Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Old Metaphor Renewed

       For the first time in at least a couple of years, the orchid in my office (which used to be at home) has started to bloom. I'm not sure how or why.

But it seemed appropriate to refer to a four-and-a-half-year old post.

Monday, September 19, 2016

More Vivid Verbs: Language of Education

       Shortly after starting Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, I tweeted:
To which Kevin Ruth (Chief Executive of European Council of International Schools) replied:
Potent, indeed.I'm making my way through it more slowly than I do most books, as I find myself drifting into wild speculation based on the not-so-long-ago inconceivable scenarios Kelly lays out. They have brewed a concoction of giddy anticipation and some plain terror.
       The noun-verb metaphor holds together much of the book. It appeals to me greatly, in large part because of my background as an English teacher. I'm particularly sensitive to how language affects how we perceive and act. It is our primary cognitive tool, and I've enjoyed watching students debate whether language drives thought or vice-versa. On a less ethereal level, as a writing teacher I preached, "The verb is the heartbeat of every sentence. Make them vivid!" Often I would tell students they needed to aim for fewer words overall but relatively more verbs.
       Considering how language reflects our thinking about education is nothing new. In The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith points out how many of the words we use have their ties back to our schooling model being inspired by the Prussian army's training protocols: "the deployment of resources, the recruitment of teachers and students, advancing or withdrawing students, promotion to higher grades, drills for learners, strategies for teachers, batteries of tests, word attack skills, attainment targets, reinforcement, cohorts, campaigns for achievement in mathematics, and wars against illiteracy." That we use this language so naturally, Smith argues, shows how deeply ingrained such thinking is. This notion has stuck with me since I first read it nearly twenty years ago, and I've often referred to it in various ways. Kelly's line has sparked some more particular consideration, with focus on the idea of nouns and verbs as applied to education.
       Nouns dominate our educational language. When we talk about  a student, we talk about, for example, "a seventh grader" or a "high school junior." Sometimes we individualize a bit and say the student is "a visual learner." Learning (as a gerund) equals the accumulation of lessons and facts, and that learning occurs in a defined space such as a classroom. We use the text to deliver the curriculum, emphasis on the definitive article, as if these are immutable, near-sacred objects. These examples, especially when linked with the many others I could cite, and erects of a rigid, finite framework.
       The issue is captured perfectly by the practice of grading, even in the best type of assessments such as performance tasks or open prompts or project-based studies. I cite those because they involve students doing something--usually multiple things--as they construct knowledge and skills and understandings. But then we, often per the rubric which clarifies the standards, slap a grade on a piece of work. And what is a grade? A desperate, ultimately futile attempt to capture the quality of a bunch of verbs in a single noun.
       Like grades, words are how we try to express what we really mean. They connote what we deem important. But they are intrinsically limited. Mention a table, and it's quite unlikely any two people see exactly the same object. Become more specific, i.e. desk, and we gain a bit more control over the message. I intentionally used a noun, but the same idea applies to verbs, such as run versus jog versus sprint.  The more precise we can be, the closer we come to accurate expression not only of what we mean but also of what we value.
       Writing chock full of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs without vigorous verbs drags somnolently. It fails to inspire. It deflates. It doesn't probe our human essence. Vigorous writing compels us to play in an imaginarium, a place grounded in reality with innumerable paths meandering into possibilities. There we question and explore and create and hypothesize and analyze and... Thereby we learn. Shouldn't those be the words of education?
       More vivid verbs, please.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Guardian Angels, Friends, and Enemies

       In 1993 at the Westtown Seminar led by the late David Mallery--I'm so specific because "Westtown" and "David Mallery" will make certain readers feel a warm glow--I heard The Rev. Paula Wehmiller speak.She challenged us to rethink the concept of a guardian angel. Instead of being a force/person who looks out for and protects you, she suggested one's guardian angel may be the person who most drove them crazy. She asked us to consider that the person annoyed us so much because they were forcing us to face things about ourself that we would rather not.
       During some recent conversations with other school leaders, we were talking about how deep relationships can become. Most often they are very rewarding, very positive. Just last night I saw one of my former trustees whom I hadn't seen since he rolled off the board and we warmly embraced right away. While the working relationship remains paramount, it really does become friendship in unique ways. But leadership inevitably means making some enemies. Of course, we're not talking about mortal feuds; but sometimes relationships break in ugly fashion, animosity lingering longer than it should. That's especially true when one has to make big, thorny decisions...though it can happen even with small ones. It goes back to the adage that you can't please everyone, and sometimes people on either or both sides of an issue refuse to move on. Problems can become particularly fractious when people feel their children are being wronged somehow. Wounded egos heal slowly.
       I found myself recalling how Paula flipped the guardian angel concept, and I wondered if there is a similar way to consider one's enemies. A bit of the guardian angel concept applies in that we should consider their points, our decision and delivery, et cetera. After all, we should be able to learn from any situation. We can strive to separate the rational and the emotional while acknowledging the validity of each. Ultimately, we can struggle to truly forgive. Maybe we can even do it. But I wonder if any but the absolute best among us can ever fully trust the person again or see the person without a tinge of "enemy."
       That being the case, another question emerges: How does one keep the enemy from winning? The best leaders reflect regularly, often focused on that which has gone wrong. They can become fixated on an enemy and perseverate in unhealthy, unproductive ways. There exist many time-honored ways. Focusing on the positive. Celebrating victories. Mindfulness. Expressing gratitude. My personal trick is that before I leave my office, I think of three things that went well during the day.
       Reflecting on all this, I've thought of another way to think of a leader's enemies. It comes with the caveat that the leader has acted virtuously. If so, perhaps the enemies become badges of honor--living, breathing signs that the leader has done the right thing. Perhaps it meant taking a stand on an ethical issue. Defending an employee. Protecting a student. Adopting a new curriculum. In a school, who knows what the divisive issue could be?
       This reminds us that perhaps one quality is most vital to leadership: integrity. I mean that in two senses. The first is the common ethical meaning of the word. The second has to do with how everything thing is a leader must be integrated in the whole of that person. In other words, the leader must stand for something. Then, rather than toss and turn, he or she can enjoy the sleep of the just.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Creative Limits?

       Recently I finished re-reading Bruce Nussbaum's Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. Towards the end he writes,

We need to trade in an economics of efficiency for an economics of creativity. Because creativity and uncertainty exist outside the dominant economic model, there is little room for encouraging the role that start-ups play in economic growth. Yet it's start-ups--and larger corporations that haven't lost their connection to their founders--that are, by and large, driving modern innovation and job creation. Why shouldn't our economic model reflect that? We should be moving away from a model of economics based on the 'culture of control' that is embedded in the efficient market theory toward a new model that embraces a 'culture of chance' (237).
I saw that I had made a note: "Could make for great link to education. Blog post?" I'd never written the post, but the ideas certainly have threaded their way throughout this entire blog. A little bit later, Nussbaum raises a question with which I've also struggled: "How do we assess creativity?" (252). He cites several encouraging examples, ranging from portfolios to certain types of performance tasks. I'm proud to say that we use many of them here at St. John's. At the same time, though, while such assessments mark clear improvement in this area, I found myself thinking about how they can set us up for the same traps that have plagued education for so long.
     Soon after, I posted this Tweet:
Responses were varied. One I particularly appreciated came from Adam Fachler, who sent me a link to a piece by Grant Wiggins.
His response captures how, as great as it can be, sometimes Twitter is per its nature an unsatisfactory medium. This topic is not one explored well in short-form thinking. I also know that I won't have done it justice when this post ends.
       A response from Lee Finklestein captured part of the dilemma:
I completely agree with Lee, but I also think we need to extend his thinking in some clear and important directions. Beyond creativity being so highly contextual and nuanced, any time we apply standards and/or expectations in any form, we create limiting frameworks. They can affect how we assess, and they can greatly influence--consciously or subconsciously--the work of the creator. We automatically look for certain qualities and/or we try to please the audience. It becomes that much harder for us to see with an open, uncluttered mind. That is especially true when the assessment has some sort of stake attached to it. The subsequent anxiety can stifle the creativity even more. After all, we know the countless stories of those--especially artists such as Picasso or Pollock--who suffered rejection. I suspect the majority of us don't really accept the creative until somehow it has survived to become nearly mainstream because that artist not only touched upon something so human, but also managed to persevere. And how do you measure that?
       Let's take a concrete example from a junior level high school English class. Think about how you would have dealt with this. The course focuses on various aspects of language--what it is, how we use it, the various issues. For their first essay the students were told to write on any topic related to the novel they'd read. No rubric existed, but students were told to explore the boundaries of language and take some chances. Most students make some noble attempts, but for the most part stayed within fairly universal essay structures. Except one young lady. She wrote her essay on a box. I don't mean on a box, as in the topic was a box. I mean literally on a box. An introductory paragraph was on the top. Each side has a paragraph on it. She had set it up so the order made sense depending on where you chose to begin. In the middle of each side was a small door. When you opened the door, you found a small icon about the paragraph's primary example. The bottom of the box had a concluding paragraph. I wish I had a picture so you could see just how beautiful it was, and it was intellectually profound. But I have to admit, when I first received it, I wasn't sure what in the world to do with it in terms of assessment...even though I recognized the true creativity. I also admired the student's guts. Not surprisingly, when she received positive feedback, more students took such risks. If I had been using a typical rubric, would she have created such a work? Perhaps. If she had, how would I have graded her? I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this and can follow the lead to the logical conclusion of the fear mentioned at end of my first paragraph.
       The question for education, then, is quite daunting, especially if we truly consider the implications. Yes, we have to wonder about how we assess creativity. Perhaps more importantly, we need to ask--and answer quite honestly--how creative we ourselves are willing to be.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Employee Sketchnotes from Summer Reading

       This past summer our employees chose from a menu of books for their "required" professional reading. The titles people chose were Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, Susan Cain's Quiet; Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators, Sir Ken Robinson's Creative Schools, 's Mahzarin Banaji's Blindspot, Marilee Adams' Teaching That Changes Lives, and Todd Rose's The End of Average. On our first day back people broke into small groups. (Some books had several groups; some one.) I then gave each group one poster-sized sheet of paper. The task: to produce a single-page sketchnote synthesis of their book. You can see all the results below. Once again, I'm blown away by the St. John's people.
       To share and expand the conversation, groups posted their sheets at various points around the school. When they did, another sheet of paper was put up for people to pose thought and questions so that we could expand each group's conversation. Now I invite you to do the same in the comments section of this post.