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.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Questions We Ask

The other day my son was on the phone with his aunt. It was a pretty typical conversation of how are things going and various topics of small talk. When my son told her he had played a soccer game that afternoon the first question she asked was, “did you score a goal”. I'm not sure why that question struck me as funny because it is a question that my sons have been asked for as long as they have played soccer. They have talked to grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors and almost every time the first question asked is, “did you score a goal” followed shortly by “did you win?” When my boys have a swim meet it is often a similar question of did you win your heat. I think many parents could fill in their own version of this conversation regardless of the sport or activity. 

I am probably guilty of the same line of questioning with my own sons as well as neighbors and nephews. Yet for some reason I couldn't shake that question from my head. More importantly I couldn't shake the implication of that always being the question that we ask. By doing this are we always putting the emphasis on winning and being the goal scorer? Does it take the emphasis away from having fun and enjoying the sport? I know my youngest son from time to time will get down on himself even if his team wins if he was not able to contribute with a scoring effort. He is also the one that will get down on himself if he doesn't win a swimming heat. I can't help but think the adults in his life, myself included, are contributing to this problem. We have put so much emphasis in our society and in our culture on winning that enjoyment and fun have taken a backseat. This is especially true in the world of youth sports.

I think there is a direct relationship between this phenomenon and what happens in schools. If they are in athletics or musical competitions they are often asked about their performances in terms of wins or rankings. In addition to ranking and placements, we are also constantly asking kids about their grades, GPAs, class ranks or even their baggie book level. Many early elementary readers are ranked by numbers on books or lexiles. I wonder if we are again doing the same thing in schools we are doing in youth sports by putting the emphasis on such things.

Can we change the conversations we have with our children and our students? Can we ask them if they had fun? Can we ask them if they are enjoying the activity or the learning they are engaged in? Can we ask them what they're learning instead of how their grades are? I worry often as I did when my son was having this conversation on the phone that the focus for too many children is on winning and beating somebody else.  How can we shift our focus away from rankings and placements and towards fun, personal growth and learning? I think the simple answer may be with the questions we ask our children. If we know our questions illustrate our values to kids, we need to be intentional and purposeful in our questions. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Love of Learning

More than once I have heard the phrase, “these kids are just lazy and not motivated anymore”. In fact, I have said that very phrase out loud a few times and thought it dozens more. Classrooms are often filled with children not interested in what is being taught and completely disengaged from the learning taking place. It is very easy to come to a conclusion that “kids these days” are just not interested or motivated to learn. However, that could not be further from the truth. In fact, I would argue kids are actually highly engaged and interested in learning, just not what we are teaching.

Recently my youngest son has started taking piano lessons. It was something he was interested in doing and we found a local high school student who gave lessons and signed him up. To say he is enjoying it would be an understatement. Every morning before he has brushed his teeth or put on pants, he is down practicing his scales and songs. The moment he gets off the bus, often before his afternoon snack, he is on the piano playing and practicing. He is in love with learning how to play the piano and we’re not even forcing him or asking him to play.

My older son obsesses over soccer. He watches it every possible second I will let him turn the television on. He learns about every single player on Arsenal, his current favorite team, and is watching their moves and the the way in which the teams play the game. He is learning everything and anything he can and then goes to the backyard and tries it out. Granted he has picked up some of their dramatic flair and diving abilities, the fact remains that he is learning and loving every minute of it.

I watch my sons in both of these instances and many others and know beyond a shadow of a doubt they love learning. Yet, most days when they bring home school work, they don't have that same approach or same attitude. There are occasions when they are doing a project or unit in school which gets them fired up. Those are great days because I don’t have to work so hard to convince them they “need to learn this stuff”. I wish my kids, and all students would have more days in which they come flying off the school bus excited about something they’ve learned at school that day. I'm not going to say kids need to love every single activity and topic they learn in school. But shouldn't they enjoy learning most or at least more of it? Should learning always be a task or a burden on them?

This has me reflecting a great deal on the work I do as a history teacher. History is often one of those subjects that you either love or hate. I think it is safe to say the number of those who love it is far less than those who hate it. As a result I'm often trying to find ways to get kids excited and engaged in learning the content of the ancient world. This is a tough job as many students could care less about the impact of the Punic Wars on the development of the Roman Empire and Europe.

There are many ways in which we try to hook our students into content and get them engaged. Great teachers use choice, autonomy and fun as ways to do this. Sometimes those things are enough and other times, they fall short. However, I wonder if it is time to move past looking at how we are teaching and evaluate what we are teaching. Yes, I know we are all bound to standards at some level or another. Yet, is there space for schools to create more classes and spaces built completely around student interest and passion? Can we dial back our obsession over higher test scores in reading and math and instead invest in differentiated scheduling and class offerings for kids?

Why not take time off class periods or learning blocks and dedicate that time to an elective class built specifically for individual or small groups of students? Can we minimize the amount of district and state mandated assessments and instead create more time for kids to take part in interest based learning activities? What about having students teach classes based on things they are interested in or have a level of expertise in? There are many options and ways in which we can get kids excited about learning in school again beyond just a single day or hour.

Everyday I watch my sons playing, reading, or building and I know they love learning. I believe all children have that same love of learning fueled by a natural curiosity. The problem is far too often what the schools are teaching is not in line with those interests or curiosities. While we still need to motivate students to learn content important for their future, we may need to evaluate what we are teaching or possibly our allocation of time. In doing so we could be providing more space and opportunities to spark the learning flame that is far too often extinguished in school.