Last year, I read this postby John Spencer about the importance of being in a “Mastermind Group” with other educators. It’s basically a group of teachers that meet regularly to explore and share ideas and also give one another feedback. Because the members get to know each other well they can push one another in ways that would not be possible with other groups.
This idea has always stuck with me as something that would be great to implement with staff. So when we started exploring options for our monthly staff meetings as an instructional leadership team, I brought this up as a possibility for a way to structure our time. After talking through a variety of options, including a focus on the 6C’s or differentiated choices aligned to our School Improvement Plan, we ultimately decided on having staff finding a group of people who had written similar personal goals for the year.
The purpose behind this was twofold:
It gave people time to delve more deeply into something they were already personally invested in.
It made our goal writing process more meaningful because staff would have dedicated time to continually work on them. This is in contrast to past practice, where many educators (myself included) would wait until it was time to have a follow-up conference on their goals later in the year.
At our first meeting in September, we had staff members do a “speed date” activity where they moved around the room talking about their goals for the year with different people. Their goal was to find others who had similar interests or their “Goals Groupies.” When they found a “match,” they would write that person’s name down on an index card. At the end of the meeting, they met up with the people on their card and came up with an official focus for their group.
Although I had met with staff members on their goals for the year prior to this meeting, it was fun to see how groupies ended up evolving and what they ultimately chose to focus on. We had 5th-grade teachers working with first-grade and even kindergarten teachers. There were groups of specials teachers mixed with grade-level teachers. The goals chosen were just as diverse and included: SEL, critical thinking, parent communication, inquiry-based and real-world projects, reading fluency and accuracy, and facilitated IEP and collaboration.
This past Thursday was our second meeting. Our Goals Groupies were given time to explore their work more fully setting specific outcomes for their impact on students, creating a plan of action and agreeing on what they would bring to share at the next meeting. We gave them this template with guiding questions to help them to further think through their ideas. As I walked around the room, I listened to rich conversations and genuine enthusiasm for the work they were doing. It was a Thursday after school, but everyone was just as energized as if we were starting a fresh day.
This process has only reinforced my belief that when we empower staff to take the lead, we embolden change that impacts students far greater than any mandated initiative ever will. When staff is given dedicated time to collaborate with colleagues who have a common passion, we capitalize on our strengths as a school as well as build capacity in multiple grade levels. The goals the groups have chosen to work on have far surpassed my wildest dreams of what we could work on this year as a staff. I am beyond excited to see the impact on students as the year unfolds.
We were discussing data at an EC-12 meeting this week when one of my colleagues posed a question I had never really considered before:
Would you rather have a culture of learning or a culture of inquiry in your building?
He had recently gone to a training for a grant he was a part of and the trainer had focused part of the day on this question. The discussion that evolved from this question ended up being the most meaningful part of the day.
This got me thinking about how I might answer that question and its implications for education. I’d say traditionally most schools have focused on the former. Mission statements of educational institutions across the country frequently include phrases like, “to create lifelong learners” or “develop a love of learning.” Since we want learning to continue way past students’ school days this focus makes sense to me.
But what if we instead focused on building a culture of inquiry in both our staff and students? What might that look like? What would the benefits be?
In their new book, Inquiry Illuminated, Goodvis, Harvey & Buhrow spend their first chapter making a case for an inquiry-based culture in classrooms. They postulate that students who are supported by teachers in inquiry:
Live a life full of wonder and curiosity
Explore ideas and topics and issues that are central to their interests and concerns, linking these to the wider world
Read and respond inquisitively with an inquisitive mind and a skeptical stance
Think creatively to express and share new learning
To me, this means that in an inquiry-based culture, learners (both staff and students) are encouraged to ponder & discover problems or issues, ask deep questions about their cause, and spend time researching and exploring a variety of possible solutions.
From an educator stance, an inquiry-based culture would mean that we would take the time to ponder the why first before jumping into solutions. For example, my kindergarten team was recently meeting in a PLC discussing how many of their students have been struggling to formulate questions about basically anything in class. Instead of jumping right to, “let’s give them questions stems and organizers to help them to better formulate questions,” they spent the first part of the meeting talking about the root causes of the issue. A variety of ideas were offered, but what they realized was that students were lacking in curiosity, not the ability to produce questions themselves.
From this realization, they designed a variety of activities to be done at home and at school including a Wonder Wall, “See, Think, Wonder, Talk” activity with pictures, question cards and more. After the meeting one of the teachers even sent out a link to this article from ASCD about cultivating curiosity in students to further spark ideas.
Professional learning opportunities for staff could also look different from a culture of inquiry stance. Instead of starting with outcomes for the day, participants might be asked to first think about a problem of practice. They would then be given time to talk about its root causes with peers and finally have time to develop solutions to be implemented in the school or classroom. At the next professional learning opportunity, staff members could talk about the results of their work in teams and then either problem-solve another issue they were pondering or go more deeply into the first issue.
In education, many times we are quick to jump to solutions before thinking about what might actually be causing the issue in the first place. Sometimes this fixes the problem, but other times it makes us appear like we are a “squirrel-based” culture, jumping from one new best practice to another. This results in frustration from many parties, and in many cases does not actually fix the issue.
I do not think that we should go full forward into developing a “Culture of Inquiry” over a “Culture of Learning,” but rather the two seem to be intertwined and necessary for success in our schools. If educators and students are going to be able to come up with plausible viable solutions for the problems they find then they have to be skilled at learning. Having a voracious desire for knowledge can only lead to curiosity and asking questions.
I am definitely interested in exploring this topic further. I plan on creating a bulletin board in the staff lounge or by the copy machine with the questions,
“What does a culture of inquiry mean to you?”
“What does a culture of learning mean to you?”
“Which do you think is more important in our school? Why?”
Their answers will determine the next steps we take as a staff, but at a bare minimum, I hope to spark the curiosity that these questions evoked in me.
If you are interested in developing more inquiry in your classroom or school I highly recommend reading Inquiry Illuminated by Anne Goudvis, Stephanie Harvey & Brad Buhrow or Comprehension & Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey & Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. They give a great framework as well as a multitude of examples and strategies that can be applied to any grade. I have to give a huge shout out to my EL teacher, Kory Curcio for recommending the latter.
I would love to hear any other ideas or resources you have enjoyed related to this topic! Christina
I liked this post for several reasons, but mostly because it goes against what is frequently heard in education, that there is only one right way to teach children. I’m guessing this has stemmed from the No Child Left Behind era that we are all still suffering PTSD from, but it needs to stop.
I have spent the past seven years working in classrooms, observing teachers or partnering with them on lessons. Not once have I seen highly effective teaching demonstrated in the exact same manner. I cannot tell you how many teachers I have spoken with, in a variety of capacities, who have asked me, “Am I doing this right?” “Is this okay?” When we tell people there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” we are setting up our educators for self-doubt as opposed to empowering them to make instructional decisions based on the needs of their students.
We set up a similar dynamic when we give students limited ways or one way of demonstrating their learning. This cartoon is a great illustration of this idea:
Making kids read a book and fill out the same template after they read, complete a problem set after a math lesson, or write a five-paragraph essay on the same topic are all examples of ways we tell students that there is a right way and wrong way of demonstrating learning. We give students assignments like this because it is an easy way for us to see if students have reached proficiency. However, the unintended consequences of this approach might be:
We create a classroom dynamic where students constantly ask us, “Am I done?” “Did I do this right?” (I don’t know about you, but these type of questions personally drive me crazy.)
We aren’t really getting an accurate gauge of student understanding. When given choice in demonstrating their learning, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, many students will actually show they can go way beyond the target. On the flip side of this, students who struggle with the way we are asking them to demonstrate learning (think elephant, fish, seal above), may show us they don’t know how to do something that they actually do.
Please know I am not advocating for zero expectations or standards in the classroom. I do believe strongly that there are strategies and structures we can use that are more effective than others depending on the learners in front of you. I also know that students are not going to be able to set goals and reflect on their progress if there is never an expectation to be reached even with choice provided.
We need to start thinking more of teaching and learning as a limitless continuum as opposed to an endpoint to be reached. When we provide professional learning experiences we should have educators experience and explore a variety of high leverage instructional practices and then trust them to make the right choices for their learners. We need to have high expectations, but broaden our definition of what this means and recognize this might look different depending on students and the target for learning in the classroom.
At our Late Arrival on Wednesday we focused on microshifts in practice in math workshop. We gave teachers a continuum with three options of what it might look like in the classroom with descriptors. (Thank you to our amazing coach Pia for creating it!) Instead of saying, your goal is to get to the last option, empowering students, we asked teachers to reflect on times when they had been in each of the options. They thought about when it made sense to use each of these types of models and then set a goal for one new strategy they would implement over the next few weeks.
I have already seen the impact of this approach in the classrooms I have visited. I’ve seen examples from the continuum as well as ideas that have far surpassed it. No one has asked me for permission or questioned whether they are doing it right. Each classroom has been uniquely amazing in its own way and I look forward to keeping it that way.
Sitting at a meeting or a grad school class where the agenda is ten miles long, broken up into either short little choppy increments or hour-long blocks without a break in sight.
Half of the items on the list seem to come from out of nowhere or could easily have been addressed in an email.
The absolute worst? When the facilitators in no way honor the experience and talents the people at the meeting bring to the table, making everyone learn about the same things as if they have no understanding whatsoever.
When I was a teacher I loathed these experiences. It felt like meetings were “being done to me” as opposed to inviting me to bring my talents and grow my strengths.
Many of our students feel the same way. No matter how great of a student they are, they feel like they are showing up to the “school show,” expected to follow the rules and expectations set forth for them with little input as to how the day will proceed.
Can you imagine spending every day this way? I can’t.
We can and should do better.
When I became an administrator I vowed I would never bring this type of experience to my staff. Am I perfect at it yet? Definitely not, but here are a few things I try to do so that I’m not bringing a case of the meeting dreads to my staff:
Ask for feedback. Although I haven’t yet been able to start from scratch with my school leadership team in creating an agenda due to time constraints (we’re almost ahead of this), I do bring the agenda to the team and ask for feedback prior to our institute days or Wednesday late arrivals.
Build on the expertise of the team. What are they good at? What are they passionate about? What do they see as the greatest need that would make the meeting most valuable to all? Stop being the only one who presents and let teacher leaders lead. They’re the ones who know the kids the best. We need to trust them!
Tie everything back into the vision that was created as a staff. Ours this year is #unlimitedgrowthandconnection. We make sure that every agenda item is connected to this and explicitly stated.
Include breaks and don’t make people turn off their technology. We’re all adults. If we’ve made the topics of the meeting meaningful then people won’t want to distract themselves with other things. We should trust people to use their resources when they need/want to.
Include something fun. Meetings are an opportunity to build culture and camaraderie. We added in a “Walk-Up Song” activity at the beginning of each staff meeting where we asked staff members to send us the song they would have played when they walk into the classroom like they do in Major League Baseball. The rest of the staff has to guess whose song it is. We even have prizes. From the response at the last meeting, we might add in karaoke. What does your staff enjoy? Thankfully mine loves music and food, two of my favorite things so I also try to bring some sort of tasty treat.
If you’re a teacher, what might this look like in your classroom? How often do you ask for feedback or build the day around goals students have set for themselves? How can you make each learning target meaningful to the students so they see a connected purpose in the work they are doing? What would the day look like if more choice and voice were incorporated?
I love this question that George Couros poses to educators,
“Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”
For me, this question has transitioned to, “Would you want to be a teacher in your staff meeting?” I hope as the year progresses the answer to this question becomes an emphatic yes! Let’s stop “doing school to people” and start asking for meaning from our people.
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Now maybe I’m being a bit dramatic using the opening line of a book about the dichotomy of people’s lives during the French revolution to describe my inner turmoil as I drove to work on the opening institute day of the year, but I honestly don’t think I could describe it any better. Never in my life have I been so insanely excited about something while also so completely terrified at the same time.
As a former instructional coach, I know that trust starts day one. It’s not one thing you do, but a collection over time that builds up. Brene Brown tells a story in Daring Greatly of a time that her daughter lost trust in one of her friends who hurt her deeply. Her daughter’s description of how trust works has become one of my favorites. (I actually used it on the opening slide of my keynote that day.)
“Trust is like a marble jar. You share those hard stories and those hard things that are happening to you with friends who over time you’ve filled up their marble jar. They’ve done thing after thing after thing where you know you can trust this person.”
I had started building a few marbles of trust with my staff over the summer, meeting in coffee shops individually or in groups to get to know them better, but this was the first time I would be addressing them as a whole, sharing my hopes, my fears, my dreams and promises to them as a leader. The importance of vulnerability is another concept I learned from Brene. This felt like vulnerability on extra strength steroids. On this day not only was I was going to be incredibly vulnerable, but in one of our activities, I was asking my staff to also be vulnerable as well. It was a perfect storm for complete success or epic failure.
I learned from Katie Martin visiting our school last year the power that sharing your why can have in creating connection as well as a direction for the vision of the school. With this in mind, my instructional leadership team (myself, assistant principal & coach) planned out an activity where staff members were asked to bring two objects, one representing their personal why and one their professional why of everything they do. They then were asked to get into groups of four with people they don’t normally interact with and share the stories behind them. Finally, they had to create a visual that represented the common theme among them. They had about an hour to do this and then were instructed to come back to our Multi-Purpose Room to share what they had created.
Our greatest hope was that we would find a common thread among them that would focus everything we did for the year. Our greatest fear was that nothing would be connected and we would be coming up with an artificial idea that some people would get on board with, but others would find greater disconnection.
My assistant principal and I spent the hour walking around classrooms listening in to the powerful conversations that groups were having with one another. Many shared stories of people, adults and children, who had had a great impact on them. The positive energy was flowing as smiles and memories lit up the faces of everyone involved. It appeared that although each story was unique, there were definitely common themes emerging.
At around 10:00 the moment of truth arrived and we asked the groups to return to our MPR to share their common threads. As each group stood and shared their creation, it was truly amazing to hear the ideas that each group shared and the inspired ways they chose to represent them. You can see a picture of what they made below, but one group made a chain with important words connected together. Another group drew a puzzle with different pieces connected. Another team talked used Buzz Lightyear in their image to represent that students need to know that they have infinite possibility. A couple groups used nature to demonstrate how as educators we want students to grow to their full potential.
It was completely inspiring to see how much we had in common. I deeply appreciate the vulnerability it took to have these conversations in sharing their passions and beliefs. It was because of this that our vision for the year emerged easily: Unlimited Growth and Connection, applying to both our staff and students.
We spent the next hour sharing ideas for how we could better connect with students at the beginning of the year and throughout. Splitting up the ideas into the four categories of: Classroom Community, Community of Learners, Sense of Belonging and Student Strengths teams, we created a chart that could be referred back to throughout the year. Each staff member selected one to two ideas of something new to try this year and created a plan of action.
The week and a half following our opening day has been nothing short of amazing. As I have been in classrooms and around the building I have seen our focus unfolding and evolving as each person has been connecting with our students in inspired and inventive ways. Yesterday one of our staff members shared an idea with me that she and another staff member have for our entire staff for Unlimited Growth and Connection that totally blew my mind. They are hashing out the plan for it this weekend and I sincerely cannot wait to talk to them about it on Monday.
We have decided to use #unlimitedgrowthandconnection in our social media posts for the year to share our journey with others.
This is another quote that I shared on my first day to describe the best team I have ever been a part of. It was truly the best time in my teaching career and I thought it would be impossible to duplicate. As I have begun to build relationships, I am seeing this same quality emerge in my Jefferson staff, students, and community. That sheer and utter terror I had on the first day has turned to delight, pure joy and excitement for the great work we will do together.
Just got done with my almost four year old having an epic tantrum at gymnastics class.
I made her put on her shoes and socks when she came out of class before she did anything else.
I know. I’m the worst.
That’s not what actually caused the epic tantrum. That was more of a prequel to the disaster. A foreshock if you will.
What actually caused the “drop on the floor, red in the face, screaming at decibels heard by two towns over tantrum” was the fact that I was unaware of the magical lady who hands out lollipops to all of the good little boys and girls who have stamps on their hands after class.
So, if you tell your daughter to put on her shoes and socks on before she does anything else she is inevitably going to miss the magical lollipop fairy lady because:
Asking a toddler to do anything will take ten times longer than anyone could ever imagine is humanly possible.
When you were a kid at some point you threw temper tantrums and your mom said the stereotypical phrase, “I hope one day you have a kid just like you!” (Which at the time you blew off, but now as an adult you are wondering if she has some sort of voodoo power that you were not aware of.)
So here I am standing in the vestibule, trying to rationalize with a toddler that missing the magical lollipop that she “earned” is “No Big Deal” while her screams keep getting louder and her stomping is reaching epic proportions. Minus her face turning purple I’d say she was pretty close to a direct reenactment of Turtle Throws a Tantrum. (Side Note: DO NOT laugh at this point. It is apparently not funny.)
People are staring. Dogs are barking. I’m about to pick her up and put her in the car kicking and screaming when guess who comes out of her office? The magical ninja lollipop lady.
And do you know what she did?
SHE ASKS MY FULL ON TANTRUM CHILD IIF SHE WANTS A LOLLIPOP.
I looked at Alexandra. I looked at the lady. I looked at the faces of the moms ( totally not judging) staring at me. I swear time froze.
I knew I had two options. I could tell her no, that the way she was behaving did not merit a lollipop or any reward for that matter and endure the escalation that would ensue or I could let her have the lollipop ending the campaign of torture.
So, what did I do?
I totally caved. I told her that if she would apologize to me for her behavior that she could have one. I was worried about getting to her next activity on the other side of town on time and was honestly sick of listening to the tantrum that seemed to last for all eternity.
She apologized, instantly calmed, got her lollipop and merrily skipped to the car like nothing happened. We made it to Little Actors Club on time and the rest of the day was great.
It appears that I made the right choice right. But did I? The entire car ride home I kept thinking all she is going to remember from this event was that a tantrum equals candy. I chose the easy way out simply because of my fears of getting to our next activity on time (and yes of being judged) and now the next time I was going to have to start all over again with how we behave when we don’t get our way.
My short little win was most likely setting me up for defeat later on.
Choosing What’s Easy in Education
This longwinded story got me thinking about when I was in the classroom and the times I would choose what was easy over what would be a better learning experience for students.
How many times did I choose to teach whole class rather than differentiate because it was easier for me to cover the content that way? I could say I covered the objectives, but were ALL of my students really learning from the lesson that day?
How many times did I teach something just because it was in the curriculum guide even though I knew that many of my students had mastered the objective already?
How many times did I make decisions based on what was easy for me, not on what was right for the students and then end up teaching it all over again?
I’d say the answer to these questions was more than I’d like to admit. For a variety of reasons, (pressure from administration, district assessment deadlines, anxiety about keeping up with peers, inner drive to teach it all) educators feel a huge pressure to cover content over teaching the students in front of them. None of these reasons are illegitimate reasons. The expectations put on teachers are astronomical. It is completely reasonable to feel like covering content should take priority.
Unfortunately, this dynamic causes many of us (myself included) to plan learning experiences and lessons that do simply that, cover content instead of creating learning that sticks with engaging in-depth experiences like we know we should. Many times we end up reteaching these lessons because the learning was not meaningful to students. Taking the time to prioritize and go deeper at the beginning would actually save us time in the end.
If I could be a classroom teacher again (one day maybe I will), I would stop placing the greatest importance on content and start with relationships. I’d find out what was important to my students, learn their strengths and build from there. I know there are many constraints with time in the school day, but I’d try to plan my schedule with longer blocks of time so that I could plan out integrated lessons that include time to ask questions, interact with peers, and causes students to engage in the learning.
I’d take the time to make it stick as opposed to getting it done.
Of course, I’m not a classroom teacher this year. I’m an administrator and a mom. So here’s my effort to choose differently than I have in the past.
If you work in my school I will support you 100% in teaching the students in front of you, not covering vast amounts of the curriculum.
I will set up a schedule where you have flexible time to integrate subjects and plan deeper learning experiences.
I will set up structures so you can coteach, collaborate, and reflect regularly with your peers to learn from one another and build upon one another’s strengths.
I will plan engaging learning experiences that meet your needs as opposed to the God awful “Sit & Get” institute days.
When you come to me with innovative ideas I will be your cheerleader, your support system and do anything in my power to make your idea a success.
I will not take the easy way out and spend time in my office doing clerical tasks. I will be present in the building getting to know the culture of the school so that I can contribute and elevate the great work being done.
I will listen to what you need, not try to force my agenda on you.
When there is an issue (anything, including missing a magical lollipop lady), I will listen, reflect and work to solve the problem with you.
At the end of the day, it is better that we have contributed to creating amazing humans than to have taught a vast curriculum. Is teaching knowledge to students part of that formula?
But if you ask me what to prioritize in your school I’d choose deeper learning and relationships over being able to say I covered all the content any day.
Data. It’s a four letter word. Especially in education.
It has been argued by many to play a pivotal role in increasing student growth. The four key PLC questions from DuFour are centered around it. Even Danielson includes it as part of Domains, 1, 3 & 4 of the teacher evaluation rubric.
And yet, when many educators hear that it’s time for a data review meeting they either cringe, cry, or circle up their friends to plan out who’s bringing what treats to get through the agonizing process.
So what’s wrong with data? Specifically, what’s wrong with data review and why does it get such a bad rap? More importantly, what can we do about it?
Problem #1 We Don’t Engage All Stakeholders
When I was a teacher I remember being invited to countless data review meetings where the reading specialists would project graphs of student growth (or lack of) using something called AIMSWEB. We would painstakingly go through each student with the specialists all sharing their insights. Periodically I would be asked for feedback on my students, but in the end the decision would be made to change some sort of intervention that I was not involved in by the other “experts” in the room.
I sincerely hated those meetings. I became an expert head nodder at those meetings. Most of the time I was dreaming about what I would eat for, let’s be honest, any meal, or thinking about which member I would take from my favorite boy bands to form the greatest band of all time. (This is way trickier than you think. You need at least one bad boy which means you can’t just take ALL the cute ones.)
From start to finish, each stakeholder, from educator to specialist needs to be both an active creator and participant in the process and beyond. The reason why data review has gotten such a bad name is that many educators, like myself, have experienced it as something being done to them as opposed to the collaborative process that it should be. No one ever explained to me WHY we were having these meetings or what the expected outcomes were. No one ever asked me what data I thought would be meaningful to look at or even to bring data with me. I was simply told I had a substitute and was to show up to these monthly data meetings. They were supposed to be these all important events, but I usually left them wanting two hours of my life back and needing a coffee.
Problem #2 We Never Get Anywhere
When I was an instructional coach one of the big parts of my role was Data Coach. I ran data review meetings, helped teachers to look at formative classroom data, and facilitated discussions in PLC’s. DATA was a four-letter word regularly used in my vocabulary. And (gulp), I liked it.
“Here’s What, So What, Now What” was my jam. We used it to evaluate everything from exit slips to Fountas & Pinnell assessments to reading responses and everything in between. The feedback that I got was positive from the teachers I worked with. It was a well-organized way to present the data (Here’s What), talk about causes (So What) and then come up with a plan of what we were going to do about it (Now What).
Unfortunately, as I have been reflecting upon this protocol in preparation for some data review with my current staff I have come to realize that there are some serious flaws in the way we used this protocol.
Wait, what? Did I just say the mack daddy of data protocols is all wrong?
Yep. I did.
Here’s why. I’m a control freak. And I broke it.
Yep. I’m a control freak. Ok, recovering control freak. Back in the hard core CF days I thought we needed a list of guiding questions, as well as categories of students, to look at when talking about data. I needed a predictable structure that would get us from point A to point B to point C each time. I mean how would teachers know what to talk about if I (God of Data) didn’t guide them step by step each time through the process?
Recovering CF me realizes how incredibly idiotic this was for two reasons:
See Problem #1
There are so many questions and levels of students to talk about that we rarely made it to the Now What (THE MOST IMPORTANT PART) in a 45 minute PLC time and would have to continue to the next meeting
Although we had some GREAT conversations about students using this protocol I have to imagine that my staff walked away feeling frustrated when we had to wait a week to get to the action plan or meet at another time after school to finish it. Without action, data review is just a pretty little template with some glorious notes about our thoughts, but no real impact on student learning.
Here’s What, So What, Now What is still a great protocol, it just needs to be simplified. Don’t try to look at all the subgroups at one time. Select the group that is most meaningful for your team to talk about and only use it for that group. Select a few questions to focus on during your conversation. Doing “All the Things” is not productive when discussing data.
Problem #3 Meaningless Data
Problem number three could be argued to be a large part of number one.
Many times we are asked to analyze data that is not very meaningful because the data has gone well past its expiration date. Standardized tests like PARCC or IAR or whatever it’s being called this year are thought to be important data to analyze because often our school success is judged by this benchmark. However, when it comes six months into the following year it’s hard to find any correlation between the results and current teaching practices. The kids have grown. Our teaching has changed. Nothing is the same. It’s hard to have buy-in to discuss something that is related to something so far in the past.
Another way that data can be meaningless is when it doesn’t match our strategic outcomes for students. If we are saying that as a school we are trying to foster collaboration, creativity, communication and any of the other six C’s, then it is difficult to make the argument that we should spend hours analyzing a multiple choice test or any other form of assessment that doesn’t show evidence of those indicators. If data is going to be meaningful for analysis it has to match with our intended outcomes.
Other times it really does go back to Problem #1. If we don’t explain the why or ask for the feedback of everyone involved in selecting data to analyze then there ultimately will be little impact on students. We have to move beyond the idea that data review has to involve fancy charts, graphs or percentages. Coming from a business background, I love me a big fancy spreadsheet with a pie chart or bar graph involved, but if we never move beyond simply looking at numbers data review is going to continue to lack meaning for many.
My So What
In order to combat the full fledged groans that usually commence at the mention of the word data we have to simplify the process. Let’s stop making it this mystical thing that requires elaborate templates and official numbers. The whole point of looking at data is to cause growth in students. The best way to do this is to select meaningful evidence that will help us to make instructional decisions that we can act on.
That being said, I don’t have all the answers (yet), but here’s where I’m currently at:
Select a facilitator. Have this person engage all stakeholders prior to the meeting about an area they see a need to talk about.
Decide on some evidence (data) that would demonstrate this need. (exit slip, writing sample, conferring notes etc.)
Decide on how you will be assessing the data prior to the meeting as a team and come to the meeting with it already “graded.” (Note: This is not extra work. This is simply assessing something you would already authentically be doing or have done.)
At the meeting answer the following questions:
What does this evidence tell us about our students? What did they do well? What did they struggle with?
How could we build on their strengths to create success?
What action steps do we need to take so that each student will grow?
What questions do we still have?
Create a plan of action with a follow-up date included.
Albert Einstein allegedly once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” To me this means that we need to simplify the process, but not the thinking involved in looking at student data. It is my hope that through several iterations and feedback from my team we are able to further refine these processes and get to the heart of what will move all students forward.
When you have a moment to yourself throughout the day, (driving in the car, running on the treadmill, when the sun is rising and you’re just waking up) what does your mind go to? In the past, it’s been anything from how can I get ALL of my students excited about reading to imagining myself singing an epic (most likely 80’s) song on stage with a live band.
Lately though I’ve been reflecting a lot on my last post about the purpose of education. A former instructional coach and now administrator, I’m always thinking about the practical end of my ideas. The questions that seem to be recurring most are:
What is the core foundation of instructional practices in a school that values creating meaningful learning experiences that build on strengths and develop students’ passions?
How do I actually go about making this vision of a learner-driven education a reality? More specifically…
What structures need to be in place? (schedule, student grouping, learning spaces, etc)
What are the mindsets and values of the leaders and learners in this type of school and how can I help to develop them if they are not already there?
What shifts should be prioritized first?
So I was blown away when I started listening to a recentModern Learners podcast (if you are not listening to this podcast you are seriously missing out) where the hosts, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, interviewed Megan Power, a teacher who had not only explored these questions and more, but had been part of designing and opening a PUBLIC school that was actually DOING all of these things.
Located in San Diego, Design39Campus, is part of the POWAY School District. Its inception story is similar to many public schools around the country. Because of the growing number of homes being built in the area, a new school was needed to help with overcrowding in other buildings.
That’s pretty much where the similarities stop.
Instead of building a school that mirrored the others in this high performing district, the superintendent took this as an opportunity to go beyond what they had done before. With this in mind, he put together a team with a very specific challenge, how do we change the way we do school? The team took this question a step further and asked…
“How do we change the way students experience learning?”
The result of a deep exploration of this one question is what has built the foundation of this incredible school:
“Learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind. As a collaborative community, we nurture creative confidence, practice design thinking, learn through inquiry, connect globally, use technology and real-world tools, and promote the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world.”
This approach has not only impacted traditional academic metrics (Their 6th-8th grade students consistently outscore the other students in the district on standardized tests.), but the mindset of the students as well. Instead of being excited when they have days off of school, parents are reporting that their students are actually upset not being able to attend.
Lessons Learned & Ideas to Emulate
Rather than rehash the entire episode, I’d rather focus on the big takeaways related to the questions I have been reflecting upon lately.
1. Time & Design Thinking
The first thing that really stood out to me was the amount of time that Megan Power and the team took to think deeply and explore every possible avenue related to their big question. Using a design thinking approach they “threw every piece of the education puzzle onto the floor” and reflected on each piece to see what worked and what they might want to change. Because of a grant, the members of the team were had an entire year out of the classroom to focus solely on this endeavor.
It has been my experience that in education we have a bit of the “Squirrel!” mentality where we jump from one new idea to another without really delving in deeply to explore why we want to implement the initiative. Even worse, we don’t take the time needed to explain the purpose and build the capacity of those who will be implementing said initiative. This results in either shallow implementation confusion or overwhelmed colleagues which inevitably leads to push-back from many.
2. Building a Shared Vision
One of the models of complex change that I continually come back to use in reflection is from Ambrose.
In order for complex change to occur, the five elements above must be woven into the work. If one is not present, then any of the five items on the right will occur.
One thing that the founders of Design39Campus did exceptionally well is build a shared vision and understanding among ALL of its stakeholders before even opening its doors. This started with parents.
Instead of telling parents what Design39Campus was going to be all about they held community nights where they asked participants what they wanted for their students and for the school. Attendees were asked to respond to the following:
Imagine a place where students could…
Then we need teachers who…
Then we need leaders who…
Then we need parents who…
What skills do parents use in their jobs all the time?
They wanted this to be an open forum so, in addition to holding multiple events, they collected every single post-it response created, typed them up, and posted them online. Their goal wasn’t to convince the community that they had all the answers, it was about getting their input so they could help decide what their school could be.
And it wasn’t just about getting their input in the beginning, the parents continue to be a partner in learning. They regularly hold workshops for parents and also share articles, videos and books aligned with the vision. Parents are frequently asked for feedback and this feedback is incorporated into the workings of the school. It is a continual collaboration between the community and the school. On theirwebsite, there is a plethora of information including a geniusglossary of all of the terms they use in their school that includes everything from instructional approaches to places in the building.
3. Getting “The Right People on the Bus”
Because they were building a school from a design thinking perspective, the team knew that they needed the right type of educators to become a part of the team. They wanted to hire teachers and leaders who were creators, innovators, and risk takers who would create deep learning experiences for students that would foster curiosity. With this in mind, they changed the titles of teacher and administrator to Learning Experience Designer and Lead Designer. I love how this small change already creates a different mindset of what each of these roles has traditionally meant.
If they were looking for a different type of educator, they realized that they needed to rethink their hiring process as well. A three-part process, the goal was to really get to know the educators personally and see how they worked in a team dynamic. The teachers would be meeting for an hour daily to reflect on practice and design learning experiences together so the ability to collaborate was critical to the success of the students and the school.
The first part of the hiring process they had teachers submit something called an E-Tell where could create anything they wanted to tell the school about themselves. In the next stage, selected applicants were asked to participate in a design challenge where they worked on a team to design a lesson. The finalists from this stage were then invited back to participate in an interview with a group, but even this was more targeted at getting to know them as a person outside of the school setting rather than their curricular expertise.
4. Deep Dives, Explorations & Integrated Learning Time
One of the trickiest dilemmas that I have reflected upon most often in this journey is how to balance building content knowledge and skills with fostering students’ passions and curiosities. In addition, I have always wondered how do we help students to discover new passions in addition to the ones that they are currently interested in? This delicate balance is an area that Design39Campus does incredibly well.
Design39Campus does not have a set curriculum that students must master at the same time each year, however, they do teach content.
“Yes, your children will learn phonics, write on lined paper, and learn how to read and do math. It is our plan to make those learning opportunities engaging and interesting for them so they never lose the joy of learning. Filling out stacks of homework packets is not what we are about.”
I can only imagine the conversations that inspired this quote. 🙂
The way they accomplish this is, instead of breaking up the day into subjects, which puts a focus on content areas, their school day is broken up into Deep Dives, Explorations and Integrated Learning Time.
Integrated Learning Time is when students learn content and build skills. Just like it sounds, subjects are taught together as part of a broader question that the students explore. This creates connected understanding and more greatly models the way the world works outside of school. During Deep Dives students are able to explore a passion of their choosing in an academic setting. Design39Campus has partnered with local businesses to create a wide variety of options. Finally, students go to Explorations. This is where they get to try new things that they might be interested in exploring more deeply later.
5. Constant Learning
Everyone at Design39Campus views themselves as perpetual learners. As Megan Power explained, “they are going to be like a start-up forever.” Because of this, they are constantly asking questions, reflecting and learning together. Teachers observe one another’s practice. They go and observe in other schools. They even have time that they spend in local businesses to better understand the work that they are preparing students for.
With design thinking, you are focusing on solving a problem through the lens of the people that the solution will serve. They spent the first institute day of this school year investigating the question, “What is learning?” demonstrating that, even though they have been doing this for five years, they know there are ideas to ponder and questions to explore that will even better the learning experiences for their students. Although they have created an amazing model they know they can always improve.
A Step Further in Answering My Big Questions
This podcast was extremely helpful in coming up with some answers to the questions I have been exploring lately. I especially love how a design thinking approach permeated the entire school from the start to current practice. If you’re an administrator like me you’re probably wondering though, how could I come close to replicating this in a school that is already established?
Going back to the work of Ambrose, I believe it starts with creating a shared vision. Because the founders of Design39Campus took the time to build a shared vision with all stakeholders, they created momentum for success for the future as well as greatly diminished a large push back to change.
It doesn’t just stop with vision though, a plan has to be created with specific ideas for not only actions to be taken, but knowledge to be gained by all stakeholders. If it’s a vision similar to Design39Campus’, then part of the plan has to be building capacity in learning experience design. When the majority of our educators went to college they were taught how to manage time, follow a curriculum and teach for understanding. The type of learning experiences we are expecting teachers to create in this type of school involves asking big questions, giving powerful feedback and starting with the learner in mind as opposed to the curriculum.
We can’t just expect educators to make this shift overnight. We have to build their capacity in a way that is meaningful and builds upon their strengths. We won’t be able to do any of this effectively if we don’t get to know the needs of those whom we serve first.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when I think about the structures that need to be in place I’m not sure that question can be answered prior to building vision and capacity first. One thing that I think will definitely be a part of the plan if we are going to teach from a broader perspective is larger stretches of time for students to work as opposed to segmenting the day up into smaller chunks. However, without building the common vision and understanding of why we need to do this the result will be a shallow change in instruction. Additionally, I would envision a large amount of push-back from parents and staff.
One of the most important takeaways from the entire podcast is that to truly do this well takes time. Give yourself permission.
Explore. Imagine. Create. Reflect.
Enjoy the journey.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from their website:
“Because of what we do, our kids don’t just ask about the who, what, and where, but they ask about the why.”
What the educators at Design39Campus are truly empowering students to do is to be eternally curious learners. And for me, that’s what makes all the difference.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Christina
When I go to parties I can’t help myself. As much as I try to avoid it, I inevitably talk about education.
Especially if there’s beer. One good IPA will get me waxing poetic about my vision of education for pretty much the entire night.
I’ve never actually had two in one sitting. I can only imagine the diatribe of fostering students’ passions and deep learning that would result from a double Union Jack or L’il Sumpin’ Sumpin.
Usually, these discussions involve my educator friends (That would be most of them). But on my favorite nights, I’m chatting with a new person, a non-educator person, a person who has a career outside of the classroom who is killin’ it in the “real world.”
At this particular party, it was Anti-Hero, on draught. And an economist. Double Trouble.
The outcome? A completely thought-provoking conversation about more than just education.
So much so that I’m still thinking about it over two weeks later.
Sourdough, A Blog, & Some Calculus
“I’ve been working on mine for days. It’s a delicate process.” Two gentlemen close to me were having a rather intense conversation about something that sounded like it could be food related. I’d heard there was going to be a guy at this party who had recently taken a fairly lengthy sabbatical to create a blog based on the science of food (which of course piqued my interest).
Based on what I had overheard I assumed one of them had to be him. I grabbed my drink and headed over.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Sourdough??” I responded incredulously prompting one of the men to start telling me about the process. Based on the amount of information he was giving me I was now positive this was the guy I had been hearing about. I was just about to ask him about his blog when my friend Sarah came over. (The birthday girl)
“Oh! So you met S! Did you know he has a food blog?”
And that’s how the epic conversation began. It turns out that S’s company granted him an 18-month sabbatical and he and his wife actually traveled all over the world for it. He even ended up contributing to a few cookbooks during this time. To make the story even more amazing his company actually continued to pay him part of his salary during the entire time he was on leave.
I had to know more. “So, what do you actually do?”
“I work in capital markets. Basically, I help multinationals manage their global foreign currency, commodity and interest rate risk. We help their treasury department to set up a sophisticated and efficient risk management policy and structure.”
“So like an actuary?”
“I use some of the same math, but no, not an actuary.” He then explained to me in more detail what he actually does on a daily basis helping me to understand the difference. It sounded insanely interesting and super mathy (which you know I am obsessed with) and I found myself wishing someone would have explained more math-related career options to me when I was trying to decide what to study in college. But I’ll get into my point about that later.
“So how can I follow your blog?” I asked as I pulled out my phone to open up the WordPress app to find it.
“It’s pretty easy. Just look up my name.” The bar had suddenly gotten louder so I had a hard time hearing which prompted me to move closer.
“I see you have the WordPress app. Do you blog as well?”
And that was that. I explained that yes, I had JUST started blogging and my passion was education. I told him that I am most passionate about creating learning experiences in school that better prepare kids to be successful in the innovative and dynamic world we live in.
So, of course, this led to me asking him about his school experience. How much of what he learned in college and high school did he feel prepared him for what he currently does? (I’m not shy. I have no qualms about asking people fairly personal questions regarding education.)
“A lot actually. I use a ton of calculus in my work. Most of my classes in college were math related. They built on the math I learned in high school. I learned about finance and economics. I wouldn’t say I’m in the majority though. I think the statistic is something like less than 8% of math taught in school is used in jobs and the percentage is even smaller for daily usage. Don’t quote me on that though.” (On a side note, I was curious and looked this one up after our conversation. He was pretty accurate. Check out this article in the Atlantic. I was surprised to read that it’s more prevalent that blue collar jobs that use calculus in their roles.)
We talked more about school and how I thought that we needed to include more opportunities for students to grow curiosity and build creativity. That many students see themselves as poor students or not smart because of the emphasis historically placed on how well they do in traditional subjects. (Not that they aren’t important, but that we need to broaden our definition of intelligence) If we changed schools from a focus on compliance to giving students meaningful learning experiences connected to the world around them, we would empower them to grow their passions, build on their strengths, and leave school already knowing the gifts they have to offer.
We agreed a lot during our conversation, each person adding in a different layer to the conversation. But at the end of our talk, he challenged me on one thing.
One MAJOR thing.
“You know people shouldn’t create a career out of their passion right?”
Huh? This one surprised me. He had just taken an 18-month sabbatical from his career to travel around the world creating a food blog. (which I still think is totally awesome)
“I remember seeing a title of an article about something like that on Medium recently. Tell me more.”
“School can’t be about people following their passions. It’s not economical. It could never work for society. You remember the bread conversation we had earlier?”
“Well, homemade bread will always taste better, but it’s not practical for everyone to make it daily. When mass produced bread was created it allowed people all over the world to start eating it on a daily basis. It solved a problem, especially for poor families.”
“You run into the same issue with careers. Think about the limited amount of jobs out there for people with a specific talent or passion. Mathematically it just doesn’t work out. There’s no way that every job would match up with every individual. Besides the point that most of those types of jobs don’t pay well or the higher salaries only go to a select number of people who become specialized and well known for that area. Take chefs for instance. The ones who are slaving away working in regular or even elite restaurants are making probably…(he listed a figure, but I honestly cannot remember the total)
Even though they are doing something daily that they love they are scraping by most of the time. When I was on my sabbatical if my company hadn’t continued to pay me a percentage of my salary there’s no way I could have gotten by. The entire sabbatical I probably made about $30,000 and that was including money made from contributing to a few cookbooks.
We need students to learn skills in school that will prepare them for jobs that will make them money. If we don’t, we are essentially setting up a greater economic burden.”
Wow. I had to think about that one. I understood his point about the mathematical probability of matching everyone’s career with their ideal passion, but I also know that if there’s a will there’s a way and people who are passionate about something will make something new. That’s how innovation works and the world changes right?
Seeing so many stories in the news lately about the middle-class shrinking and jobs being replaced by technology gave me pause though. Plus, it was midnight, and this party girl was about to turn back into a mommy. So I offered a few ideas and thanked him for the thoughtful dialogue. We both agreed to follow one another’s blogs and I left the bar to drive back to the suburbs.
Preparing Students for Success…in Anything
One of my favorite quotes from AJ Juliani is:
“Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”
For me, it’s a great anchor for making decisions about school. At some point, I seriously need to get it framed.
So when I was reflecting on the drive home, this quote immediately came to mind. If we are going to prepare students for ANYTHING (or rather empower students to prepare themselves), a definition of what anything constitutes is important to define and explore.
In the context of the conversation I had with S, I wanted to explore more the economic side of that supposition.
If you look at the unemployment trendfrom the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past ten years unemployment peaked in 2009 at 9.9%, but has been on a steady decline annually since and in December 2018 was 3.9%. That being said, according to the BLS Economic Situation Summaryfrom Jan. 2019, there are still 6.3 million adults in the United States who are unemployed.
A few days after my conversation, an article from Fortune magazine titled, The Shrinking Middle Class: How We Can Fix It, ended up in my inbox adding another layer to the economic conversation. According to the article, the middle class in the United States has been steadily shrinking over time due recently in part to the burgeoning “gig economy.” (Many people associate this with jobs like Uber, but it can be any kind of contract work.) People make a wide range of wages in these jobs, but what is causing a greater problem for many of them is that benefits like health insurance or a 401(K) are not included in the position. As a result, many are living paycheck to paycheck, in a constant state of stress. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as much as 48% of contract employees struggle with poverty.
Besides the gig economy, the author also attributes private equity as another major factor in the decline of the middle class. These private investors often borrow heavily to purchase a company placing them greatly into debt. In order to repay their loans as well as investors, they have to “wring cash from holdings,” leaving little money to pay workers. Sears and Radio Shack are cited as examples of employees who suffered from this practice.
To find solutions to these problems the Fortune staff reached out to a variety of business leaders, economists and politicians to ask their opinion. The responses were mostly related to government-provided solutions such as raising the minimum wage, creating legislation requiring companies to provide benefits regardless of employment status, childcare tax credits, or universal basic income (UBI). The article even recommended emulating the government of Denmark where 98% of households with children under age 15 receive financial assistance from the government.
So what about the other side? The jobs that are out there? What skills do they require? LinkedIn annually analyzes hundreds of thousands of job postings to find out what careers are growing as well as what skills companies are looking for to fill these positions. In their recently published 2019 Report, the most promising jobs are wide ranging from Machine Learning Engineer at number 15 with a projected 96% increase to Data Scientist at number one, projected to have a 4,000+% (wow! is that number even possible???) increase in job openings this year. The other Top 5 positions on this list include Product Owner, Product Designer, Enterprise Account Executive, and Site Reliability Engineer. My favorite on the list was a position called a “Scrum Master.” You would not believe my disappointment when I found out this was not a pirate-related career, but someone who is involved in agile software development and project management. With the exception of Customer Success Manager, all of these jobs had median base salaries of $100,000+.
Additionally, LinkedIn uses this analysis to come up with the Top 5 hard skills as well as soft skills that companies are looking for. Job seekers can use this information to improve their employability by acquiring these skills and listing them on their resumes. For 2019, the hard skills most in demand are cloud computing, artificial intelligence, analytical reasoning, people management and UX design (user experience design). Making my heart (and Sir Ken Robinson’s) do a happy dance was the fact that creativity debuted as the number one soft skill companies are looking for. Time management, adaptability, collaboration and persuasion round out the rest of the list.
Implications for Education
So, what’s the final verdict? Is the purpose of education to build students’ strengths, develop their passions and foster their natural curiosity or is it to give students the skills and strategies so that they are qualified for a successful and high paying job? If we’re using the Juliani Standard (Yes, I made that up, but it should be a thing right?), then the correct answer is YES!
Reviewing and reflecting upon current economic problems as well as needs in the complex world we live in, schools are clearly not adequately preparing many students for the society they are graduating into, much less inspiring them to chase their passions and change the world. I admire the contributors to the Fortune article for brainstorming ideas to help others who are very much struggling in this new economy, but what they are not recognizing (with a few exceptions) is that no matter how much legislation we put into place, if we do not fill the knowledge and skill gaps of the individuals involved then we are just continually perpetuating a cycle of dependence on others.
Despite various government interventions over generations to help lessen the disparity between social classes in the United States we continue to have little growth in closing the gap. According to a 2018 report from the PEW Research Center, median middle-class income increased 6% from $74,015 in 2010 to $78,442 in 2016 with lower-income households (29% of adults) increasing 5%. Although those percentages point to a similar gain, when we look at actual median income dollars, 5% is really only an increase from $24,448 to $25,624 or a little over $1000 in a six-year period. Even worse, the median income was actually higher in the year 2000 ($26,923) indicating a negative growth over the past twenty years for low-income households.
We need to empower students before they enter the workforce not only with the technical skills to be successful, but with the understanding of what it takes to succeed in every aspect of a very dynamic world. We have a moral imperative as well as an incredible opportunity in education to close the gap during this innovative time known as the 4th Industrial Revolution.
In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith shares stories of amazing schools and educators that are both inspiring students and causing them to thrive in the world beyond school. In an epic journey he took to visit schools in all 50 states in just one year’s time he found these schools incorporated the following elements into learning :
Purpose: Students believe in the importance of their work.
Essential Skills and mindsets: Learning experiences foster competencies that are essential to adults (e.g., creative problem solving, critical analysis, communication, collaboration, citizenship, character).
Agency: Students create their learning experiences, set their goals, manage their progress, and evaluate their work.
Deep, retained Knowledge: Students develop real mastery of the topics they study. They can apply it, ask thoughtful questions about it, and teach others.
When I think about the elements of PEAK, my passion has been in making learning meaningful by incorporating students’ personal interests and building their strengths. They have created projects, set their own goals and reflected on their progress. I have observed this strength in many of the educators I have worked with in the past as well as present trying out a variety of new ideas including passion projects or genius hour, flipped classrooms and in general giving students more input in the classroom and designing learning with individuals in mind as opposed to following a boxed curriculum.
When I reflect on the other parts of PEAK, combined with the findings of the LinkedIn 2019 Jobs Report I realize that I myself have some huge knowledge gaps of what the current and future “real world” constitutes. Although I have played around a bit with coding and have a basic understanding of Artificial Intelligence and the implications it has for our society, I have zero idea what UX design really entails other than what I have read in articles. Many of the jobs listed in the report were fairly foreign to me. So how can I take the abstract concepts I’m teaching to students and give them relevance and meaning when I myself don’t have this knowledge?
Beyond reading about these jobs or taking some online courses to educate ourselves in these skills, the true learning is going to come from actual experiences themselves. What if part of the professional learning we offered our teachers involved spending the day at companies that did the work that our students may be doing one day? This could be an ongoing collaboration and partnership where employees visit the schools as well and mentor kids in the school. In reflecting on the P or Purpose in PEAK, kids would see any subject, but especially math as so much more meaningful when they see how it is incorporated into jobs that people are currently succeeding at. We spend a lot of time telling kids, “you’re going to use this one day,” but very little time giving them experiences in what that actually looks like.
What to Start?
As an educator you may be thinking this is great, but how can I actually do all of this? I have standards to meet and a curriculum to follow and I don’t really have control over much of the professional learning in my building or district.
If you’re not already regularly incorporating student interests and strengths into your lessons start there. It can be as simple as looking at problems you are using in your math lesson and changing the context to include experiences your students have had or topics they are interested in. Even more empowering, have your students help you with this process. In literacy, offer them choice in what they are reading or topics they are writing about. When you are planning and evaluating the work that you will be asking them to do think about whether this work is going to cause them to gain meaningful skills that will prepare them for their future or just an experience that will reinforce the target of the day. I understand that sometimes the necessary answer is the latter, but we need to show students how practicing that one small skill will lead to a much greater purpose.
Approach lesson planning with a broader perspective. Many of the jobs, as well as skills that students need to be successful in these jobs, require students to work across disciplines drawing from a variety of strengths. When you reflect on the standards you want your students to achieve what is the common thread that links them all together? Create a Big Question that students are working to answer during the week. Instead of teaching reading from 9:20-10:20, math from 10:20-11:20 and science from 1:20 to 2:20, approach each day with the lens of that question. This will help students to make more connections, ask deeper questions and see learning as a connected process which is more analogous to the work they will do one day in their career.
Although you may not be able to time shadowing people in their work, talk to your friends who are in a different field. Find out what they do regularly and what skills or attributes they needed to be successful. Start following experts in a variety of areas on Twitter. Expand your PLN to include people who are in a different field or who have a different perspective than you. Look for ways to incorporate how the learning experiences you are providing fit into these fields. Better yet, share the 2019 jobs report with your class and have the students explore what the careers and skills described entail.
Try new things. There are so many free courses out there where you can learn many of the skills that were listed in the LinkedIn Report. This list from the Muse is a great start. Next on my list is their graphic design course. I plan on incorporating what I learn into a student production group I am working with this year.
In the book Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World, the authors (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen) discuss something called the Equity Hypothesis which posits that if we give students deep learning experiences (those that incorporate the 6 C’s of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, character and citizenship) then we will engage all students at high levels essentially closing the economic gap that has existed for generations.
When thinking about the purpose of school in the context of the conversation I had with S, it’s not an either or, it’s a synergy of one thought leading to the other. People can pursue their passions AND make money doing it. It’s up to us as educators to make that happen by making the school experience more readily prepare students for the complex world we live in.
In case you were wondering, S and I are now Facebook friends. We have plans to continue the conversation at a future date. I’m sure it will be equally as thought-provoking and I will share any new thoughts that evolve.
As always, thank you for reading (or listening). I know this was a long one.
Trying to figure out how many times I have been asked this question would be like attempting to count the number of shoes in a Kardashian closet. More than a hypothetical question meant to ward off bad behavior, if you grew up in my house, it was a mantra, an embodiment, the law.
My parents didn’t just preach this question, they lived it. When my mom was a young adult she wanted to see the world, so instead of booking a trip she auditioned for a christian music group, recorded an album and went on a world tour. As I was growing up she was on pretty much every board in town and was constantly in the paper for the innovative work that she did.
One of my favorite stories though is how my mother convinced a large organization to hire her as a prevention specialist with absolutely zero experience after staying home for 10 years. How did she do it? She first decided to call her local state official, arranged a meeting, and got them to recommend her for the position (after only seeing her once). At the actual job interview they told her they would hire her over the other candidates, but she had never written any grants, a large part of the position. So, she left the interview, went immediately to the library, checked out every book she could, wrote a 20 page proposal, sent it to them, and was hired the next day. I could honestly go on for hours about how, throughout my life, my mother has taught me the value of doing things that may be inconceivable to others.
From my dad I learned this same value, but in a different context. A devout christian (we called him Mr. Holy Man growing up), all of his decisions and interactions with people are made based off of the scriptures in the Bible. Instead of spending his life pursuing his greatest dreams, he has dedicated it to supporting others. I have watched him over the years devote his time to connecting with people, giving his time even when he doesn’t have it and living a life of gratitude and reflection regardless what is happening around him. An avid reader of a variety of genres, he believes in his convictions and finds ways in any interaction to teach a lesson, encourage growth or offer support. It is rare that I have met anyone who rivals him in convictions, knowledge and servitude.
A Personal Reflection
This simple family belief has had a profound effect on me throughout my life, but especially as an educator. When I was in the classroom I dreamed big and often altered the curriculum in favor of more meaningful learning experiences for my students. I didn’t do this for the sake of being different, but because I wanted to plan learning activities that would truly engage all of my learners. By my last year in the classroom, this meant more opportunities for students to drive their own learning through goal setting, reflection and feedback. The students held book clubs and blogged about their books, planned out fundraisers, participated in back channel discussions, produced math and reading videos and owned their learning because they chose the activities to meet the weekly goals. (Click here for example)
I welcome risk and crave new experiences. As a result I see change as a positive. In my almost 20 years in education I have accepted tenure only once, not because it wasn’t offered, but because I have always had a desire to learn and grow. Every 3-4 years I have left my current job to work in places that I knew would push my thinking. In 2012, I left THE BEST team I have ever been on to become an instructional coach in Naperville because I was inspired by the amazing work I had heard the teachers were doing with students there.
On the flip side, I truly struggle when I am told that there is only one right way of teaching or I must do something exactly as described. Telling me to “teach with fidelity” is the equivalent of the friendly finger in my book. I am not saying that I don’t believe in following rules or that I don’t follow a policy when it has been agreed upon, but when a stringent approach is being made my gut reaction is to question it first. Simply based on the fact that students are all unique, how on earth could one way be the right way to teach ALL students?
How Our Perceptions Influence Us
According to Ambrose (1987), meaningful change will occur if the following are present.
If any of the components are missing then a variety of negative outcomes will result instead including anxiety, confusion, resistance, frustration, false starts and inertia. I completely agree with this assertion, but I would also argue that considering people’s prior experiences and perceptions is another factor that needs to be a part of the equation.
Perhaps naively, when I became a coach I thought everyone had the same viewpoints as I did. I thought that by simply providing enough background and sharing new ideas with a detailed plan that everyone would want to jump in and start whatever initiative I was introducing. Although there were definitely people who were like me and jumped in right away, there were many others who responded differently. Some people I found just needed more information than I had provided, some needed to “see it” first in action, some implemented slowly and others appeared to be completely uninterested.
The more I got to know my colleagues, the more I saw how people’s prior experiences, backgrounds and beliefs influenced how they would perceive the work we would do together. Combining this with what I learned about their strengths and passions I was able to much better tailor the learning to what my staff needed resulting in greater ownership and meaningful change. For staff members in which change created anxiety, I made sure I incorporated connections to how the new initiative was similar to strategies or approaches they had previously experienced. For educators who valued individuality I looked to include opportunities to personalize the new initiative and tailor it to what made it meaningful to them.
Students come to the classroom with past experiences and dispositions that affect the way they receive new learning as well. Charlotte Danielson advocates seeking out information on students’ “backgrounds, cultures, skills, language proficiency, interests, and special needs” and incorporating this information into planning learning experiences. Many educators interpret this part of Domain 1 as knowing information about the culture or ethnicity of the student. If we are going to reach every child, we have to go further than looking at generic stereotypes of ethnicity or background and delve deeper into the beliefs that a student has developed during their individual upbringing.
Three Little Questions
So how do we learn this critical information about those we teach, lead or work with? For me, it starts with finding out the answers to the following questions:
What does your family believe is most important? (For students, what is a lesson your parents have tried to teach you a lot? OR What do you think your parents think is the most important thing in life?)
What do you value most?
What can I learn from you?
Gaining the answers to these questions can be done in a variety of ways. I personally prefer individual conversations, but I know that is not always realistic. Having teams discuss these questions at a staff meeting or PLC is a great way to build upon a positive culture in the school. It is amazing to see the connections that people make as they share ideas or values that are meaningful to them. When staff members know the strengths of their peers, it grows the dynamic of a collaborative environment where everyone has a chance to shine and learn from one another.
In the classroom structures like genius hour or passion projects are a great way to bring out the interests and values of the kids. Giving students opportunities to be the expert and teach the class is another way to highlight and build upon their strengths. Learners could also create projects answering one or more of these questions or simply journal about them or discuss them in small groups. As with adults, there is also great power in having 1:1 conversations with students about these questions as well.
In his insanely popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses perceptions and the impact they have on the way we view the world. His position is that if we acknowledge and analyze them, then we can have a much more open-minded and objective view. I believe that when we know the values and beliefs of those around us, including our own, we can better build upon strengths and create learning experiences that are meaningful and powerful for all stakeholders.
I would love to know your thoughts and what you have done to learn the values, strengths, and passions of others.