Lenses, Not Silos

I am reading an inspiring book about school design and program development with the student at the center. It’s called Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase. I’m enthralled with the motivational idealism that exists throughout the work; however, this idealism is galvanized by practical experience as the two authors, former school principals, have demonstrated how theory can become common practice. Every so often, a quote pops up which allows me the opportunity to reflect on our School practice. This morning, that quote came from a chapter on “Lenses, Not Silos.”

Good, thoughtful teaching and learning is a process more gerative of questions than of hard and fast answers. – Building School 2.0: How to Create Schools We Need

It’s the Lens

The context for this question stems from the fact that classrooms cannot harbor concepts and skills in exclusivity. In other words, the ideas presented and discussed in a math class must, at their core, facilitate how a student can view the world through a filtered lens. That filter depends on the reference point (or, in the case of school, the material presented); however, a child in the classroom should feel empowered to use this lens as an every day, any moment skill. So when that same student is in history class, there should be an opportunity to utilize a math lens to view the task at hand.

This blending of content areas can happen organically, for instance, in history and English classes. With a little effort, the courses sync to the point where students should not recognize the difference between history or English class…and that is wonderful. But the example I used above (seeing math in history) can be a bit challenging when material is not presented with intention. But this essay is not a challenge to create connections. On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

Content as a Vehicle

Instead, I’d offer that educators must focus on building the lens through which a child sees learning. The content used is merely a vehicle for practicing ways to use various lenses. When we can teach students how to think mathematically or process a concept within socio political paradigm, the endgame will present itself tangibly. In our case, the goal must be a capable young learner who can see the comprehensive opportunity to process content as he or she would in the real world.

So I encourage you, in this last month of school, to frame your conversations with the lens of learning in mind. Let’s teach our kids how to see the world as an interconnected classroom, where their ability can bring many thoughts and materials into a useful, practical, and joyful experience.

Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

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.

And the Teachers Respond! (A FedEx Day Follow Up)

Square peg in a round hole with hanner

Tired of the Square Peg Problem?

Last month, I presented to teachers the idea of pursuing specific interests that would improve our school. The offer included coverage for their classes for a day (or more, if that is what it takes) to do the research and explore their ideas.

While it is my hope that teachers are still developing their ideas (and I continue to remind them of this opportunity…if even to brainstorm ideas with me in order to craft a proposal), a few teachers have already come forward with some very interesting ideas. Here is a summary of each one (so that you can see where the conversation is moving):

I. Collaborative Meeting Design

One of the projects addresses the problem of grade leave meeting inefficiency. Specifically targeting teacher collaborative meetings, the leader of this FedEx plan has researched various meeting styles to explore better ways for us to gather productively. She has come across the Collaborative Meeting Design (CMD) methodology and has learned that another school in Houston utilizes this system. She will go and shadow a few of their meetings to learn about the system and reflect on its value compared to our current meeting environment. Should she determine CMD to be the right fit, her next goal will be to develop a training tool that the rest of us can review in order to utilize the system next year.

II. Paideia Seminar

A second problem identified by a teacher is that of empowering students to lead conversations in general class discussions (that is, beyond a presentation or prepared project). One of the programs I utilized in my previous school was the Paideia Seminar. (Simply put, Paideia means “education” in English). Built on a pedagogical paradigm from Paideia.org, the Paideia Seminar is similar to the Harkness model, but centers on wondrous, disruptive thought. The Seminar isn’t a dialogue about current content; instead, it focuses on a standalone primary source, creating analytical conversation about this source, and formulating questions that align the Seminar conversation to current content in the classroom. This process is galvanized by reflective writing at the end of the conversation. It’s quite innovative (or extremely classical in nature, depending on your point of view), and very easily incorporated into a school in search of ways to improve student-led discussion.

Needless to say, I have been pushing for someone to find ways to incorporate this model into a classroom system. A teacher has stepped forward and asked for training in this model! She will work with me over the remaining school days (reading texts, studying teaching materials) and then we will think about the intentional design of Seminars throughout the coming fall.

III. Improving Our Professional Learning Committees

Once a month, our school gathers after the day is over to have small professional discussions. This past fall, our discussions have targeted the concept of assessment and how we can ask our students to demonstrate, via new and dynamic methods, their approach to mastery in the small- and large-scale units presented throughout the school year.

The problem identified in this FedEx plan is that the PLC conversation has stymied a bit and teachers are looking for ways to refresh the conversation. In this teacher’s mind, faculty members should take more ownership of the PLC discussion and be able to demonstrate results in the classroom and throughout the school program. He has offered to research and design a new “PLC Model” that will enhance the innovative thought and accountability in future school years. Though we have not met yet, I imagine this teacher to be quite creative in the retooling of the PLC program.

A whole lotta thinking going on here!

I am so proud of those teachers who are diving into the deep end with FedEx Day ideas. As these problems develop into action plans and those plans take effect, I will follow up with more documentation. Thanks for reading…should you have two cents (or 200) on one or all of these subjects, do not hesitate to comment and share so that I can pass the thoughts on to the teachers working on each plan.

Making Failure a Priority

This image appeared on my LinkedIn feed yesterday, sparking thoughts and reflection about why the middle school years are so crucial. Tweenagers, children between the ages of 10 and 15, go through a roller coaster of changes. They discover independence and passion for new ideas and interests, particularly during the school day. As they discover opportunities to make decisions sans parent influence, tweenagers find their path more open and free as their capabilities have increased. However, this freedom comes with risk attached. In discovering passions, the inevitability of failure surfaces. For students at my school, a fear of failure predicates all decisions. Quite often, they test the waters only to back off after a mistake or an undesirable result develops. As you can see from the examples below, it’s that “comfort zone” of effort that we need to expunge.

“My parents will kill me if I don’t make an A.”
Students love the easy ‘A.’ The gratification of seeing a good grade on a test or report card starts early and carries forward throughout our adult life. But anyone can take the easy road to make the grade; the more memorable academic work arrives when taking the road less traveled. However, students are hesitant to take risks on a project or paper because the uncharted path, though more interesting and dynamic, may not provide an easy avenue to earning high marks. Pursuing a unique and creative path takes effort and iteration which means patience in academic effort. Teachers are welcoming of this path; looking at a new topic or seeing a student take a new angle with a project is energizing to a classroom. We as educators need to remain vocal in our support of these trailblazers so that they can see the value of the road less traveled.

“We lost the game. We suck.”
When it comes to sports, middle school students are diving into a whole new world. No matter the game, the average tweenager is only developing the concept of being a “cog in the wheel.” After so many years of being in the spotlight, especially in today’s ribbon-happy athletic environment, being a piece to the puzzle versus the solution is humbling at best. Some young athletes reach puberty early, giving them the physical edge; this only adds to the disillusion of the rest of the pack as they watch their classmate get the glory.

Second, so many times in my coaching career I have heard the opinion of “we suck” based on the fact that the team lost the game yesterday. It’s hard for a young person to see the baby steps of progress that it takes to become a strong, successful team. As I speak to students after a game, the response to “how did the game go?” is always black and white. Win or loss. So my second question is always, “How did YOU do?” The response to this question is interesting – after debriefing personal performance, students are very quick to celebrate the success of a teammate. Perhaps the question triggers that “cog and wheel” perspective in the tweenage brain. But coaches and parents alike can help a student overcome that all-or-nothing response by asking about the space between.

Power in Failing
As I return to the image that sparked this post, let’s look at the key pieces to the acronym shown in the picture:

F.A.I.L.

  • F: First – In order to fail, you have to try (and try again). Ramana Maharshi, sage thinker who devoted his life to exploring self-inquiry, is quoted saying, “No one succeeds without effort…Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.” We must teach young people to take that first leap of faith, and to be comfortable with the outcome, whatever it may be.
  • A: Attempt – These days a young person believes that attempt = successful completion. I host an after school club every other week when students come to play chess and other types of board games. I find it interesting that, even in a gaming situation, students won’t make the attempt against an opponent they know is good (or better than they are) at a game. For instance, Alex is a chess master, and students are afraid to play him. With this decision, there isn’t a way to improve. We must educate tweenagers to re-engineer their understanding of an attempt to one of trial and error.
  • L: Learning – Skill development is the very essence of forming the teenage mind. To me, the definition of learning finds its foundation in skill development. To put it another way, failure is a part of developing skills. Finding out what doesn’t work provides a wealth of understanding for a young person. Failure is a life experience that helps, not only in the current effort, but in all those efforts to come.

Take a moment to reflect on how you teach failure in your classroom. It may be the most important lesson you can provide a young person.