Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reflection on Visit to Dallas Public Library

                “It’s nice to see you reading a real book.” It was vacation last week, and I was sprawled on the sofa at home, lost in the harsh South Texas of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
                If you read this blog regularly or know anything about me, you know that I read a great deal. So my wife wasn’t commenting on the fact I was reading; nor was it a jab at what I usually choose (almost always books, though not often fiction). No, she was referring to the actual presence of a physical book, rather than bits and bytes on my iPad.
                My children are away on splendid adventures, so Sallie and I were heading for three days at the glorious Inn Above Onion Creek near Wimberley, Texas. I was determined to detach as much as possible from school and had notions of not bringing my iPad rather than test my will power. That meant I needed to bring real books. I didn’t want to buy any. So for the first time in a long while I headed for the Dallas Public Library, the downtown central branch.
                The central library is massive, eight stories of various collections and workspaces, along with special exhibits.  I always prepare for such a trip by scanning my reading list, then checking the on-line catalog to see if what I want is in and where to find it. I prepare a slip of paper with my information. Only then do I head for the library and begin my search. Usually that means visiting at least three different floors and asking for help at least twice.
                I went on a Thursday afternoon, and I was struck by how packed the library was with a cross-section of the population. People filled the reading areas, the work tables, the computer stations. Some were shopping in the little used bookstore. I saw people reading newspapers, magazines, books; surfing the Internet; tapping away on laptops. Many seemed engaged in serious work, with piles of materials spread out; several had briefcases on the floor by them. Yes, I suspect many were from the ranks of the homeless, who have made the library a gathering spot for many years. But they were not the majority. Plus I like they could escape the heat in such a way, one certainly better than other possible activities. I’ve never understood the complaints or efforts to deter their presence.
                I found my books and went to check out, only to discover, much to my chagrin, that I still had an outstanding fine of $2.70 from my last visit. I enjoyed the solid heft of the books, the challenge of organizing the different-sized volumes to I could handle them easily. I’ve since made two more trips, and I know I will make more.
                But beyond my personal love of libraries, I found myself pondering something else: what a vital role a library can play in a community. Like frontier towns that used to build an opera house early on to signal their sense of culture, with its library a city signals how much it values the intellectual, individually and collectively. In some way, while being a repository for our pasts, they suggest a faith in our learning to propel us forward. There is something powerful about sharing those valuable resources. So I was sad on one of my visits to see a table set up by the library entrance, with volunteers explaining how cuts have affected the library and asking people to sign a petition.
                I also found myself wondering about schools that have eliminated their libraries or have cut them way back. What message are they sending? I haven’t formed a crystal clear vision of what role libraries need to play in a modern school, although I’m sure it aligns somewhat with what some schools are striving for by renaming (rebranding?) them as learning centers or some such label. Library works just fine for me. It’s a warm word, a cozy word; a word which connotes possibility and exploration. It’s a place to both lose oneself and to discover oneself. I wish I had a library in my home. I’ll always want one in my school.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Exemplary Educators Ask Exemplary Questions

                A few times in the past, I’ve expressed my personal doubts about Twitter as a worthwhile medium, but I’ve come around to seeing its value when utilized effectively. One big reason has been the #isedchat which occurs every Thursday evening at 9:00 ET. Even if I can’t participate live, I find myself checking out the archive.[*] It’s a great chance to connect with passionate, forward-thinking independent school educators from across the country.
                A couple of weeks ago the topic was “What do exemplary educators do differently?” Because of another commitment, I had to look at the transcript after. Plenty of ideas had flowed, and all of them resonated in some form or fashion. I was reminded once again of how complex and demanding being an educator is, particularly as we undergo cultural shifts. So I found myself thinking: “What do you consider the single most important thing?” I wanted it to be something concrete, not abstract such as “embody the school’s mission” or “exude passion,” although those matter greatly. I realized my answer hadn’t popped up during the conversation.[†] As I’ll explain at the end, this omission was ironic.
                I think exemplary educators ask more and better questions. Whether teachers or administrators, such educators always are seeking better ways, probing for the reasons behind things, striving to connect ideas, pondering the real meaning of mission, considering the implications of it all. A favorite question: What if...? Questions that arise from a compelling vision spur reflection and subsequent action. The right questions keep us on a forward track while reminding us of our values and most important objectives.[‡]
                Posing incisive questions also can prick holes in the conservative[§] bubble of many schools. Most schools change very slowly, for many reasons.[**] Only now are some seeing the true urgency for new models and practices. The time is ripe for the right questions. More and more teachers are open to rethinking the entire educational process, and guiding questions can aid in their reflection and steer them towards meaningful answers.[††] I think it also models the sort of teaching and classroom experiences that many of us want to see our students have. And learning to ask the right questions is one of the most essential skills we can help students develop.
                At this point I should provide a list of some great questions. However, they are too numerous. Plus I believe they work best when culturally specific. There are many people out there asking them. I urge you to explore and see which jab you in just the right way, that odd mix of pleasure and pain. Twitter[‡‡], and the #isedchat, is a great starting point.
                Which leads the irony of no one in the chat having brought up this notion. They’re asking all the right questions and thus revealing themselves as exemplary educators.[§§]

[*] In some ways this can be much easier, as the comments fly pretty fast and it can be hard to keep everything straight. I’m getting better at it, but still am not totally comfortable. I’m kind of in awe of the moderators!
[†] My response at the time and right now, with the caveat that at a different time I may offer something else. But it seems to be sticking.
[§] By “conservative” I mean averse to change. I’m not commenting on political or ethical position.
[**] Old joke: It can be easier to change the course of history than to change a history course in a school.
[††] Emphasis on steer. Providing the answers would defeat the purpose.
[‡‡] @GrantLichtman, he of the famous nationwide journey in search of educational innovation, just Tweeted several of them. He frequently does.
[§§] If you have stuck with me and worked through the footnotes, thanks. I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace and tried to ape his form. Could never match the elegant prose, though.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Elevator Talk? Not Yet, But I'm Working On It

                I remember the first time I heard the term “elevator talk.” It was several years ago, during a board meeting. For a few minutes I was flummoxed. Once I grasped what is meant by the term, I grew inwardly indignant. Even, I have to admit, rather self-righteous. How, I recall thinking, could one deem it possible to reduce something as vital and complex as education to an elevator talk? Why would one even want to?
                The concept still grates in certain ways, but I have become more realistic and practical about the idea. I guess I even have a bit of fascination with certain aspects of the idea: the psychology it involves, the confines it presents, the linguistic precision it demands. Similar to my ongoing investigation of metrics, I’ve toyed with a variety of versions. I mix and match elements depending on the audience. It’s been kind of fun.
                Now, though, I’m struggling with the idea. Why? Because as part of my annual review, my board has challenged me to come up with a single elevator talk that pitches my vision for the school.
                I’m glad they have. I’ve been talking about it, but haven’t completed that task for reasons that will become clear later in this post. Also, while I have introduced many ideas and started new programs, the unifying motif sometimes can become lost or assumed on my part.
                Completing this has been one of my primary tasks for the past six weeks, and I still don’t feel good about my progress. I have loads of mind maps on giant sheets of paper and on my iPad; I have dozens of aborted sentences and drafts. I’ve studied traditional models, and I’ve considered the six alternatives that Daniel Pink puts forth in To Sell is Human. I’ve “finished” three final pieces…and promptly trashed them.
                Why is this so hard? Well, it simply is. It has to unify multiple elements of an intricate enterprise, much of which involves amorphous elements and long-term, intangible outcomes. Plus it has to do so in a way that enchants and cajoles and convinces. It has to be created with words, which have the paradoxical trait of being terribly limited and profoundly loaded.
                Then add in another fact, one which serves as a reminder about education. I’m thinking about this too much, and I’m striving to find just the right answer. This wonderful two-minute video captures how that can stifle creativity:

In a way, I’ve approached this like a student might approach a typical school assignment. To some degree, I’m worried too much about the product and, yes, the grade.
                How do I shift from this mindset? More easily said than done, although I know exactly what needs to happen. I have to move from focusing on the external and allow for my internal to take over. It means stressing what I want to say because of what I believe and what is right for children and for St. John’s—not what I think someone may want to hear. Like an athlete in a match, I have to control what I can.
                I trust that my upcoming vacation will help me make that transition. I should be able to clear my head somewhat, perhaps to the point that I experience one of those magical moments of clarity. That “Aha!” moment I so often experience when working on a big project. Then I will adjust and tweak until I have something that I can use going forward not just because it does the job, but because I truly believe it. I want to be like Elisha Otis, who was so sure about his invention—the elevator brake—that in a demonstration he cut the rope to show the brakes would save him.
               Of course, I’ll plan for my elevator talk to occur in a really tall building. And there will be times that I reach for the emergency stop switch because I want to share so much.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Biggest Change in Last 30 Years of Independent Education?

                I woke up today and realized that this past year marked the completion of my 30th year in education. (It also happens to be my 19th wedding anniversary!) 30 years! That’s rather astounding since I planned to do it for just a couple of years and then move on. At times I have contemplated changing careers. Now I can’t really imagine working in any other field, and I have no dreams of retirement.
                I started wondering about a pretty basic question: What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in independent school education during your career? (I’m focusing on independent education because that is where I have spent my entire career.)
                The knee-jerk response is, of course, digital technology. That’s obviously huge, and it’s an underlying factor in some of examples I will give to support my point. But it’s not my answer.
                My answer: how much more schools are expected to do.
                In no particular order, and knowing I will forget some examples in my brain dump,  I’ll simply provide a bullet-ed list of items that provide the evidence for my case:

·         The expectations for facilities. Frequently I have had people visit independent school campuses and remark how they are so much nicer than anything they had in college. I don’t see any signs of the facilities race of the 90s slowing.
·         There are so many curricular items I’m going to use sub-bullets:
o   Offer a greater variety of world languages.
o   In English, the notion of the canon has exploded.
o   Character education programs in all their forms.
o   Programming/coding.
o   The expanding concept of literacy beyond the three R’s.
o   Courses and units that are more global and diverse.
o   Service learning.
o   More athletics, often with more pressure.
·         The demand for more frequent and more detailed communications, including a regularly updated website.
·         The profusion of digital technology.
·         Nurture diverse communities.
·         Data, data, and more data to be used in…well, just about everything.
·         A variety of travel and exchange experiences, particularly abroad.
·         More professionalization of teaching, with greater accountability.
·         Increased expectations for individualization and accommodations, particularly for learning differences.
·         Authentic assessment and results on standardized testing.
·         Project-based learning.
·         Foster creativity, innovative thinking, leadership.
·         After-school care.
·         Summer programs.
·         More contests and more awards.
·         Louder cries for proof of return on investment.

Please notice that I have offered this list without judgment. I’m simply illustrating. If pushed, I’d argue that each of them is good to some degree. But when you look at such a compilation—and I’m sure I’ve left out some things—it’s pretty staggering.
                There are many positives to such developments. For years many independent schools fit the stereotype of being stodgy institutions resistant to change. The ivy and the hedges protected them from real scrutiny and gates held the undesirables at bay. But we’ve modernized in the best sense of the word. We hold on to some of our finest traditions and human values, we better reflect the world as it currently is, and we look towards the future world in which our students will be living.
                This comes at a cost, though, even beyond the obvious financial implications.  The additions can feel more like piling on, and it can wear people out. They begin to wonder what’s next. Yesterday we were to look to Singapore; today we must emulate Finland; looks like tomorrow it will be Scotland. Smaller, less affluent schools simply can’t fulfill all the wishes. Another cost is unknown and variable, in that something must give way for the new. When so much happens so fast, I wonder how much really sticks. I wonder about depth. I wonder about cohesiveness.
                That last point speaks to a significant challenge of this last three decades. In such an environment, with so many constituents yanking and pushing in myriad directions, a school can try to be all things to all people and thus forget who it is at its core.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Why Do We Need to Know This?" Look to July 4

            In a recent post on his Practical Theory blog, Chris Lehmann wrote about “the question that many teachers hate to hear from students in their classrooms”: Why do we need to know this? (Full post here.) I remember hearing that question, and sometimes my answers were better than at others. Too often teachers answer in the heat of the moment and provide a rationale designed to generate compliance rather than understanding—usually that it will be on the test. After all, they’re kids, we have a curriculum to cover, and time is a’wastin’! If we do become more philosophical, it’s often with a vague statement about knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

When this happens, though, we miss key learning opportunities for everyone engaged in the educational process. I totally agree with Chris when he writes, “Students deserve an answer to the question. And we, as educators, need to understand that if we can’t answer the question powerfully, we have to start questioning what we teach and how we teach it.” Striving for answers to that very question has been a sometimes subtle, occasionally overt theme of this blog. Here comes more of the latter.

As one should expect from someone who include the word practical in the name of his blog, Chris provides some concrete examples of how taking a pedagogical approach based on questions can provide some immediate relevance for students. He adds, “Equally as important, all of those questions could lead students to engage in powerful problem-solving, artifact-building, and reflection as they consider their personal answers to those questions.” Yes, that’s what we want. Along with those to become life-long habits which drive a lifetime of personal growth.
            But there’s more, which Chris also touches upon: “If we remember that the time students spend in school is supposed to be about helping them to become better citizens, then the question of ‘Why do we need to know this?’ becomes essential to what and why we teach.”
            While I agree completely with Chris about the goal—and I don’t know many people who, when pushed and prodded, would disagree—I also wonder how many people think about it that way in the immediate. In my experience most people think about school primarily as preparation for the next step or a necessity for attaining certain objectives. Since Chris leaves the point hanging out there as a given, I want to explore it a bit more…and then offer another reason “we need to know this.”
Since tomorrow we celebrate the 237th anniversary of The Great Signing, it’s appropriate that I look towards Thomas Jefferson. I just finished reading Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. One of the most erudite of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson cited as one of this three great accomplishments the founding of the University of Virginia. He had a long-standing belief in the power of education as vital to the strength of a republic: he wrote in a 1780 letter: “I think that by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” Interestingly, Jefferson saw happiness as a reciprocal obligation, meaning it came only in conjunction with helping bring it to others. For him, learning and the subsequent growth was part of happiness.  Note he also links freedom with happiness. Jefferson fervently believed that the better educated the populace, the stronger the republic. Such idealism was particularly important as he battled the notion that government must be based on a hereditary aristocracy. Ours, he envisioned would be a nation based on a belief in the people and their potential, which was linked to that of our nation. When establishing UVa, he wrote, “The institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, not to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson’s phrase “the illimitable freedom of the human mind” leads to my other reason. It’s an abstract one completely without any measureables or distinct action items. But in some ways I think it’s the most important one, and I seldom have heard teachers or anyone else use it to answer that dreaded question. Humans, individually and collectively, have amazing potential. Some of it always remained untapped. Yet I believe part of our responsibility is to strive to realize as much of that potential as we can. I see it as an obligation to both ourselves and to others. It’s a way of showing gratitude for all with which we have been blessed. It’s a point of honor and integrity.

School is busy and hectic, so sometimes it’s natural and easy to give insufficient answers to difficult questions. Plus time is precious, and schools are increasingly asked to do more and more, explicitly and implicitly. Yet our students benefit tremendously when we take the time to answer their dreaded question in depth and have some crucial conversations about the purpose of their education.