaged to death. While it may be easy to blame these teachers for their failure to change, it is not that simple. What I have found in these situations is far too often the lack of change stems from a lack of leadership. Whether it's a building principal or a district curriculum coordinator or possibly even the superintendent, a culture of conformity or stagnation is typically cultural from the top down.

The harsh reality is some environments will not allow, let alone encourage, these out-of-the-box thinkers in classrooms. While I agree with the sentiment of teachers pushing back, challenging the status quo and being revolutionary in their thinking, we need to be realistic. At the end of the day if you have an administrator who doesn't encourage or even allow this, it simply will not happen. If it does happen it will require a massive amount of work and effort on behalf of the teacher. It may also require some subversion and asking for forgiveness. I have seen some of the most dynamic creative and innovative teachers burned out and even run out of schools by overbearing and micromanaging administrators. I have even seen teachers try to leave or transfer out of a particular school only to have their efforts torpedoed by their current administration.

I wholeheartedly believe we need change and revolution of ideas in schools. In addition, I have always believed lasting and impactful change must be initiated from the classroom level. Yet, I think we would be shortsighted if we fail to recognize the influence administration has on this culture of change. It is very easy to say teachers should push back and change the ways they are doing things in their classrooms. But the harsh reality is even those that really want to often find themselves in situations where they can not. A failure to change is far too often a reflection of the leadership in a building of district and not that of the teacher in the classroom.