Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dear teachers, you need to do a better job of teaching our kids. Sincerely, non-teachers.

In Matt Walsh’s blog post, entitled “Dear parents, you need to control your kids.  Sincerely, non-parents,” he describes a mother in a grocery store who is dealing with a toddler in a tantrum.  The mom was “sticking to her guns” and refusing to buy the shrieking toddler a sugary breakfast cereal.  A fellow shopper said loudly to Walsh, “Man, some people need to learn how to control their f**king kids.”  Walsh, a father of twins, unsurprisingly disagreed:  as he put it, people calculate in this simple equation – misbehaving child equals bad parent.  “I’m no math major,” he writes, “but that calculus makes no sense. A kid going berserk at a grocery store doesn’t indicate the quality of his parents, any more than a guy getting pneumonia after he spends six hours naked in the snow indicates the quality of his doctor. Grocery stores are designed to send children into crying fits. All of the sugary food, the bright packaging, the toys, the candy — it’s a minefield.”

His post is a response to the critical bystander:  “Parenting,” he says, “is the easiest thing in the world to have an opinion about, but the hardest thing in the world to do.”  Not quite, I would argue.  Teaching, I think, is the easiest thing in the world to have an opinion about, but the hardest thing in the world to do.  People – and whole systems – use this metric:  under-performing students equals bad teacher.  They don’t take into consideration that the environment – in schools, in our current culture, and, in many cases, in homes as well – are designed to ensure failure.

First, we don’t just have two or three children, but up to thirty.  We don’t get to watch and learn and understand our children over time, but have them dropped in our lives for a five or ten months.

We spend six hours with them, with occasional forays out – in a single room.

We are expected, in the grade 6/7 class I currently teach, for example, in a ten month span, to use phrases from the newly reduced BC curriculum, to get them to understand that language and literature help us find meaning and joy, to respond to and create multiple types of texts; to think critically and creatively, and connect with others; to use language with increasing artistry and precision; to use multiple strategies to develop, construct, and apply mathematical understanding through problem solving; to inductively and deductively reason and use logic to explore, make connections, predict, analyze, generalize, and make conclusions; to assess and compare the significance of people, places, events, and developments over time and place and from different perspectives; to ask questions and corroborate inferences about the content and origins of multiple sources.  That’s just a fraction of the list for Socials Studies, Math and English.  Add Science, PE, Health, French, Fine Arts.

And I won’t even begin to list the variety of needs of each individual child, their unique challenges, their varying capacities to meet complex learning outcomes or to sit in hard plastic chairs crammed in a single room with many others.  Like the aisles in a grocery store, it’s a recipe for tantrums.

What’s more, it’s even more problematic than it was even thirty years ago and not only because all children, no matter how many learning challenges they have, are now integrated into the small space:  children are used to a fast-paced, high-colour, individualized world.  Most children in Canadian communities have a vast assortment of toys, yards or parks to play in, after-school clubs and activities to choose from.  At the very least, you would have to look for a long time to find a child who didn't have TV with a gazillion channels and a stack of video-games for fast-paced, action-packed, just-right entertainment.  School, on the other hand, is slow.  We are not even close, in our district, to having the capacity to personalize learning with technology. Learning comes from books, photocopied sheets, teacher lessons, videos.  Students are always waiting for others or waiting for help while others move ahead, slotted into schedules that are never quite right for everyone.

And in addition (as though there are not sufficient difficulties), children today are raised to different norms than they were when the notion of universal education was conceived: mindless obedience to adults is no longer instilled in children.  And while this is a positive change in many ways, it isn't helpful if you are a sole adult in charge of 30 children for a day in a small room.  Everything a teacher asks is contested over and over.  The pace, already slow, begins to crawl.

It takes the smallest imagination to agree that teaching must be hard.  But you can’t go a moment without criticism.  Walsh identifies two types of people who criticize parents whose children throw tantrums in public. First are the non-parents, whom he can forgive.  As he says, they don’t know what they are talking about. The second, he says, are the parents with grown children who judge other parents.  I think all parents have had a mother-in-law or grandmother or “friendly” neighbour who reminds us that all of her children were sleeping through the night at three months and potty trained by the time they were 18 months old. Particularly galling, Walsh notes, are parents who state that their kids weren't attached to electronics like kids nowadays. Of course – given there were no electronics! Children, I often hear, listened to teachers back in the day. Yes. But now they don’t. And it isn't because we no longer have the magical qualities of those long-ago teaching wonders. (Anyone remember the strap? Does anyone remember what happened at home if you got in trouble with the teacher way back in those days? Now it’s the teacher who is more likely to be in trouble for not providing a sufficiently interesting and adequately adapted program and thus provoking the child to swear and throw chairs.)

A good swath of the public who criticize teachers are not teachers. One can hardly blame them for being better armchair teachers, yelling at the coach.  There is, of course, much more at stake than a Stanley Cup – it’s their own child or grandchild or neighbours’ children.  So much rides on our winning in schools.

But I’ve been thinking lately about educators who criticize teachers. Perhaps they are retired or are now university professors or district staff or principals or professional development “gurus.” When they were teaching, students listened, of course; they had routines that worked and every one of the students learned to think critically, to express themselves creatively, and to explore their passions. Having left the classroom myself for several years, I know that part of the problem is the kindness of memory. The daily grind mists over and the highlights stand out. We forget our numerous failures; we remember the wonderful moments, the big successes, the challenges that ended gloriously.

Perhaps most galling, though, are the classroom teachers with “good kids” who judge and advise teachers with challenging classes. They are in an affluent neighbourhood with parents who hire tutors, provide their students with healthy lunches, regular bedtimes, after-school care, who have read to them since infancy. Their students blog and tweet and create YouTube videos that everyone admires; the children work independently and thoughtfully and care about learning; the teachers share their strategies for this success. But these children have not spent most of their lives in ministry care, have never spent days without food, have not seen their parents going in and out of treatment for addictions; they have not missed hundreds of days of school.  The advice, always well-meant, fuels only an overwhelming sense of inadequacy or teeth-gnashing frustration that produces nothing positive.  Indeed, advice is perhaps the least helpful thing that can be offered.  Books, volunteer hours, coats, food, and toys might at least be of use.

Why do educators criticize each other (and truly, “advice” is always criticism) when they know they have the hardest job in the world? Happily - and horribly - I stand in a position to answer the question.  As a district learning coordinator, I have been such a person, an educator who criticized teachers, if not directly, then at least indirectly by bringing my workshops to a school I didn't know to teachers whose practice I didn't adequately honour. It’s not that I’m a bad person or even an arrogant one: indeed, I’m an appallingly passionate educator hoping to do my best to ensure success for each child.  I thought my best was to showcase “best practice” and to connect communities through common ideas and the latest research.

Five years out of the classroom convinced me that it wasn't helpful at all.  Back inside the classroom now, I keep asking: what will really help me?  I don’t know.  I know what won’t help:  yet another new strategy or a different program or a “new” approach to literacy.

I’m pretty sure we are on the edge of a revolution in education.  We simply cannot sustain schools in their current form.  How they should look next, I’m not sure.

But I do know this: teachers are not the problem. Teacher training is not the answer. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that answers are not the answer. As Peter Block says, "People want answers, tools, things they can use tomorrow: if you feed that appetite nothing will change tomorrow.” We keep seeking to “fix” rather than transform. Our world and our goals have changed so dramatically since universal education was designed that we need to rethink, but not by simply providing a series of new “answers.”  And although it feels good to be “doing something,” there is too much at stake to continually spend our time, energy and resources to follow yet another new trend.  We need, instead, to start with questions.  As Peter Block says, “Questions bring us together; answers drive us apart – everyone has an opinion."  Indeed.

The trouble with teaching is that everyone has an opinion and no one is willing to “shut up and listen” to use Ernesto Sirolli’s phrase:  people keep reorganizing the deck chairs around us.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if, instead, we committed to working together, everyone who has a stake in education (and surely that’s all of us), to ask questions - not questions that point fingers at individuals and how to fix them, but that point, rather, to a way for us to create a sustainable system before we sink.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Is "success" failing our children?

In Overschooled but Undereducated, John Abbott writes about chickens:
Poultry farmers, listening carefully to their accountants, put each of their laying-hens into little wire cages and install conveyor belts to provide constant food and water, keeping them warm and content with reassuring music and dim lighting.  The eggs literally roll out, frequently and regularly, while the farmer watches as his profit margins expand….Through lack of use, those chickens’ legs and wing muscles simply wither away….Free-range chickens are adaptable, but battery hens have had adaptability bred out of them in favour of a specialized efficient function – egg-laying – and have lost their ability to survive on their own. 
He compares the poultry farmers’ initiative to the modern curriculum that prunes everything to its basic motivation: to raise test scores to get a better job to make more money. The result: battery hen children who don’t know how to think for themselves.

Our intentions are good, of course.  We want our children to succeed.  But then we stumble up against the question of what success is.  We want something richer and broader than a high-paying job in the future, of course, but if a whole system is going to work on success we have to have some common agreement on what it is and how to measure it. And before you know it there are tests and graduation rates and everyone scrambling to figure out how to get each child to do well on those measures.

Lately, because children are still failing, educational leaders have begun to think that the measures are at fault and have been busy changing tests and curriculum. To combat the “battery hen” problem, there has been greater attention paid to improving students’ capacity to think critically, creatively, collaboratively, ethically, innovatively.  But the focus remains constant. How do we ensure that each child succeeds at whatever measures we decide on?

Our latest efforts have been to “engage them in their learning.” The thinking:  worksheets, rote learning, and repetitive tasks stop children from “engaging” their minds; therefore, they fail.  Remove these "battery-hen practices” and we can ensure that each child succeeds.

 And so “good” teachers make sure that every day is filled with unique, thought-provoking, intriguing, diverse activities that motivate students.  They find experiences that are flexible and open enough to be both enjoyable and “just right” learning (neither too challenging nor too easy) for each of their 30 students.  They “gamify” the classes, so that their lessons are like video games: absorbing, a constant source of micro-feedback, stimulating.  And connected to each student’s passion.  Day in and day out.

If students are not engaged, then the teachers must make changes. After all, disengaged students won't succeed. The advice?  They should search for new lessons, incorporate project-based learning, drama, art, technology, find video-clips, add virtual field-trips.  They should re-examine hard things, potentially dull things, things that aren’t “relevant,” any practice that might be “boring." And the latest thrust: teachers should orchestrate the environment to keep students’ attention engaged:  paint the walls beige to prevent distraction from learning, play soft music to block distracting stimuli, add “wiggle pads” for chairs to allow students to sit longer, put play-dough at desks to keep their hands busy and their minds free for learning.

Students need only sit at their desks (preferably in soft chairs under ambient lighting with reassuring music piped in) waiting to be edutained.

And while teachers are working harder and harder, it still doesn’t seem to be making a real difference.  Too many students still struggle to succeed (no matter how we measure it).

The poultry farmers’ goal is the egg, as many as possible.  They don’t care that the chicken can no longer walk, about its ill-health or anxiety.  We, of course, care very much about our children.  But in our continued focus on “success for all” (the egg) are the results – no matter how we change the way we tend the chicken – so different?

Our deep desire for the best for our children leads us to do more for them.  We develop increasingly complex solutions to ensure "success for all" and technology is making them possible. But lately I've been thinking that we might simply need to do less.  Perhaps we need to remember the “free-range” child.  I’m not sure how.  I’m just worried that when we spend so much time ensuring that every moment of our children’s lives is “perfect,” their own capacity to create a world that is perfect for them is lost.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A broken record: Love teachers.

Recently, our staff celebrated the beginning of the year with a gathering at a beautiful home on a beautiful day.  We walked down the path to the beach and some of us braved the cooling water to swim or kayak, but most of us simply stood together in the late afternoon sun, looking toward the sea. And then, of course, the conversations that had begun in admiration of the end of summer day faded to the usual: I have Jimmy in my class this year; what are some strategies for working with him? How are you starting math? How do you include Jack? What can you tell me about Jenna?  I’m worried about her.

No matter how early I go to school, I’m not the first one there.  No matter how late I leave, someone else remains.  Last Sunday, when I went to prepare for the week, over half of our staff was there at the same time.  Whenever I send a query to my principal late at night, early in the morning, on the weekend, she responds quickly.  Over the summer and every weekend, I exchange ideas with my intermediate colleague. She’s always ready to think, wonder, worry, plan, and ponder with me.  If one of my students has difficulties, a whole team provides loving support.  We have a food program in the morning, snacks provided at 10:00, a lunch program, a bowl of fruit in the classroom to ensure the kids have something to eat before they go home.  My assistant watches the children if they come in late and makes sure they've eaten. We have a room filled with clothing in various sizes so that our students have shoes and warm coats and clean clothes to wear.  Our non-enrolling teachers are continually on alert to provide as-needed emotional support when crises emerge.  A team works relentlessly with the community to connect, to organize services, to gather resources.  The whole staff meets regularly to build consistent language and strategies to support literacy, numeracy, social and emotional learning.

I could go on.

But here’s the tragic part.  So many of our students still struggle with basic literacy and numeracy despite our best efforts.  So many cannot yet manage their anger or their anxiety in ways that don’t harm themselves or others.  When you look at the “numbers” at our school, from the Fraser Institute, for example, you would say that teachers aren't doing enough at our school.  You would say, it’s shameful how we are failing the children.  

Here’s what failure looks like.  This is the story of one child in my grade 7 class.  He is soft-spoken and friendly.  He tries very hard to pay attention.  He is reading at a beginning of grade 2 level and he is only just starting to write letter sounds.  What’s wrong with this school, you might wonder, that he has made so little progress?  You should have seen him in grade 1, one teacher said.  He simply screamed and flailed the whole year.  He had a full-time EA who spent most of the time simply holding him tightly so he wouldn't injure himself and others.  In his short life he has experienced more trauma than most of us can even imagine. His progress is little short of miraculous, thanks to the extraordinary committed work of the staff at my school.  But the “numbers” tell only our failure.

I wish that our community, our province, our country, the world would support education and teachers who give their hearts daily to support students.  Of course teachers fail every day.  I have 25 students right now with a range of abilities and a multitude of roadblocks to learning.  I am continuously failing.  I know that I don’t meet all their needs.  I’m not even sure, right now, as I struggle to find my way, that I can.   Even if I try all the strategies in every book.  Even if I work more than the way too many hours I already work.  Even if I were the best teacher in the world.  Will more ideas help? I doubt it.  More advice? Unlikely.  I am drowning in information, recommendations, tips and lists.

Here’s what I do need right now.  Kindness.  Acknowledgement.  Appreciation.  A high five.  A hug.  And faith that everyone believes I am doing my very best.  It's hard not to become discouraged.  But it's easier when you know that people believe in you, that they believe your best will yield results.  And our school? Our school needs its name in lights, a banner bigger than any rock star's, a standing ovation, a prize more prestigious and venerable than the Stanley Cup.  

And one more thing:  we need hope.  I need hope.  I need to continue to hope that one day soon we will stop “fixing” classrooms and teachers and start working as a community to find more sensible, plausible and honest ways to truly support and educate all of our children.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What I learned in the first week of school – again.

  1. You can never, never, never plan for kids you haven’t met.  
  2. You need to get to know - and love - kids quickly.  (Speed dating has nothing on teaching.)
  3. You need to remember to break it down, slow it down, repeat, pause, start again, stay calm.
  4. You must not become discouraged (or not for long), even when all your careful plans (that you shouldn't have made) crumble as students refuse to fit.
  5. You need to relearn the flexibility to adjust, think, organize, respond, decide in the moment.  
  6. You must regain your peripheral vision. (Critical!)
  7. You can’t expect to sleep the first week back; if you do, it’s a bonus.
  8. You must not give up on the bigger picture – everything falls apart, kids have challenges a mile high and as deep as their lifetime, the hours in the day seem impossibly short (and ridiculously long), but finding a path to a meaningful education for each child is enough to get up for each morning to start the search again.  (But it isn't easy.)
  9. In the search for meaningful education for each child, you must not seek “the answer.”  There isn't one.  As my colleague Twila Konynenbelt said in a recent blogpost, the only thing certain is doubt.  
I’m looking forward to next week.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Pondering how to bring irrelevance to the classroom.

I recently visited the Big Apple.   Right now, if I close my eyes I can picture a kaleidoscope of images: neon lights, beautiful dresses, horns blaring, buildings towering overhead, a constant sea of people.  We “did” New York: the Met, the MoMA, the Frick, the Guggenheim, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the 9/ll Memorial, SoHo, Chelsea, Harlem, Battery Park, a Broadway show.   We walked and walked and walked and stopped and stared (being sure to step to the side so we didn't annoy New Yorkers).  

I wonder, my husband said, as he gazed up at the Freedom Tower, if my life would have been different if I’d come to New York as a youth.    

Who knows?  But it seems safe to say that the richer the array of possibilities that are set before us, the greater the probability that our path will diverge from the one mapped out by history, our parents’ lives, and proximity.  

Perhaps that’s why I feel frustrated by the calls for “relevance” and “student-driven passion” in education.  After all, relevance is defined by our community and our capacity to imagine; our passions – and our imaginations - are fueled by our experiences. How can a logger’s daughter understand the relevance of (never mind grow a passion for) quadratic equations that seems so obvious to the daughter of a nuclear physicist?  How many could imagine, fifty years ago, that anything to do with computers would be relevant for everything?  They weren't conceived of by people who had been taught about computers, obviously, but people who had imagination, tenacity, and a deep understanding of mathematics.  And the future?  Who knows?  The best we can do is teach the best we know, and that includes “irrelevant” things like Shakespeare and poetry and classical music and quantum theory, and yes, quadratic equations rather than only “financial literacy.”  An education is inevitably irrelevant, in part at least, to every individual.  Why not fill the day with those “irrelevant” ideas and tools that are the best of human thinking, not only because relevance is subjective, but because they are a means to create a relevant-to-us (that is, to say, passion-driven) path in an unfathomable future.  

I was once invited to tell a story for multicultural day at one of our “up-town” elementary schools.  I shared pictures from my trip to Uganda.  I began by asking how many of the students had travelled to another country.  Almost all the students raised their hands.  I was shaken.   In the neighbourhood where I teach – only 10 kilometers away -  almost none would.  Many haven’t even been out of town.  I knew the up-town students had advantages, but the sight of all the raised hands (50 or 60 students) was a visceral reminder. Each of these students, as they travelled, books and museum guides in hand, planes, trains and subways lifting geography and history off the incomprehensible pages of tatty textbook, stacked up advantages.  Their understanding of relevance and the breadth of their “passions” grew exponentially with every mile.  

I start a new job in September.  I've chosen to teach grade 6 and 7 students in a “down-town” school. How, I wonder, can I bring New York to my students?  We now have such vivid technologies, and although I don’t know if a mediated reality can stand in for miles traveled, I do know that reading books makes a difference.  Why not virtual travel?  It’s easy to go to the Met (they have gorgeous lesson plans complete with images), to the MoMA, to see and hear the crowds and sites of New York in the live cams.  Perhaps we can buddy with a New York school and Skype with them regularly.  All I need for a start is a computer, a projector and a reasonable Internet connection (not always available in our district where technology hasn't been a priority, but I’ll think if a way).  

Will their lives be different if they “go” to New York?  I’m not sure.  I know supporting children of poverty is complex.  But I also know that messages matter.  Rich, complex, beyond-literacy-and-numeracy lessons tell students that they will need these tools and this information for their rich, diverse, anything-is-possible future lives.  

Anyone interested in donating a half-dozen laptops?  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Teaching at the intersection of storytelling and science

In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher asserts, “Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live.”  The “great and vital ideas” we need can be found, rather, in the study of the Humanities and Arts.  He argues:
If the mind cannot bring to the world a set – or shall we say, a tool-box – of powerful ideas, the world must appear to it as a chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena, of meaningless events. Such a man is like a person in a strange land without any signs of civilization, without maps or signposts or indicators of any kind.  Nothing has any meaning to him; nothing can hold his vital interest; he has no means of making anything intelligible to himself.  
Forty years later, science is proving that he was right.  At the Brain and Learning Conference I recently attended, I listened to Dr. Dare Baldwin speak about event segmentation theory (EST).  The theory, based on extensive scientific research (you can check out the articles posted by key researcher Dr. Jeff Zacks), proposes that our brains organizes the continuous and massive input of our world by transforming it into discrete events.

Event segmentation, researchers are uncovering, depends on our noticing changes in the environment and on prior knowledge (our tool-box of powerful ideas). Event models - stories, we might call them - are constructed through the interaction of sensory input with stored knowledge.  These models allow us to predict, to understand, to make sense of our world.  To be useful, the models need to be regularly updated as new information is acquired and the model no longer adequately predicts. This connects with Jeff Hawkin’s theory of the brain and learning; intelligence, he says is a memory of patterns and sequences so we can predict.

For reading teachers, these ideas sound pretty familiar, so it won’t be surprising to learn that EST researchers have noted that the theory explains how we read as well: readers segment the narrative into discrete events in the same way they segment “real-time” events, using information about the actor’s goals and prior knowledge about conventional sequences; these are then stored as “schema” (event models). Researchers learned – and, again, this will be no surprise to teachers – that reading and listening to stories leads to robust event segmentation (that is, our understanding of the world and its events is improved through reading) and individuals who are good at segmenting events remember them better than do individuals who are poor at segmenting.  Thus, since learning is inextricably linked to memory, stronger “segmentors” are stronger learners and since segmenting is improved with stories (reading or listening), stories improves learning.  The theory proves what we have always known and is a good reminder to test new ideas, not only in the laboratory, but against practical knowledge.

Implications for the Classroom
  1. Despite the recent call to read more nonfiction in classrooms, perhaps, especially in the primary grades, it may impede rather than support learning, at least for those who do not yet have a rich schema of story patterns to organize the world and their thinking.  Stories aren't just “nice” (lately we hear a lot about how we don’t “use” fiction in “real life” so how can it be important); they are foundational for making sense of the data of nonfiction.  
  2. Event boundaries, researchers theorize, act as anchors in long term memory.  They discovered that if you insert a commercial in the middle of an event segment while people are watching a movie, they more often forgot what happened than when the commercial was at the event boundary.  Thus, we need to remember to teach as storytellers, being sure to organize our lessons in chunks that make sense (hard to do, sometimes, when bells determine the beginning and end of our stories).
  3. The information in the middle of a segment is harder to remember: we need to organize the chunks so that what’s most important is at the beginning and the end of the segment (as all storytellers know).  
  4. Strong event segmentation is predicated on noticing change.  Indeed, learning might be defined as recognizing prediction errors and updating schema. Multiple intelligence guru Howard Gardner noted how, often, despite years of education (even education at Harvard), students retain “unschooled thinking.”  They memorize the masses of information long enough to write the test, but maintain the “event model” from childhood, for example that the earth is warmer in the summer because it is closer to the sun.  They do not update the story when they “learn” the new information.  We need to help our students recognize changes, so they can change the stories that change their thinking.
  5. We need to find – or help students find – stories that makes sense of the masses of information we want them to know. When kids can’t remember anything they learned the month previously (a common complaint), then perhaps they didn't have a story to organize it with; perhaps all the bits and pieces of information were simply chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena and meaningless events. Perhaps, too, when nothing can hold their “vital interest,” it isn't because we haven’t done enough to engage them, but that they have no story for themselves, for their world, or for the information we are trying to help them understand. They need to see the stories that organizes math and science and socials studies – and their lives.  They can’t remember the many parts when they don’t know the whole.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


This summer we lost Chef Bruce Chandler: a colleague, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a husband, a father, a man who filled any room he walked in with laughter and generosity.  I shared some of the lessons I've learned from working with him over the past many years in a blog post.  A colleague commented:  “You've said it beautifully here Shelley. There's only one thing missing...our beloved Chef.”

It’s the kind of missing that can’t be alleviated by phone calls, pictures posted on Facebook, a text message to say “I love you,” a postcard.  Bruce Springsteen’s post-9/11 song “Missing” captures this:  “You're missing when I close my eyes/ You're missing when I see the sun rise.”  The world goes on, our lives go on, “everything is everything” as Springsteen says, “But you’re missing.”

What I loved best about the 9/11 site when I visited this summer is that it symbolizes this missing.  They didn't replace the towers or fill in the holes.  They remain like the holes in hearts.

Nine years ago today my brother Marc died.  I realize now that the hole in my heart will always be there.  But like the 9/11 site, lush gardens and tall towers can grow around it, life will hurry and throb and continue at its edges, and the deep hole has a kind of beauty.  But he’s still missing.  Every day.

Yesterday a friend posted a link on Facebook to “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” It’s an unsurprising list: to have had the courage to be true to myself, not to have worked so hard, to have expressed my feelings, to have stayed in touch with friends, to have let myself be happier.  But I was thinking that the deeper regrets are with the living.  When someone is missing, you can’t go back, restart, have coffee one more time, laugh together.  And you live with the missing for your whole life.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Response to Stephen Pinker: Science is Not My Enemy But...

I was startled by Stephen Pinker’s article in the New Republic this week:  Science is Not Your Enemy: an impassioned plea to neglected, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.  Even though “ignored and under-appreciated school-teachers” didn't make his list, I felt like his article was a direct response to my recent blog post – Smiling at all Science. In it, I suggested that our elevation of science over cultural and human understanding was not healthy and could even be harmful.  It turns out I’m thinking like a “humanist.” Pinker, as his sub-title hints, mocks humanists by characterizing them as outmoded, lacking a “progressive agenda” and rather hysterical demonizers of science.  He states that the “mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”

And he’s right.  Sort of.  But equally indispensable is the humanist mindset.  It isn't that science is “evil,” but that scientific approaches untempered by metaphysical values can be dangerous.  Consider the recent exposure of the unthinkable medical experiments performed on Aboriginal children.  In my beautiful, peaceful, “enlightened” backyard.  In living memory.  Science can’t be blamed for the heinous use of scientific methods to harm, but we must always remember how the mindset of science can be used against our quest for peace and good in the world.  As Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley writes, “Reason respects differences, and imagination the similitude of things.”  It is exactly, I think, a focus on differences that allows us to forget our common humanity.

Philosopher Simone Weil, in her essay “Human Personality” writes:
What is it, exactly, that prevents me from putting that man’s eyes out if I am allowed to do so and if it takes my fancy?  Although it is the whole of him that is sacred to me, he is not sacred in all respects and from every point of view.  He is not sacred in as much as he happens to have long arms, blue eyes, or possibly commonplace thoughts.  Nor as a duke, if he is one; nor as a dustman, if that is what he is. Nothing of all this would stay my hand. What would stay it is the knowledge that if someone were to put out his eyes, his soul would be lacerated by the thought that harm was being done to him. At the bottom of the heart of every human being…there is something that goes on indominantly expecting…that good and not evil will be done to him.  
Stephen Pinker concludes that the humanities need to embrace science: “A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding.” And I agree.  But science, perhaps even more urgently, needs to embrace the humanities.  Let us bring story and faith and philosophy to our scientific endeavors.  Medicine, learning from the ancient wisdom that it once colluded against, is beginning to understand that healing the body cannot be done in isolation from healing the mind and spirit.   Teaching, too, while it may be informed by research, needs to be guided by human wisdom, the heart, the spirit and love.  It is when we lose sight of these guiding values that we risk harming our children.  I can’t “prove” it; I can only live it.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Smiling at All Science: Reflections on a Brain & Learning Conference

To betray philosophy is the gentle treason
Of poets, to smile at all science, scorning its instruments
Derek Walcott, XII, Midsummer.

It’s strange how often people insist that we use evidence or research-based practice – by which they mean scientifically proven – as if science has never been wrong.  It has been, of course.  Often.  Two personal examples:  my mother was recommended to bottle-feed us as infants – formula, after all, was proven to be as good as or even better than breast milk – and my grandmother was told to take up smoking to reduce her blood pressure.  Certainly that doesn't mean that I think we ought to disregard science, but surely it’s time that we re-balance, particularly when we think about complex systems – like people.  We need to smile a little more often at science and have a deeper faith in our cultural and human understanding of health and relationships.

At a recent Brain and Learning conference dedicated to helping professionals support children as learners, chalk full of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, physicians, and researchers from a variety of fields, the key messages from the cutting edge of science were old news: love the child, support inter-generational caregiving (rather than professionalized caretakers), and take up yoga and meditation.  We have known these things for thousands of years.  But now there is scientific proof.  Unfortunately, the past centuries are filled with practices that discounted what we have always known, because science hadn't told us so yet. And our children are paying for our ignorance.

Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School; loving families outside the fence.
1895 Library and Archives Canada

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Memory: Four lessons I learned from Chef Bruce Chandler

Lesson One:  It’s about the food (which isn't just food).

I’m not even sure how many workshops I've led, which is strange – not so much that I don’t know the number, but that I would lead them in the first place. Speaking in front of others distresses me; I always feel like it’s presumptuous of me – what do I have to say that others don’t already know or know better? But somehow I began leading workshops and speaking at conferences.  One thing that eases my anxiety is to ensure that good food is organized for the participants; it seems that these people are doing me such an honour in coming to listen to me and to share their thinking that it is the least I can do.

Chef Bruce Chandler at John Barsby has always been my “go to” caterer.  He had a standing joke whenever he saw me: “What are you doing this weekend – organizing your Christmas Day seminar?”  I’d always reply that people only came to my seminars to eat his food, so Christmas Day wouldn't work unless he was working.  And it’s true that in any evaluation participants filled in, they waxed most enthusiastic about the food.

But the food, of course, isn't just food, I realized as I watched and worked with Chef over the years: feeding people deliciously prepared and presented food says they matter (a box of Tim Horton’s doughnuts tossed on the table doesn't count); eating together says we are a community. People noticed the food because of the message it sends that is much more important than any message from my presentation:  we are a community; we are gathering to think together about what’s important to us, to take time to lean on each other, to learn from each other, to gather strength, to renew hope.  Food, especially food prepared with Chef’s hearty laughter and open lovingness (and I’m beginning to think these were his secret perfect ingredients), signifies community.  And once you are a community, you can begin to work together on what matters.

Lesson Two: It’s not about what you do, it’s that you do it together.

I suppose what got me started on presenting is my enthusiasms.  I would try something new as a teacher and watch its impact on students and be so excited that I would be willing to look past my fears and worries to share it.  I have presented on literacy strategies and assessment strategies and writing strategies and brain research and technology and more.    But over the past few years, as I watch people embrace and abandon various “next ‘new’ things,” I've been trying to figure out what really makes a difference for learners. Thinking about Chef has made me realize that it’s definitely not the strategies.

At John Barsby, I was part of an amazing staff.  We got together frequently (fueled by delicious treats from Chef) to discuss and agree on various ideas to support success in our school.  We agreed to learn about and implement common reading strategies and lesson structures; we set up school-wide assessments that we marked as a team, then co-built plans and interventions based on our reflections. Using provincial exams, we tracked our progress in reading: in 2002, 53% of our grade 10 students were not yet meeting expectations for reading comprehension; after five years of committed focus together, in 2007, only 7% of our students were not yet meeting expectations.  This is a miraculous shift that is life-changing for students; with strong reading skills, doors open to the future of their dreams.

At first I thought it was the things we were doing: the reading strategies and tools, the focus on writing across the curriculum, common assessments and shared rubrics (and I have plenty of slick presentations to show this).  But now I realize that none of that mattered – or, at least, it mattered only in a secondary way.  What came first is that we did it together as a whole staff.  And Chef was always in the picture.  He never missed a marking session (although we always had to talk him out of failing students who couldn't spell well). Indeed, Chef always participated in whatever was important in the school, supported initiatives and actively embodied the principles of teamwork.

Because it isn't enough to be a community, although it's a first step.  You have to build a team next, a team with a clear goal and game plan. And then, I am realizing, anything is possible.  But it's not easy to be a team. Most of us, really, don't know what it takes. Barsby Bulldogs' quarterback Patrick Doyle, I think, explains it best when he was describing their BC high school championship team (another Barsby miracle, and of course, Chef was a big part of the Bulldog support system): "This is a team with no ego. We stick together. We play for each other. We play as one." Chef showed us every day – his students and the rest of us - how to be a team player.

This is what I've learned:  it’s being a team that matters to do work that matters.

Lesson Three:  It takes a village. Really.

Over the years, I've learned to have less faith in my teaching and more faith in the team.  It started when I saw a pattern.  When I taught the students who struggled most, no matter how much success they had in my class, no matter how much they improved as readers and writers and learners, some of them would still fall into negative behaviours again. I began to realize that I could tell at the beginning of the year who would continue to succeed: they were the ones with strong connections and commitments in the school – and one of the best markers for success was the chef training program.

In the kitchen with Chef, these students had daily successes and a sense of accomplishment in a community that works together. This positive learning in, as one former student put it, the "safe, supportive, hilarious and fun space he created" spilled into every facet of their school experience.  And they understood purpose. Every year, I ask students to write about how they would improve school.  Make it relevant, they tell me.  If only, they’d say, English was more like chef training, where we do something, where we gain experience and skills that matter.  One student wrote: “I feel that what we are taught in school is good for some of us, maybe even most who want to go to university or college. But for the ones that are not I feel that there are very limited courses to help them succeed right out of high school into a job.”  The exception are kids who trained with Chef – Nanaimo restaurants are filled with his students.  And many of them go on to college for further education, another miracle for so many students who were not even on track to finish high school.  

This is what I've learned: all the learning methods that I've touted in all those workshops will only work if students have adults who care about them and support them in a passion or goal to achieve.  And for that to happen, you really need a team.  You need a team for each student.  And you need to play as one.

Lesson Four:  It’s all about noticing each other.  

And how do you get to be a team? Food, yes.  Working together, yes.  Coordinating your plays, yes.  But this year, I've realized it’s something simpler and yet more vital: noticing each other.

This past year, I had a frustrating struggle with illness; it was one thing after another.  Whenever he ran into me, Chef would ask how I was, if I’d seen a doctor, if I was ready to go on his fool-proof cheesecake diet that, he’d say, would cure what ailed me.  Sometimes I would go to the cafeteria for a pick-me-up – not for the coffee (although it was always delicious) – but for Chef’s cheerful smile, his noticing! You sound a little less nasally today, he’d say.  And I’d feel like someone despite the rush and hurry of school, despite the stack of marking, the fatigue from illness; I’d feel uplifted and ready again. I was noticed.

And so it was for his students, too.  As one student wrote:  “He knew what all my classes were and made sure I didn't skip any of them. If he caught me in the cafeteria when I wasn't supposed to be there he made me go back to class.”  He noticed.  And his noticing made all the difference for teachers and kids.

What I've learned is that a team, a winning team, always has to notice what’s going on with each other. And that just makes sense if you are going to play as one, if you are going to play for each other, if you play with no ego.  Chef, I realize, showed us how to play as a team: help, pitch in, smile, give each other nick-names (Chef’s specialty), show up, laugh, give bear hugs, notice.  Always.

Most of us aren't very good at noticing.  We see what’s obvious.  We notice the flash and the front-men and women, the people who put on seminars.  We attribute success to outside things, like research-based ideas from some university or exemplary practices from another country.   But success is always inside; it’s the heart of a person, a team, a community.

One thing I’m only noticing now is that Chef Bruce Chandler was a linchpin: in the complex structure of our school, with his ready laugh, his ever-present smile, his kind eyes, his trays of fruit, gourmet meals, once-a-year poutine, the never-empty pot of coffee, his loving teaching, his willingness to help in every facet of the school’s operation, he kept everyone together.  He made it possible for the staff to play strong every year in a game that matters more than anything else – because each win is a win for our children and for our future.

It isn't enough to say he will be missed.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What’s the point?

Every day students ask.  Why do we have to learn this? When will I ever use it? What’s the point?  For an English teacher the answer is easy:  we practice communication and no matter what future a student yearns for or settles on, their options improve with improved skills.  At present, though, I’m working on a project that gathers up students who have fallen dangerously behind in a course, but could potentially meet the necessary learning outcomes with an intensive supported personalized project over the next few weeks.  I have one student learning about the consequences of reckless sexual decision making (she never asks about relevance), another learning about family and employment laws (he’s finding the information immediately useful), but the student who is studying the evolution of plants stumped me.  What’s the point?

I didn't want to answer (although all these answers are true) that it’s part of the provincial curriculum or “it’ll be on the test” or that learning anything helps us learn everything – or even (so importantly) that understanding basic scientific concepts allows us to make better decisions as citizens.  I wanted to think of something concrete, some reason that I, too, could use immediately.  Why do I want to relearn the evolution of plants?

It didn't take me long.  For me, the knowledge inspires me to believe impossible things again.  My faith in education has been tested:  my return to the classroom immersed me in what I had forgotten - the wide discrepancy between our dreams for students and the reality of schools.  But we are each tried daily: our lives are filled with trials, even tribulations. More troubling, many of the children at our school face challenges that would bring me to my knees. We all need to constantly look about us for the stories that give us hope. It’s too easy to be tangled in trees, to miss the forest, to see only the roadblocks instead of the path, to get mired in today’s missteps and misery rather than seeing the next move.

Consider: if a plant – a plant! – can find a way to migrate from water to the land, then surely anything is possible.

And maybe that's the point.  Maybe everything we learn is to give us one more reason to believe in a meaningful future, no matter how meaningless and chaotic our day-to-day becomes – and more important, to believe in our own power, even when we feel most powerless, to move in a direction that matters.

Photo Credit: citx via Compfight cc

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sailing into a headwind

You would be hard-pressed to find an educator who hasn't heard Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk – Do Schools Kill Creativity? I don’t exactly disagree with him.  He’s funny.  He’s optimistic. I quibble.  I’m sometimes uneasy about a focus on “personalized, passion-based" education; I worry that it sends a message that the purpose of an education is merely to please oneself (or to be pleased). I have argued that students should not follow their passions.

But I think adults should.  The purpose of a general education first and then (if we’re lucky) years at university or college or in apprenticeships is to build a deep foundation of skills and knowledge so that when we find what we’re good at, what makes our hearts sing, we can use our gifts to contribute to our world.

People who are drawn to teaching are a particularly passionate group with extraordinary gifts.  I was recently at a birthday celebration; two teachers I hadn't seen for a while were in attendance as well.  In between general conversation and birthday wishes and platters of food and the cake, we “talked shop” of course.  I heard about how one had started using a new video game design program to engage his students in learning complex concepts, how the other was leveraging student cell phones for good by using free apps in PE for self-assessment and to demonstrate and celebrate learning.  As they were explaining the ways they were connecting with their students, trying new strategies to engage them in deeper learning, working with their staff to develop a system for more effective collaboration, I felt both hope and despair for the future of education.  In his new Ted Talk, Sir Ken Robinson captures why.  And, in this, I couldn't agree with him more. He says,
There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you're not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage....
There is wonderful work happening in this country. But I have to say it's happening in spite of the dominant culture of education, not because of it. It's like people are sailing into a headwind all the time. And the reason I think is this: that many of the current policies are based on mechanistic conceptions of education. It's like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data, and somewhere in, I think, the back of the mind of some policy makers is this idea that if we fine-tune it well enough, if we just get it right, it will all hum along perfectly into the future. It won't, and it never did.
The trouble is that education doesn't go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.  
I keep thinking about the passionate educators I meet every day and imagine what would happen if instead of sailing into a headwind, they had the wind at their back – and beneath their wings.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

How to Demotivate Your Staff

It’s surprising how often and how quickly thoughtful and well-meaning educational leaders can lose their way.  It begins with an Idea.  (I have suffered from Ideas often enough myself to know their dangers.)  Next, there is a flurry of meetings and planning sessions to organize the Implementation. (I have sat through, and even led, enough of them to know how exciting they can be, how sensible, inspirational, and certain-to-solve-everything a plan looks on charts and mind-maps.)

Then there is the Stumbling Block.  “They” (the front-line workers who must implement this Idea; in the case of education, the target for Change is most often teachers) must “buy in.”  Unfortunately, “they” are inevitably “resistant to change” or “unwilling to learn” or “unenthusiastic” about joining committees, attending after-school sessions, going to the book-club.  Still, a hardy handful always go along and, given their own faith in their own Idea, leaders invest the resources.  The school or district or province Changes.  And gets lost down some obscure path while everything else stays exactly as it was before the Change – or worse – since time, energy and resources have been siphoned off for the Change (that changes nothing).  Ironically, the more such failures occur, the more insistent leaders are that Change is what is needed.  School districts are now hiring principals of “Innovation and Change.”  You can’t sit through a meeting, read a school plan or discuss education without the words “innovation,” “change” and “21st century initiatives” topping the agenda.

But the plans will never work, no matter how many resources are squandered in “implementation,” and it isn’t because change isn’t necessary or that resistance stands in the way.  Margaret Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, explains: "Change doesn't happen from a leader announcing a plan.  Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or respond to a dream of what's possible….We don't have to start with power, only with passion."

Having spent years working to implement Plans, I have finally, over the past few years, begun to understand what Wheatley means.  Plans continually stall and fizzle, despite careful tending; passionate change from within blossoms, even when no one is watching.  Here’s an example.  Like most districts, we have a resource centre.  For many years it was led by a district librarian, a director of instruction, a number of resource teachers, several clerks and two couriers a week to carry resources to and from schools.  Then, over years there were reductions.  By last year, only one clerk, a few resource teachers, none with specific leadership over collection, and a weekly courier remained.  However, a group of people said – this is an important resource that, with some effort on our part, can be improved to meaningfully support teachers and their students.  Keeping in mind limited budgets and very limited clerical support, the group of mostly teacher-librarians set to work to solve the problem.  The plan grew organically as the group worked together and with others.
  • Use a portion of the budget to bring in teacher-librarian teams to weed and rethink the aging collection for more effective, equitable and efficient use.
  • Create digital “rooms” with lesson plans, online resources and teacher-mentor contacts to supplement the resources and support effective use.
  • Build a “learning commons” at the District Resource Centre – a virtual and physical space for educators to learn, think, share, and grow.
  • Develop a social media presence to showcase the resources, as well as to provide a way for educators to engage in co-creating a space that meets their needs.
  • Connect with and leverage the many passionate groups of educators to co-develop the resources.
Getting started took courage, commitment and enormous swaths of time.  The group had to learn about social media, digital collections, and learning commons.  They consulted with provincial colleagues, their staffs, and the various learning groups in our district (educators passionately working together are commonplace, but leaders rarely notice them if their interest doesn't dovetail with the Plan).  The work spilled over, of course, to after-school and weekends.  Within months, phase one of what at first seemed impossible had been completed.  Needless to say, a good deal was left to do, but the team that included passionate clerks and technicians, the teacher-librarians, and a growing number of others excited by the excitement and the invitation to participate were looking forward to restarting in September.

But in September, under new leadership, the district reorganized; the limited leadership at the DRC was removed and the project ground to a halt.  A retired superintendent from a different jurisdiction was brought in to tour the DRC and pronounced it inadequate.  The decision was made to close the facility and disperse the resources.

There is now a Plan for Change.  All the difficulties our district currently faces will be fixed.  If only teachers weren't “resistant.” If only they would take the time to learn, to go to the book club, to join the committees, attend the workshops.

The problem isn't that it is a bad Plan.  It is simply that when leaders announce a plan rather than growing it,  they blindly, blithely, overlook the passion in their midst:  years of committed work is dismantled, careful building over time is kicked over, passionate commitment is bled dry as each new leader – at a school, at the district, in the province – announces their new Plan for Change.

It’s surprisingly easy to demotivate a staff.  All you have to do is to create a Plan and then push, prod, and pigeon-hole people to fit it.  You must simply demolish, devalue, omit and overlook passionate work. You need to spend resources trying to “motivate” people to do what you want them to do, rather than engaging their intelligence, their creative energy, and their passionate commitment.  You must merely forget that the answer isn't in a plan, but in the people.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Getting Past the Slump

The digital landscape is relentlessly shifting: with the next new thing just around the corner, yesterday’s favourites die young if they don’t stay up-to-the-minute, innovative, fresh, and “old” things, like Facebook, survive by reinventing themselves continually.  A steady barrage of change is forced on users.  We scarcely have time to wonder if it’s a good thing.

Perhaps today’s technology is merely a perfect expression of what Carl Honoré calls our “quick fix” obsession in this “fast-forward, on-demand, just ‘add-water’ culture":  we want hard things to be easy, which is, of course, the purpose of technology. The easy part of anything is the honeymoon, the beginning, the discovery.   Back up.  The very easiest is not starting anything at all – or to distract ourselves (often with busyness) from doing anything.  Then the honeymoon.  And then the next easiest thing, once the honeymoon is over (and it always ends) is to change things – or, better yet – to think about changing them:  redecorate, move, start something else, write reports, hold meetings, create charts, gather data, hold more meetings, write recommendations.  Of course, changing doesn't change anything or, at least, nothing important.  Sticking with things does that (which is very different from doing nothing), sticking with them past the post-honeymoon slump when you've run out of ideas or energy or resources for changing or planning to change, and you have to either quit (easiest) or roll up your sleeves to do the necessary work for growth.  Because growth is only possible when we don’t change, when, over time, by sticking with things, we nurture meaningful relationships, build our business, develop expertise.

Last week I spent several hours migrating blogs out of Posterous, a blogging platform that is closing down after not yet five years.  The blogs supported district programs that have been “closed down” as new programs (the next up-to-the-minute, innovative, fresh things) are funded.  The migration has been a slow process, not technically (there’s an app for that, of course), but because I'm rereading and reflecting on what we almost learned.  In our “Technology Explorers” blog – a community blog to document our discoveries as we experimented with classroom technology to augment and deepen, rather than change, our practice - I found a post entitled The Six Stages of Technology Learning.  It described what we learned about getting past our initial suspicion of technology as “one more thing” and the later, inevitable “slump” when our enthusiasm for the new tools wore off.   I wonder what we might have learned this year if we had stuck with it.

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about how we can grow in education despite change, how we can build despite constantly tearing things down, how we can develop expertise despite constant demands to learn something different.  I keep wondering how we can get past the slump to dig deeper, persevere and learn from our mistakes rather than beginning again, chasing different enthusiasms, re-branding, reinventing, and shuffling the deck chairs.  And it seems that it’s only possible if we focus on what doesn't change, if we remember that people matter first.  Everything else (including technology, perhaps especially technology) is window-dressing.  Without the commitment of people to act together, things can change, but nothing will grow.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Listening to the Wise Ones (or the Tortoise and the Hare Retold)

Carl Honoré  realized he had a problem when he almost bought a book of one-minute bedtime stories to speed up his night-time reading with his son.  His book Slow came out of his subsequent research into our cult of speed and its antidotes: things like Slow Food and Slow Medicine and Unhurried Children.  His latest book is called The Slow Fix.  He argues that we have created a “just add water” culture to “fix” even our deepest and most complex issues: take a pill for everything, lose 10 pounds in three days, take steroids to bulk up, click “like” on the Facebook page to protest. In education, fill in the blank with the latest trend: just - use project-based learning, teach students to self-regulate, personalize their learning, flip your classroom – and you will have success for all.

Honoré writes, “Even when lives and large sums of money are at stake, when everything from our health and relationships to our work and the environments is suffering, even when bombarded by evidence that the road to calamity is paved with Band-Aid solutions, we still gravitate toward the quick fix, like moths to a flame.”

I spoke with my mother yesterday.  “Shelley,” she said, “I am finally a wise woman.”  I was thrilled – after all, it means I now have my own personal wise woman to consult – wisdom on speed-dial.

“What makes you wise?” I asked.  

“I’ve reached an age,” she said, “when I’ve seen everything before.”

When I first started teaching I was filled with Ideas. I hurried and organized and implemented and preached (I really hate to admit that).  I remember now the teachers at the back of the room with their arms crossed, rolling their eyes at my enthusiasm.  Don’t worry about them, I was told.  They’re just resistant to change.  Now I realize they were the wise ones.  They’d seen it all before.

In our speed-addicted world, it’s little wonder that we have no time for wisdom.  It’s slow.  It’s….old. We want new, young, energized, fast, now, innovation, creation, disruption.  We can’t wait to listen to the old ones at the back of the room and their complaints.  We want enthusiasm!  And so we continue what Honoré calls a kaleidoscope of quick fixes.

Here’s the wise truth that we would hear if we weren't swept up in our various enthusiasms:  teaching and learning (along with all the big issues of our day) is so complex that no single solution, no particular program, no set of strategies will every yield sustainable results.  We have to accept that Slow will get us there faster, that instead of spending ourselves chasing quick fixes and the next new thing (usually an old thing renamed), we must simply work together (that’s the tricky part) in sustainable, joyful ways to meet our common goals.

How, I wonder – and when – will we get started.

Photo by minds-eye via Compfight

Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to transform education by NOT transforming people

Business leadership guru Tom Peters, to use his own exclamation-point filled language, is BESOTTED!!  with the idea of “People First!” (the title of his new e-book) – and by people, he doesn't mean the customer; he means the employee.  As he says, “EXCELLENT customer experience depends entirely on EXCELLENT employee experience.”  He applauds the “upside down organization chart” from the department store, Nordstrom’s – their leaders said that front-line staff were at the top of the heap, and “the managers were there simply to prop front liners up and enable them to do the best work imaginable.”  

Imagine.  Imagine schools where the front liners – TEACHERS!!! – were the top of the heap.   

He identifies six steps for leaders-mentors-teachers to put people first instead of “transforming” people – a perfect list for teaching children (but so much easier to do when teacher time is not depleted by being “transformed”).

     Leaders [Teachers, Mentors] Do Not “Transform People”! 
     Instead leaders-mentors-teachers
  1. provide a context which is marked by
  2. access to a luxuriant portfolio of meaningful opportunities (projects) which
  3. allow people to fully (and safely, mostly) express their innate curiosity and
  4. engage in a vigorous discovery voyage (alone and in small teams, assisted by an extensive self-constructed network) by which those people
  5. go to create places they (and their mentors-teachers-leaders) had never dreamed existed—and then the leaders-mentors-teachers
  6. applaud like hell, stage photo-ops, and ring the church bells 100 times 
The bells in our schools should be constantly RINGING!!  And not just to signal the start and end of the day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I think we’re fighting a losing game

“He’s not the messiah,” Darren Evans writes, “but for many policy makers he comes close.  John Hattie, possibly the world’s most influential education academic, has the ear of governments everywhere.”  Including BC’s.  It’s hard to argue with Hattie’s findings.  His extensive meta-research concludes that the quality of the teacher is the number one factor in the improvement of an education system and that collaboration is the key factor in improving the quality of that teacher.  That’s like saying fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of exercise will improve your health.  Of course!  He also has a long list of strategies that have the most effect (the blueberries and kale of education) that are interesting to review, but not, I think, the Holy Grail. It’s not that I disagree with his list or dismiss the usefulness of it; I simply think we too often get distracted by possible short-cuts: we chase after some single strategy or program – or “super-food” - as “the” way. Hattie’s key message, however, is “healthy” - that thoughtful teaching can improve learning, even in the most difficult cases, and that reflecting on our practice together can ensure positive momentum.  This is hardly a revolutionary or even new idea; it’s a sensible one.

However, he and I do disagree on what’s necessary for teaching to improve.  He says, “Too many teachers are constantly thinking that if they had more time, resources and space they could make a difference. For some teachers that could be true, but for most the last thing they need is more. They need different, and that’s what they struggle with. It’s simple: if your teaching practice is not having an effect on your students’ performance, you must change.”  The pathway to “different,” he argues, is for teachers to work more collaboratively and talk about the things that matter.

I'm curious to know how, without more time, resources – and even space – teachers are expected to work together and change practice.  Currently, I teach four blocks of students – with 40 minutes at lunch.  After school I review student work, plan for the next day, gather resources, organize the classroom – and sleep.  Once a week for six weeks, our school has organized one hour collaboration sessions.  We are trying to develop some essential learning outcomes.  In addition, we have department meetings, staff meetings, professional development days, ad hoc meetings after school to confer, co-plan, debrief, reflect. We are continually learning new strategies, trying to gather fresh and relevant materials, and adding to our understanding of new technologies.

But to do something different, really different, demands time, support, guided practice; you can’t simply change in significant ways, in ways that matter, in ways that can be sustained by attending a workshop or two or in six collaboration sessions – or even in school-wide or district initiatives.  The locus of change needs to be the classroom if change is going to go beyond a superficial “pretend” implementation where the posters go up and the new vocabulary is used and a handful of people are excited and put on workshops and everyone else listens politely knowing that this too will pass.  It certainly doesn't matter how much time those outside of classrooms spend on reports, meetings, documents, research and visions; meaningful change will only occur if time is given to the people who are required to change.

And change often demands resources.  I am continually amazed to hear the scorn heaped upon teachers who “depend on a textbook and lectures” for their teaching.  But how else do they ensure that students understand, for example, complex scientific or historical information?  The schools in our district don’t have daily access to technology or bins of “just-right” texts or kits of hands-on materials to support concepts.  How can individuals find the time to create different and differentiated resources?  And even if we work together as a school team, who would manage the resources?  Who will have time?

And space matters.  We do continually ponder teaching differently.  What about co-teaching, we think.  What if two of us taught grade 8 and what if the wall between our rooms was removed.  Imagine if there was a small windowed quiet space to one side for conferences and small group teaching.  But we are limited to the space we have – each in our own classroom – and who teaches what and when is at the whim of scheduling, rather than educational considerations.

I'm convinced there are creative ways to transform education and I agree with John Hattie that the possibility is in the hands of teachers.  But to do that, teachers need to be massively supported.  They can’t be told to just "do different" with the same time, resources and space – and, in fact, in our district, at least, with diminishing resources and an increasingly complex work load.  We continue to provide teachers with support for an industrial model of teaching and ask them to reinvent everything – and to teach each child beautifully.  To quote Lucille Ball, “I think we’re fighting a losing game.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Small Things that Make the Big Things Possible

It was close to 5:00, a lovely quiet time of day at school.  I was still there, promising myself that I would get everything done before I left and have a “no-work” night.  I had one thing left to photocopy and made my way down the long hall to the copy room.  Chris was there, doing something with the aging laminator in the corner.  Someone, he said, had jammed it and he was fixing it.  At 5:00. After a long day.  Why? I asked.  If I don’t, he replied, who will?

The answer to his question, of course, is no one.  There is no budget for aging laminators.  In times of fiscal challenges, the “small things” get cut.  We would have to send out laminating to a central location, I suppose, and wait three weeks to get something done.  But Chris managed to fix it (at 5:00 after a long day of teaching) and the next day, I saw one of our teachers busy laminating cards for a game her students had designed to teach each other the course vocabulary.  She didn’t even know about the small thing that made it possible.

Just half an hour before I met Chris in the copy room, I bumped into three of our department heads.  They had just come from a meeting where the “reorganization” of department heads was being discussed.  It’s not surprising: I’ve attended many district meetings that see department heads as “low hanging fruit.”  They just count books, someone always says, as if this is insignificant.  Like Chris fixing the laminator, however, department heads count and order and organize resources because no one else does.  If they don’t, the teachers in their department would not have enough books and materials - and now technology - to teach their courses without calling to borrow resources from other schools or scheduling numerous meetings with a variety of staff to try to find what they need.  Similarly, if department heads don’t organize assessments, develop and share key assignments, check in with and support new teachers, then each teacher must fend for themselves, starting each semester scrambling to reinvent the proverbial wheel.

How, I keep wondering, if teachers are increasingly asked to do all the small things that are necessary for their daily work, will they be able find the time to do the big things: meet the unique needs of the increasingly diverse – and disengaged – students so each one can learn beautifully?

I would argue that it’s only possible if someone takes care of the myriad of small things.  Teaching has always been complex; today, with very little argument from anyone, I can say it is even more complex.  It’s easy to say – especially for those no longer in a classroom, especially those who have not been in the classroom recently – this is a small thing to cut.  A bit of library support.  District Resources.  Courier time.  Career Services.  Resource teachers.  Clerical time.  EA support.  Learning assistance. Counseling time. Administrator time.  Department head time.   We go along with it.  After all, it’s hard to appreciate the power of small things until they are gone.  We don’t even think about how the reduced courier will affect us until we are driving somewhere – again – to pick up something or drop off something.  At some point, as all the small things land on a teacher’s desk, we begin to realize that none of the big things are possible anymore.  We’re not even sure why – it’s hard to pinpoint small things and, anyway, it seems unreasonable, even ridiculous, to complain about them – but we do wonder why we are tired, frustrated and discouraged.

Imagine how different our schools would be if someone thought that the business of teaching was so important that all the small things were taken care of for us.  Imagine if every budget decision was framed in this question – will this support our teachers?  Imagine if the time, energy and resources spent on initiatives to fix teachers, make teachers accountable, change teacher practice were used to support teachers instead.

Imagine the big things that would be possible.