That one word has permeated my vocabulary since I took over as interim principal a few months ago at Emerson Elementary School. I’m not just talking about myself. With state and district testing, about a million end of the year activities as well as normal teaching responsibilities I’ve watched my staff and students move at a frenetic pace making sure that all of the things are done.
This upcoming Friday is our last day of school making this the last week I will spend with this wonderful group. Planning out our all school assembly for the last day of school has gotten me thinking about the activities I used to plan with my students at the end of the year as well as reflecting on what I would do now with these last precious moments if I were still in the classroom.
A good reflection always starts with a great question. I believe the purpose of school is to grow curious learners and build on their unique talents as well as help them to discover new ones. I want kids to leave my classroom knowing how much I appreciate their uniqueness and believe in them. With that in mind, the following questions made me think a little deeper about what I would plan for the last week.
What do I most want students to remember from this year? or What was most meaningful from our learning?
How can I continue to shine a spotlight on the talents of my students so they leave my classroom confident in their abilities and native genius?
How do I continue to spark the curiosity of learning in students in my classroom beyond this year?
As a teacher of 10+ years prior to becoming an instructional coach and now administrator I have ended the school year in a variety of ways with my students. In thinking about previous activities I had done with students as well as new ones I might try, here are some thoughts on how I might end the year now that fit with the questions I just posed.
Celebrate Learning Fair. Have students think about how they have grown this year. They can think about academic as well as personally. I might have students include a quote that they create or choose from someone else. I honestly wouldn’t give them too many parameters and create what is most meaningful for them. On the day of the fair students would set up their area and other kids would come and talk to one another about their memories and growth for the year. I would invite families to come in as well and share in our celebration.
Personal Memory Book. Similar to the learning fair students think about how they have grown and what they want to remember most. This can be an actual paper book or digital. Like the Celebrate Learning Fair I wouldn’t want to give kids too many parameters, but would let them create what was most meaningful to them. They could choose to focus on the personal aspects or academic or both. If students wanted to share, I would give them time to meet in small groups or partnerships to share their ideas.
Students as Teachers. One of my good friends used to end the year with kids creating lessons about something they were passionate about. I loved this idea and actually think it’s important to do throughout the year. It allows students to see that we have just as much to learn from them as they have from us and also shines a spotlight on their talents. The students would sign-up for a time that they would teach the class a 45 minute to an hour lesson to the class. The things they taught varied from all sorts of things from cooking to sports to art to math tricks to photography.
Academy Awards of Books. When I was in the classroom I would have students create book trailer recommendations for books that they loved. We then compiled these in a doc with links in our classroom. With this activity I might have kids think about their favorite book they read that they would recommend to friends for the summer and come up with a category they would nominate it for. They would then create some way of pitching the book to their class with an award given to the book at the end. This would expose kids to new titles as well as encourage them to keep reading over the summer.
Summer Bucket List. Bucket lists are currently very popular and I know many of my friends have their kids create these for summertime fun activities. Why not do the same thing, but in the classroom? It could include things they are curious about, but also ways they want to recharge over the summer. When they come back in the fall they could come back and share all they have accomplished with you. It would be a great way to touch base when school starts again.
Wall of Curiosity. What are your students still curious about? Create a question board using Padlet or another technology and tell students they can continue to add content to their questions or their classmates as the summer progresses.
Classroom Awards. I did this every year when I was in the classroom on the last day of school. I used to think about what was unique about each student and create an award for that student based on that unique quality. It was so much fun seeing their eyes light up on the last day knowing that their uniqueness was cherished and appreciated. If I was in the classroom now I think I would also ask for ideas from their classmates so they could also contribute.
Individual Conferences with Kids. This is a great way to continue to build relationships with students as well as help them to see their unique talents and abilities. While the rest of the class is working schedule 15-minute conferences with each student to talk about the year with them. Name their strengths, ask them for their thoughts and create a plan for their dreams. Keep track of what they said and touch base with them on it next year.
With so many activities at the end of the year it would be impossible to do all of these things. I would encourage you to think about what do you want students to look back and remember and what impact do you most want to have moving forward? For me, it’s no longer about the knowledge I’m imparting, but the relationships I’m building that I want to last.
Every morning I have about a thirty-minute commute to work from my home in Wheaton. Most mornings my routine is pretty similar. After giving Alexandra a big hug and a kiss (sometimes 4 or 5 depending on what mood she’s in), I hop in my car, order my morning coffee and listen to whatever music I happen to be in the mood for. I let my mind wander to nonsense during this time, but after I get my coffee (Americano, 2 sugars) it’s “Go Time.”
I turn on a podcast, listen to a book on Audible or spend the next twenty minutes reflecting on my practice. This week has gotten me reflecting about one of the quotes I discussed from my last post about building a strength-based culture in our schools, (Making the Positives so Loud)
“But if people aren’t aware of their genius, they are not in a position to deliberately utilize it. By telling people what you see, you can raise their awareness and confidence, allowing them to provide their capability more fully.” – The Multiplier Effect & Multipliers
Instead of thinking about it in the context of building leader to teacher, I have been reflecting more on the implications within the classroom and how teachers can unleash the talents of their students. In Chapter 2 of Wiseman’s original book on the same topic: Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter she discusses a three-step process called, “Name the Genius” that is connected to this same quote.
Like the title alludes to, “Name the Genius” is the process of finding what individuals are innately good at with the purpose of multiplying the ability. The first part of this process involves reflecting on an individual’s strengths. The book offers four questions to help leaders to define the native talents in others:
• What do they do better than anything else they do? • What do they do better than the people around them? • What do they do easily (without effort or even awareness)? • What do they do freely (without being asked or being paid)?
In the context of education I might simplify these questions to the following:
What does the student excel in at school? (What comes easy for the student – NOT just academics)
What does the student choose to do when he or she is given choice in the classroom?
What do the other students tend to come to this student for help with?
Step 2 in the process is literally putting a label on it. Some examples given are, “synthesizing complex ideas,” or “building bridges.” I think the labels in school would depend greatly on the age and the different students comprised of the classroom each year, but some of the ideas I have are:
This is a student who naturally takes the lead when working in partnerships or groups. The other students tend to look to him or her for leadership in the classroom.
This is a student whose desk, locker, all materials are always organized. He or she has a system for everything. This may transfer over into other subjects like writing.
This is the student who is always coming to you with an idea for something they want to work on in class or out of class. When you ask questions, this student almost always raises their hand and has a unique answer. They love to talk and share ideas.
This is the student who the other students are always coming to to draw things for them. They are always drawing or doodling something in class.
This is the student who excels in creativity in writing. Whether they are designing new worlds or interesting characters their mind thinks creatively when putting pen to paper.
This is the kid who loves working on their computer. When something breaks down in the classroom this student can usually figure out a way to make it work again.
This is the student who reads volumes of books in school and out. He or she has favorite authors or genres and can be found reading whenever freetime is given.
This is a student who can find an answer to even the most complex math in the classroom with what appears to be little effort. Many times the student has different strategies for solving as well or can combine numbers in unique ways.
This is a student whose empathy runs deep. He or she works well with any student in the classroom and can often be found helping other students to solve problems.
This is a student who when given choice is always creating a play, song or dance related to the topic. He or she loves to perform in front of any audience.
The final step in the process is the most critical, share with the student what you’ve noticed as their native genius and then look for ways to multiply it or put it to use in the classroom.
There are a variety of ways I might do this in the classroom. I would first schedule individual conferences with each student where my conversation might sound like this…
“I’ve been looking for the unique talents of each student in our classroom and I’ve noticed that you are an Idea Generator. When I ask questions in the classroom your hand is almost always raised. When you are working with other kids I’ve noticed that you are the one who comes up with unique ideas or are often the first to share. You frequently come to me with ideas about our classroom or things you’d like to try outside of school. This is a true talent and gift that will make you very successful both inside and outside of school because you come up with ideas that others may have never thought of before. I’d like to use your unique talent in our classroom more. Here are some ideas I have…What do you think? Do you have more?”
Just like in a literacy or math conference, name the observation and then give examples to the student of this trait. By sharing the native genius with the student he or she is more likely to focus on this talent and use it more often in the classroom and beyond.
The next thing I would do is incorporate ways to enhance students’ native genius into my planning. If I’ve got a classroom of students who thrive on creativity then I want to plan lessons that are going to give opportunities for that genius to flourish. Many times the answer will be obvious like offering choice in how students demonstrate mastery with creative options. Sometimes though the creative answer is not always apparent to us as educators because that may not be our native genius. This is an opportunity to ask the students how they would incorporate creativity into the lesson. The more we give students opportunities to contribute, the more not only their talents will grow, but the ideas that we have for future practice will increase as well.
Planning for small groups or partnerships is another way that strategically planning with the students’ native genius is a benefit. When planning for small group collaboration I might put students together who have very different strengths, but together would create a much better synergy than if they had worked in a homogeneous group. For example, in a group of four, I’d look to have a leader, an organizer, a creative student and a student who is incredibly kind. Depending on the type of work I might also put an Idea Generator, a Tech Guru, and a Creative Artist together. At the end of the collaboration, I would have students reflect on what worked well, what they learned from the other students and what they might want to try to emulate. I would use this information to plan for future groups.
The final action I would take is to create something called, “Mastermind Groups” in my classroom. These groups would be comprised of students with similar talents. They would meet once a week and get to work on the things they loved most together. It would kind of be similar to a passion project or genius hour, but with a group of like-minded individuals who could push one another due to their similar strengths. I might also use this time as a brainstorming session with students to get more of their ideas of how our classroom could be enhanced by posing questions like the following?
When is learning best for you in my classroom?
What problems do you see in our classroom or school? How do you recommend we solve those problems?
What suggestions do you have for making learning better in our classroom?
The ideas and feedback could then be incorporated into future planning for learning experiences or classroom procedures.
The actual title of Chapter 2 in Multipliers is The Talent Magnet. I have relistened to this chapter on my way to and from work probably 3 to 4 times, each time grasping something new. Essentially, great leaders who are Talent Magnets draw talented people to them because they not only recognize the talent in others, but are able to take that talent and increase it exponentially.
The longer I am in education the more I realize that it’s not the standards or content that is the most important thing, it’s the relationships I build with students and the way that I help them to grow and become the best possible version of themselves. The role of the teacher (as well as leaders) is truly one of a Talent Magnet.
“Multipliers not only access people’s current capability, they stretch it. They get more from people than they knew they had to give. People reported actually getting smarter around Multipliers. The implication is that intelligence itself can grow.” – Liz Wiseman, Greg McKeown
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.
If you were to ask me why I got into education I would tell you a simple fact:
I LOVE working with students.
Seeing their eyes light up when they learn something new.
Building on their strengths.
Showing them they can achieve ANYTHING.
Except when I really think about it, I don’t know that ALL of the students I have worked with throughout my career would agree with this description. The “troublemakers.” The ones who didn’t fit into my image of what a great student should be. The ones who talked out of turn too much or didn’t follow the directions or appeared to be completely unmotivated in my class. What would they say?
Would they agree…
I knew their strengths?
I valued their unique talents?
I BELIEVED IN THEM?
I don’t know. Some would, but sadly I am pretty sure there are more than a few that would not.
My short response when they asked a question I had already given the answer to.The tone in my voice when I told them for what felt like the 800th time to stop interrupting. The phone calls home to share my concerns of what they were NOT able to do in my classroom. Classroom interactions focused on my disappointment in their behavior, getting started on work, missing assignments and how if they didn’t change there was not way they could ever be successful in school and beyond.
Without intending it, these actions told them more than my actual words ever would.
You are a nuisance.
Your faults are what define you.
I do not value you.
This was incredibly hard for me to reflect on, but I know it’s true. The worst part is I could have fixed it.
The Seeds We Sow and the Mark We Leave
When I became an assistant principal one of the things I greatly feared was that my role would primarily be of behavior interventionist. I had visions of unending days in my office scolding naughty kids, dealing with upset parents and frustrating teachers if I couldn’t fix the problem child in their classroom. I was pretty terrified.
So I was incredibly grateful last year when I found my role to be more of instructional leader and culture builder than an enforcer of compliance and behavior.
But then something amazing happened. I started having more opportunities to work with students who had behavior issues in school. And it has literally become one of my favorite parts of my job.
Simple reason. We talk. About anything they want.
Cars. Unicorns. The history of the Ukelele. How they hate math. Love their brother. Hate their sister. Mastering the floss. Youtube.
I get to know them. Their strengths. Their passions. Their unique qualities. They teach me stuff. I teach them stuff. (Sometimes without them knowing it)
And yes, we reflect. We talk about what happened. Why it happened. What they will do differently next time. Why it might be hard to avoid doing whatever it is they did next time, but how they will still vigilantly work to learn from their mistake.
Instead of seeing them as someone who is disrupting my busy day I see them as a gift. An opportunity for me to connect. To Learn. To Pause. To help a kid see that even if they made a mistake they are still special, unique, and talented. School is a good place for them. They belong here. They are loved.
They are not a problem to fix, but an untapped talent with a potential for greatness.
When I was a classroom teacher there were so many pressures and demands of the job that made me feel like I didn’t always have the time it would require to build relationships with my most troubled students. If we didn’t get through every part of the curriculum each day I was somehow failing as a teacher.
We tell ourselves things like, If I don’t get through Unit 12 Lesson 9 in math by the end of the year something terrible is going to happen. This students’ behavior isn’t fair to the other kids. It’s taking away their opportunity to learn. It sets a bad example. I need to DO something about it quickly or somehow this behavior will spread like a T Swift album.
I would argue with you the opposite is true. If we don’t get students to see their unique talents and abilities then we have failed them. If we don’t make school a place where kids feel connected, develop their passions and leave with a sense of drive and purpose then we are failing society.
Taking the extra time that it may require to build a relationship with a struggling student will actually take up less time in the long run because you will have an advocate in your classroom as opposed to an adversary.
If you are still struggling with finding the time, I would recommend trying the 2X10 strategy. I read about it in an ASCD article a few years ago and it has helped many of the teachers I have worked with to build better relationships. Every day for ten days you take two minutes to share something personal about yourself with that student. Many times when we ask our troubled students things about themselves they come back with crickets or very little information. This strategy helps to overcome that barrier and the student starts to see connections with you which opens them up to share more about themselves. It helps them to see you as a human being as well and not just the daily source of their frustration.
I promise. It’s worth it.
One of the reasons I felt so compelled to share this story this week was because of a new book I started reading by Dr. Brad Gustafson called Reclaiming our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education. The foreward is actually written by a student who discovered his passion for drawing in Kindergarten. This talent continued to be fostered throughout his elementary career by everyone in the school to the point where he has connected with published authors and is inspiring others and making a true difference. His talent for artwork could have been seen as a nuisance or something to be put on the back burner for the curriculum, but it wasn’t. Now this middle schooler is inspiring others and making a difference. Not gonna lie. This story brought me to tears.
Let’s make stories like this one the norm as opposed to the exception in school.