My youngest son loves Elmo. He adores watching this character sing and dance, particularly with Taye Diggs as they go driving in their imaginary yellow automobile. For some reason, this little jam gets Parker moving and singing. He loves making the sounds that a car makes; he’ll watch the same video over and over. However, the song is not what I think about when I watch it with my boy. At the beginning of the video, Taye and Elmo “imagine, imagine, imagine” what their ideal car and drive would look like. They even remember to imagine seat belts!
Today, Elmo’s fun video has me thinking: what do I “imagine, imagine, imagine” when it comes to school? How has my vision changed over the course of the school year because of the challenges set before me by the facilitators and members of the Change.School program? How about the lessons learned from my colleagues at Presbyterian?
A Million Dreams are Keeping Me Awake
Much like Elmo, I close my eyes, and I can imagine a few key ideas:
- I am meeting with middle school faculty. While greeting them, I ask them to reflect on why they enter the classroom each day. Do they enjoy the skill-driven learning goals they have built their curriculum and the ways in which they engage students? Am I feeding them with opportunities to do create dynamic learning spaces? Are they enticing students to own their learning process?
- Teachers construct an adventurous environment in which students can explore and pursue learning with passion and vigor. It is my hope that we move beyond simple engagement with content. Especially for middle school children, almost all content will resurface in the coming years. So content is the medium; however, the true learning in place hones collaborative and creative skill. Learning to learn is the model.
- I am observing a class that is exploring a new concept. Students are struggling with the challenge, leaning on each other and the micro-discoveries that manifest throughout the group on the way to comprehension. Students are smiling because they enjoy the challenge designed by the teacher in the room. That teacher is there to facilitate wonder and guide young thinkers towards a common pathway.
- Learning spaces model trial-and-error; students should never fear the potential of failure as a step towards success. Grades as metrics do not provide any sort of long-term value; rather, it’s the skill to develop and manage a process that makes a great student and learner. Students should feel a sense of urgency to identify problems and make an effort to discover evidence which lead to answers…and more questions.
- I envision learning opportunities in all spaces and from all sorts of places. Students are on their iPads, searching a multitude of spaces, referencing texts they may have found virtually or in the learning commons on campus. The teacher in the room bring her or his own knowledge base to the table as well, only inspiring further research.
- The spark may come from other people in the room, such as students, YouTube, the docent at the museum, the professional with life experiences to share, etc. We need to tap into all resources in our learning spaces; to fall short in this area is simply a failure of the system as a whole.
Developing a Roadmap to Get There
I believe in the power of teacher autonomy. I should not need to observe and review lesson plans when my vision is clearly articulated and genuinely adopted by faculty. We hire faculty who demonstrate a willingness to buy into the culture of our school and appreciate the pedagogical freedom to live into that vision on one’s own terms. Further, teachers should have the authority to challenge my vision with practical evidence of “a better way” to inspire learning and student agency. That is what a division meeting is for – a gathering of individual vision so that we can move forward together as a confident unit. I look forward to the time we as a division can play together as much as the time when we wrestle through our differences. I would never claim to have all the answers (which is why I surround myself with smarter people in the room). So, is there a roadmap? I’d say the faculty in my division depend of me for a direction of travel, not how to get there. That diversity of thought makes school messy…and messiness models creativity in our students.
Taken from a comment I made on a very intriguing post in my Change.School community:
Modern Learning is all about the “who” in our daily life. Now, I stole this mantra from my mentor, but I firmly believe in it. Modern learning requires us to know our audience and present ideas and concepts (whether required or via passionate personal interest) in a way that is relatable to each person in the room. We must work very hard to research and explore ways to connect to those whom we hope to inspire. To change a culture, we need buy in…and everyone’s buy in is specific to personal need. However, when we can connect that personal need to the needs of the many, we have an opportunity for real change.
So Modern Learning connects personal need and interest to that of the larger community or system. ML turns all boats towards the same guiding light so that we can arrive, together, at a place of enlightenment and growth.
The Source of Urgency
If you have not read this article from The Atlantic (September 2017 Issue), please take a moment to check it out. The article, written by Jean M. Twenge, contains incredible research and interpretation of information. The blog post you are reading now contains my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of a mentor.
I love and fully recognize the irony of reading the post that introduced me to the article while on my phone…and staying up late to respond to it on that same device. I began to share my thoughts as a comment to Will Richardson's post on the Change.School community (yes, even more irony). But as I think about the content presented in the Atlantic article and the likely response my school community, I am compelled to share my thoughts with a larger audience. I am passionate about the effects of social media on our young students for one very poignant reason: I love the kids who walk through our hallways as I do my own children. Further, I agree that they constantly battle unhappiness because of the social pressures thrown at them (and embraced by them) every day.
A Little Background
My school facilitates a 1:1 (iPad) school technology program, and has done so for a number of years. We were one of the first private schools in the city of Houston to adopt this pedagogical shift comprehensively beginning in 5th grade about five years ago. Our students have embraced the iPad as an essential element to support learning and teachers have learned to let go of traditional, static learning tools (like textbooks) to focus on the immeasurable volume of information via online research. We are discovering better ways to inspire learning every year; I appreciate our ability to be nimble in pedagogy and curriculum while continuing to find success in developing young minds. Just search "prepare the child for the path" and see the inspirational messaging for yourself.
Technology should never dictate the breadth or depth of the learning that goes on in the classroom; that exploration depends on the learner and those that facilitate learning (more on this idea later). But the devices in the hands of our students should serve as a means to make learning visible through demonstrative evidence of growth. Never is this device intended to be a "consumption only" tool. We want to teach students to own their learning and therefore be in control of the various tools at their disposal. But much like Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side despite his training in and knowledge of the light side of the force, power and authority over others can be a unavoidable temptation. We cannot guide the hands of our students (nor should we). And that brings us back to Twenge's article.
Tell Me You Got the Plates on that Truck…
Allow me to begin with a clarifying statement: I agree with every piece of evidence Twenge presents. Social media has the potential to serve as the greatest threat to adolescents, more so than any other in our modern history. But in all the evidence she presents, I'm left with the pressing question: Why is this continuing to happen? Her research goes back 25 years; why have we not stepped on the brakes? It is clear that the greater we (that is, every single adult making an impact on an adolescent) never developed the skills to teach our kids how to navigate social media, and specifically through the comments of others. It seems that, according to Twenge, the "sticks and stones" adage exists with reckless abandon in social media outlets and can end with depression and (God forbid) suicide. In my own school, there are a small group of families that have serious concerns about the amount of technology to which our academic program exposes students on a daily basis. They feel that children need to learn traditional, pre-tech methods of learning. While I address this specific concern in the above paragraph, I worry that Twenge's article creates even more angst to the danger of any screen time, even the positive model we emphasize.
Does Anybody Have a Map?
The title of this section refers to a song from the Broadway show destroying the competition these days, Dear Evan Hanson. I love the music written for this show; however, the content is a bit hard to swallow. This musical describes how a teenager dealing with depression and being a social outcast considers suicide to solve his anonymity. "13 Reasons" is a made-for-Netflix production with revenge suicide as its central plot line, presented as the ultimate way to get back at all those so-called "friends" who insulted, raped, and dismissed a young girl. These high-traffic shows sensationalize one way to respond to the the very emotional roller coaster our students are experiencing. These example have a significantly louder voice than, say, mom and dad (or teacher). So my question is this: How has a young person's ability to own their online narrative been marginalized, instead deferring them to the extreme alternatives just mentioned? As Will states in a response to my comment: "This [need to educate kids on how to use devices properly] is a HUGE part of any technology roll out in schools, but one that is hardly mentioned amidst discussions around bandwidth, filtering, appropriate use, and safety." At this point in time, all I have seen is a budding awareness of the issue. Can we move beyond awareness?
Finding Center Stage
Will goes on to say: "The dissonance for us is that we [adults] have some context for "how it used to be." Kids don't. This is what life looks like now. Our job is to help them understand that people's lives aren't just the highlight reels they post online, and find a healthy balance that many of them don't even know they're missing." This gem of an observation identifies the crux: kids live in this world of full-time connectivity since the day they were born (e.g., using Instagram in a delivery room, or at least responding to a post of that kind). From the cheap seats, the simple answer is "less screen time." After all, if we prevent our kids from being exposed to social media, we solve the problem, right? The truth is, any screen time can lead to misguided decisions that haunt forever. I'll use a Brené Brown reference here: when we (or our students) are in "the arena," our devices are a permanent tool/weapon available to us, for better or for worse. Wielding such a tool with confidence requires training and MODELING. I, for one, have a long way to go in that second category. But, as the saying goes, it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it. Parents, teachers, and anyone a young person admires must realize how they are being observed in person (think of the parent you see at the pool who is constantly distracted by the number of "likes" on their Facebook post) and followed virtually (when you "friend" your child, or your friend's child, you are sharing everything with them that you post online).
it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it
Ultimately, there must be an acknowledgement by schools and parents of the way students manipulate and are manipulated by their online interactions. Only through committed partnership for rehabilitation (for lack of a better word) can we help steer this conversation back towards the infinite value of the tool rather than it being the source of "unhappiness."
Maybe it’s just me, but I have noticed a significant uptake in Disney’s (and many other realms, for that matter) efforts to enhance their female presence. In highlighting legacy feminine phenoms (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.) and the introduction of today’s leading ladies (Moana, Wonder Woman, to name a couple… yes, I realize that WW is a part of the DC reunion tour), I am THRILLED to see this effort, and not for the young ladies watching today’s shows; but, for the young men. How wonderful is it for our boys to celebrate and worship super heroine archetypes showing that women can be all and more of what previous generations expected from male icons, only.
But my question is this: How do these women display body images that are appropriate for today’s youth?
What IS appropriate for today’s youth? I appreciate the various “builds”that appear (Moana versus Wonder Woman, for instance) and how ANYONE can be super with determination and grit. But is it enough? I observed a Disney, Jr. commercial showing a laundry list of great heroines… but this all-at-once effort cannot be sustained, can it?
I’d love your thoughts.
Many schools today consider a move towards new learning methods as they seek to improve on traditional school design. A program in which I am participating, called Change.School, consistently stretches my brain to consider ways in which I lead my school and why I have chosen to do so. Some questions presented by a colleague in a recent post had me thinking particularly hard, so I will share my thoughts with you.
1. What is the role of direct teaching in an inquiry based classroom driven by student questions?
I have researched the National Paideia Center and later had this organization come to train our faculty on a component of their framework: the Paideia seminar. Their stance is that a typical classroom should see about ten to fifteen percent didactic learning (with the vast majority of the remaining time be saved for practical application of knowledge and discussion via the aforementioned seminar). I’m a math guy, so these numbers speak to me as proper guidelines for leaders who want to give learning ownership to the students in the classroom.
2. Is there a role for teacher developed provocations?
I strongly believe in modeling how we expect our students to engage in their learning. Trevor MacKenzie has written Dive into Inquiry, a text that focuses on a gradual release of ownership to students when building an inquiry-based classroom. From phrasing the essential question which guides the inquiry to choosing research methods and the eventual medium to demonstrate learning, MacKenzie explores how to gradually shift each of these pieces to eventually reach “Free Inquiry.” Food for thought (and a good, quick read).
3. Once we determine the exit skills for a variety of stages in the educational development of children, can we give ownership of the standards to the children and allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their proficiency?
I think this is a brilliant idea. But as a senior thesis paper must be “defended,” so too should a student have to defend how and why the chosen demonstration accurately displays proficiency. Perhaps a better question is: “How can a student show learning as opposed to proficiency?” It seems to me that we need to measure progress and development towards mastery and not the snapshot, quantitative value on where a student is at any given moment. Learning is linear and follows its own time…but we can objectively measure that development given the proper rubric to follow.
4. How do we ensure a visibility to the teaching and learning going on in schools and how do we ensure parents are integral partners in the process.
Parents must have a strong level of engagement in the learning process. In the demonstration of proficiency you mentioned in the previous question, I would think that parents should be able to observe and appreciate the level of learning that has transpired. A fun activity would be to build a sort of “passport” for parents or visitors to use as a roadmap to see the different displays of learning to a) build a community that celebrates learning, and b) see the comparative progress made from one student to the next.
5. Should we be co-creating assessment criteria with students and then give them full partnership in assessing their peers and themselves? What does the role of the teacher look like in this environment?
This question brings to mind a slide that my headmaster uses in his presentation on assessment. It looks something like this:
There are 3 types of assessment in today’s classroom:
- Assessment FOR learning – enables teachers to use information about students’ knowledge to inform their teaching while providing feedback to students about their learning and how to improve
- Assessment AS learning – involves students in the learning process where they monitor their own progress/skill development through self-assessment and teacher feedback. Students can ask questions about their progress as a reflection of their learning and to re-set goals for the future.
- Assessment OF learning – the most typical type of assessment in today’s schools; this type of assessment measures student achievement against learning goals and standards.
6. Should attention still be paid to building community and ensuring we are building citizenship skills as well as facilitating student driven inquiry?
In my mind, a student is never going to remember what he learned in 6th grade science; however, she is NEVER going to forget the way that teacher made her FEEL. If you haven’t yet seen Mrs. Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk on relationships, then take some time to do so right now. Why am I a teacher/school leader? To ensure that I am building inquisitive CITIZENS who understand that character builds reputation (not knowledge or skill).
7. Is there a time when a topic is so compelling a teacher should/must draw it to the attention of students and invite them to investigate?
I think this question goes into my answer for question 2. However, when something like the World Trade Center attacks occurs, we MUST stop and investigate how this changes the world in which we live. Granted, I believe this disruption is both the most difficult and most impactful “teachable moment” an educator has the opportunity to share with his students.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these topics. Thanks for reading!
I’m on my way back from Santa Fe, NM, after attending a Division Heads conference for area private school leaders. As I sit in the back of the airplane, I find myself surprised to find a unique opportunity to reflect on my practice. For inspiration in this effort, I turn to the May 2017 issue of Educational Leadership Magazine, particularly to an article entitled, “Is Your School Better Because You Lead It?” by Bondi K. Kafele. Within the article, Kafele asks two questions for the reader to ponder: “What is your work about?” and “Why do you do it?
These are perfect reflection questions for any professional. I will take a slab in building my own answers here.
What is your work about?
There’s nothing like a 30,000 foot question to get me thinking. My work is all about the privileged child and how that young person can better understand the opportunities afforded to him or her because of various, unique environments available either at home or in our school. Facing reality, my 250 students enjoy an elevated classroom experience free of outside, standardized influence when compared to the typical experience which manifests in thousands of public school learning environments because requirements which exist outside of their control often tie their hands behind their backs. It is therefore my role to guide our teachers and students in the conversation that explores how this special opportunity to teach in a private educational environment reveals an obligation to lead others to success. That success manifests in various professional and personal avenues to be appreciated and celebrated.
Why do you do it?
I love kids, plain and simple. I recognize that, as a product of private school learning, I have so much to give to my community with regard to academic knowledge and how to use it as a way to improve the world around us. This gift includes and is most consumed (for me, anyway) by lessons I have learned, good and bad, about the life in a privileged environment. I love how young people see the world, the naivete that their varied experiences bring, and the way that exposures to life outside their “bubble” broaden their scope to reveal passion and identity. I also love the educational environment; I feel comfortable in private education because I am surrounded by like-minded individuals. The various perspectives of my colleagues may not always align with my own, but the beauty inherent inside the ”hows” of education (ie, pedagogy, technology, relationships, etc.) are better shared with those who start from a place of love and responsibility to serving today’s youth in some way, shape, or form.
So, there you have it. What has developed into more of a manifesto than a reflection, I have put to paper my reason for being in education and, specifically, in educational leadership. I hope you have the chance to reflect on your craft as I have today. It’s a refreshing and energizing activity. Please share your thoughts when you do!