Thursday, February 7, 2019

Forward In All Directions

I've been thinking about direction in terms of teaching. When I was an undergrad a lot of time was spent on creating lesson plans that were very directed. "SWBAT" was the acronym that ruled the day, standing for "Students Will Be Able To..." and especially in my field of Art, we were taught to be very specific about what would happen and have very specific guidelines for how to measure and grade students. Even at the time I thought the notion of stating emphatically that students would do this or that was a little presumptuous. How did I know what exactly they would do, at best I could hope or guess. I wasn't even thinking about what students really needed to be able to do. Over the years as a general education classroom teacher as well an art teacher I've found there's fewer things that students need to do and many more things they can do.
These days I do teach specific skills, although they tend to come more from student's requests. To paint with watercolors you need a brush, paper, paint and water - that's what you need to know. "Oh, you want know how to make this kind of textured look that works well if you're trying to show a grassy field? That's called "Dry Brush", here, I'll show you how that works..." That's a typical teachable moment. Who "directed" that particular lesson? I can tell you that I don't write that sort of thing in any lesson plans, so it must have been the student. Perhaps I've changed that old phrase to "Teacher Will Be Able To Explain What is Needed In The Moment".
Another word that is used a lot in education is "Control". Teacher evaluations place a lot of emphasis on control. Is the classroom or are the students "Under Control"? There are many good reasons for paying attention to control. Out of control is almost always unsafe. So while I am always attending to control in that way I've also started thinking about the word as it applies to how the students go about their learning.
I'm perhaps most interested in controlling the class in terms of motivating them to be focused on learning, on the serious work of exploring, questioning and collecting ideas and experiences. What direction they will take with their work is of less interest to me. I would rather see a student in control of their learning experience, focused and engaged even if what they produce seems to be a random collection of ideas. A student who, in the art room, is really exploring ideas may not create a single finished, beautiful piece of art that will hang in the family's living room. They may have been going in many different directions, but the work they did can still be worthwhile assuming they were in control of the process.
I realize that I value control over direction. It's asking more of the students to develop their ability to control, their self control and accept that the direction their work takes them might not be known at the start but I think the experience is much more fruitful, both in the moment and long term.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Prize Box Solves Everything

Every day I have students who come to class carrying clipboards, tickets, popsicle sticks in a cup, charts and other means of tracking and or modifying their behavior. It's not uncommon to have three or four students in a class who have some sort of a behavior plan. Yesterday afternoon one class had two students with popsicle sticks in a cup, one loses a stick every time he blurts out, another loses a stick anytime they are not paying attention, two other students have charts where they are scored on various behaviors either positive or negative. At the end of the day, remaining sticks are counted or score sheets tallied and if the score is within a certain range the student gets a reward. All of this makes me wonder if the estate of B.F. Skinner collects royalties on the use of his basic theories, or does Pavlov get a cut as well?
We talk a lot about 21st century learners and curriculum designed for the digital learner and yet there is much in schools that looks the same as it did in the early 20th century. Behavior modification practices are especially noticeable. Should we consider how much more work we expect students to do, or how much more time is given to testing and test prep? Should we consider student's lives outside of school, the increase of planned activities such as sports, drama, dance, etc.? Perhaps it's worth considering the increased time spent on laptops, video games, cell phones or watches. Is it possible that with all these changes to student's lives, that the same old ideas about how to alter behavior, especially when there are legitimate questions as to whether those ideas work in the long run.
Is it possible that we, in schools today, are in such a headlong rush to do more faster, test more, finish more and so on that we grasp at what appears to be the easiest answer for a child who can't or won't sit still, finish math, stop screaming, play nice or have a positive attitude?
When I observe teachers and administrators still waiting for students to line up quietly before going outside for a brief recess repeating the same "We'll wait here until you're all quiet, you're wasting your recess" lines in May, after having spent the entire school year on the same routine, I have to ask if the methods we're using to alter behavior work. Of course it's also fair to ask if these expected behaviors really line up with our overall goals for students.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Play Day

Schools across the country are participating in the Global School Play Day . It seems that educators, child psychologists, doctors etc. have noticed that kids need unstructured play time, a lot of it in fact, much more than they get in their normal day to day experiences. Like most of life, the reasons for this shortfall are many and often complex. The available menu of enrichment activities has mushroomed over the years and who doesn't want to take part in gymnastics, soccer, orchestra, drama, sculpture classes, rock climbing and dance in between visits to the local museum or national park? The average curriculum of your local elementary school has changed over time as well. Some of you may remember taking a nap in kindergarten. Those days are long gone as students practice for the tests which take up an ever increasing amount of the day.
Yes, children need unstructured play, a lot of it, far more than the average child experiences. Yes, it's great that schools are showing some awareness of this fact and wouldn't it be nice if it happened more than once a year?
Here's a modest proposal - why not devote most of one day a week to inquiry and play at school? Who knows what might happen.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Catalog of Brilliant Ideas That You Can't Use Anytime Soon.

I've had a few careers in my time. Working in radio, playing music full time and teaching. All of these are centered around communication in one way or another. Playing music often has, at it's core, the desire to reach an audience whether live people in front of you or listeners around the world who are streaming a recording you made. As a teacher, I often see myself as a song and dance man. One area where my various careers diverges is how feedback is processed and how new ideas are implemented. Perhaps it's because broadcasting and music are both very much market driven fields that response and adapting to new trends or information tends to happen quickly. Teaching, on the other hand seems to exist in a strange Twilight Zone of alternate reality when it comes to change and growth. I've often said that my grandmother, who taught elementary school in the 1940s-50s could be dropped into most any modern classroom (with a little help from a time machine) and apart from the computer on the teacher's desk, be able to jump right into most any lesson. Show her a schedule and she'd be lining up kids for lunch, or music, practicing writing or multi-digit multiplication with ease. How much has the world changed in the last century? How much more do we know about how humans learn? How little difference is there in the basic structure of schools?
My experience over the last few years in education has been that most all research into effective and powerful learning shows that the best ways to guide student learners are completely at odds with the standard school structure.  Dan Heath writes about the "power of moments" , Alison Zmuda talks about student engagement and a host of studies show that student centered learning, or learning experiences that embrace the messy qualities of learning are the most long lasting. Not surprisingly these kinds of learning experiences rarely fit into the daily schedule of most schools. I conducted research focused on reading instruction several years ago and the basic finding was that to have a high quality experience, to really push students in their thinking skills, we needed to throw out the current literacy program (Rigby) and make the reading time open ended, it might take 45 minutes, it might take an hour and a half. Everyone reading the report loved the insights the students showed in terms of the books they were reading, everyone loved the depth of the conversations and the connections made, everyone agreed that we'd never be able to do this in our schools.
I wonder. Do other professions have this interesting disconnect? Does the research that demonstrates how best to move forward, how best to achieve the stated goals of the profession receive glowing praise and then is ignored?
Data is the Holy Grail of contemporary education. "Drilling down in the data" is a favorite activity as long as the conclusions or discoveries can be used within the constraints of the school system.
What would happen if we really investigated and then acted on the discoveries? What would happen if we didn't already have an answer in mind, but were open to possibilities? 
Imagine that.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Change Gonna Come, Will Change Ever Come?

The latest school shooting, the 18th of this year (which is not quite two months old yet) appeared below the fold on the front page of my local paper this morning. Normal size headline font and apparently less important than the zoning issues and speaker at the local university, stories that earned more space, larger font and better placement. On the radio this morning I listened to a congressman pour all the enthusiasm he could muster into plans to build more barriers around schools, more doors, more locks, cameras, airport style screening devices. "We've got to get serious about this!" he exclaimed.
How is it that we allow people like that to speak in public without shame?
Are we sacrificing reason, intelligence, logic, compassion, humanity at the alter of free speech?
When I was young, the notion that you could stop a person from smoking in public was unthinkable and yet today imagine the reaction if someone walked into any public building smoking a cigar. What happened? How did we, as a society, go from not only accepting smoking,  but even glamorizing it to marginalizing the practice in a matter of thirty years or so?
Just as the facts concerning the health effects of smoking are known, the ways to limit gun violence are there for all the world to see. Indeed, all the developed world does see them, with the exception of the United States of America.
How do we get to that place where no one would be caught uttering a phrase like "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns" or "Guns don't kill people..."?
Is it rude to not allow smoking in restaurants or public spaces? Would it be unfair to ridicule someone who claimed a right to smoke in public because founding documents of this country provided the right to the pursuit of happiness?
Do we need to increase the scorn and ridicule for those who twist the founding documents of this country to argue for unfettered access to deadly weapons?
Those who argue for so-called "Gun rights" have no logical standing, they have no facts, to back up their case and literally a world of evidence against them and yet every day we allow them to speak as if there is any semblance or reason or intelligence in their words.
What would society say, if as a teacher, I purposefully taught false information in school every day, two plus two equals thirty five, the world is flat, there is no such thing as gravity...? Some children might believe what was being taught, and what would be the consequences? Probably some failing grades on standardized tests.
Every day we allow the National Rife Association and fellow travelers to purposefully teach false information about guns and the reasonable controls that the rest of the world employs. Some citizens believe those lies, and what are the consequences?
The consequences appear somewhere below the fold on the local newspaper.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Good Morning Class...and Good Luck Part Two.

Recently I met with several fellow teachers for a book study group that was required by our district. The book, "The Differentiated Classroom" was an excellent book for starting discussions and is part of the latest trend or buzz word in education "Differentiation" - tailoring lessons to suit each individual learner. Two things stood out for me. One was that after reading many anecdotal accounts of well designed and differentiated classrooms our group talked about what we had read, and the first thing that came up was "Where are the students who throw their chairs against the wall?" "Where is the student who randomly yells or makes noises during class?" "Why are there no mentions of the six or eight students in the class who not only doing no work, but also breaking pencils or throwing erasers at other kids?" We were left to assume that the classrooms described in the book were either works of pure fiction or existed in some alternate universe devoid of special needs children or ones who choose for whatever reason to not follow expectations. Our take away was that it all sounded nice but since what was portrayed was so far from our reality it was hard to see how to make use of any of the ideas.
The book, which was highly touted by the district, talked of curriculum that followed the interests of the students and allowed for open exploration. One of the teachers in our group asked rather bluntly if we'd ever be allowed to do anything like this given that the demands on curriculum pacing are tied directly to testing and every student must complete the exact same classwork, the exact same tests in the same order and pacing as everyone else. The answer was an honest "No". Which obviously begs the question "Why are we reading something that explains a curriculum we can't actually teach?" Never mind the questions about whether or not the style of teaching is truly workable, or makes sense, we can't even begin to set up a system as described in the book. What was the purpose in reading this?
In my twenty plus in education I've seen many "latest and greatest" curriculums, theories and practices and that's not to mention the multitude of educational philosophies that appear in books and are the topic of deeply engaged conversation for the next day until replaced by something new.
Strangely enough, if my grandmother who taught elementary school seventy years ago could be transported magically into a fifth grade classroom at my school, apart from the laptop, she'd have no problem fitting in - "We're studying multi-digit multiplication, okay!" So little has really changed. And yet we're constantly bombarded with ideas and suggestions, many of which are promoted as the best thing since sliced bread while in most cases there's no chance that the ideas will actually be implemented either because it's impossible in the current structure of schools or because when push comes to shove those in authority don't really like the idea or don't understand what it implies.
When Writing Workshop was the hot new style of literacy instruction I took a job at an elementary school where they were thrilled that I had previously worked at the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University where the actual text books the school would be using were written. The principal was pretty much horrified to discover what Writing Workshop actually entailed once I got there. They had been excited to have an expert in the latest, greatest trend, the only problem was no one really had any idea about what they were promoting.
Do other fields have this problem? A constant bouncing about to the latest idea, shifting resources and energies back and forth only to come back to more or less the same model as before? Any study of history will show that the basic best practices of education haven't changed since the days of Plato. Of course a serious and honest assessment of that fact would cause panic in the education publishing field, but who are we supposed to be serving here?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Good Morning Class...and Good Luck.

This cute t-shirt design caught my eye the other day, worn by an elementary school student who does their best every day to live up to the motto on the shirt.  It's a funny reminder of what many teachers experience on a daily basis, that definition of insanity to try the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
I teach art in an elementary school and I see students from kindergarten through fifth grade every day. Classroom teachers at every level often drop their students off for art with a comment like "They're insane today...good luck" or "I'm sorry we're late, it took ten minutes to get them quiet enough to walk down the hall". What's going on?
As educators we've all been taught to construct assessments based on what has been taught, and if a large number of students do poorly on an exam one area you must look at is your presentation of the material. That always has to be considered. Perhaps you didn't cover the material well enough, maybe you were asking for something on the test that students couldn't reasonably do.
More than one teacher this past month has said "With this class, if you are not on top of them like a drill sergeant 24-7 it's complete chaos, they can't work on their own at all, everything has to be directed". My classroom is in the middle of the building so I hear classes passing in the halls and see and hear students in the lunch room across the hall. Every day I hear an almost endless "Shhhhhhh", everyday I notice the lights turned off in the lunchroom, the signal that it's too loud and students must eat silently. Having been there, I can't say I disagree with the "too loud"description, but what's going on? Why is this the normal experience, not just in the first week of school, but all year long?
Could it be that the rigorous testing that goes on every day in kindergarten through fifth grade is too much? Could it be that early elementary grades K-2 should have some free time to build, explore, and interact with other? Is there a problem when the first time apart from a 15 minute recess that a five year old gets to have some freedom of choice comes in art class when they can use the watercolors to paint whatever they like? My guess is that most people have no clue that the early elementary grades no longer include nap time, or much story time for reading out loud, building blocks etc. Most people probably have no clue that students are expected to read and write in kindergarten.
I realize that part of my job when a student comes into my class jumping up and down, yelling, breaking things right and left, is to stop them from doing that, but I think it's also worth asking why? Why are they behaving this way?
I don't have any good answers.
I do have some observations though that might lead to questions, discussions and possible answers.
Elementary students are expected to be in class from 9 -3:30 each day paying attention and looking like they're paying serious attention. There's a 20 minute lunch and a 15 minute recess but no coffee breaks and no real break in the kind of work they're doing. How many adults have that kind of job?
Young children who are often experiencing their first extended social interactions are given little if any time for that important skill, they are expected to be "on task" all day long.
Teachers are expected to "differentiate" or offer learning experiences tailored to the 30 or so students they have that will meet each students specific and unique needs. There are few, if any, support people to assist the teacher. Students who once were consigned to special ed. classrooms are now mainstreamed without real support for their needs. When a child is disruptive a teacher can take time to talk with them, have them reflect on what they were doing, come up with a plan to make things right while teaching the rest of the class, giving one-on-one attention to students while monitoring the whole group. Sound impossible?
Why are we doing this?