Student Driven Change

I love trying new things or changing up the way I do things at school. Whether I look back at my years in the classroom or in my new role in the library, I am always on the move and trying different and new things. My goal is to always make the experience for the students better than it was before. That is not to say what I was doing or what was being done was bad or somehow not good enough. It is just that I believe in constant Improvement for the sake of the students and their overall experience.

I often get asked where I get my ideas or what drives this change. For starters, it's just a personal thing for me. I have always been a restless individual, constantly on the move and constantly changing things. I don't change things just for the sake of change but for the sake of improvement and continual growth. Beyond my own personal interest in change, the biggest driving force behind it is the students themselves. My ideas are most often driven by the students I work with. If you want to know how to improve your teaching or the environment in which you teach, ask your students. This may seem like such a simple concept and yet it is incredibly impactful. I have said it before but I truly believe students are often the most untapped resource in our schools. They truly can be the change agents and voices of positive change we need. 

When I was in the classroom I would sit students down and ask them for their feedback on a project or an activity. If it wasn't working for them I would want to know why. Conversely, if it was working I would want to know that as well. In my new role in the library, I have had what I've begun to call “focus groups” and sought feedback from students. I sit down with a group of students and ask them what they enjoy about the library space and what they don't enjoy. I have sought input on how I can make reading more engaging to them and highlight books they want to read. Taking that feedback I have begun to transform the library from where it was at the beginning of the year. Not only has our physical space changed but resources such as robotics, coding, tech support and many more are now a part of our learning space. I know our space, programs, and overall environment will continually evolve as I progress and gain even more feedback from students. 

The key here though is not just simply getting feedback. What matters what actions come about as a result of that information. If students are providing me with feedback that I choose to ignore then I am making a decision do not want to grow. If the feedback they give can enhance the learning environment for themselves and others then I would be negligent in my job to not listen and take action. 

Yes, it is possible and likely students will give feedback which is inappropriate or wrong. That too is important because it is an opportunity for me to explain to students why certain things are the way they are or potentially why certain things can not change. Good and bad feedback from students is invaluable. If you are truly interested in making your classroom, your school or your space better for kids and for learning then look no further than the students in front of you.

I am always curious to learn about other ways in which educators are gaining feedback from students. How have you used students as a resource in your buildings? What positive changes have been driven by your students? 

State of the Library #TLchat

As someone with nearly three months of experience as a junior high librarian, I felt as though it was time for me to share my vast knowledge and wisdom in this new role. :) In all honesty and seriousness, I am still figuring it all out but wanted to reflect on my first few months and some things that I believe to be true as a bit of a State of the Library as I see it right now. Hopefully, I will look back on this in the spring and have evolved and changed to something even better.

I have tackled my new role with a few core beliefs in mind and have taken action steps to support these ideas and make them a reality.

It’s our library, not my library
First, one of the most important things I wanted to tackle in this new role was to bring back the notion that the library is the place kids and teachers want to be and take ownership of. In order to make this happen, I have taken a few small steps that have shown positive impacts thus far and I hope to continue to develop. One action I have taken is bringing in student art and work to the library to showcase and share. This has created some ownership in the space as well as a great platform to share great student learning. I have started playing music in the library while kids are working or reading and even have kids requesting music now. Kids are in the library during their study halls, lunch periods (with food!) and even spill out during class time. No kid or teacher is turned away and it is not unusual to see three or four classes fighting for space within the library. Personally, I love seeing kids in one area looking for books, another set of students working in groups and a team of teachers collaborating all at the same time and in the same space. My goal is for the library to the heart of learning in the school and I feel as though we are on the right track.

No more shushing
I have gotten rid of many of the traditional rules of a library. Learning is often loud and messy, and our library reflects that. Kids are talking, arguing, debating, discussing and engaging in collaborative learning throughout the library at all times of the day. The library was open the first day of school and will be through the final day. Even on days when I am out in a meeting, the library stays open and the learning continues. In addition, we allow food and drinks for kids who choose to come into the library to have a working lunch. We have also removed all restrictions on when kids can be in the library before and after school and are truly open whenever a kid needs us or the space.

Reading is cool
As most teachers do, I have professional goals that I have to set each year. This year one of my goals is to increase overall reading motivation and excitement for literacy in the building. I want to make reading cool again. A few small things I have done is create a request line for kids to share with me what they are reading to be used for purchasing books for the library. Rather than arbitrarily grabbing books off the shelf in the bookstore, I am tailoring the collection to what kids are reading and requesting. I am also dropping into classrooms daily just to talk about books I am reading and get them fired up about it. This is not just happening in English courses but also History and Science classes where I am working to get kids interested in literature tied to course work with high levels of interest. I am not a believer in incentive programs or sticker charts to get kids fired up about reading but am taking the approach of showing them that I am a reader and love it and try to share it with them as often as humanly possible. I am also utilizing our video production lab to create book talks with myself, students and other teachers to show off great books. Not only does it serve the purpose of sharing great reads but also for students to see their classmates and teachers sharing their love of reading.

Being a squirrel is cool
One of my coworkers has been calling me a squirrel lately. She calls me this because she claims I am easily distracted and often have 100 things going on at once. I will be in the middle of processing new materials and then a kid will come in and want to do a project in the video lab. As I finish that a teacher will come in and want some tech help in their room and on the way I will be stopped by a kid wanting a book recommendation. Boredom is not in my work vocabulary and I feel as though my lifelong struggles with ADD are finally paying off as my mind is in a constant state of flow and rapid activity. While this may seem to have little to do with the library, it actually does. I have been able to help more teachers and teach more students in my new role than I ever did as a classroom teacher. As a “squirrel”, I am able to jump around and be a part of so many projects and great work on a daily basis.

Space matters
A big change I have made in our library this year is the physical space or at least as much as I have physically been able to. For starters, I have isolated a reading lounge in a separate room of our library so kids have a quiet space to read or study. This also serves the purpose of having a large portion of general space which can be “loud” and buzzing with activity. I have also reorganized sections of our books in an effort to increase efficiency of students finding books they want. This is an ongoing process as my team is looking into organizing our collection like a book store around genres in an effort to further assist students in finding what they want/need. We have also moved furniture to increase ease of movement for students while in the library or passing through. I really wish I would have taken some before and after folks but try to imagine that it looks cool. :)

The impact these small changes have had on our library has already been evidenced to me. Numerous parents at conferences last week shared with me how their child is talking about the library and how much they enjoy being in that space for the first time since elementary school. Teachers are constantly reaching out and holding their classes in the library or seeking out ways to engage with learning in the space. They are seeing me and the library itself as a resource to help them achieve their teaching and learning goals. However, the best feedback has been from the students themselves. When an 8th grader who has hated reading and never wanted to be in the library, comes up and thanks me for helping them see that reading was cool and the library is “sick”, I chalk that up to a win.

I am only a few months in and my journey is just beginning but I finally feel like I am settling in and can really push the envelope. I look forward to continuing to evolve and grow in a way that serves the community of learners in our school.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.