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.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Horses to Water

I think it is safe to assume most people have heard the phrase “you can lead the horse to water but you can't make it drink.” As teachers we do a lot of leading horses to water. In addition, we do a fair amount of herding kittens but that is a topic for another time. We do everything we can to help our students. Not so long ago, a struggling student was written off as a failure or somebody who just wasn't trying hard enough. They were viewed as lazy or in some crueler spaces labeled as just dumb. Nowadays we are able to analyze and identify learning disabilities and a whole host of root causes to student’s lack of success in school.  We can then take these learning discrepancies and potentially negative influences on students’ learning and target interventions to help them. The depth and breadth of interventions available to teachers to help students really is amazing. In other words, we have lots of tools at our disposal to help our horses drink. 

However, the reality is some horses just won't drink. There are some students that we just can't move or help or change. Often times this is due to an ingrained belief system, culture, or way of life the student has had a lifetime of experience with. No matter how much we support kid, if there is not a supportive network in their lives outside of school there's only so much we can do. If they have a lifetime of influence telling them the “water” is poisoned there is little we will do to change that way of thinking. There are certainly exceptions to this but it is sadly too often a reality.

This is not to say we give up on a kid because we never will. However, far too many teachers feel as though they need to be a martyr. Or better yet they are the saint that is going to save a child as if they need to be saved. We have to be willing to understand and accept we can't help them all. We will try and not give up but not all horses will drink the water. 

Other horses don’t drink because the water we are serving is not the water they need. This brings up the question about the role of school in its traditional sense. Simply put, schools are not providing for all kids what they need. Naturally this can be broken down to micro details, but the reality is school is not for every kid and yet we force all kids into the same general programs.  We all have students who we know school is not working for and we can’t try to push it on them. We have to allow them to navigate the content at their own pace and support their growth as a person which will serve them far greater in there life than some prescribed content. 

Maybe we need to ease up on trying to think we can get all horses to drink the water and possible shift our thinking. We need to stop beating ourselves up and trying to become martyrs for the sake of our students. As teachers, we will do anything and everything we can to help a kid. Yet, the reality is we have to recognize it won’t work for every single one of them. We don’t have to like that or be ok with it but we have to accept it. Instead, let us celebrate those that do buy in and engage in school and support those that don't by providing them options to the “water” in our schools. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Grains of Salt

For quite a while now I have been a big advocate for teachers using social media. Specifically, I have encouraged the use of Twitter as a way to build strong professional learning networks. I know for me Twitter allowed me to make some very strong professional and personal connections. These connections have been a huge asset in my growth as an educator. Having said that, I feel as though new users and some veteran users of social media need to take things with a grain of salt. The reason I say that is you can't take anything at face value and should keep a skeptical eye out.

For starters, much of what you see on social media is the "best" and is highly biased. People are tweeting and posting about their best lessons, their best classes and their best days. You don't often see the sometimes ugly, messy or painful work we do as educators. If failures or “bad” content is shared, it is done is a way to attempt to garner positive attention or gain pity. In other words, people are not often sharing the days they lose it on a kid or a situation. They're not jumping out to post a vine of the lesson that went horribly wrong. Administrators are sharing great pictures of their schools’ work but fail to mention the irate parent or disgruntled board member they often deal with. This is not to say the negativity needs to be shared but we need to be mindful of this reality. Far too often people see other people's work and feel inadequate. Many teachers feel they cannot measure up to those who are sharing and posting all of these seemingly amazing things on social media. Just remember they're sharing their absolute best from a biased point of view and those individuals likely share the same frustrations and tough times as you.

Another aspect of social media which has become quite popular is the use of absolutes. People are spouting off about how all teachers should 100% do “this” or should never do “that”. I have been told I am a bad teacher if I lecture, use worksheets, assign homework or don’t use Minecraft. Now to be fair, I have shared what could be considered borderline absolutes specifically around the notion of homework. Yet, I fear that the use of absolutes when it comes to just about anything in education is an easy way out. It is far easier to make a blanket statement than engage in critical thinking aimed at understanding the very nuance embedded in the work we do. Outside of avoiding cafeteria food nearing an extended holiday break as freezers are being cleaned out, absolutes should rarely be used.

The final piece that I caution social media users on is the so-called experts telling you how to do your job. There are some incredibly outgoing and in some cases pushy individuals in these social media spaces. They are constantly telling teachers things they should do or should not do. They use passive aggressive tactics or are even out right demeaning of teachers in an effort to get them to do something. Yet a simple click on their biography will illustrate they are not in fact classroom teachers or school administrators themselves. That is not to say we can't learn and grow from those not in a classroom. That is not it at all. I greatly value the insights and opinions of those with a variety of perspectives both in and out of the classroom. However, always be skeptical of somebody telling you how to do your job when they are in fact not doing your job.

I will continue to encourage teachers to use Twitter and other social media sites. I stand behind the notion they are good for building connections while learning and growing in a community. However, I do so with a bit of hesitation and ask that all users, new and old, take it all in with a grain of salt.

Friday, November 20, 2015

I'm Not Resigning

There has been a lot of talk about the viral teacher resignations floating around online. I myself have recently engaged in conversations with fellow teachers who have said they are thinking about resigning or retiring as soon as possible. Even more are the individuals who say they would never recommend their children or their neighbor’s children to go into the teaching profession. 

Many of these people make statements like, “It's not what it used to be”. “Kids have changed”. “Parents don't support our schools”. “There is no funding and Common Core is killing our kids”. The list of reasons to not go into teaching are pretty long and are often the same reasons people leave the classroom. 

The simple act of teaching is often being suffocated by meetings and administrator initiatives. What was once an art and craft has in some places become cold and calculated all the while being driven by data. There is less emotion and more calculation in the profession. In the short 13 years that I've been teaching, I have seen these things. As a result I am asked if I would recommend someone going into the teaching profession. I have thought long and hard about this because I do have reservations. 

Teaching isn't what it used to be. Yet as I thought about it, I realized teaching shouldn't be what it used to be. Society has changed, regardless of if we think that is a good or a bad thing. Kids have changed. Families have changed. So it only seems natural that teaching should change as well. Teachers are being held to a higher standard and held more accountable for every child's education. I'm trying to see why that's a bad thing. Granted, I am not in agreement on how measuring this is being done, but the reality is improvement is a good thing.

As I was reflecting on this notion of resigning or not going into teaching, I received an email. The email was from a student I had in my first two years of teaching. She was nearing graduation in a teacher prep program and had to interview a teacher who had inspired her to become a teacher herself. As I read her comments and reflections, I knew without a doubt that I would recommend anybody to enter our profession. People like to say teachers teach everybody. We teach the future doctors, the future mechanics, the future presidents and the future corporate giants. We teach them all. 

Yet, we don’t teach with the intention of creating future greatness. We simply teach to inspire them to find whatever potential greatness may be hidden inside. If a student is able to find their passion and are inspired to find their life’s work, that is all we can hope for as teachers. Reading the letter from that former student about her aspirations to become an educator removed all doubt about the profession I have chosen. It forced me to reflect on why I chose the profession I did and also feel really good about the impact I had made on that one student. It is in those moments that I know I would recommend a career in education to everyone. 

Actually, I take that back. I don't recommend everyone go into teaching because not everyone can do what we do. Not everyone can inspire, motivate and empower children like we do. Not everyone can shape the course of a community like teachers do. Maybe we should be thanking all of those educators who are resigning and retiring or choosing a different career path.  Just maybe, at the end of the day, people who aren't sure about their choice are probably not the ones we want working with our children anyway. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Change Won't Happen

Lots of people are talking about the need for change in education. Some people may go so far as to say we need a revolution. ;) Many people think they know the answer about how education needs to change. The ideas and potential fixes range far and wide with each a self proclaimed game changer. Entire school systems are being created around these notions and many of these reforms or shifts are being held in high regard by many within education circles. Yet, nothing has really stuck and created the wholesale shift or change in thinking about how school happens in the US that many argue we need. 

Rather then thinking about what changes need to be made to the system, I am wondering if systemic change is even possible. Can change happen in our schools? Is changing the system of American education at a system level likely to happen anytime soon? Could a strong argument be made that it never will? I am not a pessimist and do see the need for change in so many places in my role as a parent as well as a teacher. What I am suggesting is that change can not happen in any real way if it doesn't start in the classroom.

Stop and think about any of the positive changes that have happened in education in the last decade. Some of these changes vary in impact and scale, yet there is evidence of change. Teachers changing the way grades are used and what homework means for kids. Teachers pushing a maker mindset as well as including innovation and creativity in their classrooms. Or the teachers looking at their instructional practices and utilizing methods such as flipped classroom or project based learning. All of these changes happened within a classroom and were led by classroom teachers. It is when those elements and those ideas get taken out of the classroom and try to be scaled for large systems they often fall apart or lose their effectiveness.

A great example of this is the PLC model as it has played out in many schools. What started as an idea to have teachers collaborate around teaching and learning has turned into busy work and forced agendas. Where teachers were organically discussing best practices and instructional pedagogy, they are now forced to obsess over data and create inauthentic protocols to fulfill administrator expectations. Many other seemingly positive ideas coming out of classrooms are taken and brought “up to scale” and lose their authenticity and ultimately their impact on students. 

When decisions about what is best for kids are being made at the classroom level they more closely reflects what is truly best for kids. When decisions about what's best for kids are made at a system-level either in a district, state or federal level, those decisions are less about what's best for kids and more about what's best for the system. The decisions made at the high level are about efficiency and simplicity rather than individualization or student centered. This is not necessarily a criticism but rather an observation. With this in mind, can change be driven from the "top"?

As a classroom teacher can we wait for our district, state or the DoE in Washington to mandate change? It has been my experience that changes or even full a blown revolution of ideas do not take place in the state houses or the policy rooms in a country. Revolutions are began by the people. As a history teacher I often teach my students about the many revolutions which have taken place throughout history. They begin with the common people. The people on the streets and in the trenches. As teachers, we are those people in the streets of education and the trenches of the school system. 

The revolution of ideas and the movements of change are going to happen in a classroom not a courtroom, state room and likely not even in a school district meeting. As teachers we are responsible for being the advocates of change our students need. Without us, change and reform is just an agenda item for decision makers and a talking point in an election year.