No need to raise your seat back: What happens when teachers lose sight of the destination

The man sits asleep, mouth agape in his window seat as the flight attendant stops by and gingerly taps him on the shoulder.
“Sir,” says the flight attendant, “We’ll be landing soon, and I need you to put your seat up.”
“I can’t,” says the passenger, “Whenever I try, it just falls back down. I think it’s broken.”
“You need to press the button,” says the flight attendant.
“I did. It just keeps falling.” He demonstrates.
“Well, can you put up the seat beside you,” says the flight attendant as he walks away.
The passenger is suggesting someone might want to report the broken seat, but the flight attendant has already moved on.
The entire scene is reminiscent of many teachers’ approach to students and what they have decided are the correct behaviors.
Anyone who has ever traveled by air knows the vehemence with which flight attendants insist passengers put their seat backs and tray tables in the full upright position.
So too might anyone who observes an American classroom note the force with which many teachers insist students follow exacting classroom procedures and practices. Students must submit their homework at a given time, tests must be completed within a certain interval, essays must be formatted according to set parameters. In many cases, if any of these standards is not met, the work will not be accepted. The students will not be cleared for landing.
Teachers are tripping over procedures with little regard to their intended destinations.
Certainly, it is important for a student to learn the lesson of submitting work in a timely manner. At the same time the tardiness of work should not mean a student’s effort up to that point be disregarded.
Why, then, do many teachers impose such draconian measures in their classrooms? They do it for the same reasons many flight attendants insist on upright seats, not because it is imperative for the landing of the plane, but because it is one of the few things still within their control.
If teaching is entirely dependent on others listening and observing instruction and then internalizing it, there is little wonder teachers might savor any element of control they can find when faced with limp success rate of much traditional teaching.
One option, the option of which we are loud proponents, is to keep the intended destination in mind when responding to the idiosyncracies of student behaviors and accepting successes while working to improve upon failures. This is not easy.
Our flight attendant, too, struggled with keeping the destination in mind. If seat back position is important to the operation of the plane, he would have done well to listen to the passenger and report the defunct chair. Ignoring it now means he and subsequent flight attendants will wage constant battle with that seat when a few moments of focused attention could save mountains of frustration.
Teachers too could learn from this piece of the story. Punishing the student who has formatted his essay incorrectly without taking the time to help the student develop a plan for avoiding the error in the future only insures headaches down the road.
Failing to appreciate the work that’s been done while simultaneously punishing the annoyance without working toward a solution leads to something educators are particularly adept at – admiring the problem.

Three things I wish I’d said to shift thinking about assignment deadlines

I’d asked for push back. Toward the end of my second keynote address in as many days at the Technology Integration & Instruction for the 21st Century Learner (TICL) conference in Storm Lake Iowa. I had the audience stand up, mix about, and share their thinking on what I’d just said.

The morning’s topic was “digital literacy” and I was highlighting projects I’ve designed as a teacher and completed as a student.

“What’s the ugly?” I’d asked, “What did you hear this morning that you don’t agree with.”

One of the participants raised his hand and said his partner understood the importance of choice, but wasn’t jiving with the portion of the writing project I’d described where students were allowed to set their own due dates.

He was a business teacher, you see, and in the business world you aren’t allowed to miss deadlines. Letting students set their own schedules would mean missed deadlines, and that wouldn’t do.

In the moment I agreed with the teacher. He was teaching a business class. If meeting deadlines was a skill firmly planted in his curriculum, then perhaps more freedom wasn’t the answer in that arena.

Since then, I’ve had some opportunity to think more on the matter, and my answer was wrong.

1. Most of the undesirable habits we say won’t fly in the business world probably will. I’ve heard enough stories from friends in the business sector of employees who don’t meet deadlines or need a bit of extra time on a project. Those employees, it turns out, don’t lose their jobs. “You won’t be able to get away with this in the workplace,” is teacher code for, “Because I said so.” While it would be easy to suggest that taking a more hands-off approach could lead to further reinforcement of bad business practice, you need only survey the current global business playing field to realize the strict hierarchical, authoritarian approach hasn’t led us anywhere good.

2. Make deadlines worth meeting. The auditorium wasn’t the place to have this conversation. If I’d been talking with this teacher in a breakout session or one-on-one it would have been an excellent opportunity for the difficult conversation around the goals of deadlines. In adults’ daily lives, if we’re playing the game correctly, we’re faced with requirements of our jobs that ask us to keep up with deadlines. We meet them because they are the terms of staying connected with something we’ve determined is important and valuable in our lives. Assignments and class deadlines often assume students are playing by the same rules and with the same intent. Often they aren’t. Assignment to a class or registration to fulfill a credit requirement isn’t the same as jumping administrative hoops as part of a job you’ve chosen and find intrinsically rewarding.

3. Learning is the goal. If students aren’t learning, the question shouldn’t be “How can I lock this class down so they have no choice but to complete the assignments?” It should be, “What’s going on in my instructional practice that’s turning kids off to learning?” It’s a more sensitive and ego-deflating question, but it runs a far greater risk of improving and increasing learning than racheting up the perceived punishments of coming to class.

Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the teacher in the audience was keen on a convervation or had decided this was the reason he was looking for to discount anything else that might shift his thinking.

I tend to assume the best in people, and I’m sorry I missed the chance for the conversation.

Does this mean I’ll need to change my twitter handle?

For the first time in a long time, I’m nervous.

Stepping in front of a classroom for the first time nine years ago didn’t frighten me. My teacher training at Illinois State prepared me for that.

Stepping foot on the Harvard Ed School campus as a student this year didn’t worry me. Learning as a teacher and student at Science Leadership for four years prepared me for that.

Next year is a bit different.

I’m going west (young man) to Boulder, CO where I’ll be one of the newest doctoral students at the University of Colorado – Boulder in their Educational Foundations Policy and Practice Ph.D. program.

While everything up to this point prepared me to complete the application and ostensibly to complete the program, joining the program also means stepping out of my depth.

Under the G.I. Bill, my grandfather completed his master’s degree when he left the army decades ago, and my mom completed hers a couple years ago. Making the move to complete my M.Ed. this year meant following in their footsteps. It was learning from the lead of two of the most impactful role models I’ve ever had. I wasn’t encouraged by the fact teachers around me had completed their master’s. It was that this was something my family has done. We do this.

The doctorate lives in a different space in my head. While I’ve encountered and befriended countless Ph.D’s, it’s not something my family has done. I didn’t realize, until I received my admission notice and was faced with the decision, how much my family and lineage weigh on my perception of what I can (and should) do.

I’m going.

In the end, it came down the chance to study a topic about which I’m passionate at a world-class institution dedicated to interdisciplinary studies with a social justice bent versus moving safely in the spaces I know.

Part of me is scared.

I could fail. I’ve no family history toward which I can nod and say, “This is something we do.”

I’m moving halfway across the country. I’m committing to the formal life of a student. I’m saying this is the work to which I am dedicating my life for the next few years. Pieces of it feel more selfish than teaching. Most of it is much less immediate than the daily workings of the classroom. But it’s something about which I’m curious and something I know to be important. It’s a chance to make a difference in a different way.

Because of this – and because it’s important to lean in to the things that scare us – I’m going.

And, I guess, if you keep reading, you’re going too.

Can you imagine making this when you were in school?

Watch this first (and comment), then come back.

I ask the question for two reasons:

  • I can’t imagine being bold enough to tackle the topic of this documentary while I was in high school in rural Illinois. Our history curriculum rarely, if ever, stepped outside of a study of the wars. This is to say nothing of its almost total ignorance of marginalized groups and the completely blind eye it turned to LGBT history.
  • The quality is pretty wonderful. I’d use this in my classroom to intro any of the topics listed above (probably  not war), and generate class conversation and questions about marginalized and untaught histories. Max and Sam are working with a brilliant script, mined excellent primary sources, and kept a close watch on the final product. I may have had their taste in school, but I didn’t have anything that looked like their abilities. Maybe I was an underachiever.

Pretty tremendous.

Faced with problems as opportunities, students can make amazing things

This came through my Facebook feed from a friend who teaches in Mission, SD.

It speaks for itself.

The story via NPR:

Unhappy with portrayals of Native Americans in mainstream media, a group of students from South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Reservation created a video to show that their community is about more than alcoholism, broken homes and crime.

The students are visiting Washington, D.C., on Monday to lobby Congress for increased funding for schools on reservations.

Filmed in black and white, the student-produced video More Than That takes viewers through the hallways, classrooms and gymnasium of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation’s county high school.

Using their bodies as signposts, the students explain that they’re more than stock images of poverty, alcoholism and violence. With words drawn on their hands, arms and faces, they share the traits that describe who they really are: humor, intelligence, creativity — and the list goes on.

The point the students are trying to make, says English teacher Heather Hanson, is that they’re not victims.

The nonprofit National Association of Federally Impacted Schools invited the Lakota students to attend its winter conference Monday in Washington, D.C. While in town, the students will also lobby South Dakota’s congressional representatives.

Here’s the ABC News special the movie references.

They weren’t content to be exoticized and knew how to tell the story of how they see themselves.

More Than That has 49,750 views right now. ABC’s clip can claim only 17,391.

I take hope in those numbers.

What I’m Doing This Year: The Resolutions

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At the end of May, I’ll be doing something different with my life than I was doing in October and different still from what I was doing 365 days before that. This promises to be a year of change to rival the changes of years past.
As I was working on my resolutions for the year, I kept this in mind. I want to document the year with the same spirit as last year, and I know another daily writing project will run the risk of draining me and distracting me from experiencing what’s going on as the changes take place.
As such, I’ve arrived at the following resolutions:
1. Run every day for at least 10 minutes. This one was clearing inspired by last year’s project. I understood the why better through explaining it to someone else. I came to know myself as a writer last year by putting myself in writing each day. In the same way, when I get to know people, I think of myself as a writer and a runner. So, I’ll be running. It’s a new approach. I’ll be running for 10 minutes some days, though my mind will want to go farther. I like that. I like actively working to shift my paradigm and experience as a runner. I’m also knowledgeable enough as a runner, at this point, to know to listen to my body and be mindful of the injuries possible in such an undertaking. If this year is to include the geographic changes I anticipate it to, experiencing where I am and who I am in those places through running will be interesting.
2. Make one photo each week that represents that week of the year. I thought briefly about a photo-a-day project, but my sister, Kirstie, helped me make up my mind. Kirstie is, as I have said, a brilliant photographer with a keen eye. She completed a 365 project last year to tremendous results. When I asked her if she would be continuing it this year, she said no. The goal of a photo each day meant she wasn’t creating shots of the quality she wanted. I can appreciate that. This year, she’s surveyed 52 friends and family members for inspirations quotations and ideas. Each week, she’ll be creating a photo each week around one of those guiding ideas. My project will be less global and much more self-centered, but I hope it to be a catalog of life this year that pushes me to think more visually. The photo above was my first week’s attempt.
3. Go vegan. I’m still a little sketchy of the details on this one. I wrote last year of my month-long go at eating vegan and the cultural and personal quandaries it inspired. Since then, I’ve continued to consider my role as a citizen, the effects of what I eat on who and what I am, and the footprint of all of this. I’m starting to think of this as a biological retirement plan. More on this later.
4. Journal each day (even if it’s only a line). My mom journals every day. Leading up to the new year, she spent her mornings on the couch reading through her life in years past and remembering the connective tissue of who she is now. For a long time, I journaled alongside my students in class. It’s different than blogging, and I want to remember why.
5. Read 52 books. That’s it. Similar to running, I count myself as a reader. As much as I could easily remain among the choir who chant solemnly they “don’t have time” to read, I know I can make time for this. To be sure, grad school will continue to help push me toward this goal. The other piece is one of genuine living. In the classroom, I told students over and over of the connection between reading, writing, and thinking. I insisted they would be better writers for reading and vice versa. If I am to stand by that and improve as a writer, I must read. Fifty-two is an arbitrary goal furnished by the calendar. Still, it’s as good a number as any.
I didn’t intend 5 resolutions this year. It just shook out that way. As much as I’m excited to work at each of them, I’m excited to find how my internal understanding and logic of the rules surrounding each resolutions shifts during the year.
I’m most curious to see how they shape me.