Saturday, October 22, 2011

Un-doing the Expected

Yesterday, one of our students led a lunch-time fast to raise awareness of the famine in Somalia. That, in and of itself, is not something that is so uncommon in an educational setting. Student group after student group endeavors to raise awareness about one cause or issue or another. For over a week, Sara, the student, had been making announcements and she hosted a discussion about the famine. Sara is the student head of Amnesty International. What made the awareness exercise so unusual and so powerful was uncommon fund-raiser that accompanied the fast. In partnership with our school's "Service League", the student-led umbrella organization for all community service activities, a food-less,  or "un", bake sale was held to raise money to donate for Somalian relief. That's right. NO food was sold. Baking dishes and plates were put out and even some crumbs and sprinkles could be found here and there.
Instead of food, students and faculty found signs which indicated what a dollar could purchase in the equivalent of rice or some other food product.  The impact was tremendous. The donation jar quickly filled. I was surprised and pleased to learn later in the day that the donations were far greater than I had ever heard earned at any bake sale in the 25 years that I have been at my school.

Why did this succeed? I believe it was because the students tried something new. They challenged each other to look at information differently. For the rest of the day the halls were buzzing with student and faculty discussions about the impact of the "un"-bake sale.

If students are willing to try new things to teach each other, we should be at least as willing to do so as well.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Are there ever enough questions?

I have always loved questions. At times, I remember people telling me to stop asking so many questions. Sometimes people seem to fear questions because they worry that they are being questioned. Instead, the process or desired product are the subject of my questions. As a mother, I have to admit that hearing "why" for the sixth time in a row from my two year old can have a grating effect. Yet, I do know that my daughter truly wonders. Shouldn't we encourage as much wonder as possible in our students?

How many times have we had a speaker in an assembly ask at the end of a presentation, "any questions?" When no hands go up, one can hear the collective squeaking of faculty seats as they shift while praying someone will ask a question. When students respond to a question I pose in class, I often respond with another question. I want them to see the value of mining further. I hope that by modelling this they will "push" each other. I welcome their efforts to ask questions of each other in class. At that point the discussion becomes vibrant and evolving.

These days it is so easy to access information. It is crucial, then, that we model to students and teach them how to develop questions. Information alone can have limited value. If, and when, students learn to develop questions, they learn to burrow down for deeper meaning, regardless of the topic. A recent article in the Harvard Education Review focused on the importance of Teaching Students how to ask their own questions. The article includes one method for teaching how to develop questions. We can model other methods, too.

Learning how to develop thoughtful questions can help with innovation and more creative problem-solving. Students should not be satisfied simply with answers but, with the creation of new approaches and new experiences.  To create, we must wonder and ask "how", "why", "what if."  As pointed out in Learning in a Digital Age, there is "a need to promote creative approaches to learning. How do we prepare students for work that hasn't been invented yet? .... Our global environmental, economic and social challenges require non-standardized skills such as creativity, problem-solving and collaboration. Accordingly, these are becoming indispensable skills for learners and workers who hope to stay at the innovative edge of today and tomorrow."  Memorization or regurgitation of facts do not move us forward. Questions do. Questions drive possibilities. Don't they?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mistakes can be a good thing.

Last month my two year old watched as I took two plates out of the dishwasher at the same time in one hand. Crunch. I chipped the bottom one as I smacked the top one onto it. She noticed and made my mistake very clear to me. I let her know that yes, I made a mistake. I should have taken out each plate separately. Then I said to her that every time we make a mistake we can learn a lesson from it.

It is so important to remind students that making mistakes is acceptable. I have always felt that we learn far more from our mistakes than our successes. Students feel more and more pressure every year to make no mistakes and to have the best grades. They worry about getting into "the perfect college" and having the "perfect record."  Their focus is on a product and not a process. They have let their value as people get caught up in a number or letter rather than the journey of learning.

For years I coached and I always felt that the teams that had "perfect records" (no losses) actually had more problems ahead of them than those who lost games. When we lost a game it was often because we made mistakes (and sometimes because the other team simply was much better). Yet, those mistakes gave us a clear focus for making adjustments, for practicing more effectively, and perhaps most importantly, for giving us the tools for dealing with disappointment.

In the same vein, making mistakes in class gives us an opportunity to examine our approaches and practices in more detail. I do not simply mean that students make mistakes. I make mistakes. I use them as opportunities to remind students that all of us are growing and learning all the time. When I first started teaching I worried when a student asked a question and I didn't know the answer. I felt like she expected me to know everything because I was the teacher. Of course, that's how I felt about my teachers when I was in school. Thankfully, I learned that it was perfectly fine to model continued learning. I do not have to know everything and I do not have to have students believing (falsely) that I do. We can explore answers to questions together. We can explore the process together. We can make mistakes along the way together. How liberating!

Of course it is important to try to anticipate mistakes that can put one in danger and to choose paths judiciously. I hope that I model to my students that they can venture into discussions and test out ideas. They may make mistakes or they may create new avenues of interpretation. If we don't challenge ourselves and, if we are unwilling to make and learn from our mistakes, we simply stagnate.

Every time my daughter sees the chipped plate she reminds me that I made a mistake. Yes, I did, and I know that she is watching and learning from everything I do. I am learning, too.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Of tomatoes, time, and clear communication

"Where is she? Where is she?" "I sent her to Sam, but she went to tomato. Maybe she's a jumper!"

I heard this exchange as I returned from a stimulating conference on Smith Women in Education. Exhausted, all I could do was laugh at the inanity of the dialogue. To translate: I was leaving a parking lot and the attendant was trying to help the shuttle driver find the next rider. Rather than confusing each other with, "was that 's' or 'f'?" they had learned to identify aisles not by their letters but by the words which began with those letters. Clearly, this is not the code in use when police band radios go off but, it worked for them.

As I drove home, that exchange replayed in my head.  Each occupation and each location has its own internal language. When new people come on board they must learn that language as well as the multitude of overt and covert elements of the culture of that community.

How often do we assure that newcomers, adult or students, understand the various elements of our school cultures? How many words mean entirely different things in our communities? If they are not entirely different, are the subtleties significant enough to put newcomers at a disadvantage?

When I was in graduate school I took a course where the fundamental principle involved our T.I.U., our Theory-In-Use. What that meant was that we needed to break down our vocabulary into discrete terms to be sure that we were operating under the same assumptions. This was essential in situations involving conflicts. At the same time, identifying our T.I.U. could help us avoid conflicts. If a student said someone was "mean" to her, how did she define that?  If we advise a new teacher to give more feedback to students, what should that look like? What are the expectations in the community in terms that are understand by all sides?

Our lives are busier than ever, or are they? Can we slow down enough to be sure that we help those around us to understand what we're saying and what it means? Will a few more moments of patient clarification help reduce stress for all of us? If not, I may send someone to the "eyebrow" and she'll be lost forever due to a lack of clear communication.

Translation: At our school, the "eyebrow" is a semi-circular driveway where people are dropped off and picked up.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Perhaps I'm an be it

Yesterday I was sitting in my Peace Studies class listening as my students shared their action plans for trying to bring a measure of peace to a target group. I had already read their plans and given feedback to them. However, I thought it might help them to hear their classmates' ideas. It might give them food for thought or give them an opportunity to make suggestions to each other.  While some students wanted to examine global problems like human trafficking and child soldiers, several wanted to address problems in their local communities. Two, in particular, struck a chord with me as I continue to worry about the fate of public schools. One student is exploring health and fitness of youth and the other is interested in the loss of programs in the arts in public schools. In both cases, budget constraints mean that the ax is wielded at these programs first.

I realized that while these students have very valid concerns and there is an abundance of research which shows the importance and essential benefits of physical education and the arts in child development, these girls had no sense of the larger ax that is threatening teaching jobs on a broader scale.  The sheer number of classroom teachers is being threatened around the country. Rhode Island teachers are losing their jobs by the bushel.  The Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit public schools played with the idea of allowing class size to go up to 60. SIXTY! I have to wonder if he has been in a classroom to see if that is physically possible much less considering the educational ramifications.

We must examine the needs of our public schools on a broad scale. What kind of future does this nation have if we cut fundamental programs like the arts and physical education and then continue to shove more students into the classes that remain?

In Tuesday's Seattle Times, columnist Danny Westnest responded to Bill Gates's proposal for public schools in his commentary Bill Gates, have I got a deal for you!  He exposed the "research" study that Gates used to show that public school teachers are open to adding more students to their classes. In fact, Gates manipulated the information. Moreover, he pointed out that Gates and his children have benefitted from smaller class sizes, not larger ones. Why? Because Gates and his children attended private school. They could afford small class sizes.

While it may be oversimplified, Westnest made an interesting proposal to show the arrogance of Gates's "solutions", "Bill, here's an experiment. You and I both have an 8-year-old. Let's take your school and double its class sizes, from 16 to 32. We'll use the extra money generated by that — a whopping $400,000 more per year per classroom — to halve the class sizes, from 32 to 16, at my public high school, Garfield."

Call on your local school districts. Call on your state legislators. Demand funding increases for public schools. We should make smaller classes affordable for all students. Think of what we could gain. Imagine if public school students had the chance to attack global problems, to share, to innovate, to received detailed feedback. Budgets are stretched across the nation. Certainly, there are better places to cut than schools. There must be.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bill Gates's ideas close doors rather than opening them

For the sake of full disclosure, I am an independent school teacher and the product of a rural public school system with relatively small classes. My partner teaches in a large, suburban public school in a working class community. While we both teach, we have completely different careers because of the contrast in the expectations, bureaucracy, and freedom in our two, very different environments.

In his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Bill Gates argued that we need more teacher development to turn around the achievement of public school students. Oh, my. Must we blame the teachers yet again.?Perhaps we should add one more national plan with a catchy title or set of tests (and pre-tests, tests, post-tests) to assess student achievement.  When was the last time that these Foundation heads or bureaucrats actually sat in a classroom for an extended period of time? Have school administrators tried to plan and implement daily or unit lessons of their own?  How many of them ever taught?

Could the problem be the sheer number of students in a classroom? Gates says no. According to him, "perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets - and one of the most unchallenged - is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement." He goes on to say, "one approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students." He suggests that paying these teachers more (not based on degrees but their proven ability) will make up for increasing class size.

Really?  When teachers are given classes of 30+ students and told to teach so that students perform well on standardized tests, how does that create a culture of learning? What is the motivation for students? Are we forcing teachers to be motivated by tests and not lessons? How does this prepare students for the future?

Gates suggests that we should pay the best teachers more and give them more students. Is increased pay the answer for those teachers who take on extra students? A public school teacher with the same amount of experience and same level of education (by degree) earns more in my county than most teachers in independent schools in the area where I live. My classes are smaller and we have more freedom. Both achievement and learning are on a high level in my school. We can give our students personal attention. Does salary drive the motivation and quality of teaching in my school? No. The combination of class size and opportunties to innovate in the classroom make teaching a joy. We can give detailed  feedback on student work rather than a mark on a checklist. When my student load is 60 and my partner has 170, and both of us teacher in the Humanities, does it take a lot of thought to figure out whose students will be able to get more attention in class and with their written work?

There are some incredible public school teachers who, despite the system, are creating true learning communities. It's disheartening to hear what some talented teachers have to do to help students learn rather than prepping them for tests. They should be indentified, applauded, and set out as role models but not isolated as only the top 25%. Give teachers a chance. They should be given smaller classes not more mandates, more tests, and more criticism. Let's praise those who touch the lives of our youth. Let's give them help.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Schools need courses in Ethics and Peace Studies

I am unbelievably fortunate to have the opportunity to teach both Ethics and Peace Studies at my school.  Students need the opportunities to explore current issues, to test out ideas, and to get into the sometimes messy work of sorting through one's beliefs. We explore these topics in the safety of a classroom where ground rules have been agreed upon. Among these rules are to listen, dialogue, and debate within the boundaries of mutual respect.  We agree from the first day that we can disagree with ideas at any time but we must respect each other as beings with feelings which have value.  Does this always work? No. Can people leave class at times in frustration? Yes. Yet, they know that we will meet again and we can work through any problems which are left lingering from previous classes. We model conflict resolution.

I was saddened yesterday when in Peace Studies I asked which was easier to start- peace or conflict.  Without a moment's hesitation a student shouted out, "oh, conflict, of course." Then, with great intensity, she built her case and gave numerous examples of how we fight over little things and then bigger things and then we drop nuclear bombs. Yes, her final example was nuclear warfare!  One after another the students agreed that conflict was far easier.  Not one student thought peace was or could be easier to start.

For the last 24 hours I have recalled the power of their assertions. My daughter is in daycare and each day I see her learning lessons about cooperation, kindness, and love. Yes, there are the occasional cries of "mine" and then the wonderful teachers help these little ones resolve conflicts. Daycare is a place of joy and  peace, in it's own inimitable way.

What are we doing in lower grades and then each year after to teach peace? What are we doing to reinforce making ethical decisions? Why can students identify generals and major conflicts and yet when given the names or photos of peace leaders, they have no idea who they are? Why do they believe that peace is so difficult? Why do they believe it is so much easier to go along with the crowd than to stand for their convictions? Why do they believe that one person cannot make a difference?

We must teach Ethics. We must teach Peace.