Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Questions = Learning

What do these words mean in the context of education, in the context of preparing our students to head into their lives with the tools and mindsets they need to be successful regardless of what path they take? I've always believed you can have too little of these things in education, but can you have too much? Can there be too much choice? Too much, empowerment? 

Perhaps the bigger question I have is “How?” How do we empower a 7 year old, a 17 year old, with their learning experience? How do we help students become self-directed so they take charge of their learning, their lives?

Moreover, I wonder about my own teaching philosophy, the things I hold closest to my heart, my core beliefs of what education, schools, classrooms should and could be. I think about all the schools I’ve walked into and immediately felt like it was a beautiful place to be - enjoying the amazing culture and atmosphere that has been built. I can viscerally feel the incredible things that are happening in the building. I can’t help but walk away inspired, excited by the things I have been a part of, even if for just a few fleeting moments in the hallways or a classroom. I’ve come to realize that the schools I hold in highest regard are the ones where I can’t help but smile as I watch kids learning. I can’t stop myself from wanting to talk to students, to experience their classroom with them. They are the kinds of schools I would feel honored to send my own (hypothetical) children to, and the ones I really want to attend as a student myself. But what are the things that make me feel this way? What is it about these schools that gets me thinking so deeply and examining what education could and should be? When I walk into a classroom, what do I want to see?
  • Laughter, Joy, Smiles
  • Student collaboration (digitally and face to face)
  • Students as experts; Teacher as facilitator
  • Shared ownership of learning among students and staff
  • Relationships
  • Trust, Respect, Kindness
  • ...
Yesterday I was really forced to ask myself WHY? Why do I believe so wholeheartedly that these are elements of effective classrooms, of amazing schools? Why do I believe this is better for students in the long-run? What rationale do I have that makes me think this is what’s best for students, that these elements of classrooms and schools will lead to higher levels of success in their lives? I've just always known these things to be true, taken them as givens that I know I believe in. I suppose that is not entirely true, since I have spent many beautiful days in amazing classrooms where kids were laughing, smiling, collaborating, learning. But being in a position where those beliefs were not taken as givens and needing to provide rationale for my values was really thought-provoking. I know these are my beliefs, and I still believe them wholeheartedly, but I am definitely still working on the WHY.

In addition, I am left asking related questions about the models and structures that are cropping up as blended, personalized, highly differentiated, individualized…
  • What percentage of class time should students be quiet or silent? 
  • Conversely, how much student talk and peer work time should be present?
  • How often should students be collaborating compared to independent work?
  • How should class time be divided? Instruction, practice, re-teach, assessment, reflection...
How do all these pieces impact a student’s learning experience? Do these elements positively impact a student’s learning? How?

I am really happy with this learning trip because I am walking away with far more questions than answers. Regardless of what questions I have or whether I've figured out the complete rationale, all the "whys", I know in my heart and mind that questions = learning. So, yes, it has been a trip full of learning..because it has been a trip full of thought-provoking questions.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Real Power of Student Voice & Choice

If we're being honest, I haven't been following the events in Colorado's Jeffco school district incredibly closely. Perhaps I should be, and maybe after what transpired last night I will, but this post really has nothing to do with the issues brought before the Jeffco School Board last night or on which side of things I stand. For me, this is really about how powerful it is when students step up and share their voice with the world.

I was losing steam scrolling through Twitter for something worth staying awake for last night when this caught my attention:

As I headed over to the #standup4kids live stream and looked back through the Tweets I found that a group of students had been escorted out of the building. Not being one to believe everything I read on social media or the internet, I watched intently to see what other information I could gather from the situation without being there myself. Minutes later, Tweets like this:

I followed the stream for a while longer and checked back in when I got up this morning. This is where Ashlyn comes in:

Watching this video gave me chills. Not because of the issue she is fighting for, but the way in which she is sharing her voice with the world. She wasn't provided the opportunity to speak her truth, so she found a different way to put it into the world. She created her own opportunity. 

I felt so encouraged as I watched this young woman advocate for herself, her beliefs, and what she thinks is best for her classmates present and future. "This is it!" I thought. "THIS is what I want every single child to learn in school." As an educator I think about my students, the children who I had the great fortunate to teach and learn from, and how proud I am of them when they advocate for their needs and take ownership of their experiences. It is brave and creative students like Ashlyn, her classmates in Jeffco Students for Change, and other young people around the world who give me great hope about the future. They remind me that nothing is impossible, that when you truly believe in something you've got to go after it, and above all they remind me that the dream education system I so desperately want for every child and teacher is worth fighting for. Because if these students can step up and advocate for themselves and others, I certainly can step up and advocate for them. 

For more information on the Jeffco School Board Meeting and to see video of the students being escorted out:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Celebrate Success & Failure

Some processing about the importance of celebrating the successes and failures of ourselves and others, and the need to openly share and support one another every day.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What I'm Thinking AND Feeling: Change

I've been doing a lot of contemplation about change lately. Now I know there is lots of research about change, many books and articles I could read (and some that I already have), and quite a few different schools of thought. But I have been less interested in seeking out the research and more interested in how my questions and thoughts about change make me feel. I'm not entirely sure why, but this time when I think about change it feels intensely personal, and meaningful, and heavy yet exciting all at the same time.

This change, and the contemplation surrounding it, have taken many paths and many forms in my head, but I keep coming back to the same questions:

  • Can you ever really enact change from within the system? 
  • Or can the most impactful changes only truly happen outside the system? 
  • But can change outside the system ever impact the system itself?

I am leaving this vague, perhaps even a bit confusing. What do you think? What do these questions lead you to think about? Do these questions make you feel something?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ed Tech and A Tangled Web of Learning, Sharing, Reflecting

I can't seem to escape Audrey Watters this week, and I can't say I mind.

It started when +Nancy White shared on Twitter about Audrey Watters' article Beyond the LMS . I immediately couldn't stop thinking about it, so I shared on Google Plus: "I think I've held some of these thoughts and beliefs for a while but hadn't been able to really articulate them, for myself or others. I have a feeling I'm going to be working through some of this thinking for a while. Who wants to process with me?!" 

Luckily for me I have an incredible PLN, and the (Ed?) Tech tools that provide me time and space to process and push my thinking even further. +Chris Rogers , +Nancy White and I have been talking all week on Voxer about the article and its contents, both in the context Watters presents as well as in the contexts and perspectives we each bring to the table. I won't get in to my thoughts on that topic quite yet, but I do wonder… 

Is my ability to build a strong PLN, reach out to them via Twitter and G+, and then hold a conversation with people who live thousands of miles away from me a benefit of educational technology? In this case I am the learner, and in a very authentic and meaningful way I am connected to other learners who carry different perspectives and are helping me to push my thinking to a new level. If I had read this article in isolation and had nobody available to discuss it with, would I still be thinking about the article's contents or re-reading it for the 5th time a week later? Maybe, but maybe not.

Several days after my (first) encounter with the LMS article, +Kevin Croghan posted on Google+ about Teaching Machines: A Brief History of "Teaching at Scale" #t509MassiveThis article, also by Watters, discusses some of the history behind ed tech and teaching machines and prompted a blog post by Kevin entitled Is it TechNo or TechYes? Once again I find myself contemplating and rereading, and I feel incredibly lucky to know that when I am ready there will be any number of ways for me to process and share my learning with others. After all, isn't that one of the benefits of the (ed?) tech we have at our disposal? I get instant access to rabbit holes of learning (in the middle of reading all these articles and watching the videos below I often stopped to look up a name, a term, or a concept to fill a gap in my knowledge or bookmark an idea to return to later). I see what others are learning because they are able to publicly share articles, videos, and their thoughts. I am no longer constrained to only learning with and from the people I physically encounter. For that I am endlessly thankful, because if we're being honest the limitations of the ideas and people in the room have often been huge barriers in my educational experiences since a very young age. Luckily I had other outlets to keep me motivated as a learner, but shamefully so many students do not. I digress, but more on that later.

I was starting to reach some consensus in my head around these 2 articles, and then +Ben Wilkoff messaged me on Hangouts with 2 of Watters' recent keynotes. What?! Earlier this week I had reached out to process and share a learning experience with fellow educators, and now someone was reciprocating that and extending my opportunities for learning even further? I know, right?! I am basically the luckiest. 

So I woke up eager to start my day with some learning, motivated by both the awaiting content and the acknowledgement that when I was ready to share my thinking someone would be there to share it with. Now I could interject a download of the fascinating courses I took all those years ago about motivating learners, but I don't think it is necessary. What is necessary is acknowledging the incredible opportunities all around us for learning. It starts to feel like an unwieldy sort of web just to relay my experiences of the last week, but that is a true representation of the process and products of my learning. Twitter, Google+, blogs, YouTube, Hangouts, Voxer… If I didn't have these outlets, these numerous places for idea consumption and reciprocal creation, none of this learning would have happened. Not only am I more motivated as a learner, fascinated by the ideas Watters presents and excited to continue the rabbit hole learning journey she has sparked, but I am also more inspired to continue with the work I do each day. For every new thing we learn, every idea we are pondering, we also bring a new perspective to our work and, for me anyway, a new dedication to the contributions to be made.

So where is all this going? Honestly, heck if I really know! That is the beauty of this space where I get to word vomit my thoughts onto a page. Sometimes I start in one clear direction and veer drastically in another. (Case in point: This blog post started as a way to share the notes I took and thoughts I had around 2 of Watters' keynote videos. It headed in a different direction, so that will be a separate post to come.) Perhaps this is a sign of my writing abilities, but it is something I have grown to love about reflective processing via blogs and vlogs. In the midst of sharing my thoughts I happen upon new ideas that hadn't occurred to me in hours or days of thinking things through in my head. I tell people all the time that the best way to get started with reflective blogging/vlogging is to stop worrying too much about the audience or the presentation. Those are skills that develop over time, but are often so paralyzing they prevent people from ever getting started. I suffered from this paralyzation for a long time, as evidenced by the trail of dead blogs and mostly unused online spaces I've been leaving behind me since about 1998. Recently I reflected on what has changed, what is different this time around? It is that every time I write, record a video, or share something on social media I remind myself who the audience is: me. I am the most important audience member I have, and so long as processing my thoughts aloud in these spaces is beneficial to me I will continue to share them. The amazing thing about that shift in mindset is that once I embraced it I began to get more people asking me about the process and content I share, and of course it feels great to know I am helping others in the process of helping myself. It is an exciting and sometimes precarious situation to be in when you gain viewership, so I will continue to remind myself of my primary audience and purpose for sharing my thinking to thwart off the paralyzation from ever creeping back in. 

Some thinking from an earlier blog post The Communities of Practice Gardener about how we cultivate and maintain our online spaces for learning. Needs some revision but feels related.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

"You Make a Difference"

On Friday I received one of those emails that makes my breath catch and chokes me up a bit. You know, it is the one you want to print and hang up to read every morning so you'll remember what's important. The one you want to share with the world and simultaneously hold close to your heart.

It was an email from a former colleague who now has in 6th grade some beautiful kiddos I taught in 4th. That class is extraordinarily special to me because they are the class that almost killed me as a teacher. There was so much going on with those 30 amazing young people, and the intensity lived all balled up in our spacious and climate-controlled (ha!) classroom of 800 square feet. Each day was a test in survival and patience, and while they pushed me to my utmost limits not just as a teacher but as a human being, it also meant that I grew immensely because of them. For all our challenges we became a stronger community, and I'll never forget the number one concern expressed by kiddos in June when I asked why they were so nervous about 5th grade: "I'm afraid about our community being split apart, and I am worried that we won't build a new family like we had this year." Out of the mouths of babes, eh?

My babies on Valentine's Day, 2013. Heart you!
If you know me from my time in the classroom you know that instead of posting rules on the wall we had only Words to Live By, all chosen and created by the students, and we had Kohlberg's Stages of Morality. I'd been doing both these things since my first year teaching, but with this class I really relied on them to help us through every situation that came up. I also relied on our Words to Live By and Kohlberg's stages to keep myself grounded in why my work, though incredibly challenging, was important. I had to model what we talked about and make sure my kiddos knew how much I cared about them developing and taking ownership of the skills and mindsets necessary to contribute as a positive member of a community.

Our interpretation (a mountain we help classmates climb together) of Kohlberg's 6 Stages of Moral Development.
These guided our class discussions, read alouds, classroom management, and so much more each year.
The end of every year with my kiddos is (err, was - still getting used to that) always tough because I am sad to say goodbye and because I worry. I worry if I devoted the right amount of time to the right lessons, whether the way I empowered students to own their learning will benefit them in the short and long term, and most of all whether they will remember and follow through with all the work we put in to becoming better individuals and better community members. Each year I fret over these things and each year I remind myself to trust in myself and in them - to believe that the tools are in their toolbox and they need an opportunity to apply them without me being there to remind them so often. It is their chance to take full ownership of our Words to Live By and remember their importance, without seeing them on the wall every day.
The Words to Live By chosen by my first class of 5th graders.
Although I tell myself these things I can't deny the doubt that creeps in when they've been sent off to new teachers and new experiences. If I'm being honest I suppose part of the doubt is wondering whether I really made a difference, and if it was the right kind of difference, in their lives. Maybe that's one reason the texts and emails from students, and the stories of their successes, are so valuable to me. Perhaps that's why this email means so very much, especially as I process the start of my first full school year out of the classroom.

It is so nice to hear how they've remembered these lessons through the years, and it brings me great comfort to know they're with teachers who value and honor them as individuals. My teacher heart is so very happy right now, and I am reminded how crazy thankful I am for those 30 beautiful humans who changed my life for the better that year.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To My Students and Colleagues, A Wish For You...

As the school year starts up and I find myself outside a classroom and a school I am struggling to reconcile the empathy I feel for my colleagues, the sadness that comes with missing my students and the traditions and excitement of a new school year, and the relief I have to not be carrying the constant, crushing weight I remember so vividly. My normal response throughout a school year would be to help a teacher friend by lending an ear or a helping hand after school, or to bring them coffee and a muffin in the morning. I would be offering a smile, a pat on the back, or a hug to a student in the hallway or in my room, and making sure they felt safe and cared for each time they walked into and out of the building. In the absence of those little things my hope is that the small gestures and decisions I can make each day in my current position will impact teachers and students, and help us move closer to my vision of what being an educator or a student could look like some day. I write these thoughts with the names and faces of my colleagues and lovely students in my mind, but I am also writing it to all the teachers and students who deserve nothing less.


To My Teacher Friends Around the World,

I know things aren't always easy, and that the career you have selected is often one of the most rewarding and yet most all-consuming. Please know how much I empathize with you and appreciate you. I will try each day to do at least one thing to make your life better and support you in some way. 

I wish for you...
  • to have all the resources (tools, materials, thought-partnership, learning opportunities, time and space, in-building support...) that you need to be successful in your job each day.
  • to have an exciting idea that you are passionate about pursuing in your classroom and your teaching practice, and that you feel supported and empowered to make this idea a reality.
  • to find joy in the "small" things of the day - like a smile from a student, a funny joke you share with your class, a celebration with a kiddo about something new they learned or achieved, or a great planning session with a teammate.
  • to find purpose in your days and to have at least one thing you look forward to every week.
  • to have the elusive, guilt-free balance we never seem to capture but always start a year attempting to find.
  • a personal life full of people who support and understand the work you do, and who give you a reason to put work aside and be present in the relationships and activities that fill your bucket and make you whole.
  • to know, at all times, that the work you do is appreciated and that you are a respected, valuable professional.
  • to feel trusted and empowered to do what you know is best for kids, and to feel safe enough and have places to go to reach out when you want help or guidance. 

My beautiful students, I wish for you...
  • a safe and fun place to go every day, where you feel valued and respected at all times.
  • days chock full of learning and growing, not just academically but socially and emotionally.
  • adults who model kindness, compassion, and excitement while challenging you to be the very best human you can be.
  • opportunities to take ownership of your learning and follow your interests in a way that cultivates passion and honors who you are while pushing you to explore new things.
  • an education system that prepares you to step into the world as a forever learner who contributes to making it a more wonderful place.
  • to remember that I really do mean what I said at the end of each year when I sent you off after one last end-of-the-day hug with tears in my eyes - I am always your teacher and I am always here for you, no matter what. 
Though our community is spread out physically now it doesn't change what we built and experienced together. We may not see each other as often as I'd like, but we are always rooting for each other and I am always thinking of you - when I see your favorite video game character or a great book you'd like, when I hear our class song on the radio and hear your voice singing your favorite part, or when I get asked to make a choice that could impact your school experience - you help me stay grounded in what matters and stay true to the reason I became a teacher. I believe in you and in the things we learned together. Hold those learnings close and Follow Your Feet