Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Hope at Start of School Year...and Beyond

     The beginning of a new year is special because of how it captures such a sense of hope and possibility. The adults sense it in each student, and the kids trust in us to help them discover all the ways their innate sense of it can turn into startling realities. When it works right, it stokes that joyful sense of learning.Then you have students wanting to return to school.
     Of course, those who've never been harbor some trepidation, no matter what they've been told. It's why one of my favorite scenes during the opening couple of weeks is at morning carpool. A pre-K or K child will be reluctant, barely inching along the sidewalk, eyes bulging and sometimes a bit moist. Then an older child--usually a sibling, sometimes a family friend, sometimes just an empathetic upper elementary or middle schooler--will clasp the small child's hand or drape an arm around their shoulders, smile and whisper some encouragement, and walk them in. A small but giant kindness.
     When I see such scenes, ones that children re-create in myriad ways without really thinking, I feel hopeful. They are why why we see them, to be cliched, as the hope for the future. At the same time, it reminds us that at our core people are basically kind and helpful, something we can forget as we suffer what feel like daily blizzards of vitriol in these turbulent, divisive times.
     Last week I had a five-day period during which I had quite a bit of travel, pinging around different time zones. Between travel and appointments, I decided to observe and reflect on random human behavior, particularly how we treat strangers. Other than one guy yelling over the phone at a service agent about a flight situation, I saw nothing I would describe as rude. Instead, I saw general niceness. Here's just a partial list of incidents which stand out: 

  • People helping others stow and take down carry-on luggage on an airplane.
  • My son's college roommate waiting for him to arrive before setting anything up so they could decide how to arrange things together.
  • The lady who helped a struggling mom fold up a stroller as her toddler screamed.
  • Drivers letting each other in during a rush hour traffic jam.
  • The hotel clerk who had our room cleaned in a tight time frame as we requested.
  • A teen helping an older couple figure out how to check in at the airport.
  • Incredible patience by many with a person who kept getting buzzed in the metal detector.
  • The clerk who helped with my luggage when I returned my rental car and double-checked to make sure I knew the way to the terminal.
  • The man who told his aisle-mate on the plan, "You got stuck in the middle. Take the arm rest."
  • The stranger who complimented my t-shirt.
  • The gate agent who smiled broadly and thanked every person boarding my early Sunday morning flight.
  • The person who helped me figure out the card system on my hotel's elevator.

I could add several others, many directed at me and my family. It was an encouraging and affirming. They reminded me of those opening of school scenes.
    In the current political climate, many from both ends of the spectrum are putting all their hope in the mid-term elections. Yes, they matter greatly. But the more I experience and learn, the more I believe solutions and meaningful, positive won't be found in elected leaders or systems, though they can help. Not just in politics, but in any complex human endeavor, including schools. Instead, it's up to each individual and the multiple choices we make each day. We have it in us. As in so many other things, we can lead the children lead us. They embody hope.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Powerful Reminder(s) in a Phone Call

     The last couple of days,  I've come to school kind of grumpy. It's fatigue, physical and mental, more than anything. In-service is always an invigorating time, but also draining for all the reasons imaginable. Plus plenty going on away from school, including my older child entering her senior year in college and my younger about to start his first. The prospect of empty nesthood is exciting, but comes with a tinge of sadness.
     Today, though, the funk began to lift. I had one of those moments that educators dream about. It brought with it inspiration in the form of key reminders.
     Yesterday I'd had a voice mail from a student I taught back in the late 80s. We'd had no contact since then, and she said she wasn't sure I would remember her but she wanted to speak with me for a few minutes. I did recall her quite well. She'd been a very bright, lively kid who I really liked. She just never seemed to get her stuff together. Soon after I left, she flunked out of the school. I had no idea what had become of her.
     This morning I called her back. She told me she had been talking with her daughter, who asked her about teachers who mattered. That inspired her to call me. She said she couldn't remember anything from my classes, but she remembered my kindness to her, my belief in her, and everything I did to try to help her, especially having her call me in the evenings to hold her accountable for doing her work. I knew her home life was a wreck, but I learned just how bad on this call.
     The beauty is that now she's doing great: married for twenty years, three great kids, has a graduate degree. So perhaps not only great, but better than most, despite how things started. Plus, for me the best of all--and here's where you may get the goose bumps I felt--she's a middle school English teacher. She chooses to work with underprivileged kids. She tells them if they take nothing else away from her class, she wants them to know she loves them.
     Thirty years ago I was trying to save this young woman. Now she's become one of my heroes. Of course, heroic tales always come with morals. As we begin another school year, the story reminds us about what we're really teaching. Impressionable young people, ones who may be carrying things they are simply not equipped to handle. Sensitive, trusting souls who make themselves vulnerable to us. It's why no matter how skilled we become in pedagogy or well-versed in curricula, the most powerful thing we can do with any student is forge a relationship. We never know what the lasting lesson may be. Indeed, we may wonder if it really matters. Most of the time, educators do not get to revel in the long-term successes of their students. When we do, it's amazing. Today was one of the most amazing. I wish such an experience for every educator. But even if you don't have one quite so awesome, know your impact.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Back-to-School Inspiration: A Strengths-Finder Approach to Educational Progress

     Criticizing schools--or at least aspects of them--is easy. It's one of those subjects about which everyone seems to hold an opinion, usually focused on something that's wrong. Sometimes they have a valid point; sometimes they don't. Among the loudest and most negative can be prominent reform advocates, and something about human nature makes that approach work.
     Certainly I've been vocal about some ways I believe education should change, and I can be a bit idealistic, even pollyannaish, about the power of a meaningful education. I also realize my perspective comes from inside that independent school bubble, a lens which certainly skews my perspective. I don't think it lessens the point I hope to make here. Lately I've been wondering about how we sometimes go about trying to improve things.
     Typically we snatch onto the latest and greatest and preach about it being transformational. Then we do it again. And again. I suspect that happens for many related reasons. We hear something is broken, and we want it fixed. We're entranced by newness. We want the best for students. We want to believe in the promise.
     I still believe in the promise. But I don't believe true, lasting transformation occurs through just one thing or very quickly. Either the change has to burrow into one's soul, or it's already there and needs ways to emerge. Plus any single approach seldom works for everyone at one time, or for anyone at all times.
     There may be exceptions, but transformation seems to happen like innovation: assorted bits and pieces come together over time, eventually combining in something new (as explained in Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From). It's made me wonder if we should be taking sort of a strengths-finder approach to educational progress, working to scale all the promising work being done in schools. That generates positive energy.
     With that in mind, here is a list of exciting things which are trending in schools currently. It's what occurs to me as I'm typing, so certainly incomplete. But perhaps you'll feel affirmed and/or inspired by something on it.


  • Project-based learning
  • Increased concern with student's holistic well-being
  • Blended learning
  • Coding and robotics
  • Schools dropping APs
  • Colleges eliminating testing requirements
  • Design thinking
  • Community gardens and outdoor learning spaces
  • Flexible learning spaces
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Mastery and competency based standards
  • Real-world connections and internships
  • Service learning
  • Alternate/authentic assessment
  • Brain-based learning
  • Emphasis on creativity
  • Wider, deeper understanding and acceptance of diversity
Some of these can have a larger impact more quickly than others. Some naturally work together. The real power, though, lies in the cumulative effect. What also matters greatly, maybe most importantly, are the conversations surrounding them. I hope this may inspire some of your own learning and growth for the year.
     Whichever path you choose, keep in mind the most vital, potentially transformative aspect of being an educator. The lationship with a student. Nothing else works or really matters without that.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Picture of Graduate and Control of Learning

     Recently I've noticed quite a few comments in Dr. Tony Wagner's Twitter stream in which he is encouraging schools to develop their Portrait of a Graduate (PoG). For the past few months, I've also, without as much focus, seen more and more tweets referencing students' being in control of the learning. Naturally, I've been juxtaposing the two in my thoughts.
     While I appreciate the idea behind the calls to grant them more control, I've written in the past that I believe students already are in control of their learning, no matter what we may like to think. What teachers can control is creating a certain environment. In doing that, they can help students fulfill one of the most essential qualities in a PoG that really matters--controlling their learning in the right ways. Certainly doing that involves the grasping of some knowledge and developing particular skills. But the key lies in attitude.The qualities necessary include an insatiable curiosity, a skepticism that never disintegrates into cynicism, amazement with the unique, and an optimistic embracing of the possible.
     Unfortunately, large segments of society have lost sight of this. It goes much deeper than the rigid, misguided standards and frameworks  that drive so much of education, leading to the wrong measures of success. It's how people are exercising the control over their learning. They're thickening the membranes of their filter bubbles. Thus the extremes become even more so, with those who disagree becoming threats rather than potential sources of wisdom. The obvious problems exacerbate themselves.
     Of course, one could argue those people are not really learning. I'd agree. With how much is at stake, we need to make sure this ideal drives anything else in a Portrait of the Graduate. So much else of value is at stake.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Doughnut Learning?

     Recently I read Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. While much of the economic theory went over my head, it prompted some thoughts about how the same view of humans which determined economics for hundreds of years has affected how we view learning.
     Basically economic theory has been driven by the idea of homo economicus. This assumes that humans are rational, linear thinkers who always pursue their optimal interests. We would thus operate per simple patterns of input and output, which aligns with the notion of supply and demand.
     Doughnut economics presents a different perspective, one which is fluid and dynamic. Rather than independent, self-interested actors, humans (and really the rest of the ecosystem) interact in a web. Feelings influence us as much as thoughts, and it is not a zero-sum game with distinct winners and losers.
     Clearly the former view has influenced much of our education system. It goes beyond the factory model, beyond our utilitarian beliefs, beyond the desire for a return on investment. It does, however, lie at the root of those things. It drives right at how we view people as learners--that learning is a simple matter of measurable cognitive input and output.
     We're finally beginning to understand that learning doesn't happen that way. Increased knowledge of the brain has revealed how amazingly diverse we are as learners, based on myriad factors that have shaped our neurological pathways. Among those factors are emotions, previously ignored in educational design. Flow has shown that joyful learning need not--and often isn't--purely utilitarian.
     As the world continues to morph, rendering many old models obsolete, education needs to be creating new models of learning so we all--not just students--can thrive. I'm wondering what Doughnut Learning would look like...