Saturday, February 27, 2016

Loved to Write: The Sadness of the Past Tense

Something happens when we listen to our students--we learn. 

Donald Graves' Children Want to Write (edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle) is a book that has become a tangible part of my growth as a teacher. Graves' fingerprints are all over my classroom and my practice.

Mostly, I read him. Now, that I am podcasting with my students, I hear him.

When we podcast, we talk about writing and reading. When asked, "Do you see yourself as writers?" the students seem to nudge the conversation from "kind of, sort of" to when they absolutely did see themselves as writers. They prefer to talk about when they used to see themselves as writers. The answer I hear more than any other is "third grade." Boys. Girls. They say, "third grade." Those who do not say "third grade," say "elementary school."

I'm still waiting for a student to say "middle school."

In trying to get to the bottom of what makes a student believe he or she is a writer, I am learning that encouragement is the foundation, and that correction, testing, homework, and stress (their words) are the wrecking balls.

For example, Cass told me a teacher in elementary school rescued a piece of her writing from the recycling bin. Then, the teacher encouraged her to continue with it and to share it with others. That act made Cass believe she was a writer. I wish you could have seen her smile as shared that memory with me.

Em shared that her elementary teachers continually told her that she was advanced as a writer, that she was using techniques and tools naturally. By the way, Em was also a reader.

Credit: Irma Nazario Muniz
Their stories are all beautiful and they all share several common threads. They all saw themselves as writers because they were encouraged to. The students now struggle with seeing themselves as writers in middle school. They hesitate. They best they offer to my question is an unconvincing, limp, "sort of" or "sometimes."

When asked what is wrong, what happened, what is the difference, do you know what they report?

Stress. Homework. Tests. Grades. Correctness. An emphasis on errors. Their words, not mine.

Most actually acknowledge that school should be challenging. They agree that they need to be pushed, to be asked to perform more complex tasks. I find that most want to learn and want to grow.

But at what cost, when they all admit to stress.? They are 11, 12, and 13 years of age. Without strong, active, passionate mentors around them, writing literally disappears from their lives. There isn't enough writing in a curriculum. Furthermore, when the writing in a curriculum contributes to sucking the love out of writing--something is wrong. Dramatically wrong.

We don't own their writing lives, yet we act in ways that mitigates any future shot of these kids writing for themselves. Instead, they learn to write for the teacher or the test. They learn that writing is a task to be completed. For a score. And when the writing is done. It is literally done.

As I talk to more students, they specifically use the word love in the past tense...loved...when they talk about writing. And, they don't even realize they are saying it that way. But I hear it. I hear the past tense.

"I loved writing when I was a child,"

"Especially in third grade. All I wanted to be was a writer."

I fear that the loss of wanting to write, the loss of loving writing, is a loss in wanting to think, a loss in loving thinking...a loss of problem solving...a loss of creating. The very weaknesses pointed out to us from the pundits and critics come as a result of the pressure to change...the pressure to score...the pressure to be measured with tools that do not inspire growth. They inspire endpoints. And that is sad.

When we drive our kids to a finish line, we send a message that the exercise is done. Over. You finished in x place and you are an x writer. Yes, I see the humor in the sound...ex-writer.

Each time I hear my kids speak about writing in the past tense, it genuinely makes me sad. However, I know I can change the tense of the conversation.

I can encourage my students, yes. By writing and talking and listening.

And I can encourage teachers and parents. By writing and talking and listening.

Not everyone is going to embrace my words. Not everyone is going to be interested or understand. Admittedly, I did not fully understand until I started talking with and listening to my students. Before that could happen, however, I needed to create the conditions for understanding--I needed to become a teacher who writes. Are you a teacher who writes? If so, good! Are your colleagues? Help them. Encourage them...and not just the English teachers. All of this, of course, is designed to help more adults encourage students. It strikes me that some of the conditions of education actually discourage learning and growth.

How can we stand idly by and watch that continue to happen?

I encourage you to listen to my podcast The Classroom for ideas as to how you might start talking with your kids as well. If you do, share your discoveries and connections. We all need to encourage and learn from one another.

You can, and I can, encourage others by doing. By being a writer with our kids...and by being a writer for our kids. Using our writing to advocate for our students, and my writing today is one model of one type of contribution that we can all make. 

Sharing our conversations through blogs, publishing with professional journals, or taking the leap and publishing our own podcasts are contributions. Inviting others into the conversation is another model. We have all heard some variation of the observation that life is defined by what happens to us, but by what we do about it. So, what are we going to do about it?

I'm going to continue to write and talk and listen.

And I'm going to encourage my kids to remember the past and to change the tense of their words--and mean it. My goal is to hear my kids tell me by the end of the year that they love writing again, that they see themselves as writers because they are treated as writers...that they feel encouraged.

So, what can you do to modify the past tense in your kids? What can you do to help them rewrite the present and future tenses of our words?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Learning to Listen

When I directed the middle school play for over a decade, I learned how to listen to young people. 

We began each rehearsal with "circle time." Everyone sat on the stage in a circle and took a turn to decompress from their day. At first, they talked about school. As the weeks went by, they talked about themselves. They talked about other people. They talked about society.

I said little. Mostly, I just listened.

It was ten solid years, often with more than one play, of training myself to listen to young people. To give them space without judgement.  And when kids are given space, they will be kids. They will vent and dream and complain and laugh and be everything that means being alive. Yes, there was an elephant in the room--I was an adult. There was no getting around that. However, I think--I hope--they came to respect the conditions I offered them.

I tried to be an adult in their life who valued what they had to say--without the impulse of giving an answer. Yet, their example ended up leading me to discoveries about teaching that I never anticipated. Yes, listening allowed them to lead me.

Fast forward to today and the classroom podcast, The Classroom.

The platform for the podcast is simple enough. I sit with two or three students during lunch and we talk. Mostly, I ask questions and they talk--and I listen. I purposely force myself to listen more than talk. 

Typically, in class, I have spent years asking students to talk about their specific essays or texts. Over the past few years, however, I have been inviting students to talk more about their decisions and experiences as writers and readers. And a whole new world was opened up to me.

I found myself growing as a teacher.

What my students have to say matches much of the documented evidence and research regarding reading and writing. I almost can't believe I ignored this living, breathing, emotional resource. It was right there in front of me all along.

So, I thought I'd bring it in front of you. And maybe you can turn to the kids in your classroom--the greatest resource you have. They have been there all along.

I hope teachers listen to the podcast for the sake of relearning how to listen. Listen to the questions I ask. Listen to me listen. Listen to my kids struggle, and listen to my kids share their sincerity. 

We all know teachers spend a lot of time talking. Talking is hard to avoid in our profession. But make some more space for listening. Listening--especially listening to student responses to questions that value what our kids think--allows space for critical thinking and engagement.

Asking better questions means asking questions that value their experience and questions that value the decisions they make. 

This podcast is a space to study what our young writers believe about reading and writing in addition to rethinking what we, the adults in their lives, believe about reading and writing.

Learning is about change and growth. And some of the best growth in my life has come from listening to and learning from the young people around me.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Recognizing Sincerity

I'd heard in a documentary that Lucille Ball was mentored by Buster Keaton. Imagine those two comic titans hanging out in their youth, talking. Yet, as I scanned for mentor pairs online, I thought about the best mentors in my life, I realized mentors aren't really assigned in the real world. It doesn't work that way.
No one can assign a mentor.

We come to find mentors just by living. When we embrace something with all of our heart and energy, we come to find a respect for like-minded people--and we want to be around them. We want to learn from them.

I had some fun browsing a website dedicated to mentors, specifically a section highlighting mentor-mentee relationships : From here, I found a few relationships to dig into...

While nothing indicates that Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarentino sat down over eggs and coffee and discussed writing, we do know that Tarentino read Leonard. At the very least, that is where their relationship began. Reading is one way of bringing ourselves by the side of someone whom we respect. All mentor relationships are not face-to-face. Relationships can develop an intimacy through reading. Want proof? Ask any poor soul who has ever written a poem to another.

For more tangible evidence, I found Zachary Colbert's The Books of Tarentino. In it, Tarentino said, “Elmore Leonard was a real mentor to me as far as writing is concerned. He helped me find my voice.”

In education, I like to think Nanci Atwell could not have become "Nanci Atwell" without mentors. The same must hold true for Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Ralph Fletcher...

I've read that Lucy Calkins was mentored by Donald Graves. And Graves had Don Murray. Murray had Graves. They were neighbors!

When we find our mentors, we contribute something to the relationship. It is not a host and parasite model. Sometimes what we bring is simply a hope or a seed of a goal to be something better than we are. Mentors must see something in a mentee. They must recognize something bigger than talent and effort. 

In Paul Bond's interview of Hollywood legend Jerry Lewis, we learn that while Spielberg considered Lewis a mentor, yet the great comic wasn't so sure, "[Speilberg was] in my class, but I doubt that [he] learned anything from me. [He was] well equipped at the time [he] came into the class."

Ultimately, I think what the mentor recognizes in others is sincerity. And the same is true, deep down, when we want to grow in a field. We gravitate to people who can help not because of what they know but because what is behind what they know--some call it passion. I am still going to stick with sincerity. Without it, whatever elements are already in place would never have been there to be noticed. We can all bring different talents and skills to the world--that isn't ever the real concern. 

The real concern is whether or not you are sincere.

I think a potential mentor can sniff out someone just in it for a paycheck.

I would be surprised if anyone sets out to be a mentor. Rather, I think people fall in love with their art, or science, or craft...and suddenly this other human being enters our life and we can't let them go. They bring something...pure...sincere...and full of hope. They may not bring answers. But they bring questions. Lots of them. And they remind us of ourselves because we too are full of questions.

And our questions only lead to more questions.

And questions lead to reading, conversation, writing, and experimentation. What the world recognizes as mentors and mentees, I want to recognize through another lens. We recognize the engagement, don't we? Not a mentor or a mentee. We recognize the sincerity--whether we agree with or understand it does not matter--it is the sincerity that helps us become colleagues.  Not the dumb luck that we work together in the same building or studio. With engagement and sincerity, we recognize something else as well--a friend.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Breaking the Cycle

Image credit:
Ever since I heard a teacher use the "breaking the cycle" I have been thinking about it. The term comes from an incredible story about a teacher who helped a young girl break the cycle of non-readers in her family line. You can hear it on the back end of this powerful podcast by Penny Kittle: Book Love, E1 V1. Please listen to it--you will be moved and motivated (and, full disclosure, not just because I play a bit part, lol).

In short, a high school student was not a reader. The teacher gave her Go Ask Alice. Without spoiling the experience of listening to the teacher tell the story, the student goes through some significant life changes. We learn that this student comes back to visit her teacher and shares that her child is now a reader. This teacher helped a young person break the cycle.

I wonder how many cycles we help recreate in any given year. Students have individualized habits and cycles in reading, writing, and within every other subject area. For example, I have never been competent in math. It crushed me in school. Broke my heart more than the girls. Everything about math almost ruined school for me--seriously. I survived and clawed my way out of it. I didn't break that cycle.

A current cycle I am challenging my class to break is their habit of writing outside of class...and their habit of only writing for school. That is a huge cycle. If I can help students rebuild that habit and belief, it will be a victory.

I challenged my classes this marking period: write for ten to fifteen minutes a day for you. Use your writer's notebook and jot down ideas, lists, sketches, maps, pet peeves, observations, venting, snippets of overheard conversations, memories...anything.

Several times a marking period I do spot notebook checks. During the 2nd marking period, my kids were trending downward as writers. They were not writing as much as they were during the 1st marking period--and, in my estimation, not growing at the same rate. When it comes to literary volume matters (and I tell them this).

Some of the reflections about my challenge were insightful and fair...and not everyone was thrilled about being challenged to break that particular cycle. One student's reflection is representative of most of the feedback I received from students:
Time. Anxiety over importance. These are two of the things that hold me back from writing. When I write I love it, but there are some things that just keep me from it. I know a lot of people say that they have busy lives but I do too. I know the things that I do aren't important and are irrelevant to the class but I always feel like I don't have enough time in the day. I know though that there are ways to help overpower these. I think what I can do is plan out sufficient times to write. For example, before I go to bed I can sit in bed and write for 10 min. Also at times where I am watching tv I can turn it off and write or write during commercials.
When it come to anxiety over importance, I freak out if I have multiple things to do and I try to cram them close. I seem to almost do the “important” things first then the smaller things. Ways I can fix this is I can plan ahead and set specific times and or make sure i'm not cramming things in small periods of time. I think it’s not much of you to ask us to write everyday, I just think that many people have seen writing as a extra, not important thing that they will only do in class. I do think though if we start writing more at home it will become more of a habit and less of an assignment.
Lisa (pseudonym) hits all of the notes shared by her classmates; however, what strikes me most is the line "many people have seen writing as extra, not important..." That is a cycle worth breaking.

We have about 80 days of school left, including testing and all of the fanfare of the end of school. It isn't possible. We can accomplish a lot in 80 days.

After all, didn't some people travel around the world in 80 days, or was that just fiction?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Opportunities for Student Reflection

Opportunities for student reflection or conferring don't need to wait until the end of a marking period.

Of course, tickets out the door have been used successfully for reflection, and teachers have often scheduled days and weeks for conferencing with students. Yet two ways that I have been building more reflection and conferring for more students--seamlessly--is two-fold:
  • ending quizzes and tests with brief written reflections.
  • using the classroom podcast for kids to reflect on reading and writing, allowing the rest of the class to use the podcast for source-based writing.
Regarding the questions at the ends of quizzes and tests, I have varied what I have asked.

Sometimes I ask students to reflect about the content on the assessment, but more often I am finding more value in asking students to reflect on their life as learners.

For example:
  • Explain your writing process outside of class.
  • Share what writing or reading was like when you were a child. Do you miss anything about it? 
  • Tell me about a topic from another class, or from everyday life experiences, that you continued to think about on your own. How have you pursued learning more about that topic?
  • What obstacles keep you from pleasure reading? What could you do to overcome those obstacles?
  • Tell me about topics or classroom exercises that feel worth the effort for you.
These reflections are worth points. Attributing points is a small way to demonstrate that I value their learning beyond the content and standards. However, the longterm value comes from my follow-up in writing or in conversation (formal and informal). When we participate in their reflections, we send a message that how we learn has value. How we think and what we do matters.

I find myself jotting more possible reflection questions down in my writer's notebook all the time. Now that I find that I have a place to continue to slip in more writing and more reflection, the ideas come easily. I am chasing my curiosity about my kids.

More often, I find myself conferring with students about more than a specific piece of writing. Conferring happens at any time, and on any given day my kids will have several pieces of unfinished, messy, writing to reference in a conference. We can talk about reading. We can talk about their reading and writing past, goals, growth, et al.

I record many of these conferences on my iPhone using the VoiceRecord Pro app. I like this app because it allows me to email the audio file or upload it to a wide variety of online storage systems such as Google Drive or DropBox.

Voice Record Pro also helps me share reflections with all of my students in another format--the classroom podcast. I meet with students in pairs or small groups and host discussions about reading and writing. Recently, these conversations have been more about the conditions of the learning classroom (choice) as well as books that they have loved recently.

Our students can learn from conferring, but they can also learn by listening in to the conferring that their peers experience. It happens anyway when they eavesdrop on our conferring.

This podcast, The Classroom, can be found on iTunes or through most podcasting apps. I use a podcast hosting system called Libsyn. It does cost a bit of money, but my hope is that this podcast will lead to more understanding and reflection by students, families, and teachers.

One way I am bringing the student podcast into the classroom is by asking students to listen to it in class and to write a bit of a reflection on specific episodes--their writing in this instance is built on supporting academic vocabulary.

For example, this week's work asks students to reflect on the word implicit. Once we establish a meaning together, students will listen to an episode of the classroom podcast and find something implicit in the podcast to write about.

In the end, finding ways to ask students to reflect, and for me to reflect with them, brings me closer to understanding where they are today--and if I can understand that, I can help them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sacred Cow: the Whole-Class Novel

On Pernille Ripp's blog, I was struck by something she wrote because I discover this same truth in my own students--from lots of them. Dozens and dozens of the kids who I have taught over the last decade could be the niece Ripp describes: incredible niece who seems to inhale books told me today that since she keeps being assigned books in school she hasn’t really been reading much else. Which means her grand total of books this year is about 10. Rather than the 50 or 60 she usually reads. From 50 to 10. Let that sink in. She also told me the only reason it’s so high is because over the holidays she read a few books of her own choice, ones she had been waiting to read and finally felt she had the energy to. But 10 books is not very high, not for her at least, so there seems to be a problem here. Her English class seems to be killing her joy of reading.
I read this and I thought, my god, this is what my kids tell me. Something is wrong here. I've read Gallagher's Readicide, Kittle's Book Love, Atwell's, The Reading Zone, and Miller's The Book Whisperer, but nothing strikes a deeper more resonate chord than an adolescent telling me the truth and reality of their reading and writing lives.

At the very least, the whole-class novel is a sacred cow worth examining. So much of growing as a teacher is recognizing that what we are seeing is more valuable that what we have been saying...or think we are saying.

That said...let me say

For much of the last decade I have built my classroom around choice in reading, yet I have still made room for professional reflection and reading about the possibilities of balance between choice and whole-class selections. What has some value (the whole-class novel) can easily degenerate into something taught badly--and has been taught badly for quite some time.  

Believe it or not, I try to avoid teaching badly.

In my classroom, I have moved to a model where for over 90% of the year students experience complete control over their reading lives. I monitor and confer with students about their reading. We set goals together each marking period. We reflect on our growth. Yet, I have still retained a two to three week segment of the year for a whole-class novel experience...and even in that I offer some choice.

During the whole-class novel structure, students can choose from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Little Women. If, after trying those books, they do not feel engaged, I am open to their finding another option as long as it is a piece of classic literature which challenges them and engages them. 

I handle this reading in literature circles. It breaks the class down into smaller classes within the larger class. We discuss the book, their struggles and questions, and any of their observations about the text. I bring no preset list of questions. I bring no agenda of elements of a story. We can teach character and setting and conflict and point of view throughout the year in most any text. We can dip in and out of those examples. We don't have to flog our kids with questions when they engage in a whole-class novel. So, I listen and adjust to them. It is the students' agenda, not mine. It is their reading life, not mine. I am here to support them.

Yet, I find three major issues that I always feel I need to deal with better each time I employ the whole-class novel: pacing, the stop-and-start mentality, and distancing readers. These struggles are no different than from when I was truly struggling during my first few years of teaching...and didn't realize it.

Ultimately, when it comes to any whole-class novel, I find myself reflecting on how to pace each class based on the needs of the students. This is very difficult to do well. I have tried many different strategies. I tried setting a reading pace based on the slowest reader in the room. I tried to split the difference between the fastest and the slowest readers. I tried to chunk according to my schedule. I tried giving a due date far into the future, giving everyone enough time to read it at their own pace and opportunity.

In middle school, none of those work well. We always lose some kids. More than we'd like to admit. And, by lose, I mean kids don't read the book or kids grow disgruntled and frustrated.

Current evidence suggests that a 2-3 week window is most appropriate for teaching a whole-class novel, but what if that pacing is too slow for readers? What if that pacing is too fast for others? What is gained by losing strong readers in addition to frustrating already struggling readers?

Choosing one book and expecting it to help every reader in the room grow--when readers are just developing their stamina--is tricky business. We have the kids in one of the most malleable stages of their adolescence and the decisions we make about reading can ignite passion or dash dreams.

Our decisions can frustrate the hell out of them and snuff out their reading lives.

Stop-and-start mentality
Twenty-two years ago I stepped into my classroom and inherited several whole-class texts that turned the whole-novel into an Odyssean journey of tasks and obstacles. In retrospect, it was truly awful teaching.
In 7th grade students were to read White Fang and Johnny Tremain. In 8th grade, students were given The Martian Chronicles, Romeo & Juliet, and The Diary of Anne Frank. Some parents bristled--especially parents whose older children had already passed through the gauntlet of middle school. I remember hearing how much their kids hated reading those texts. They told me this in parent conferences--often while rolling their eyes in resignation.

What I left out is that I not only inherited the reading list but also the reading packets for each novel. Each novel came with a thick packet of single-spaced questions organized by chapter. There were over a hundred questions to be answered in each packet. For some books, there were hundreds of questions. Hundreds. Hundreds of arbitrary questions. Along the way, there were arts and crafts type of assignments (make a diorama of The Secret Annexe; construct a Martian mask).

Can you imagine this igniting a love of reading in you when you were twelve?

Distancing Readers
I can recall the purple ink and blurred edges of the letters from the mimeograph. I can recall checking to ensure that everyone answered their questions (ha!). I walked up and down the aisles, recording who did and who did not.

All that effort distinguished was who took the time to complete the task of writing an answer down...or who scrawled a few stolen answers from their friends...not who read. More importantly, that heavy packet did not help me understand who understood what they read, or who enjoyed what they read, or who had questions about what they read.

Actually, I learned more about who read and what they thought when kids drifted up to me on their own time to talk about the book. Can you imagine? Kids had to come up to me on their own time to talk about the book. The kids were modeling and showing me what would work--what they needed--but it took me too many years to pay attention. It goes to show you just how far away from the kids I was. Those packets distanced me.

I had my head buried in those damn packets.

That model did not inspire conversation--all of the questions were already asked. I asked the questions. I was the expert in the room. I held the Rosetta Stone. My gosh, what else of value could there possibly be to discuss?

I wish I had a time machine to go back and shake myself by the shoulders.

That model also did not inspire kids to read more. Unless they came up to me on their own, there was no discussion about what they might read was all about what I was going to make them read next.

I remember reviewing the questions with the kids--because when I did not they openly questioned why the hell they were filling out all of these questions in the first place. (Good point, Jimmy.) And I remember all of this taking a hell of a long time.

Final Thought for the Day
Why do we (sometimes) behave as if we own their reading lives?  Why did I?

I think the answer is because I believed we were supposed to. 

What message does that model send? Where was the space and time for their questions? Where was the model where I honored their struggles, their reading pace, their reading interests, and their reading growth? What hope did I give them of becoming a reader? The answer is, of course, none or nowhere. 

There was no space for the student to grow in that model.

That model was about little else than the content and the examples of elements of a story from that specific book. But, in each case, why that book? Can't we teach conflict, character, setting, et al. from any book? Can't we still teach those elements if thirty different books were being read by thirty different students at the same time. Yes, we can. Of course we can.

Why do we choose the individual books we do?

I admit that there is joy in a common read and that there can be value in a whole-class novel. But doesn't the model I experienced and executed (literally) suck all of the joy and growth out of reading? 

I remember something  a high school senior, Emily, said to me almost 20 years ago. I remember this very vividly. Emily was helping me with the middle school plays after school. She went on to study theater and worked in the biz for quite a while. At this point, I had been divorcing myself from the mimeographed packets for whole-class novels and one of the middle school actors wondered aloud why our class did not do them, yet Teacher X's class did.

Emily interjected and said, "I would kill to able to just read and talk about books again. You guys get to talk about books?" She looked at me, resigned to the fact that it was a lost pleasure in her life as a high school student and said, "I would love that."

Monday, February 15, 2016

Are there no mirrors in schools?

Education reform makes a cameo appearance in Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs. It left me wishing Isaacson learned more and/or shared more about each man's view of education; yet, that was not the book he was writing. Understanding that these two passages are not comprehensive in their representation of either Gates' or Jobs' thoughts on education reform, I want to focus on one word that makes an appearance in each man's ideal: feedback.

Isaacson writes on page 544 about a meeting between President Obama and Steve Jobs:
Jobs also attacked America's education system, saying that it was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform. Teachers should be treated as professionals, he said not as industrial assembly-line workers. Principals should be able to hire and fire them based on how good they were. Schools should be staying open until 6pm and be in session eleven months of the year. It was absurd, he added, that American classrooms were still based on teachers standing at a board and using textbooks. All books, learning materials, and assessment should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.

On page 553, Isaacson recounts Bill Gates' visit to see Steve Jobs as Jobs' health faltered:
Jobs asked some questions about education, and Gates sketched out his vision of what schools in the future would be like, with students watching lectures and video lessons on their own while using the classroom time for discussions and problem solving...computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback.
In each passage, the call for better feedback is real. Each example aligns improved feedback with the dexterity of digital tools as well as improved feedback generated by a changed model of a teacher's role in the classroom.

Neither wish is unreasonable, yet it can appear our current model.

The blurb by Gates presumes a model where administrators and teachers are more than competent in several areas:

  • using digital tools personally (which may not be happening)
  • designing lessons with digital tools (which may not be happening)
  • mentoring a student-led model of learning (which may not be happening)

Jobs' notes to President Obama point out few items that also raise a few eyebrows:

  • the teachers' unions cover up fractures in its foundation (it blocks growth)
  • teachers are not treated as professionals (and I feel the suggestion that we share the blame)
  • quality control is a missing component (Jobs often spoke of A players, B players, C players)
  • the current arc of teachers are not growing, improving...and, reading between the lines, relevant

I don't necessarily think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have all of the answers for education, but I do value their ability to assess. I at least want to listen because these innovators have proven that they can look at systems and deliver what it needs as well as intuit its core problems.

So what everything suggested by Gates and Jobs is true? What if deep inside my bones I am fearful that there is truth in their perceptions? It embarrasses me. It gives me pause. 

What the Gates and Jobs quotes don't address is that feedback relies on someone engaged. Feedback is a conversation, not a score. But what I do admire from Gates is that he had the humanity to include the modifier "motivational."

How can we give motivational feedback if we are not competent in using digital tools; not designing lessons with digital tools; allowing students to discuss and problem solve, covering up fractures in our foundation; not acting acting as professionals; too comfortable; not growing or improving?

Are there no mirrors in schools?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Care We Put Into It

Leadership in education is fragmented. Policy makers and advocates each take a turn at the white board. On the periphery, adults launch into heated exchanges about teaching in comment scrolls beneath news articles. Politicians speak in generalities; their words are little more than eyewash.

None of those people or entities get to make the one decision in education that matters. Actually, none of them can ever make this decision. They are powerless to do it because their power is not built on empathy.

Empathy matters.

You are the only person who can make the one decision that matters and that is a pretty powerful and liberating thing to realize. As teachers, we make innumerable decisions everyday, yet each of those decisions is primarily driven by one, critical, initial decision.


Oddly, the one decision that counts is not policy. The one decision that counts is not curriculum or content. The one decision that counts is not what is wrangled over at Pearson. We have one powerful decision to make.

What type of a model are you going to be?

This one decision trumps all of the decisions made by our government and administrators. We do not have a choice concerning whether we are models or not. We only get to decide whether we will be a good model or a bad model. 

In the ELA classroom, being a good model means modeling reading and modeling writing. To take it a step further, being a good model in a middle school means showing up to events, participating, and engaging with our kids outside of the classroom.

In the ELA classroom, being a bad model means making excuses for not being a reader and/or a writer. It also means making excuses for not showing up to much at all outside of the classroom.

And it makes me wonder about where we came from--about the care that was put into being the teachers we are today. And it makes me wonder about the care that we put into ourselves today that will determine the teachers who we will become tomorrow.

Steve Jobs said, "I always understood the beauty of things made by hand. I came to realize that what was really important was the care that was put into it. What I really despise is when I sense some carelessness in a product." While Jobs was concerned with the craftsmanship of his technology, we can take the lesson and apply it to teaching.

Carelessness in teaching is relying solely on pre-packaged content--something generated by others for the masses. Carelessness is recycling PowerPoints, packets, overheads, and support material year upon year--so much so that we get caught into what Jobs described as grooves. He believed that once a person reached their thirties they fell into habits that they could not easily extricate themselves from. We become the cliche of the teacher who uses the same overheads year after year. 

We spend the first half of our life creating our habits and the last half of our life our habits make us.

For ELA teachers to reach the standard Jobs suggested for his industry and applying it to teaching--care put into a product--means being readers and being writers. Being a reader and a writer opens the possibility of empathy in our classrooms.

An article on Edutopia, Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content or Students? nails this very point, "You must understand them [students] for who they are and where they are, not for what you hope to prepare them for."

It means investing time outside of the classroom. We can't just rely on the Pearsons and Holt-McDougals to crank out textbooks and support materials and wash our hands of it and say that's that. There is no care in that attitude.

Likewise, we can't just lean on the curriculum from our home districts and brandish the documents as if they are all-inclusive, prescriptive, panaceas to all of the problems in education. That document is brought to life by the teacher and the one critical decision we make. We have to remember that the one decision (What kind of a model are you? Are you a good one? or a bad one?) impacts almost everything that we do and who we become in our classroom. It impacts how we use the curriculum document and what we bring to the table in support of that document.

And we don't get to opt out of making the one decision that matters. Whether we realize it or not, our actions define us. Our actions show our colleagues, administrators, students, and community who we are--a good model or a bad model.

In order to be a good model, we must be readers and writers who collaborate and interact with other good models. Having one without the other does not work well either. Being a good model is as influential as is surrounding ourselves with bad models. We can find both models all around us. We just have to learn how to spot the good ones. Also, beyond our buildings, we can find good models through books and by attending conventions and workshops. The good models are out there. We must be willing to engage by preparing ourselves to engage--read and write.

via Hanna-Barbera Productions
When we learn to see each other as models, we invoke one of the other core beliefs of Steve Jobs: A players like to work with A players. A players cannot stand to work with C players. 

An educational leader and colleague of mine attended a conference where he heard the analogy of schools compared to buses without floors. Imagine your school as a Flintstones type of vehicle where passengers used their feet to run and move the bus. He said the some people on the bus are runners, some lift their feet and cruise along for the ride (happy to be led), and some dig  in their heels and retard any prayer of progress.  They are usually quick to point to excuses, problems, and what is not there rather than focusing on what is there. He said the leader advocated focusing our attention on the runners--the A players--rather than investing energy in the C players, the complainers. The dead weight. He noted that some B players will move into ranks of A players and turn into runners. Some won't. But the likelihood that C players move up to B and then to A is almost unheard why waste your building's resources on bad models?
  • Be more than the person who thinks little about their craft outside of their classroom. 
  • Be more than the person relying on the worksheets and packets and PowerPoints. 
  • Be more than the person satisfied (and relieved) that the thinking and heavy lifting has already been done. 

If we do not, we see ourselves as little more than deliverers of content and our students little more than empty pails to be filled (everyone is a C player in that model). And that is, sadly, the Jobsian incarnation of "carelessness in a product" that can infect our schools.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Demand More than What

A long line of cars, headlights on, carries New Hampshire residents to vote in the primary. It is an image circulating social media this morning. Maybe it is a sign that more American people will vote in the upcoming election.

The image makes me wonder: what type of impulse moves people to make an effort to change?

And where do those impulses reside in education?

For the most part, the middle school experience today looks and sounds very much the same today as it did when I was twelve and thirteen years of age.

However, the anxiety and pressure to beat the world, beat the other states, beat the neighboring districts, beat my classmates, and beat our colleagues was not present in 1982. For all of the gains some believe we accomplish from that structure, I want to point out what has been lost--because we get what we emphasize.

Point blank, educators experience less conversation and consideration about what the research and evidence suggests than they do about what the test scores say. By evidence, I mean what educators see along with what students say. Not just scores and data. Yet our time is often parceled out to talk (almost) exclusively about a long line of numbers from a state or national test. As a matter of fact, it is not unusual to be encouraged to create formal plans for change based on what the scores tell us.

Numbers and scores and rankings. That is what we emphasize.

Many champion that this sort of data is indeed informative and helpful. I do not disagree. It can provide a holistic account of a grade level and a subject area. In other words, we can learn what our students scored weak in.

Yet, "what" can only inspire more what...or what else..."what" is content.

"What" is not why. "What" does not inspire self-reflection much deeper than facts and concepts. "What" can stall at "what"--as in what I must teach more of.

When teachers are encouraged to look at other classrooms, to look at students in a variety of situations, to look at observable behaviors, then we can open up conversation with colleagues about teaching. We can talk about why a decision was made...where did you find that did prepare...when would you return to that point...and yes, what would be included as well. We can't function or learn without what...but we need so much more than what.

Yet, yet, yet...I struck up conversations with several sets of teachers from different regions of the country (at NCTE in Minneapolis) who shared that talking about teaching with colleagues is often intimidating.


Have we become so focused on beating everyone and every test in our path that we have lost the art and value of talking with one another?  Talking with colleagues can be seen as a judgmental, threatening, and humiliating. One teacher told me he felt the conversations with his colleagues about curriculum felt like a "witch hunt."

This is the opposite of what our professional conversations should feel like!

This is the opposite of what the relationships between elementary schools and their district middle school should be like. This is the opposite of what the relationship between high school teachers and their district middle school teachers should be like.

When we focus solely on what, it becomes easy to blame. We talk so much about what (content) in education that we have lost the conversation--the beauty of the give and take--about teaching. We have lost collaboration. We have lost the value of what others bring to their classrooms and to our buildings.

The greatest growth as teachers that we can experience starts with listening. By listening, I mean deliberately framing time to talk and listen to what students and teachers have to say: what works for them, why it works for them, what decisions did they make, why did they make that decision, when did they realize x, how did they come to make that change, et al.

Those conversations are not presently valued. No one asks for that research or evidence. In the worst environments, the most teachers are ever asked for are their scores. In the worst environments, the lowest, most uninspired, outcomes are shared scores...without conversation.

Some of the greatest learning moments for me this year have come when I shared audio recordings of my conferences with students. I do not record all of them (impossible) but I record a lot of them on my iPhone and then save them. I have shared some of these recordings with other educators outside of my building and I have shared them with parents of the students.

I learn so much about my kids when I talk with them, and that makes me a better teacher beyond anything the scores tell me. But I learn so much more when I allow other educators to tell me what they hear in those recorded conversations. They can sift through everything in one conversation and mine the gold that sometimes lays buried beneath my concern with everything. In the moment with our kids, we often feel that everything carries an equal weight and significance. Sometimes we miss the best stuff and need others to help us find it.

Yet, we would never know that because we are not encouraged to do it. No one asks for that evidence.

Finally, sharing recorded student conferences with parents exposes history beyond the classroom walls. After all, parents know their child. In many cases, parents have listened to a recording and then enthusiastically isolated a moment in the conference that taught me something new about their child.

And when we learn more about the child, we move closer to being the teacher they deserve. We move beyond the what (content) and move into an inclusive conversations of whys, whens, hows, wheres in addition to the whats.

While tests_________ a. cannot measure everything, b. are imperfect, c. stack the deck, d. are  a fact of life (fill in the blank with anything you'd like),  it is the conversations that we do not share that fails us worse.

When will we expect (and demand) conversations built on more than just what?

From our national standard?

From our state standard?

From our local standard?

From ourselves?