Don’t let go…

lookahead

 

Recently it has become increasingly difficult to hold onto what I believe in and dream of for public education.* Some days it feels possibility died or is very close to death.  Bright clear dreams, plans and ideas have become clouded and distorted to the point of unrecognizable. You may also have felt this way and had dark days such as these. Over time, my mental arms have grown weary from grasping tightly to what I hold dear. Over time, wisps of doubt have stealthily crept in. Why bother to hold onto something that seems invisible to many? Why protectively carry ideals that at times feel valueless? The uncertainty and deep despair of this thought has hurt my heart, mind and inner core.

It feels as I have been worn down and tapped out…it would be so much easier to just…let go…

To let the dreams and ideals I began teaching with drop, would be so freeing.  After all, back then I was naive to the ways of the world. I wouldn’t have to care anymore. Done. Out. Cut and dry. Just a job.

But…every time I get within a hair of letting it all go…I just can’t. For the past several months this contemplation has both haunted and trapped me.  It would seem that until I resolved this decision, I couldn’t move in any concrete direction, I was at a standstill. This grey no man’s land coloured a part of my life usually bright and full of joy. I was paralyzed by the possibility: will THIS be the time I give in and give up? Will this be the TIME I disengage completely, stop feeling and caring?

Mistakenly I thought it would be easy. Easy to let go. I even thought I wanted to. I don’t want to get all moral and heavy-handed with it either, this struggle comes from my deepest beliefs about what I hold as precious, true and right. But when it came right down to it, I just couldn’t do it.

***

So take these tenuous threads with which we collectively sew humanity and never doubt your connection to this purpose for one breath, one heartbeat. And if you were as I, holding your breath and holding your beliefs tenderly as a dying lover, I offer this…

Do not doubt yourself and your ideals in these dark moments. Look forward to the light of what is possible. Be sure of what you know as good and true. Imagine your big impossible dreams boldly and loudly.

Hold on. Hold on to what you know to be true and right.

Hold on dear friends, hold on.

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* this post is in reference to the challenges of job action in British Columbia over the last several months.

Data by #fitbit…#accountability all mine.

fitbit

Accountability is one of those #edu-trendy words educators can’t get enough of. The word is solid and reassuring (I myself had a brief torrid affair with the word). It’s as if…simply using the word is magic and students will “Ta Da!” do “their” work when we simply announce what they are accountable for.

The reasoning behind the word goes something like this: students do not always apply themselves to meet their full potential. We as adults need to make good choices for them and as such make sure they get their work done. Phrases such as “we need to hold kids accountable” and “students need to be held accountable,” pop up like earthworms after a summer deluge. Even let’s “plan for accountability” gets tossed out as if it’s a new safety feature to add into car manufacturing.

***

A couple of weeks ago I bought a Fitbit. Some Fitbit wearing peeps explained to me how the wireless wristband helped them stay on track to meet their fitness goals. A wireless wristband, really?…ok…I’ll try anything in the name of fitness and I was searching for new inspiration towards meeting my fitness goals. I am still a Fitbit novice but wearing the wristband thus far has provided me with an invigorated fitness plan. The data I access empowers me to hold myself accountable; I set a goal for myself and Fitbit tracks my progress for me. When I view the data it allows me to quickly compare it to my long-term goals. I can share my data with fellow Fitbit-ers and this offers me another layer of inspiration to get moving.  In other words, I can ask for support and encouragement towards holding myself accountable.  The data is a gentle reminder of how my actions in the present align to my long-term goals I have set for myself. This subtle shift in my awareness makes me feel empowered to stick to my goal.

***

While I am not suggesting every student needs a Fitbit-like dashboard of data, wearing my Fitbit over the last couple of weeks made me wonder:

How might we equip and inspire each and every one of our students to feel accountable to their own goals and dreams?

How might we find and design tools, strategies and conditions that empower our students to be inspired to be accountable to themselves?

How might we create environments where our students feel ownership, agency, autonomy and inspiration?

***

In my next post I hope to outline some practical considerations for developing and nurturing agency in the classroom. And…I say that to hold myself accountable to my goal to blog on a regular basis.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some steps to do…

How might we co-create a lexicon of learning to empower our students?

Do students use the same words you use to talk about their learning? Are the words you use as an educator reserved for conversations about students or are the words you use for conversations with students?

***
How might we create a lexicon for learning that invites our students in? How might we find words to include students implicitly in the process of learning rather than as something done to them and for them but not always of them? How might we move to words that explore learning as something not just done at school for 5 hours a day but a stance to take for life? How might we co-create a language that explores the emotions, depths, and connections of learning? How might we find words to use not about students but for students? What words might we use not only to describe students but to be used by students in the service of their learning?

***

I am wondering if we might consider….

  • the design of learning spaces, pathways and experiences in place of linear and one time only lessons and lesson plans.
  • talking about learning pathways (with multiple entry points) instead of one time activities or worksheets to complete.
  • creating environments of agency rather than policies of accountability.
  • using the words “invite you” and “you could do” with students instead of “you must do” and “you have to.”
  • talking about being inspired rather than about being on task.
  • imagining and exploring what students need instead of listing what work is required.
  • asking students what they see, feel, hear, imagine and dream rather than only asking what they think.
  • starting from empathy for our students rather than exclusively from the learning outcomes.
  • creating opportunities for students to celebrate their learning rather than only creating summative assessments to be given (tests and quizzes).
  • inviting students to collect artifacts of their learning instead of doing formative assessments to students.
  • nurturing creativity instead of always pushing productivity.
  • inviting students to share their learning journeys rather than describing learning with a spreadsheet.
  • asking students to create stories to tell rather than give them notes to copy.
  • inviting students to do work that matters instead of work for marks.
  • referring to ourselves as “learners in chief” or “lead learners” instead of exclusively “teachers.”
  • asking students what they do well already before telling students what they must do.

***

What words or phrases might you consider changing? What stance do the words you currently use represent? What words work well and hold meaning for both for you and for your students? What words do your students use that you don’t when talking about their learning?

***

How might we co-create a lexicon of learning to empower our students?

I Don’t Get to Choose

ORPHANED

Photo Shared on Flickr

 

I used to think it was like a game of pool; just focus on the ball and if I set the shot up right, the ball will fall successfully into the pocket.  As long as I focused on the desired point of impact…success!

Except I found out, it’s not like that at all. I found out in fact…that I don’t get to choose who I impact and how.
And I am not talking about Hattie’s influence “Teacher know your impact.” I am not suggesting you would avoid trying to impact your students in the learning sense. It’s just learning takes years and years to accumulate and manifest.

I am not talking about impact as in getting the person to vote for a certain political party or in buying you Christmas gifts or behaving in a desired manner. No the impact I am thinking of is a little trickier to pin down and identify.

This impact is more like peeling back a layer of an onion to get to the next level, or flipping a switch on a path that is defined by thousands of switches. Or it’s like the light of a tiny fire fly in a jar in a universe of dark. Or it is like a lingering perfume that stays with you for years. This type of impact is not a huge catalytic event of influence. It is gentle and kind and light and not pre-determined.
But the thing of it is, which is just so awe-inspiring and lovely…you just never know how what you say, do, or write, exactly impacts another person at the certain point in their life.

And as over the years as I have had the fortune to see students years later, it is never the influence I thought I had on the students I thought I had it. Often times it is the students I thought I was not connecting to, the students who really were not “interested” who in fact felt impacted in some small way. Often times it is the student who did not laugh at my jokes, or offer to help, or the ones I might have interacted with a little bit more. Sometimes it is the biology (the course I teach) they say they remember, but often times it was an unrelated story or a certain activity we did. Sometimes it is just a funny occurrence that happened in class. Sometimes just a memory of a place they enjoyed being.
But the students I thought I connected with were not the ones I impacted in a profound way. Often times the student did not stand out. Instead I stood out for them.

And when I get emails or DM’s from people who I have never meet and probably never will meet, who say your such and such blog post really touched me or that post on assessment made me really think. I am always dumbfounded that my words here can go hurtling out into space and make contact with another person’s brain and the words might form into new thoughts and ideas inside their brain. Our connection forged with this fine tenuous thread of words. And if I write thinking I know my impact “oh I’ll write this blog post for so and so they’ll love it!” Chances are so and so won’t even read it! So and so will not connect in any way shape of form to my words.

I don’t get to choose.

As with a beloved helium balloon you finally decide to release and set free, you don’t know exactly who is going to see it and what exactly it will mean to the person who sees it.  No doubt the randomness and uncertainty of it is a bit alarming. But on the other hand it also is incredibly freeing.

Letting my ideas and thoughts and stories and pictures free into the world, I don’t know exactly who is going to connect to them and exactly what they will mean to anyone , students or otherwise.

I don’t get to choose.

When classroom observations make sense

observations

 Shared on flickr by Ralph Hockens

People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture—to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in.
~Chip and Dan Heath

Full disclosure: I am no Instructional Rounds expert. The majority of my exposure to Instructional Rounds has been experiential and in context of the work I do as part of our district’s Instructional Leadership Team (6 teachers who work on site with teachers in an iterative cycle of co-planning, co-teaching and co-learning). As such I would rate my knowledge of the theory behind instructional rounds as low (I just want to make that part very clear :) ). I also have to admit I did not “get” the Instructional Rounds concept. At all. That is before I saw it and experienced it in practice and on site. This made 2 aspects of professional learning and change evident to me:
1. Telling someone about a practice is not an effective way for them to understand it (i.e. as most Pro-D in the past has been).
2. When an initiative (practice) is presented in isolation, it does not always make sense or seem relevant.

The majority of our work happens on site with a school based group of teachers.  Our first steps on site are usually to co-construct criteria for collaborative work. This can feel like a laborious process but as with any new process you often don’t feel the benefits until well into it or till even after. Next steps are to identify an area of need (what are they seeing in their students) and establish a collective rational for the why of the work to reveal a common pathway (5 why protocol can be used to drill down). As well the creation of “if…then” statements can be useful to determine the why of the work we are about to undertake.  I really like this stage as it provides the opportunity to create a prediction and predictions invite us to wonder if they will be true! So for example we might say: “if we design lessons with voice and choice then our students will take more ownership over their learning” or “if we build stamina (using Daily 5) then our students will become independent learners.”

Onto co-planning

The co-planning stage sets up the tension for the underlying why of classroom observations (in my limited experience!).
If we do this…then this will happen…ok let’s find out if it’s true. Observations rather than inferences allow us to find patterns and trends instead of making judgments and opinions. After the observations is when the magic happens!  Through the process of sharing and sorting the observations as a group is when the co-learning happens. I have to admit I did not really get the co-learning part until I experienced it IRL. The moment we come out of a classroom observation (based on a lesson we co-planned) the connections between our observations happen. We saw similar things (observations are neutral, they are not opinions) the patterns begin to emerge; it becomes immediately evident the changes we might need to make to the co-planned lesson. But also evident are the successes and details that paint a full picture of what is actually going on in the class. The meaningful nods occur all without judgment or value statements. At this moment everyone is keen and ready to change, tweak and celebrate the lesson; it becomes obvious what needs to be slightly adjusted or added. Teachers are eager to get at it right at it and often want to co-teach the same lesson again that afternoon or next day. The natural progression to co-plan again emerges organically and does not feel forced.
This process connects the causal relationship between planning to the specifics of what happens in the classroom (yes we all know this…but when we experience it followed by observations it has a different impact). This process reveals teaching as experimentation. It also moves the focuses from what the teacher is doing and to what students are doing. The process also makes evident how useful observations can be in general and opens the door to observations as a way to provide students with useful feedback (as opposed to judgments or evaluations).

Why this kind of classroom observation makes sense:

1. Creates permission to tinker on teaching practice.
2. Moves us out of silos (beyond grade partners, subject specialties, schools).
3. Moves us away from widget making mindset: it is not to create as many lessons as possible but rather to see the lesson plan as always in process.
4. No one person is perceived as THE expert; together we co-create understanding of quality and a “nose for quality.”
5. Shows small changes are possible (creates belief change is possible).
6. Topples belief that Pro-D should be like a fast acting cold medication with a one-time dose.

But more than anything else this process helps remind us:

We learn to do the work by doing the work, not by telling other people to do the work, not by having done the work at some time in the past, and not by hiring experts who can act as proxies for our knowledge about how to do the work.
~Richard Elmore

where does your light shine?

do you light dark corners?
does your light add clarity and outline?
does it illuminate the overlooked or forgotten?
does your light have adjustable brightness for when shade is needed?
does your light warm, brighten and invite?
does your light move in an unencumbered line out from you?
does your light shine through fog and callous?
does your light create a reflective surface for others to see and feel their light?

***

does your light shine to illuminate the streaks and missed spots?
does your light suck dry the surrounding soil, leaving it desiccated and infertile?
does it shine only at light shows?
does your light scorch and burn delicate new growth?
does your light bounce back to shine just on you?
does your light blind, blur and fatigue?
is your light operated by an invisible and unknowable switch?
does your light only shine into well lit areas?

***

where do you shine your light?

master or masterpiece?

It’s late August, you are back at school setting up your classroom. Your neighboring teacher pokes her head in to say hi and catch up: “Have you seen your class lists yet? Who do you have?” You hand her the printed lists lying on your desk. As she glances over the lists she shares: “Oh him, he is great! Oh no, not her, she struggles with everything!”

So innocent and so human, to want to know a bit about the students you will work with over the course of the next several months.

***

I promised myself I would try to avoid preconceived ideas about students. I wanted to let them be blank canvases as they entered the class and paint their own story, fresh for the first time. I even went as far to make a poster in big bold letters and post it up at the back of the classroom as a daily reminder to myself of this very thing:

Expectation becomes the realization

While my intentions were good it turned out my practice was not.

A couple of years into teaching I had the chance to work with students I worked with in Science 8 again in Chemistry 11. I was thrilled to have already established relationships in place! As such we had richer conversations, less ground work to cover to create mutual understanding. But with that prior knowledge of each other guess what else crept in?

I learned in talking with students how I had broken my own rule of thumb. In conversation one day, a student said: “Yeah I even got “name of student who always gets A’s” to do my lab for me and you still gave me…”
In that moment I was caught; I had fallen for the name on the page and not the words on the page. I was judging students on what I knew of them rather than the evidence of their learning they were sharing with me. I was marking everything students put a pen on and evaluating nothing. Oh I had so much to learn!

My take away that day (beyond the burning shame of being blatantly wrong and floored by how much I had to learn) was…
I needed to look at the evidence and not the person presenting it, regardless of what I knew of them, felt about them or had heard about them. I wanted to look for the potential masterpiece…and sometimes it would be crumpled, the spelling atrocious, and handed in late…but it could be a masterpiece! Would I see it?

Today I continue to ask myself when:

  • I read a tweet or a blog…
  • I evaluate or assess…
  • I listen to a student’s idea or suggestion…
  • I choose to retweet or share a blog…
  • I sit in a meeting…
  • I read student work on the crumpled or torn paper…

What am I reacting to? What am I really evaluating? What am I connecting to? What do I base my opinions on?

What do you react and connect to?

The master or the masterpiece?