Things I Know 281 of 365: Schools should stop casually dating their teachers OR Why schools should be more like frats

Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

The more readings I complete for my courses this semester, the more it seems that American school systems see their teachers as short-term boyfriends or girlfriends. They invest just enough to keep the relationship friendly and interesting, but not so much as to risk vulnerability should the relationship go south.

While I am tempted to criticize this line of thinking as jaded or cynical, I stop short of it. The transience feared by many districts and schools if they invest too heavily novice teachers’ professional development was exactly what took place in my own career. My school district in Sarasota, FL invested thousands of dollars in my professional development as part of a pilot 21st century learning initiative. A year after the training completed, I was recruited away to teach in Philadelphia. With me went Sarasota’s investment.

Perhaps the district should have required a commitment on the part of pilot participants that they would spend a minimum length of time in the district following program completion to limit attrition to other districts. Even this seems implausible. I had no plans of leaving Sarasota prior to admission to the project, and would gladly have signed such an agreement.

Instead of shifting admission and selection practices for professional development, schools should stop thinking of professional development as casually dating all of its teachers and look for a model that better serves its purposes.

While the idea of teams as described by Richard Hackman in his examination of what makes a great team serves as a possible alternative, it lacks a specificity many schools would require for high fidelity of implementation. I agree with Hackman’s assertion of the importance of setting the conditions in which it is likely a team will work effectively and reach desired goals, and in applying this thinking to schools, we must consider the expectations for team membership. Specifically, how do we build successful teams that account for and accept member transience rather than working to play the odds of building a team around those members seen as least likely to depart?

In this space, I offer collegiate fraternities and sororities as models for the way schools should begin to think about their team members and how to support them. Such institutions are built around an acceptance of high annual turnover, the need to constantly pass on institutional memory, and build unique cultures attractive to a multitude of applicants in a system awash in options. Additionally, fraternities and sororities maintain loose networks across the nation and honor their individual histories while shifting to maintain contemporary relevance.

These organizations meet each of Hackman’s conditions for team effectiveness, account for annual turnover and allow for adaptability. What’s more, they thrive on what Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink identify as the three kinds of knowledge most common to leaders in Sustainable Leadership – Inbound Knowledge, Insider Knowledge and Outbound Knowledge.

By engaging all of these knowledge types jointly, fraternities and sororities create the kind of stability, boundaries and adaptability Hackman describes and set the stage for reversing many of the negative trends in professional learning.

What I want to know is how this shift in paradigm could best be brought about. SLA gave me a fair bit of this feeling. Though not a teacher there anymore, I continue to feel connected to the school and the people. I continue to feel a sense of ownership and stewardship in a way I might have if I’d rushed a frat in college. If this is how SLA was designed, how can an existing school shift its culture to bring about those same feelings of belonging?

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Things I Know 269 of 365: I’ve got an idea for disrupting PD

The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.

– Charles Darwin

I’m working to understand a framework for professional development and capacity building that disrupts traditional thinking and builds toward the type of risk-ready culture Richard Elmore describes and of which I was a part at SLA. In the simplest of terms, it’s a culture of responsible citizenship and stewardship for the educational community. Several different ideas have been influencing my thinking.

The first was the idea of the “Chinese restaurant” approach to “spreading” an educational model described by Charles Leadbeater in his TED talk. Not everything looks the same, but you know when you’re in one. For me, the idea of a coffee shop works best. They are places I seek out, that “pull” me as Leadbeater said, and invite me to stay longer than I intend. It’s got me thinking how one could design a space (physical or virtual) where this is the reaction of those students and teachers who are part of the community.

As my studies returned me to our thinking on “the instructional core,” I started to think about a recent Forbes interview with Don Tapscott. Describing the path to “Enterprise 2.0” and a looming crisis of patent expiration in the pharma market, Tapscott said, “You need to change the whole modus operandi of the industry and how you do research. They need to start sharing science and sharing clinical trial data… The current model is unsustainable, even if it didn’t happen to be coincidentally all coming together over a cliff.” I’ve started to wonder if pharma’s cliff is near education’s cliff.

In many ways, this strikes me as the path to the type of interaction and capacity building Richard Elmore writes about. It also seems a fair way for inspiring risk-taking he mentions. This is a similar idea to that of KIPP Open Book, a project of Philadelphia’s KIPP schools meant to make their data and practices more transparent. It’s an example of system-level transparency of practice, that could potentially influence the transparency of teachers and students, though it would likely require a substantial shift in pedagogy to allow for the agency required for teachers and students to feel more comfortable to take risks associated with such transparency.

This returns me to the question of how I would build a culture comfortable with risk-taking and responsible citizenship to increase capacity and align our practice with a goal toward improvement. To the extent possible, I’d hire the “right” people. At Science Leadership Academy (SLA), each interview committee included the principal, teachers from the department with the open position and at least one student and one parent. These committees were formed ad hoc. Though the principal maintained final say, I cannot recall an interview where the final decision differed from the consensus of the committee. This practice was built into the culture of the school. Oftentimes, students were the first to speak up in deliberations to point out that a particular candidate was a poor fit for the school. In my own practice, I would adopt a hiring approach similar to if not the same as SLA’s.

As to the question of professional development, I’m tempted to stray further from the norm and suggest a rotating position of Professional Coach. Each year a different teacher would assume a reduced course load to work with the school’s leadership team as the director of professional development. The role would entail observations, leading PD around the school’s improvement goals and helping to research particular issues of practice in the coach’s own classroom. The position would last a year, after which, that teacher would return to a full load. Other teachers would submit their names (and perhaps an application) for the following year and the leadership team, whole faculty, or principal would select the next year’s Professional Coach. Again, it’s an idea I’m toying with, and I’m still working to conceptualize the possible impact on school culture.

The thing I want to know is this, how can we prevent the standard testing accountability measures from being the tail that wags the dog of professional development and setting the definition of improvement?

Things I Know 219 of 365: A good start is asking what we’re orchestrating class to do

Designers think everything done by someone else is awful, and that they could do it better themselves, which explains why I designed my own living room carpet, I suppose.

– Chris Bangle

Wednesday, we had out first class meeting of Professor Elmore’s A-341 Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement.

Much of the class was directed toward establishing class norms and getting a general sense of whom we were learning with. While I loved it (we were moving around, meeting one another, having purposeful conversations and reporting out), it was one question that stuck with me as the defining moment of the class.

In describing what would drive our teacher observations for the class, Elmore asked, “If you were a student in this classroom and you did what the teacher asked you to do, what would you know how to do?”

The simplicity of the question reminded me of why I’d been drawn to apply to the course during shopping.

What’s more, Elmore wasn’t asking us to make judgements about the legitimacy of any of what we observed. He was asking us to observe.

Admittedly, this will be difficult for me. I’d imagine it will be difficult for everyone in the class.

I like the idea. I like the shift in focus from what the teacher is doing to the student experience.

As Elmore pointed out, the process starts not from a standpoint of “Here’s what should be going on here!” but one of “What’s going on here?” And, it starts from moving to the perspective of the student.

Starting out in the classroom, I asked myself, “Would I want to do the assignment I’ve just created?” It was a simplistic question.

Moving forward, I’d collected student responses to hundreds of assignments and had a better idea of the varying perspectives in my classroom. As a result, I felt I was designing assignments more likely to pique my students interest.

It wasn’t until moving to SLA and working with the unit planning template of Wiggins and McTigh’s Understanding by Design that I was asked to unpack where I wanted my students to head in what they were able to know, do and understand as a result of their time in the classroom.

Sparks of Elmore’s question could be seen in my review of student work, assessing how closely the students had come to reaching my goals for the unit.

This isn’t quite the essence of the question.

The question asks for a more complex and paradoxically more simplified observation.

When designing the flow of a given class period, what knowledge or abilities was I helping my students to have at that class’s end?

I wonder how classes would change if all teachers stepped into their classrooms tomorrow, mindful of that question.

Moving forward with the course, I’m curious to see and hear the variety of responses my classmates and I have to that question as we observe the same classes.

Things I Know 137 of 365: Conversations are excellent professional development

Change that eminates from teachers lasts until they find a better way.

– Roland Barthes

Continuing to tie up the year during SLA’s weekly professional development meetings, it was my Professional Learning Community’s turn to present what we learned during our independent study in the first semester.

My very small learning community consisted of Mark, a math teacher, and me. That’s it. Just two of us.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t love learning with Mark in the first semester.

What began as a plan to find new tools and writings to bring to each meeting shifted into something more directly applicable – conversation.

Each time we met, Mark and I shared what we were doing in our classes and brainstormed ways in which technology could transform students’ learning into something more engaging, authentic and differentiated.

As Mark admitted, I’ve a bit more proficiency with tech and learning. Often, our conversations consisted of me learning about the math concepts he was teaching his students and then throwing out whatever ideas came to mind.

Because I realized math is Mark’s domain of understanding and had no qualms admitting my deficiencies in its instruction, I didn’t hold back my ideas, nor did I take offense when Mark dismissed an idea as impractical.

Had I paired up with another humanities teacher, my ideas might not have flowed so freely, and any negation might not have been so freely accepted.

When it came time to plan our presentation to the entire faculty, we experienced a moment of pseudo-panic. Had we been collecting and cataloging tools and articles throughout the semester as we planned, we would have been set. Read this, now try this, now plan a sample lesson, now share, now critique in small groups. It’s the unsweetened cereal of professional development.

When it came time for today’s presentation, we decided to share not only what we learned about the tools, but what we learned about process as well.

For us, learning had been social, collegial and immediate.

In the first five minutes, we gave an overview of our process.

Next, I asked each faculty member to think about where they would rate their comfort with technology in learning on a scale of 1-10.

“Now, use your fingers to show your number. Without talking, line up from highest to lowest.”

They did.

From their, we broke the line in half. The highest end of each half was paired with the highest end of the other half and they were broken into couples.

Then, down to business.

Laptops in tow, the lower numbers in each pair explained what they’re doing in their classrooms through the end of the year. The higher numbers listened, asked questions and then started brainstorming ideas on how tech could be better leveraged to help with learning.

Mark and I milled about the room.

At each table I stopped, a conversation similar to the conversations Mark and I had throughout the first semester was taking place.

After a few minutes, we paused, asked people to share what was going well and then gave a few more minute either to continue on their topics of discussion or to let those who had been brainstorming share what was going on in their classrooms.

For the finish, I asked the group what they noticed about the past 25 minutes that stood out to them:

  • People were working cross-disciplinarily. With one or two exceptions, each couple was made up of teachers from different disciplines.
  • People were talking one-on-one about their practice.
  • People were talking about things that could immediately affect classroom practice rather than living in the hypothetical.

We also talked about what could be done to continue this kind of conversation and collaboration. The thing that stuck the most was the idea of moving outside people’s normal routine to seek out the feedback of our peers.

That’s the key of it. In a structured, focused way, we asked people to move outside the routine of talking to those in their disciplines or the routine of curriculum design and have a one-on-one conversation about improving how they teach.

That should be the routine.

Things I Know 130 of 365: Professional development must be warts and all

Good design begins with honesty, asks tough questions, comes from collaboration and from trusting your intuition.

– Freeman Thomas

A group of teachers cam to visit SLA Tuesday. Particularly enterprising, their school is heading to a project-based model next year, and they’ve been using this year to experiment. While not fully project-based, their classes have featured a few projects throughout the year, and they wanted to talk shop.

When I sat down, they were talking to Tim Best about rubrics and expectations.

They wanted to adopt a similar approach next year, and I had a question.

I asked if they had a plan for getting the more hesitant members of their faculty on board.

No matter who comes to visit SLA, they never bring the most recalcitrant members of their faculty with them. Those who come to visit are of like minds.

This group had no plan.

They asked if we had any suggestions.

I had one.

Be vulnerable.

Whenever I’ve been part of a faculty or heard stories of a faculty that was adopting a new approach or program, there was never a sense of vulnerability.

Every launch, unveiling or introduction has been orchestrated with the promise of perfect like some sort of Kevlar-covered pedagogy.

Nothing ever is.

No matter what these teachers say next year as they start to shift the way their school approaches teaching and learning, it will not be perfect.

My suggestion was for each of them to sit down with a group of their peers and workshop a unit plan, project description or rubric they’ve built this year.

When new initiatives are launched, all many teachers hear is “We’ve figured out the problem with our school. You’re teaching the children wrong, and we’re hear to fix you.”

Asking their peers to sit down to a curricular discussion that values the knowledge and experience of everyone involved can be a way for their school to make thoughtful change.

Even better, those conversations will bring new eyes to the process in a structured way so that this beta group can refine their practice with the help of their peers rather than burning out mid-year next year because everyone is looking to them to keep pushing things along.

Some school initiatives fail because they are either bad initiatives or bad fits for the schools adopting them. Other initiatives fail because they’re thrust upon a faculty with pomp and circumstances, but lacking dialogue and reflection.

By inviting their faculty to the table as colleagues, these teachers could have a good shot at eliminating 50 percent of the reasons they might fail.

I like those odds.

Things I Know 87 of 365: Pres. Obama, Rhee, Gates and Sec. Duncan should support the NWP

So our goal as an administration, my goal as President, has been to build on these successes across America…

…We need to put outstanding teachers in every classroom, and give those teachers the pay and the support that they deserve…

…A budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that’s sacrificing our country’s future.  That would be a budget that sacrifices our children’s future.  And I will not let it happen…

…Let me make it plain:  We cannot cut education.  (Applause.)  We can’t cut the things that will make America more competitive…

– Pres. Obama 3/14/11 Kenmore Middle School, Arlington, VA

We’ll fight against ineffective instructional programs and bureaucracy so that public dollars go where they make the biggest difference: to effective instructional programs.

– Michelle Rhee 12/6/10 Newsweek

Great teachers are a precious natural resource. But we have to figure out how to make them a renewable, expandable resource. We have to figure out what makes the great teachers great and how we transfer those skills to others. These are vital questions for American education.

– Bill Gates 11/19/10 Council of Chief State School Officers

The plain fact is that — to lead in the new century — we have no choice in the matter but to invest in education. No other issue is more critical to our economy, to our future and our way of life.

– Sec. Arne Duncan 3/9/11 Senate Testimony

For 20 years, the National Writing Project has received federal funding to help teachers across the nation improve their practice and improve the learning of their students. The research bears this out.

The NWP is in danger. Twenty years of success and grass-roots professional development are in danger. Contact your congressperson – daily. After that, contact the offices of each of the people quoted above. If they truly believe what they say above, they will have no problem speaking out in support of the NWP.

Things I Know 81 of 365: Teachers need to play too

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

We’ve arrived at that part of the school year where The Man can get you down. Usually, The Man is time – time together, time between breaks, time in the house during the bleaker months. This year, The Man has incarnations in the form of budget cuts, layoffs, the neutering of organized labor, and, yes, time.

Between sections of standardized testing today, I sent Chris a message.

“Can Pia lead us in a game at the staff meeting today?”

“Dunno,” was his reply.

I didn’t think about it again until I walked into the library a few minutes before the meeting.

There stood Pia, our health and P.E. teacher and one of my dearest friends, blowing up a beach ball.

“You’ve never looked sexier,” I said as the limp orb hung from her mouth.

We both cracked up.

Chris started the meeting.

There we sat, 30 professionals battling to get kids into college, through testing, to counseling, beyond adolescence. Somewhere in there, we teach and learn. If we have the time and energy after, we cobble together lives with friends and family.

“Before we get started,” Chris said, “Pia has a game for us.”

She broke the library in half with a clear dividing line.

“We’re playing chair volleyball,” she said. “This is the line. If it hits the floor after you touch it, the opposing team gets a point. Beyond the pole is out of bounds. You have to stay in your chair to hit the ball. All body parts are fair game.”

A couple teachers straggled in.

Both sides of the room erupted, “You’re on our team! You’re on our team!”

In our shirts and ties and our skirts and heels, we were 12.

Pia sent the new arrivals to my team.

After the other side protested, she said, “I cheat how I wanna cheat.”

I walked to her and palmed her a dollar.

“Okay, so it’s 1—0 to start,” she said indicating my team was up a point.

And then it began. It was tremendous.

The ball bounced off of people and bookshelves and the ceiling and tables and chairs. We were screaming and yelling and laughing.

Somehow, Pia’s scoring bounced around as often as the ball, and I got the definite feeling, no matter who scored the most points, the game was headed for a tie.

After about 10 minutes, Pia called the game and we clapped and laughed and sounded our barbaric yawps.

Sometimes, in the middle of a class just after lunch, when heads are bobbing and eyes are heavy, I’ll have my class stand and compete to see who can stand on their tiptoes or one foot the longest.

That’s what we did as a faculty today. March is the class after lunch of the school year. Later in the meeting, we talked about differentiation, multiculturalism and school partnerships – the business of school.

For 10 minutes, we took time to play and be people together.

Try it.