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.

Monday, May 16, 2016

End of the Year

It is that time of year again. The weather is turning nicer. The days are longer. There's the smell of young children still not yet understanding the need and value of deodorant and personal hygiene in the halls. Yes, I'm referring to the end of the year in schools across the country. It is often the time that teachers try their best to keep a lid on things. For some it's survival mode as they get to the end of the year. For students, as I remember very well, it is filled with excitement about a summer full of fun and adventures. However, for some reason there are things about the end of the school year that I've never quite understood and never quite agreed with. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy having my summers off to travel and spend time with my family. Yet, I think we need to look at how we end our school years.

For starters there is nothing worse than walking down the halls of a school and seeing movies being played in every classroom. While I love a good Disney flick as much as the next teacher, there might be better ways to keep kids attention in those final days. Along those same lines, I wonder about why we hold all of the fun and cool projects and activities for the end of the year. I myself have been very guilty of this every single year I have taught. I think about all the really cool things we do with the students at the end of the year. We build catapults. We make movies. We have the annual “Dead Man’s Bracket Challenge” in my class which is always a hit. We do all these great projects and cool activities that all of the kids enjoy. Why can't we do these things all year or at least spread them out throughout the entire school year?

Another concern I have about the end of the school year is when we start closing up shop early. We have libraries and tech centers close well before the end of the school year. We have specials that shut down and turn kids away before the end of the school year. We have equipment being collected and resources turned in well before the end of the school year. We even have teachers who take down their rooms and remove content and decorations and resources well before the end of the school year. Why not have a teacher institute on the last day so that people have time to do all of those things? Would it not be best to have instruction and learning activities right up through the last day of school? While I understand logistics of many of these things, what message do we send when things “finish up” before the end of the school year?

Another thing that I've always been bothered by the countdowns that you see on bulletin boards and in classrooms. Why should we be celebrating and counting down to time off? Are schools that painful and horrible that we should be counting down until we get out? That sounds like something an inmate in prison would be doing. Why not have a countdown to the first day of school for the next year. If you're in 3rd grade why not countdown until the first day of your 4th grade year? Would that shift the focus on moving forward rather than ending? On top of that I think we fail to realize for some kids summer is not a good time. For some kids summer is when they don't have a safety net. They don't have a school to go to for safety and love or even food. For them that countdown is not at all a positive. When we do countdowns we send the message that we can't wait for the end of school year. Is that what we want?

Like I said, I look forward to the summer’s off as much as the next teacher as it means a time of recharging, reflecting and adventures with my family. Yet, as we wind down the school year, we need to think about what we do and how we do it. More importantly we need to think about the message it sends to our students.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Trending Fads

Lots of people talk about trends and fads in education. There is always a discussion about which ones will stick around and stand the test of time. Most educators find themselves on one end of these discussions. On one hand you have the educators who are skeptical of any new idea or product. They are often traditionalists who think that if it is always worked then why change anything. We all know who these teachers are as they often sit in the back of staff meetings rolling their eyes and scoffing at anything new being shared. On the other side you have those that get excited when anything new comes about. They are the early adopters and easily excited by shiny and new like Tommy Boy with a new sale. :) Yes, there are those that find themselves somewhere in the middle but generally speaking most educators find themselves on one of these two extremes. This is not just a technology thing but with any new idea developed or suggested.

Over the past several years we have seen numerous new “things” created, shared and pushed across the education landscape. We have new devices, Learning Management Systems, flipped classrooms, makerspaces, project-based learning, and many other ideas and products we could list. When any of these ideas of products come out there is always the debate over which ones are worth investing time or money in based on a projection of what will last. Teachers don’t want to waste time learning something or buying something that won’t be there next year or even next week.

I think about all of these new ideas and someone recently asked me if I had an opinion on which ones would last. The discussion was about which ideas were fads and which were trends likely to change the way we do education. After thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter. We obsess over which ones will last and which ones won't but at the end of the day does it really matter? If you take any one of these new ideas, devices or products and it helps kids in your class, does it matter if it's a trend or a fad? Is it possible that the flipped classroom or a Chromebook or possibly project-based learning really connects and works with your students this year but falls short next year?

At the end of the day realize what your students need and provide that for them. Regardless of if the idea or device was created last week or last decade, it shouldn't matter. What should matter is the impact these practices have on our students. If something is going to help your student learn better or improve as a human being then who cares if it's a trend or a fad. There is a flawed assumption that new inherently means better. That is just not true. Maybe we need to stop obsessing over defining such things and just focus on what works for our students today while recognizing that it may very well not work for them tomorrow.