Sunday, February 7, 2016

Poisoning the Well

There was a time when I resisted conspiracy theories-"black helicopters" if you will--as the nonsense of a delusional, paranoid public that has watched far too many movies.

But the recent news out of Flint, along with other nefarious plans to profit off of children, have me thinking the worst.

As details emerge, the state level oversight of Flint has been astounding in its callous disregard for the people, and most especially the children, of Flint, Michigan.  At every level it appears that harm was both acknowledged and covered up.  The cleaner water of Detroit was offered at reduced costs more than once, and the Republican leaders refused the offers.

What were they thinking?  Not about children--or maybe at the least they thought: Who cares about THOSE children?

There is a pattern in this crisis and other presumed "crises" surrounding our children and their well being.

There is another pattern: business is inhumane.  Balance sheets and data which focus only on profits and rising scores create a boot of tyranny on the neck of the American people.

The complaints about the quality of education are a direct result of a policy which distracts from the real reasons our students cannot achieve at the levels of some other countries and foists punishment on the victims of those policies.  

Teachers cannot teach a student out of lead poisoning, or poverty, or a difficult childhood where neighborhoods are in disarray, overworked parents are absent to work numerous low-paying jobs, and reliable, safe food and daycare are unavailable.

There are no miracles.  

But there is science.  And we do know what conditions produce healthy, inquisitive, engaged, inventive brains.  For the past thirty years, public policy has offered us the total opposite of a prescription for healthy development.

We are all Flint: victims of the crime of exploitation and greed on a grand scale.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Please, no more "drill, baby, drill"

  Aesop's fables were all the rage when I was in elementary school.  I don't really know if students read these any more, but I loved them.  The stories were short and the meaning was clear--and apparently memorable.  Throughout my life I have remembered one which particularly resonated with me: "The Wind and the Sun."  

  In an argument to determine who is stronger, the wind and sun agree to try and get a traveler to remove his coat.  The wind goes first and blows with all his might, which, of course, causes the traveler to pull his coat more tightly around him.  In the version I remember reading, the sun pities the traveler and comes out from behind the cloud to warm him.  The traveler becomes warm enough to remove his coat.

  Even as a kid the story made sense to me--and I loved the paradox.  The expedient, most obvious answer--get your way through force--doesn't always work as expected.  The moral in Aesop's words: "Kindness effects more than severity."

  For the past decade the children of America have been subjected to the harsh blowing of the North Wind.  All those hallmarks of childhood--play, recess, holiday breaks, long stretches of boredom--have been replaced with lots of really HARD work.  Call it rigor.  Call it the harsh realities of the "real" world.  Call it what you will, but it hasn't worked.  Everyone has declared the recent experiment a failure.

  Counterintuitive to the priggish Puritans who are still trying to run things for everybody else (though they hardly follow their own harsh rules) what kids these days need is more and more work. THAT will make them smarter.

  But it isn't true.

  There are many examples of how avoiding the obvious task (more wind! more wind!) actually helps kids get better where they struggle.  Here are a few:

           Schools that put recess back in the schedule saw students improve.

           Schools that added reading for pleasure saw math and other  non-reading scores improve.

           Businesses that allow downtime see productivity improve.

           Countries that give little homework and start school at a later age out perform the US.

  There are many examples of where taking your eye off the ball actually helps.  Writers know that percolating (letting the subconscious work through a writing problem while involved in other activities) is a very helpful part of the process. I personally know of many instances when my best ideas came when I was doing something else (running, stripping wallpaper, driving, painting...).

  Google encourages its employees to "play" by offering areas at work to blow off steam and provides them with the much heralded "genius hour" to pursue individual projects.

  But that is still not what is happening in schools.  

  The practice currently is to provide some remedial time during the day.  If you are passing you get enrichment (fun, social activities).  If not, you get more of the dreaded subject: drill, baby, drill. Imagine hating Algebra and being rewarded with MORE of it.  Yeah.  (And exactly why do we all have to have Algebra?)

  As I write this we are all confined to home for the major blizzard on the East coast.  Just yesterday a radio pundit excitedly remarked that kids home from school could still go to school online!  No more breaks for bad weather!  School all the time!

  My heart sank.  Ugh.  There is still a lot to be learned from a weather break. And we need to get out of people's homes. 

  Yesterday, I watched a whole group of unsupervised (OMG!) kids slide down a hill in the park over and over again.  Lots of experiential learning going on there which will transfer into connections for math classes.  Without this experience understanding slopes, distance, time--whatever--will have nowhere to connect.  Lots of language acquisition too. Describing experience needs words. Experience demands words.  Also problem-solving, organizing, (all those childhood fights have their place, you know), effects of temperature on water, building coordination, fitness. Earth Science makes more sense too if you've, you know, gotten to experience some Earthy things-like weather and - uh- earth.

  And boredom!  Days off require learning how to manage your own time.  Maybe pick up a book on your own?  Try knitting or cooking? My granddaughter, her father, and I played a spirited game of Monopoly.  She counted, added, subtracted (and won!).  No pain there but oodles of hands on self-motivated learning with some joy, trash talk, and strategizing thrown in.

  Please don't make me punish students on a weather break.  They need to experience the North Wind for real.  And some of that distracted--look over here instead of at that grindstone--needs to be put back in a school building.  It'll make us all smarter.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Literacy is Empathy

The teaching of reading and writing goes far beyond imparting two very useful and necessary skills. Reading, of course, is basic to survival in our modern world (think: leases, contracts, small print on the credit card...) Writing, not nearly as much, but is clearly the skill that opens doors.

Not only is literacy the way up and out of poverty, developing these skills improves the world. Yes. They may even pave the road to world peace, saving the planet, eradicating hunger, and a host of other human-created ills.

All of these changes are possible because good readers and writers learn empathy along with their ABCs.

In order to read well (and with pleasure) the fluent reader conjures an entire world in their mind. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix we really are having a virtual experience.  We stand in someone else's shoes, have their thoughts, feel their feelings.  We even experience smells, excitement, fear, and love.

All this cognitive practice is transferred to the real world where mind-mirroring grows easier and easier after the accumulation of these virtual experiences.  It is no mistake that my poorer readers have a harder time sympathizing with their classmates. They've had less practice. Pleasurable reading is a long graduate course in understanding our fellow man.  Is it any wonder that the non-reading rabble in Medieval England enjoyed public hangings as spectacle?

And what about writing, reading's conjoined twin?  Writing is also an act of empathy.  Strong writers imagine an audience as they write.  Who will read this?  What would appeal to his or her taste? What does my reader need to know in order to understand my point?

And not only that, the strong writer is often a strong reader who has had years of practice negotiating virtual worlds across continents of imagination.  They need only conjure their own world, and then write it down.  Visualizing experience is the first step in showing rather than telling.

That's why we need to focus on creating readers who love to read, above all else. Even above STEM skills, because what use is engineering, science, technology, and math if you don't know (or have) humanity? And every test--even a math test--is a reading test first.

One day we will expend whatever it takes to create readers out of every child.  We know how.  We just need to commit. Moreover, we need to expand the time students have to learn to read and to learn to love to read. And following on the heels of that will be scores writers.

And one day, we will change the world.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quoting Oliver Sacks

I'm nearly finished with the Oliver Sacks autobiography On the Move.  With an interest in writing and the brain, Sacks has been a great companion over the years.  In the book he describes both his medical life and his life of writing.

I will miss him when he's gone.  His life is nearing its end, as he has publicly announced and chronicled in the New York Times Op-Ed section here, here, and most recently here.

He reveals all in this life story which was written prior to learning he has terminal cancer.  Very much fun to read.

Of course, ever alert to teaching and learning I dog-eared the following page where he describes working with neurology interns:
At one point, the neurology department asked me to test and grade all my students. I submitted the requisite form, giving all of them A's. My chairman was indignant. "How can they all be A's?" he asked. "Is this some kind of a joke?"
I said, no it wasn't a joke, but that the more I got to know each student, the more he seemed to me distinctive.  My A was not some attempt to affirm a spurious equality but rather an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each student.  I felt that a student could not be reduced to a number or a test, any more that a patient could.  How could I judge students without seeing them in a variety of situations, how they stood on the ungradable qualities of empathy, concern, responsibility, judgment?
Eventually, I was no longer asked to grade my students. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Moving from manipulation to motivation

So, been up to my eyeballs in research for a graduate course: Foundations of Teacher Leadership.  The reading is interesting, but the writing and synthesis eat up all my spare(?) time.

Still, can’t help but tie the reading to my professional life since, well, it’s all about my professional life.

The fun part of research—I think—is following the trail of resources from one study to next, back in time, until you get a cohesive narrative in your head.

The narrative I have formed in my head goes something like this: 

Since about 1994 we have pretty clear evidence about how to create substantive change in schools resulting in student achievement. We have even developed and tested tools that can bring this sort of reform to scale. (see Coalition of Essential Schools, the National School Reform Faculty, the School Reform Initiative,  Institute for Educational Leadership)

It's clear that if there are to be huge gains in effective teaching there need to be two factors in place: strong leadership willing to both define the vision and adhere to it over time while a bottom-up strategy, where teachers work collaboratively to continually learn from and refine their practice, gets the time it needs to focus on attaining the vision.

Nearly all of the reading in the course is linked to the idea of lowercase teacher leadership.  In other words, the teachers lead school reform by keeping professional development close to a study of both their practice and student work with the goal of improving student achievement always at the forefront.  Effective schools are often described as “learning schools,” places where the adults are immersed in self-directed, continual learning.

Yeah. Since 1994. That would be 21 years ago.

Here’s another thing we know.  Tough “command and control” management will result in some gains, but only small ones.

One recent search led me to my friend Rick Wormeli who wrote the 2014 article “Motivating Young Adolescents” for Educational Leadership.  In it, Rick prompted my thinking when he offered a distinction between manipulating students and motivating them. 

Manipulation involves carrots and sticks: usually grades. And we all know we can get kids to “do stuff” if we offer the right carrot (better grade) or stick (a zero).  But the student is distracted by the carrot and becomes convinced that, having attained the carrot, he's gained something.  Worst case scenario (and this happens very often) the student decides he has no interest in the carrot and could care less about the stick.

Motivation, on the other hand, happens through “a classroom culture that cultivates curiosity and personal investment, one in which students feel safe to engage in the activity or topic without fear of embarrassment or rejection.” (Wormeli, 2014)  The outcome of this sort of impetus results in student-owned knowledge because the student has both initiated the question and found the answer.

Yeah. 

So this classroom culture--where kids succeed--happens to mirror descriptions of the collaborative communities teachers need in order to create change in their practice.  The teacher community of learners should be inquiry-based, reflective, built on trust (where risk-taking can occur without fear of embarrassment or rejection), teacher-led, and focused on student learning and teaching. 

You know, kind of the same things kids need in order to thrive.

Stuff runs downhill people.  We need everybody in the building working to create their own knowledge.

But what have we had instead? Carrots, sticks, manipulation.

And what have we gotten?  Not much.



In keeping with my current focus, you get the APA approved citation:

Wormeli, Rick (2014). Motivating Young Adolescents. Educational Leadership. September, pp. 26-31.




Sunday, April 26, 2015

Real Professional Conversations

I'll admit I was not too keen to get up on a Saturday morning in April at my usual "work hour," but I did hoist myself out of bed to meet with five other colleagues of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at 9 a.m.  Our meeting place was about a 50 minute drive from home.

Why would anyone do that?

Ah.  The morning was such a respite from the usual meetings and grind that it truly has "restoreth my soul."

Rappahannock Cellars in Hume, Virginia generously provided a quiet back room for writing and sharing.  Though we were only there for two hours, my notebook spilleth over with ideas, books to read, and inspiration for much, much more. The morning quelled a raging spirit, and the feeling of peace lasted throughout the following work week. We are in challenging times as spring quickens student restlessness and teachers struggle to maintain attention as we head full force into the 'testing season.'

The morning was everything my usual 'professional learning communities' at work generally are not.

First, the setting of the winery is gorgeous.  Just on the east side of the Blue Ridge, the winery is built with long windows facing the mountainside to the west, now sporting the tender green color of new life, weak blossoms, and that hazy, yellow-green tinge of new buds.  It is a true retreat from the usual institutional setting.

We met in a large, light filled room.  This beautiful space communicates warmth and the sense that the occupants matter. It holds areas for small groupings, tables and chairs spaced widely, large windows, a fireplace, and outdoor seating on a deck.  Lovely.

The conversations ran the gamut, first catching up with each other--both work lives and personal--ranging from the frustrating to the uplifting.

Our only agenda: get a prompt for writing if you need one, write in silence for 40 minutes, rejoin the group and share.  After both gripping and celebrating, we went to our corners and wrote, generating the kind of electric hum possible only when all minds in a room are ruminating at once.  We returned to a cluster of sofas by the fireplace to share.

I learned more in these two hours than I had the entire semester.  Our writing led to our classrooms, our classrooms led to ideas and strategies, our ideas led to books we had read, our conversations led to further growth and plans for the future.  Though it is easy to find like minded professionals in twitter chats and online blogs, face-to-face dynamic interactions take on a life of their own that cannot be re-created in the digiverse.

The outlines of professional conversations are simple, really.  Just provide a minor stimulation along with the time and space for reflection.

Grown ups do know how to control their own work.  Some will even escape their workplace to expand and refine what they do.  I continue to be grateful to other teachers who help me find both joy and peace in the midst of the storm we generally abide in.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Teacher Leadership vs teacher leadership

Like a sore tooth I have been tonguing the problem of Teacher Leadership for about a year now.  It is a worrisome thing.

It started last year when Arne Duncan launched his Teach to Lead program at the now annual Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C.  (I plan to visit the education luminaries again this March 14.  Hate to miss out on all the noshing but feel a bit at arm's length from this fete. Too many commercials?)

To say that I am suspicious would be to describe an essential character trait.  I am pretty much always suspicious, not trusting that which is relentlessly sold.  I make a bad salesman since I can even find the holes in my own arguments.  Perhaps it is why journalism appealed to me as an undergrad.

So when Duncan launched the program, with little funding behind it, I thought "Well let's just see about that."  Still, ever the hopeful compromiser, I accepted the invitation to receive Teach to Lead emails, visited the website, and watched from a twitter distance the three Teach to Lead Summits held to date.

This and the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship still bother me.

There are some hopeful signs that this is a serious movement:  There is a long list of supporters on the Teach to Lead website, groups that have resonance with teachers.

The TAF (as the fellows refer to themselves) argue that they are being taken seriously at the DOE, though you couldn't tell it by me. The DOE's official statement surrounding the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind law has too much emphasis on testing and measuring teacher effectiveness by student test scores.  If there is teacher voice in this policy, I'm not hearing it.

There are other issues that nag.  The Teach to Lead ning exhorts exemplary teachers to do what they have always done: come up with new ideas on a shoestring and commit their own resources of time and energy beyond the school day to fail or succeed on their own.  Some of us have done this for years and know just how wearing it can be.  If anything, this is a chief driver of teacher burnout: doing what is right without the official endorsement of both time and money.  Teacher as saviour once again.

But no, it's something else that is nagging me.  Perhaps it has to do with how I have been both led and hope to lead with fellow teachers.

The source of my unease seems to stem from this:  All of these initiatives still have the bitter taste of top-down management.

In all discussions Teacher Leaders are often referred to as elevated.  The anointed ones speak of the jealousy of their peers when one teacher is lifted above the others.  In all the rhetoric, it appears that Teacher Leadership is now another rung on a hierarchy which, in my opinion, is the very root of systemic problems in educating youth. The model implies that some leaders must move aside to make room for more leaders, some of whom will be Master Teachers.  Oh you lucky few.

This is a mistake.

Top heaviness does not work. It creates a steady drip, drip of initiatives that rarely, if ever, create real change in instruction.  That much the last decade must have proven, if nothing else.  It also implies that only some teachers can be good enough--something I don't believe about teachers or students.  The hierarchy itself is both fate and predestination.  Fait accompli.  It constricts rather than expands.

Like education itself, the spark and hunger for change must be ignited within the teacher so that transformation in thinking and subsequently transformation in instruction occurs.  It may sound like magic, but there are models for this that work.

We do know how to facilitate this kind of change in both teachers and students.  (See Finland, see Singapore, see soon-to-be China...)

The workplace must reflect the same model that the best teachers create in their classrooms: collaborative think tanks where sharing is encouraged and expected.  Education, after all, is an inside-out process--not the other way around.

Like many of my peers, I did not learn how to ignite that spark in my students from management. I found it outside the regimented structures.  All of the transformational learning that occurred in my teaching came from a single source: other teachers.

I found my first mentors alongside me at work, trusted teachers who led me to the clear refreshing water of understanding and owning my own work--all outside of the workplace.  The first long drink came in the National Writing Project Summer Institute where we examined our work and thought deeply about teaching and its goals. Then I engaged in the self-study of the National Board process--then online in Nings and twitter chats and two engaging listserves: the Center for Teaching Quality list (now the CTQ Collaboratory) and the Advanced Placement English listserve.  I go back to these sources over and over because continual learning with peers is invigorating, alive, and intellectually fulfilling. It continually engages me in my work.

All of these experiences have one thing in common:  committed teachers are brought together to discuss practice, to share, to problem solve, always with the work of students in front of us, coupled with trusted theoretical models.  The learning is deep and personal and carries the ring of truth that a school system's program du jour does not.

If we really are to both lead and own our profession, it calls for a flatter structure that encourages collaborative grouping.   It is through this that teacherS (capital S) will lead the profession, not an appointed Teacher Leader who is but one more bureaucratic administrator of teaching excellence.

My unease, I think (still questioning), stems from the idea that the term Teacher Leadership has been co-opted by the current structure into an elevated position handed over by the powers that be.  Those who currently sit at the top of a hierarchy see only one methodology and, I fear, will defeat teacher leadership in the end.

True collaboration is invigorating, not defeating (the way official Teacher Leaders describe the response of their former peers).  Leaders LEAD by invitation, modeling the joy of discovery and the pleasure in sharing a success, and then step aside to let the process drive the change.  Like teaching itself, there is an egoless component, since the true goal is to achieve that satisfying moment when students take over and the leader is no longer needed.

This is where we should be headed: a profession that takes over for itself and does not need the endorsement of the ruling class.

Consider teacher leadership, lowercase.