Walking on Air: Remembering Seamus Heaney

And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air …. I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”

Seamus Heaney’s lecture to the Nobel Foundation recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995

I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the early morn I could almost hear Seamus Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” on a YouTube video, perhaps preserved for all time. I’d driven down one of the old roads of Virginia the day before, a road that reminded me of another Heaney line from “The Wood Road.” In the dark, I turned to my phone and tweeted out the line with an image I’d captured from the side of a gravelled lane.

woodroadHow many times in the lives of humans do we connect moments together in the night only to figure out why in the light of day?  What compels the subconscious to make sense of that which is important to us when the conscious forgets?  When I opened an RSS news feed from Ireland mid-morning I knew why Heaney had slipped his voice into my night dreams. Today. August 30, 2014. The first anniversary of his death.

I’m reminded on this anniversary that it is a poet’s words that make the content and context of humanity accessible to us all. Poets make meaning for us – the artistry of converting image to word.

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

(from “Exposure”, 1975)

Poets solve conundrums and, like mathematicians, they subtract the extraneous and leave the essential, the perfectly constructed theorem on the blackboard. They notice the world; quantum word mechanics who machine together patterns of space and time.

He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

(from “Clearances”, 1986)

Poets create lines of code, a complexity of action no less sophisticated than the work of a great programmer.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

(“Postscript”,1996)

And, poets seek to understand as philosophers, seeking unknown answers to questions asked.

….  Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we’d been restored to? (from “Leaving Going, 1993)

Why cherish the words of poets in a time when we educators are told it’s far more important to focus today’s children on informational texts than poetry?

I am no poet. I studied science. I taught science. My love of science has shaped my interests and my perspectives on education. At the same time, I know we humans have always reflected the importance of  the cultural spaces we inhabit. Cave paintings under flickering firelight, images created on walls before poetic word.  The ancient language of Beowulf,  spoken aloud by Seamus Heaney as poetry was intended to be shared. NPR’s anthology of rap  and fifth grader ‘Savannah‘ who wrote “Waiting in the Dark” so many years ago in the school where I was principal.

Why poetry in 2014? Poets explore the richness of what makes us human, placing words perfectly into the air for us to hear.

Poets link the disciplines of learning. Poets evoke the faces around us. Poets remind us we humans are more than the training manuals and research texts that some would say define us in this century.

Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.

 

 

 

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Why Are We Here? #LeadershipDay14

At our Back to School Leadership gathering I asked the team in the district where I am superintendent one question, “why are we here?”  A simple question, right? Some might say so. But I believe it’s a grand challenge to define ourselves as the leaders we need to be in 2014. Why do we come to work every day? To collect a paycheck?  Make sure our schools like clockwork? Ensure kids pass state tests? Implement the Common Core?

I don’t think so.

20140601-093459-34499043.jpgInstead, I believe our work is about educating our children for life, not for school. And the nature of life in 2020, 2030, 2040, and 2050 and so on can’t even be projected with accuracy based on what we know today.

We do know our children will grow up to live in a world with all the grand challenges that Planet Earth can throw at them – war, disease, famine, water shortages, global climate change – and all the cultural changes that technology acceleration and physical migration brings to our lives.

We also know our children will live in families, workplaces, communities, and nations as humans always have – albeit Gen Y and Z  will likely experience more than a few of each across a lifetime. Does the context and content of typical schooling today prepare children entering kindergarten in 2014 at age 5 for their world forty years later?

I bet not.

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Skyping with Friends 

I shared with the leadership team when we gathered together that technology changes the world in every century. The tall ship and the printing press. The telegraph and the train. The plane and the phone. Twitter and YouTube. Communication and transporting technologies that move people and information around the globe impact civilization. As the technology changes, what humans know and can do changes. Learning changes. The world changes.

 

 

 

Why are we here?

I believe we’re  here to help children and the teachers who serve them to flourish not just function or as @fredbartels said in twitter to me recently about the role of school leaders:

fred bartelsWe all flourish when we work to create spaces for learning so that the people we serve will thrive and prosper or as Merriam Webster online puts it to “grow luxuriantly.”

in 2014, this means we must mindfully and with passion:

  • provide universal access to the world as a source of learning,
  • open pathways with interactive technologies and connectivity that didn’t even exist ten years ago,
  • make passion-based learning a way of learning for all, not just a few,
  • model an open mindset for lifelong learning.

That’s why we are all here; to lead so our children flourish.

Nothing more. Nothing Less.

Now and forever more.

Leadership Academy

Young Leaders At Work

 

 

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Rocket Kids

Near the end of this school year, I had the chance to watch sixth graders gathered on a slope observing rockets of all colors and sizes launch off a makeshift pad. Some participated in the countdown – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….  a reminder of my own childhood experiences sitting on the cafeteria floor, an entire elementary school listening to the numbers moving backwards in now ancient countdowns for the Mercury launches. Back then, we squinted to see the tiny black and white television planted on a slightly raised stage. Here, each cheer from the watching crowd prompted classmates, part of a recovery crew, to chase across the well-worn soccer field, jumping high to retrieve falling rockets.

I thought as I watched them that they were all Rocket Kids under a June sky – enjoying a beautiful day outdoors, exhilarated with each rocket’s successful launch into the brilliant blue above. Some might think this a waste of time, kids outdoors chatting with each other and their teachers rather than inside filling out worksheets or listening to explanations of “rigorous” math problems. However, I like to think that just as I recalled the feeling of cool tile under my legs while watching Mr. Blake, my principal, tune in those Mercury launches decades ago, these kids will look back and remember watching their own rocket launches and hopefully a little science, too. At the least, some will remember a wonderful spring day at school with friends.

Across the nation and in classrooms in my district,  I also knew on that beautiful June day other students were laboring over pages of required state tests as they attempted to demonstrate what they’ve learned to people who will never see the faces of these children taking tests. May and June, perhaps more so than other months, represent billions of dollars of state contracts for standardized test administration. For many children, the dollars spent on testing represent basic resources they could use in their classrooms, field trips to art museums and historical sites long cut from school budgets, or even opportunities such as the rocketry activity that make textbook science real to these middle schoolers. This isn’t a financial tradeoff that’s keeping a love of learning alive in our children I fear.

Primary students build bridges
Primary students build bridges

Every year as the scores roll in, we educators talk about children who know far more than shows in their test results. Watching the Rocket Kids, I wondered who among them is labeled test-proficient … or not.

Listening to their shouts and laughter, I wanted each of the children in the sunshine to be seen for their strengths, not as deficits in their school community. They deserve to be viewed as more than a number, counted as more than a pass or fail by computers sorting them into spread sheets, numerical characters lost in big data. It’s not that I’m against assessment. But, I am against the mass standardization of learning that’s sapping creativity and divergent thinking out of our nation’s future.

rocketkids

These kids wouldn’t have found much joy in making rockets that all looked the same nor would they have been as interested in tracking flight paths if they all flew about the same distance into the air. I’m sure they won’t pursue future careers in science because of the tests they’ve taken this spring. And, I wouldn’t want them to anyway. We need children to grow up and become inventors, designers, artists, builders, healers and even historians because it takes a world of diversity and interests to make communities, states, and our nation better for us all.

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

As the children labored to get rockets into the air, chased after blown up parts and parachutes gliding to earth, chanted the launch count backwards, I am certain I see an engineer out there alongside a poet, a programmer, a teacher, a carpenter.

I bet that my elementary principal saw great promise in the children under his care, too. He might even have thought of us as Rocket Kids.

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Makers By Design

When a principal wanders into my office during the middle of state testing and just a week or so away from the end of the year, I am realistic in not expecting the same charged enthusiasm I heard earlier in the year. After all, I’ve been there. The end of a school year can sap a principal’s energy as s/he engages in a faster than typical urgency to make decisions and take action. Principals spend the end of the year in both start up and wind down mode – hiring new teachers, taking part in celebrations, often dealing with increased discipline issues and last minute parental concerns while pitching in with anything that needs to get done to bring a school year to closure. In May, the pace can suck the life out of a principal.

This week I ended my Friday chatting with a principal who brought a fresh energy into my office, delighting me with his affirmation that working in an at-risk school is his life’s work. I’ve always known that about him but his perspective was different yesterday. Why? The school staff has imagined and embraced a change that he believes has energized children, brought families closer to the school, and catalyzed  a renewed joy of teaching among staff. I’d love to be able to bottle his perspective and share it with America’s educators. But, I don’t need to. This school’s secret is encapsulated in one word.

MAKE.   Make not as an add on to the “real” work. Make as integral work. In this school where kids experience a design, build, and create ethos across the entire school, the staff realize that kids who make things are engaged – and empowered. They are curious. They want to learn. They are having fun. Discipline issues are basically nonexistent this year. State test scores are up. The principal’s imagination is on fire. The teachers are already thinking about how to make an even more powerful maker school experience next year.

Kindergarten maker work

Kindergarten maker work

Why has making ignited educators, parents and students in this school?

Making embeds informal learning into formal learning experiences. Kids develop more complex vocabulary, apply critical math skills, and explore a range of knowledge as they make. As the principal shared a digital image portfolio with me, his stories jumped out of joyful learning narrative. The story of a young child who decided he didn’t want to make the Statue of Liberty (his choice) but to be the Statue of Liberty complete with cereal box sandals, cardboard body and scepter, and a post it note tablet. The idea that making can be captured in movies and art work and iPad interviews. A project in which two fifth graders created a design for a maker patio outside classrooms, presented it to a landscaper, and now will get to see their project actually built with PTO support.

As we’ve embedded a #make2learn #learn2make mindset as a learning transformation pathway across 26 schools in my district, we are learning there are no linear instructional recipes or boxed programs for this work. Instead, maker education represents learning opportunity embedded in a conceptual frame of choice, interest, curricula bending, risk-taking, collaboration, curiosity, inquiry, tool cribs, and time flexibility.

Interest. Engagement. Passion. Empowerment. Agency.

Because of our work to bend curricula, instruction and assessment away from the standardization movement and toward the maker movement, I am particularly interested in the impact of making as a pathway to learning – a pathway along which children and teens pursue interests, engage their hands and minds, find passions, empower themselves and others, and discover a sense of personal learning agency. The stories this principal shared with me parallel stories that are emerging all over the district.

The STEAM Faire

The STEAM Faire

When I listen to teens describe how they work together to create contemporary music in a music industry studio (created in an old library storage room, no less) – writing lyrics, constructing music and beats, learning to use recording devices, practicing, producing and marketing – I am reminded that making to learn comes in a variety of forms and that when we step away from the standardization we practice in schools, making allows young people to access curricula that otherwise might not be available or of interest to them.

Imagination. Creativity. Ingenuity. Problem-solving. Solution-finding.

Why are we pursuing making? We humans naturally are curious creatures who seek to solve dilemmas, discover shortcuts through invention of new tools, and to express their understanding of the world through art forms. As soon as we can bang pots together, stack blocks, or smear paint we become makers. Children spin their imaginations into creating as they use the materials around them in ingenious ways to solve problems and find solutions to grand challenges. They persist. They ask questions. They seek knowledge. They share ideas. They try new ways of doing things. They dream.

When I watch young people challenged by thorny problems begin to work together to find solutions, it strikes me that boredom is not in their vocabulary. I’ve seen learners, elementary to high school, use 3-D printers to re-engineer artifacts such as the Vail telegraph and Civil War mini-balls. They’ve designed and printed unique smart phone cases, screws for library furniture, and science lab pulleys.  These learners don’t recognize the limits set on their learning by content standards created by people far from the classrooms they attempt to standardize. Instead, these learners seek rigor in their own learning as they take on challenges that build all the competencies that an adult might use in the home, at work, and for a lifetime of wanting to know and do more.

jesse

phone case designed and 3-D printed for the principal

Exploration. Discovery. Design. Experimentation. Invention.

I’ve experienced the joy of children and teens in school this year who find themselves with opportunities to sustain their natural curiosity along learning pathways as they search, connect, communicate and make in and out of school. I am reminded in other classrooms that learning doesn’t happen so well when children and teens are seated in rows for hours on end and expected to vicariously acquire knowledge from the dominant teaching wall. Children and teens like to explore the world in which they live. They seek challenges and take risks as they discover pathways to learning that take them beyond the known horizons of their lives. They tune in through play, stories, movement, games, apprenticeships, and interaction. They design, experiment, and invent to take on new challenges.

They experience ….

Joy. Why would anyone question that joy fuels learning? When young people accomplish hard work they experience joy. When they pursue an interest, they find passion and that passion fuels them to keep on working even when they might quit. When they become makers, they delight in the products they create.

This year, I’ve watched children build wooden boxes, design and construct electric guitars, exhibit their handmade pottery and oil paintings, cook soup, sew bow ties, sing original lyrics, direct, produce, and screen video documentaries. I’ve observed them writing code for websites, games, and apps for smart phones. I’ve read their published prose and poetry in paper and virtual formats. I’ve been delighted by their choreography for musicals and their performance of original drama productions.

For humans such as this teen choreographer are ultimately #maker learners by design … 

I am convinced from my observations that when children are afforded opportunities to explore a rich ecosystem of learning inside and outside of school, they experience an authentic growth in knowledge and competencies that has seldom been available to learners since the printed book began to dominate the ecosystem. When maker experiences become prevalent, all learners thrive, even those who experience great difficulty in traditional school.

Why would I want to offer learners anything less?

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A Letter To All Those Who Choose To Teach

Dear Teachers,

I take every chance I can to share the work of our schools’ excellent educators with the public. You and I both know that no more important profession exists than that of teaching.  I am proud to be a member of this professional community that continuously has advanced civilization since the first teacher stood on the banks of a river drawing “counting” marks in the sand or using cave pictographs and campfire stories to pass on tribal history. As valued community members, teachers have had influence across tens of generations and today’s generation of teachers is no different.

You matter.

I talk to parents every day who relay stories of how a teacher has made a difference for their child. This occurs in school hallways, parking lots, and store aisles.  I hear the stories at PTO gatherings, or on the phone and through handwritten notes, emails, and social media. Just the other day, a parent stopped me at a school activity to comment that her child loves her teacher and still wakes up each morning excited to go to school. A high school parent shared that he suspects his soon-to-graduate senior will miss a teacher who has impacted her life as much she will miss leaving her close friends behind. During the recent We Notice celebration sponsored by the County Student Council, teachers shared letters with me from parents and students including a teacher with a We Notice note from her own child. The letters said “thank you” in different ways. Thank you …  for helping me, looking out for me, teaching me to be a better person, going an extra mile for me.

The stories are different but one message is clear. No matter what else changes, teachers matter.

You matter because you prepare young people for adult life. You created passion in a student who never cared much for science and she pursued a career in medicine. You discovered an interest in music within a child who struggled with reading and he became an extraordinary singer. You modeled that you too  can make a mistake, apologized, and helped a child understand that we are all human. You took your car for a wash on a Saturday at a school club fundraiser and made a day better for teens you teach. You greeted students at the classroom door to help them with a project even when you needed a bathroom break yourself.

The list is endless of what you do for young people. In exchange, you may work two jobs to make ends meet for your young family. After a long day teaching, you take work home every night to be ready for the next day or next week. You pay for school supplies that a student needs but can’t afford. You add granola bars to your own grocery cart to be sure everyone in your class has a snack at break.

You do whatever it takes to help young people be successful in your class.

Your spouses, partners, and friends who don’t work in education notice how hard you work in the evenings from designing lesson plans to grading student work. Your colleagues in education, even those no longer in the classroom, understand exactly what it takes to be an excellent teacher. They know every day you enter school with personal qualities that help you meet the needs of each unique learner – patience, attention, commitment, enthusiasm and care. You study not just the content you must teach well but also how to teach children well. You are a learner yourself.

Many of you remember playing teacher as a child. Some of you were drawn to the profession because you loved school. Others of you chose the profession because school was a struggle and you believed you could help children who most need excellent teachers to find success as learners.

I believe all of you came to the profession and stayed because you believed you could make a difference in the lives of those we serve as learners.

And, many of you, as I do, remember a teacher who inspired us to teach. For me, it was Mrs. Hiers who was my high school biology, chemistry and physics teacher – when she wasn’t serving as the guidance counselor in my very small, rural high school. One day, she handed a biology lab report back to me and shared in her soft voice that I had a real affinity for biology. That sparked possibilities I had never considered before. That comment led eventually to a major in biology and to the beginning of a career I have loved ever since.

Teachers have made a difference in my life from my childhood to this day. And, our world is a better place because each of you chose to believe in the power of teachers to influence young people who grow up to advance civilization.  You pay forward what excellent teachers did for you.

Thank you for choosing to teach.

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The Grittiest Kid I Ever Knew

He wouldn’t have done well on the Impulsivity Test for children on Angela Duckworth’s webpage, but I think he was the grittiest kid I ever saw come through the elementary school where I was principal.

He’d had a horrific young life by the time he was nine – and he walked through the door angry on the day that his latest foster-mother registered him well after school was underway that year. The folder forwarded by his former school was thick with school changes, the worst of grade reports, and assessments by all kinds of professionals who’d been charged to take a look at him based on referrals of one sort or another. He was tough. His first words to me? “I hate this f’ing school.” He’d been there all of five minutes.

I noticed that his blue eyes constantly darted sideways to check out the people in the room. I knew that look. I could feel his intensity almost as heat rolling off his rail thin body and I think today I understood even then that beneath his anger lived a depth of real fear. He was just a child. He was a survivor.

When I first read his records, it was obvious why he was hostile to adults specifically, but others in general. His nuclear family had self-destructed around him and he’d been a tiny victim of that ugliness. Enough said. By the time he reached us, he’d seen at least 16 different home placements, including at least one brief stint in a residential home. He ran through them in a litany one day for me as if he was reciting the alphabet. He showed no emotion.

 I placed him with the best teacher I had and hoped that he would settle down and find a peace that would allow him to learn. He tested below grade level which was consistent with his records, but his new teacher saw capability within him. He loved science. He hated math. He  discovered a love of writing with her. He thought books “sucked.”  When his teacher shared an intense poem of his with me, it was obvious he wasn’t writing subdivision poetry. There were no rainbows or cute puppies in his young life. His words were ones of abandonment.

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He didn’t do homework unless his foster-mother made him and it was war at the kitchen table from the stories she shared. We created sign-off logs and contracts, offered extra time shooting hoops with a male assistant, and checked in with his foster-mother routinely. He turned in next to nothing. But he finally found a bit of a passion when he got into building simple circuits and figured out all kinds of cool things he could do with bulbs and batteries. When he wasn’t fiddling at a science center, he wrote about hating his family and foster siblings or stared out the window. He had no safety net. And, he was nine years old. A prior assessor had labeled him as a slow learner. But, none of us thought that at all when he forgot long enough that he lived in a child’s version of hell to show that he was a curious, interested kid who loved to learn.

He’d end up yelling at someone in school pretty much every day. Sometimes the teacher. Sometimes other kids. Sometimes … me. Once I invited him to come for a “lunch-bunch” Wednesday in my office and to bring some classmates. He invited no one. He came and wandered my office, picking up science gizmos I kept for just that purpose. He was intrigued with my framed black rattlesnake skin hanging above my desk and wondered if I’d shot it. I told him no that it had been found by a friend – a roadkill in New Mexico. Because I loved snakes, I told the boy the story of how I acquired that skin. My desktop computer caught his attention and he wanted to know if he could type on it. I let him do that a bit and I remember the delete key mesmerized him – he typed his name and deleted it over and over again. These were pre-laptop days, pre-video game days, pre-almost-every-kid has a device days. He was amazingly focused.

When we finally sat down to eat lunch together, I asked him if he liked school. I will never forget his response in a somewhat agitated voice. “I hate it here. Kids here don’t like to fight. They won’t fight. I like to fight.” I smiled because we were a school that used Glasser’s control theory as a philosophy to underpin community values. Our kindergarteners began early with conversations about solving problems with others by using words. It worked in the sandboxes and in their kitchen center. By the time our kids were nine like this little boy, they might roughhouse a bit on the playground but they, in general, just weren’t  physically aggressive with each other unless someone really lost it.

I asked him why he liked to fight and he went back to wandering my office. No answer. I was ignored. Was he rude? Not really. Just not willing to talk about something that likely made him uncomfortable. Then he turned. “I like to fight because it makes me feel good. That’s why.” It’s all he said. I filed it away. There was no need to share it with the psychologist he saw every week. We all knew that anger was his weapon and his tool to escape class, the playground, the cafeteria – anywhere he felt unsafe. Especially foster families.

I came to value this nine-year old boy. His story has stuck with me for a very long time. I can still see the dusting of freckles on his nose, his darting blue eyes, and his pale arms learning against my desk as he typed away, standing at my desk. He was with us for three months and then disappeared into the lost world of foster children. We got a call from his next school asking about him and what we’d done that had worked since his grades were better at our school than anywhere else in his record.  Let me be clear. We weren’t perfect for him or with him. I’m not laying claim to any savior mythology. But, I think we understood what he needed from us, mostly, and we didn’t need impulsivity test data to tell us that. What we did need was what we valued as a staff in our work with all our kids – a sense of empathy, trust, and respect.

We didn’t have much to share with the counselor who called. He’s smarter than his past files show, we said. He loves science and experiments. He can write poetry when he wants to. We shared that he was pretty well-behaved while with us other than the time he pushed an assistant while getting off the bus one day. Angry.  Who wouldn’t be, we asked?

I’d never give that little boy Duckworth’s survey. It would only reinforce all the negatives in his life. And, I don’t think he lacked self-control at all. Every seemingly impulsive action he took –  from his anger to his distractedness –  was motivated to give him space to breathe and control over a world gone awry.

I still wonder, when I think of him, where he is today. I like to imagine that he found the perfect family and went on to graduate from college, maybe a science major. I like to avoid thinking that he’s in prison or dead. However, my dreams and my nightmares are both possible. I do know this. He was one of the most resilient little guys I ever knew. I didn’t expect him to focus all the time on school work, to become a model student holding on to his bootstraps. Instead, I expected him to find some slack with us, a little safety valve of a school where he could find relief from what Paul Tough reports from medical research as allostatic stress – a huge interference with a child’s working memory.

Finally, I’m not a fan of Angela Duckworth’s references to Sir Francis Galton. This little boy was the kind of child Galton demonized in his Victorian Eugenics pseudo-science. He could have been the poster child who the Commonwealth of Virginia sterilized under its Eugenics Laws, and he was the kid we could have handled in very wrong ways through the systems we employ to label children such as him because of his learning gaps, behaviors, and personality.

I feel this way about Duckworth and her Grit surveys because ethically I don’t like seeing Sir Francis Galton, father of the Eugenics Movement and social Darwinist, cited as a rationale by any modern-day researcher in regards to children and schooling. There is no good reason. It’s that simple to me.

While reminiscing tonight about the grittiest 9-year-old I ever encountered,  it was as if he reached out to remind me today why I feel the way the I do. And, I remember good times with him that transcended his anger, distractedness, and lack of focus. I remember him well.

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United We Stand: From Jefferson’s Declaration to King’s Dream

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day across the United States. Mostly, all public offices and schools are closed. Some choose to celebrate the legacy of MLK by providing community service to those in greater need. Others offer or participate in programs to rekindle and light flames in support of the principles of  “I Have a Dream.” Our learners in school spend time before and after today watching primary source video of speeches and footage of the civil rights movement. They write about their own hopes and dreams. Some engage in discussions or debate about social justice and how far the civil rights movement has taken the United States – or not.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy

Ceremonial remembrance days have always been important to tribes and communities since humans first gathered in caves, around campfires, and at watering holes. Ceremonies transmit important oral histories through story, dance, drama, art. They bring humans together to say what happened is so important that we do not want our people to forget.

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As tribes evolved to communities and communities to city-states and city-states to nations,  ceremonial remembrance days became politically codified as holidays of significance, perhaps as religious holy days, historical events, or celebrations of seasonal significance and importance. And we see tangible changes as a result.

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Martin Luther Ling Day in the United States is such a day. The Third Monday of every January. A remembrance of his birthday on January 15.

Mr. Jefferson

Mr. Jefferson

A belief that his voice was so important in advancing Jefferson’s second sentence of America’s Declaration of Independence to encompass all Americans, what some call the “best known sentence in the English language”, that he deserved a day of remembrance for his life, not his death:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We aren’t there, yet. We still fight over what equality means and who deserves access to it. We still have children without access to basics that we should take for granted in a nation of great wealth – shoes and coats, running water, medical services, food.  We have elderly citizens who live without the medicine they need, reasonable access to heat in the winter and cooling in the summer, and a decent hot meal at least once daily. We have handicapped community members, physically and mentally, who wander our streets, facing third not first world problems in their daily lives.

Dr. King and many Americans who stood beside him and behind him advanced the Declaration of Independence’s second sentence. But the issues that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end when the Act was passed or King died. We still have solutions to be found on many fronts. We still don’t have a national unity of purpose or belief as to for whom the Declaration was intended.

madisonAre we better as a nation today than when Madison penned the Preamble to the Constitution?

Absolutely.

 

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Are we better today than when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address on those still bloodied fields of Pennsylvania?

Assuredly.

“ … It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Have we advanced who we are as a nation since we raised the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island and Emma Lazarus wrote the iconic poem that defines America?

Affirmedly.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

And, are we better today than when King shouted his message from the mountain tops of Washington, D.C.?

Certainly.

“And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Yet, as with all grand challenges, we are not there yet. We have work still to do that represents the best of who we are on those remembrance days in which we commemorate the Declaration, our wars on behalf of the world and us, and the lives of Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and King.  We still have children to serve, senior citizens to care for, immigrants to welcome, poor to raise up, and a people to unite.

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Dear Karl, Scott, Daniel, and John : The Future You Predicted Seems Right On Schedule

The Thank You Letter: Part I

Dear Karl, Scott, Daniel and John,

You told me to start preparing learners, even  my own child, for careers that haven’t even been invented yet. Now I know what that means. My son texted me this past week to let me know about a job offer from a media company that he sees as a good career move. I immediately called to chat.

The conversation went something like this.

“So, first thing, does this job have benefits?” (me)

“Yea, it’s fulltime but I can have all the vacation I want as long as my team gets our work done.” (him)

“Umm. really? That’s interesting. What kind of job is this one?” (me thinking - I could like this job)

“ It’s a micro-content manager – you know using social media like Vine, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat – to shape and promote brands. I think it’ll be pretty challenging since new platforms and apps emerge almost every day – I’ll be figuring out how to create macro buzz with micro content – kind of like virtual Burma Shave.” (him)

“Ok- I’m on Twitter and I get using Twitter, but how does that translate into work?” (me thinking – seriously? )

“Well, if I take this job, I’ll be part of a team – actually multiple teams on the east and west coast – and we’ll sit around and create micro-content.” (him)

“That sounds … interesting. This is a real job, right?” (me – thinking  – well I’m not sure what I’m thinking since I’ve never heard of this)

“Of course- it’s why I got an MFA in digital media and technology- design work.” (him)

“Ok – last question? If this is it – the job  you want, what kind of clothes will you need?” (me- thinking $$ signs for work wardrobe)

“Geez, mom – what a question. Of course it’s not IT. No job is ever it-  but, no worries- dress is pretty casual at this office- tee-shirts and jeans are fine.”

Here’s what I’ve learned from my own son’s experience.

Shift does happen. He’s entering a career that I didn’t know existed when I first saw your youtube video, Scott and Karl. Preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist today means helping them be lifelong learning ready since we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

The “concept age” job  is real, Daniel. My son, and other young people, need to engage in a different kind of learning that leads them to acquire and use those six senses you identified.

  • Story – Narrative added to products and services – not just argument. Best of the six senses.
  • Design – Moving beyond function to engage the senses.
  • Symphony – Adding invention and big picture thinking (not just detail focus).
  • Empathy – Going beyond logic and engaging emotion and intuition.
  • Play – Bringing humor and light-heartedness to business and products.
  • Meaning – the purpose is the journey, give meaning to life from inside yourself.

Redesigned leadership, John, in the company my son’s poised to enter really focuses on affirming culture,comfort, creativity, and empathy as integral to their organization design. Our young people today enter new designs for work spaces that demand vastly different competencies than those of  the “cult of efficiency” and compliance created in 20th century schools to educate kids for factory work. Redesigning leadership is a new mindset for leading work differently. However, if schools continue to be “command and control” zones, our kids will be disadvantaged by an adherence to old models of management, curricula, assessment, and instruction. They won’t be prepared.

The best news to me as mom is that my son’s happy. He’s weathered an economic recession that’s had more impact on middle class college graduates than in any similar downturn. He’s got a job and it’s exactly what you predicted. Because of twitter and YT, I was able to access your thinking and it helped me to help him think about different options than doctor, lawyer, MBA, and engineer.

Now, what’s next?

Sincerely,

Pam

And Now… The Rest of Our Story: Part II

Well the future’s here. You all told me to expect it. Shift Happens. A Whole New Mind. Redesigning Leadership. In words and video you sent your messages to America and around the globe.  The 21st century world will be different for millennials educated in schools shaped and dominated by 20th century career educator-boomers like me. We must redesign, shift, and create a new world of learning to educate our young people.

A Whole New Mind

You educated me well. I’ve used your phrases in sessions with educators, the business community, parents, and students including my own son. I’ve shared that we must prepare our young people for careers that haven’t been invented yet. I’ve even gotten a laugh from audiences when I’ve referenced the MFA will be the new MBA, with attribution of course, to you, Daniel. I’ve spoken about new ways of leading that draw from social design to leverage the creativity of employees as you, John, describe so eloquently when you speak.

Now as a parent I understand the reality of what you all were saying as I’ve watched my son grow into a millennial adult. As Tom Agan wrote in the New York Times he has a different mindset about work.  He just landed his first real job – the kind with benefits and a 401K. The starting salary isn’t “to die for” as he says, but it’s, oh,  ten times my first salary as a teacher. The job? Well, Shift Happens – but more on that later.

Daniel, in 2005 most middle class parents, including me, were still thinking the college success recipe for our kids included doctor, lawyer, MBA, with a touch of engineering on the side. I read your book, took note, and shared it with my son – and every educator I could, including the School Board. I remember sitting down with Jason before his last year in high school.  I shared excerpts with him, reinforcing his strengths as an artist and his interest in multimedia, particularly documentary film-making. And, when he graduated with an MFA this past spring, I thought about the learning pathway you opened up for him to consider just before he headed from high school to the University of Virginia.

He finished as a liberal arts undergraduate who avoided STEM courses as if they were the plague – not because he lacks mathematical capability but because it’s just not his cup of tea. Instead, he left college with a great command of Spanish and a sprinkle of three or four other languages thrown into the mix.  He also could research, write, and create digital content with the best of his peers. But, he didn’t pursue programming, engineering, or commerce even though I urged him to at least consider a minor in something with a STEM focus. I hadn’t yet heard your phrase, John, when you put the A in STEM and added an arts twist. I also hadn’t heard the term creative used as a noun, as in Jason is a “creative.”

In 2009, he exited into in the worst job market for college grads in decades, if not ever. That’s when I realized life would be a bit different for him than when I began my teaching career. Instead of landing one of those dream consulting roles that kids like him tended to accept right out of college, he headed off to his “first jobs”, both part-time, one working in a boutique food market and the other creating digital content for a nonprofit foundation. At the same time, he managed to take a few digital media courses on the side. I kept asking, “what do you want to do?” He kept shrugging and saying he wanted to do something creative, preferably in the city.

He spent a year working while also building a digital portfolio for application into MFA programs across the country.  Just two years ago, I blogged about my angst when he moved from rural Virginia into the largest city in America where he enrolled in the Design and Technology MFA program at Parsons.

While in the MFA program, he did what many grad students do. He landed an internship in Manhattan working with a media firm. Leveraging his video-editing skills (thank you, National History Day), he continued freelancing with the firm after the internship ended.

I kept asking as he applied for jobs, “so what do you anticipate you’ll be doing?” He kept telling me, “something with design and media, Mom.”

I confess I had no clue what that really meant. I kept worrying as I watched him apply, consider, and either reject or be rejected. He kept freelancing and I kept worrying as moms do about student loans, benefits, and his own retirement one day. When he started @thepuparazzi on Instagram, I thought it was creative but couldn’t see how it fit into a work portfolio. I suspect today that it helped him show others what he can do.

I realize in 2013 that much of what our kids need to learn today is not what we once thought they needed to know as outlined in the last one hundred years of school curricula. We need graduates who are transdiscplinary boundary spanners, mindful thinkers and leaders,  creative solution-finders, and analytical problem solvers. Our graduates increasingly need to both L- and R-shift in the workforce.

Now I wonder what the 22nd century will bring. Any thoughts on that?

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Reminding America: Gratitude for a Public Education

vietnameseThe dark-haired girl, maybe six-years old, darted from behind the plate-glass window and exclaimed to her mother, “Snow flakes are falling.” In a soft voice, the mother replied  using a different language. The child turned and switched quickly from English to her mother’s language without missing a beat. As I waited in front of the small business, I commented to the mother that her daughter was fortunate to grow up bilingual. The mother smiled and shared that her two children preferred to speak English but she wanted them to speak Vietnamese, too. I then asked how long her family had been in the United States and where her daughter attended school.

I expected a simple response but she responded with a story far more in-depth than I anticipated. In our hurried lives, we often aren’t privy to the back channels in another’s world. In that moment, I stopped to listen.

GoogleLMapAnLoc

Map of Vietnam during the U.S. -Vietnamese War

Her father had been associated with the U.S. government as a young man during the U.S.-Vietnamese War. After the fall of Saigon and unification of North and South Vietnam, he was incarcerated in a re-education camp while his young family attempted to survive without him. This woman, now a mother of two, described a harsh life. Her schooling ended at age twelve. She went to work with her mother washing clothes seven days a week, subsisting on a bowl of rice twice daily.

In her slightly accented voice, she described to me a life of bleak survival as a child and teenager. As she unfolded her story, it became a bit murky about how her father made it to the United States and eventually brought his family here as well. However, the point of her conversation was not about her early life, but about her own children and their education here.

This thirty-something mother now works seven days a week in America doing service work just as her mother and she did years ago in Vietnam. As her own mother took the risk to come to America so her children could have a better life, this mother also shared that she wanted the best life possible for her own two children – both U.S. citizens by birth. I asked her if she wanted to finish school herself and she replied, “… not until my children have their education. It’s the most important reason I work so hard. I want them to do well in school so they can have the life they want. America provides that chance for them. I was forced to quit school in seventh grade because of my father’s association with the United States government. Here, my children have so many opportunities that were denied to me … I can read and write in two languages so for right now I am fine, but one day I will finish high school, too.”

She smiled at her daughter spinning to catch the tiniest of flakes falling on outstretched fingers while we continued to talk under the gray sky. She said, “There is nothing more important than theirhollymead education. I think people in this country don’t appreciate what it’s like to live somewhere where going to school can be denied. No-one should ever take an education for granted. I’m grateful to live in this country and for my children to be able to go to school.”

My own parents and grandparents didn’t take America’s educational commitments for granted either. My grandfather didn’t finish high school. My parents were high school graduates. They all expected me to graduate from college. They were grateful for the basic education I received in a small town steeped in deep South poverty.

My high school counselor was also my earth science, chemistry, biology and physics teacher. The football coach was my government teacher. Most of the educators in my hometown school grew up there. Some teachers never attended a four-year college but were products of “normal schools.” These educators, however, all were revered in the community even though we didn’t experience much of what we refer to today as “high quality” teaching. We filled in a lot of workbooks in elementary school, read a lot of textbooks in high school, and listened to a lot of lectures at the chalkboard all the way through school. Some of us passed. Some failed. And, each year there were fewer of us left to graduate.

schooldesks

Still, my parents and those of my friends appreciated my teachers’ efforts because their children were being provided a pathway to what that “greatest generation” considered a better life for their “baby boomer” children.

bambergDespite the perspective of parents in my mid-twentieth century community, the educational system of that time was not what it is today. There was no compulsory attendance law then and I watched peers drop out of my class to begin work on their family’s farms or in the local mill (some left in late elementary school even.) Much of our work demanded us to be passive and compliant learners. We attended schools still segregated despite Brown v. Board of Education and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. There were no special education services – the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was still a dream. I wasn’t that well prepared for college – my high school offered no AP courses, just one year of French taught by a teacher who only spoke English, and no math courses beyond Trigonometry.

However, public education was valued by my community’s parents in the 20th century just as strongly as the Vietnamese mother values her children’s education now.

Because of public education,  any child who walks through the doors of America’s Statue of Liberty schools will be served by a public school’s teachers. We don’t deny children an education because of who their parents are. Instead, we Americans educate all children, regardless of their parents’ economic status, religion or lack thereof, race, ethnicity, or political beliefs. Unlike some countries, we educate boys and we educate girls. We educate children with handicaps. We educate children for whom English is a second language. We educate the children of those who are incarcerated in our prisons.

It does not matter in the United States who you are when it comes to attending our schools.

During this Thanksgiving break, I am grateful for the public education  that’s been offered across my family’s generations and to young Americans in every town, city, county, and state today.

And, I offer thanks to the Vietnamese mother who reminded me of that.

IMG_1668

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Why Connect? Reflections on Our Filters, Virtual or Otherwise #CE13

Why Connect?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve participated in multiple activities of Connected Educators Month.  It’s evident. Walls tumble down that separate educators from each other as they connect around the world. New ideas proliferate as a participation culture emerges. In my own district, connected educators create new pathways for learning – for themselves, colleagues locally and around the world, and their children.  The key word among connected educators during #CE13 seems to be share – whether in a Pinterest “PD Scavenger Hunt” or through a school-wide tweetup on what choice and comfort looks like for children.

Kindergartners Skyping on 3rd Day of School

Kindergartners Skyping on 3rd Day of School in @abigailkayser’s class

We benefit from professional connectivity because it helps us make eye contact with other educators across global watering holes. That’s a step in removing filters that prevent us from learning with and from each other.  Yesterday I caught a bit of chat at #globalclassroom and had a chance to witness how we filter across diverse cultures, experiences, and time zones. In virtual environments, exchanges at watering holes open us to new ways of thinking – multiple points of view from around the globe – and as we interact we find our perspective isn’t the only one out there.

Such connectivity helps us take down our professional filters and see what’s outside our walls, our boundaries, and our barriers. When we connect, our natural human curiosity and urge to explore causes us to seek what’s beyond our known learning horizons. When we discover others with different ideas at virtual watering holes, that leads to questions about our own filters. I believe that’s a good thing.

globalclassroomReflecting on Filters

A mentor once said to me that we all have to watch out for our filters. He was a mentor before the topic of “the filters”, you know the ones I mean, became a different kind of headache for contemporary educators.  But, I think his reference applies to any kind of filters in our lives, even virtual ones.

student writing on desktop
Using desk surfaces as a writing space challenged my filtering system – until I saw the  walls and windows at NPR covered with notes, diagrams, and outlines. 

Over-filtering represents one of the greatest sources of failures in our individual thinking and that of our systems. It’s why I keep a mental list of the four failures of government – imagination, policy, management, and capability – that the 9/11 Commission identified in their final report as root causes of 9/11. It’s why I am conscious of Ellen Langer’s mindful leadership as a frame for thinking about why individual leaders working alone are poor predictors of the future. It’s why I believe in finding new pathways to advance our work and the concept of “terroir” and scaling across not up (from Walk Out, Walk On), rather than thinking all schools should or can implement identical solutions, even when they’re trying to address the same challenges. Why?

There are no “one size fits all” answers. There are no magic formulas. In this day and age, there are no standard problems, and no standard solutions. Pentagon staffers articulate that in their work, and so should we. No two school communities, no two grade-level teams, and no two parents, children or teachers are exactly alike.  As @yongzhaoUO says, we need to consider the uniqueness of the local work we do rather than focusing on mass standardization.

Filters tend to push us towards seeing different situations similarly, rather than recognizing that no two are the same. Filters tend to cause us to go to the same people for feedback – often people who reinforce our own perspectives and ideas. Filters are why we lack the capability over time to see watermarks on our own professional wallpaper. Filters are why in our work as educators we don’t always get or attend to the full breadth and depth of information we need. Filters can be our worst enemy when it comes to decision-making.

We all filter.

Our brains must filter to accomplish anything in a given day. Other people also filter for us. Sometimes because they see it as necessary to getting work done in priority order. Sometimes, it’s to advance someone’s perspective. We need to be aware of that and constantly monitor how our filters, and those of others, impact our work, and ultimately impact how our work impacts young people we serve.

1950 classroom Source:genderroles1950.blogspot.com                                                                                       Factory school traditions centered students and teachers in isolated silos

When we work in isolation, and we all do need that time sometimes, we don’t consider a full range of ideas and possibilities to help find solutions to challenges in front of us. While I’m not an impulsive person (well, maybe just slightly impulsive), I’ve found that time to think and reflect with others who represent diversity of background and expertise isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. Over years in leadership roles, I’m still learning to slow down, seek advice, and take time to consider decisions – and to work on lowering, not raising my filters.  Pretty often, I don’t hear what I’d like to hear when I go outside my own personal filters, but usually it’s what I need to hear.

Checking Filters

I’ve also learned it’s important to periodically change my work environment because my personal filters can cause me to stop seeing what’s around me – the proverbial stains on the wallpaper no longer exist in my line of sight. It’s why I’ll occasionally ride a school bus to chat with a driver, help a custodian stack chairs after a program, serve food in a cafeteria, or teach or co-teach a lesson.I need to work outside the hierarchy to understand the impact of decisions on those most affected by them. Twitter helps me get outside the hierarchy, too.

However, even in using Twitter, we can either set up situations where we lower filters or even maintain a different version of face-to-face filters in the virtual world.

If I chose to follow people who express the same opinions and ideas that I’m drawn to, then I’d end up with the same echo chamber that can exist in my professional work environment if I’m not constantly attending to that. I’ve pushed myself to look for and follow people with different points of view, people who work in very different fields than education, people who ask hard questions, challenge authority, and who don’t accept the way it is as the way it has to be. I’ve found people with great educational expertise around the world who do things very differently from the practices used in my own work spaces.  Twitter has become a watering hole that encourages me to lower filters and consider other possibilities, options, and potential new pathways for improving our work to serve learners well. Without access I wouldn’t know:

@catherinecronin @marloft @lasic @largerama @poh @colonelb @joemazza @liamdunphy @tomwhitby @flourishingkids @doremi @mrami2  @gravesle @jguarr @mcleod @blogbrevity @jonbecker @grandmaondeck @blogbrevity @cybraryman and literally thousands of valued voices sharing ideas, resources, and questions routinely on twitter as well as in  #cpchat, #edchat, #musedchat #edchatie #ccglobal #engchat #ntchat #ptchat #nwp #ideachat #satchat #rschat  and the many other chat waterng holes that run every day,

hundreds of superintendents on @daniellfrazier’s supts list who offer perspectives on challenges I face daily in a similar role,

@monk51295 @maryannreilly @paulallison and the book Walk Out Walk On  and why we should consider a different option than simply “scaling up” educational programs,

@karenjan and #spedchat regulars who champion Universal Design for Learning and a range of accessibility solutions that allow children’s capabilities to emerge,

@saorog @pamelaaobrien @scratchteam because sending some teachers to #scratchmit2012  and interacting with our Irish PLN led us to implement #coderdojos and use of Scratch across our school district,

the work of @kcousinsmles @mlsmeg @bkayser11 @mthornton78 @paulawhite @mtechman @ethorsenahs @beckyfisher73 @tborash  @mpcraddock @khhoward34 @andrewwymer10s @sresmusic  @jatcatlett @wingfriends @jengrahamwright @chalkrelic @gweddettecrummie @mrglovermhs @peacefulsmiles @ebredder @hoosjon @irasocol @csratliff @hobbes4564 and many other tweeting educators who work in schools across our #acps district,

the work of connected educators such as @dcambrid who is a champion of Connected Educators Month and strategic focus upon ways to support educators to make critical shift as digital learners themselves.

A Few Questions

So, when we reflect upon what we don’t consider, don’t ask, and don’t learn when we have our filters up, I’d suggest we consider these questions in regards to digital, connected learning:

Why do we think that filtering social media and virtual learning tools – Youtube, Skype, Wikipedia, Twitter and others, even Google for heaven’s sake – makes sense for either us or our learners?

Why not teach children what we’re learning at the virtual watering holes; how to navigate and learn the shifting protocols, rules, etiquette and boundaries associated with digital citizenship and literacy so we can take full advantage of opportunities to lower filters and learn?

Why deny ourselves and our young people a world of opportunities that allow them to learn from experts and access the tools they need to search, connect, communicate and make?

Why block educators and the young people they serve from being able to consider that the way they think could be informed by points of view from people all over the world with different knowledge and informed understandings of science, maths, history, economics, the arts, and literacy?

Filtering, virtual or not, limits all of us from exploring beyond horizons of what we define as possible to learn. It was true for those who tried to limit the work of Galileo.

image of galileo with telescope
Source: Galileo With Telescope Image
pbs.org

And, it’s true for young people and us today.

Unblocking our filters allows learners and educators to find a different learning world beyond the horizon – one of panoramas, 360s, microscopic, bird’s eye to fish eye, and telescopic points of view.  And, wouldn’t we all be better critical thinkers, creators, problem-solvers, designers, builders, producers, and engineers as a result?

kids drawing map on table
@mthornton78’s class at work
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Hawk Watching and Other Observations

butterflyonthistleI spent the morning observing a 5-lined skink skitter across the patio in search of breakfast, back and forth, slipping in and out of the stone wall. Overhead, a crystal-sky overlayed the slightest of breezes. In the air, the scream of a pileated woodpecker reverberated as he pounded square holes into a round tree trunk. Monarch butterflies, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and kettles of hawks all poise to leave Virginia this month in their annual fall migrations. In fact, about a week ago I saw my last hummingbird  dive bombing garden flowers one last time.

As I walked the hollow’s graveled road under today’s late morning sun, I was reminded of a similar day some time ago when I perched atop a Blue Ridge peak – a day with middle schoolers spent counting hawks , watching them draft ever higher on thermals, until they faded into pinpoints and then, into nothing. Overhead, today’s vultures slid across the sky catching a bit of heated air as they spiraled high above me. Across an overgrown field, a red-tailed hawk soared with the vultures, wings only occasionally beating the air. There are no children with me, but the blue sky reminds me of them.

vulture

This time of September happens to be peak hawk migration season in the Blue Ridge. And no matter how far I drift from those days spent gazing skyward, during this time of year, memories of hawks lofting skyward still lift me, too. I almost always carry my phone with me as I walk, an easier camera with which to grab images than either my old Canon SLR, a ‘70s relic, or my newer version which is fully digital. My little phone is my mainstay today as I wander schools, the built world, and natural environments observing ecosystems through which I move.

Black Racer & cell phone_T_2

I was trained to observe closely as a student of field biology when I was in college. Teaching children to be good observers made sense to me when I began teaching middle and high school science in the mid-seventies. Then, when I became a school administrator, observing became a key skill in that work, too. The skill of observing is one that cuts across disciplines and forms a basis for building knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Yet, in a learning world that’s fraught with focus on hurrying children through curricula and educators through teaching so everyone can arrive on schedule for high-stakes standardized test dates, there’s little time left over for children, teachers, or administrators to simply slow down and observe the world around them.

Middle Schoolers Exploring an Estuary Circa 1977

I worry about our young people who seldom are afforded time in school to simply observe. So much of what we ‘70s science educators used to call inquiry learning, exploration, and hands-on experiences has been subtracted from learning time today.

This was brought home to me recently at the grocery store when I ran into a middle-aged man whom I taught in the mid-seventies. We recognized each other immediately despite the fact that he was 12 and I was in my early twenties when we spent time together – teacher and learner. In those days, I was teaching six classes of more than thirty students each, no planning period, and eating lunch with a class of children. My first year of teaching was defined through inquiry science with one class set of texts as a resource for science.  Today much is different for today’s learners and teachers than when I was in the classroom. In the middle school where I began teaching science, we used instructional principles that guided our work in the collaborative, somewhat open, learning spaces of the time:

  • Engage learners in inquiry and scientific experimentation.
  • Make interdisciplinary connections across teams.
  • Use the school grounds and beyond to learn about the natural environment.
  • Plan, teach, and assess to high levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • Let kids make things – baby jar barometers, plastic cup anemometers, water drop “microscopes.”
  • Set up stations for activities in which kids use technologies to experiment – equal arm balances, beakers, hot plates, Celsius thermometers.
  • Bring all the senses to bear in learners’ observations.

Along with the children I became an even better observer of the world around me, inside and outside the classroom. We discovered together the power of school ground “field trips.”  One day we set up string grids in the grass to observe and quantify flora and fauna inside the strings – and found a lot of creatures crawling there we didn’t anticipate. We walked into nearby woods and plucked sassafras twigs to see if they really tasted like root beer. We learned to identify poison ivy, tulip poplars, and reindeer lichen. We used my college field guides as a resource and began to sketch and describe everything we did. It didn’t matter whether we were blowing through a straw into Bromothymol Blue or digging a small courtyard pond and introducing native plants, fish and turtles into it, we recorded it all.

We spent class time seeking knowledge, building competencies, and pursuing interests. We weren’t without a curriculum, but we weren’t limited by one either. In those days, I didn’t worry about standardized tests even though children were taking those even back then. However, our school’s science goals were about children using what they were learning to become better thinkers, enthusiastic observers, and scientifically literate young people.

My former student, now a middle-aged man who had grown up in a poor rural Virginia family, was accompanied by his son, a middle schooler. The father reminisced about his memories of being in the middle school science club, a group I co-sponsored, taking field trips to distant places such as Wallops Island and the National Radio Observatory in West Virginia. I’m not sure how we paid for everything back then but we made and sold a lot of bird houses. My partner teacher and I threw in what we could, as teachers often do today, and paid for what our kids couldn’t fund raise. The principal chipped in a bit, too.

This former student, now a parent in his own right, asked me why kids in school don’t get to do this kind of learning anymore. It’s a good observation for a parent to make I say to him. I’ve been bothered also by visits to classrooms across the United States where children bend over test-prep curricular worksheets or engage in “drilled into the ground” review work to prepare for standardized tests each spring.

As I talk with this parent, I remember the joy and passion of children jostling their way outside to go on a nature walk, sketchbooks in hand. I almost can hear the sound of them oohing and ahhing the first time they watched pH paper change colors when we tested acid-base properties of “unknown” chemicals. I tell him that I pull out old photographs occasionally and remember kids delighted by the “found” exoskeleton of a deceased horseshoe crab we once stored in one of our curio cabinets.

beachkidsKids, some experiencing the ocean for the first time, circa 1977

Children deserve to experience joy and passion in their learning every day. It’s what keeps all of us coming back to press past learning challenges in our youth and our adult lives. Learning in school should push us – educators and children alike – to be curious, to think, to feel stretched, to continue to ask questions after we walk out for the day, and to want to come back for more the next day, and the next. I want that, and more, for all our children and all the educators who serve them, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

It’s hard to fight upstream against the tide of standardized testing that reduces learning down to a least common denominator. I like to think we educators and parents can turn that tide. We know from research and experience that when our children’s hands and minds engage together, learning happens and it sticks. And, that’s stuck with me for a lifetime.

questfest5

Chatting with this middle-aged man, a former student, at a grocery store checkout, I am reminded that no one much remembers their responses on four-choice, one-right answer tests.

Instead, I was taken back to a long ago field trip, captured still in a binder of old photographs, when he said with a smile, “ Do you remember that field trip we took to the ocean? I’ll never forget finding that horseshoe crab.”

His memory is exactly why I keep pushing upstream against the tide of standardizing everything just so kids can pass a test.

albumkids

Remembering the Child in the Back
A trip to the Beach

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Three Stories: One Influence

Leadership Academy

One:

I am listening to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. It’s full of research about all the topics that educators discuss when they see children, adolescents, or teens who struggle because of challenges attributed to home environmental stressors. It’s painful to listen. Much of what Tough reports as empirical research represents the common sense understanding of educators who know children growing up with an overload of allostatic factors increasing chronic stress will typically experience disproportionate academic and behavioral difficulties as they move through school. They are more likely to be labeled special education students, need behavioral intervention, or be suspended, expelled, or drop out of school than their middle class peers – and far more often than children living in poverty who do not experience intense familial stress factors.

While poverty is often a root cause of chronic stress factors, there are children living in poverty who succeed. Such children live in homes where strong, functional attachments to a significant adult make a positive difference for them. I was struck by a body of research reported in How Children Succeed related to attachment theory. Intervention that helps young mothers, at-risk because of their own stress factors, to learn positive skills to nurture infants and toddlers actually makes a greater difference in the success of young children entering school than other interventions, including building early cognitive skills. In fact, according to Tough, kindergarten teachers in large numbers report that it’s not children who struggle to learn the alphabet or numbers that’s the biggest challenge for them as educators – it’s children who lack basic capabilities to build positive peer relationships, relate to adults, and control anger impulses.

When children have high allostatic loads, they enter school with chronic stress. Their symptoms often continue unabated through school impacting their capability to hold what they learn in working memory, a basic prefrontal-cortex function that supports learning in school.

I wonder how our at-risk children’s success in school might be different if an intensive, national initiative to provide deep parenting intervention occurred? How might breaking the cycle of chronic stress in children change their emotional and learning trajectory as they move through school? Imagine how different their learning experiences could be.

Two:

Seamus Heaney died this week. I often have thought of the great poets as being the best of farmers who till words into soil, then reap poetry from the land. Heaney’s gift for  sowing words created poetry that fed the world. His perfect command of word is a great loss in an imperfect world.

However, I am comforted that somewhere out there another great poet grows into her or his own, finding pathways to expression because a teacher creates space for children to explore language as more than an information base or a response to a writing prompt. Perhaps, just as Heaney did, such a child struggles to make sense of an imperfect world, digging as poets do when they reach down to plant earth with words.  Every class contains poets, and somewhere out there the next version of  a Seamus Heaney one day will emerge to “gobsmack” us with his or her unique talent to till image into verse.

writer

It’s our role as educators to support children to sustain their creative passions and find their own voices through art. After all, poets,  storytellers, artists, musicians and sculptors define the bandwidth of our culture, not politicians, economists, or CEOs.  Because of artists, we see and hear a different world, one filled with color, symphony, story, and dance. We may need STEM to save the world, but, I for one, believe we also need artists to advance humanity and civilization even more.

Three:

I talked with a teacher, @hobbes4564,  this past week who just blogged about how she is  helping children learn about friendship. Beth’s a fabulous teacher who engages kids in powerful ways through old and new learning tools. Her third grade kids are maniacal bloggers who routinely log and share posts and comments with other children all over our district – and the country. She’s started a new activity, “Challenge Friday”, that builds from her love, and the children’s, of Legos as learning tools. Last week their challenge was to build a working lever made of Legos and use it to lift a 50 g block. It was fascinating to watch children work in pairs to explore concepts of force, load, and fulcrum as they experimented with their Lego bricks.

However, her goals for learning go far beyond cognitive skill acquisition. This weekend, she reflected upon how she is helping children who come from a mix of countries and localities to make and sustain friendships. Playful Lego work in her class offers not just opportunities for children to learn new content and skills, but also to build friendships, learn new language and express themselves artistically. I loved listening to the children talk with each other when I visited. One child asked another, “how do you know what to build?” The other child responded simply, “I see a picture of it in my mind.”

legokid

In watching children in her class work so carefully and civilly together, I am struck that this educator is teaching them both how to succeed and to become artists in their own right, even as they create and build STEM principles with their Legos. I’d love to be able to bottle her expertise as an educator – her understanding of how children succeed is worth its weight in gold.

________________________________________________________

Together these three somewhat disparate stories that I experienced last week connect for me the importance of our influence as educators beyond building cognitive skills and knowledge among young people we teach. We educators aren’t miracle workers, but we do make a difference with children who need strong, positive, trusting relationships with adults in their lives. Not every child will grow up to become a great poet, but every child needs to grow up with a communicative voice.  Not every child represents chronic risk factors, but all need to know they’ve adults in their corner.

We hold the power to help all children gain a sense of strong personal voice, sustain curiosity, develop caring relationships, maintain well-being, and explore learning through multiple pathways.  We are responsible for nurturing the complete child, not just their cognitive functions, using every possible strategy to protect children with allostatic risk factors – not add to their debilitating stress during their hours with us. In doing these things, we gift children with competencies that equip them to succeed in life – as parents, community members, co-workers, and friends.

That’s why I believe educators represent the most important profession in the world.

hollymead

Helping Hands

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A Summer of Maker Learning

Coder Dojo Maker

Coder Dojo Maker

“… Design and thinking is … idea of making creative leaps to come up with  a solution… allows people to not just be problem solvers with explicit, but also tacit knowledge… they are learning by doing… coming up with solutions by making things.”

Bill Moggridge, former Director (deceased)                         Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum                           Design and Thinking, the Movie

Public educators and young people have lived in a world defined by standardized test results for well over a decade. We now see millennial educators entering our profession, having grown up in what I sometimes refer to as the “test prep” generation. They, in many cases, never experienced some of the learning opportunities that older generation teachers remember or experienced themselves as children.  In many public schools, field trips, school plays, guest speakers, in-depth discussions, inquiry projects and hands-on activities no longer exist.  In others, professional positions from art teachers to librarians have disappeared from our school staffs. Imagine the recess play that used to be the norm in elementary schools, but now often is the exception.

Consider time. Consider resources. Consider children.

Consider these questions.

How are our schools better spaces for learning and learners as a result of the standardization movement? Are our little “widgets” happier, more creative, more capable critical thinkers? Can we say they’re learning to … play well with others … contribute positively to their communities … acquire competencies needed in contemporary and future workforces?  Can they access and use the learning knowledge they need from multiple sources both virtually and in the real world?

A Summer for Young Makers

This summer, I’ve had a unique opportunity to watch children of all ages across my district engage in maker “summer school” curricula, one not predefined by standardization or test-driven results. They’ve created, designed, built, engineered, produced, played, marketed, and contributed as they have worked to make, take apart, problem-solve, and understand what it means to learn through your hands and mind. In doing so, they’ve balanced the use of embodied and encoded languages, the DNA of human learning. I’ve walked spaces where children are improvising jazz for the first time, learning how to use a drill, making soap, constructing squishy LED circuits,  designing cardboard buildings and arcades, building robots in every form and material imaginable, and programming in computer code from Scratch to Python.

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Our district’s elementary maker summer camps were fueled by our Maker Corps affiliation with MakerEdOrg. In  another elementary school, children both made and marketed their wares to raise funds to donate to the SPCA. A diverse group of high school students participated in a Leadership Academy designed to infuse a cadre of different leaders into their school. They built teams and designed a project to wash cars, earning money for Habitat for Humanity. Over 800 learners ages 5-18, worked in multi-age Coder Dojos to develop and extend coding skills, making games, websites, and programs. Middle school summer schoolers participated in cooking classes, learning all sorts of key math and reading skills along the way. And, the jazz makers – kids who came together for two weeks in beginning to advanced jazz camps – culminated their summer learning with a free concert at the downtown pavilion.

A Spark that Inspires Teachers and Learners

The educators who worked with our young people this summer say “these kids have been so engaged, fun, excited, curious, hardworking, and collaborative. And, some are kids who really struggle with ‘doing school behaviors’ during the regular year.” Rather than a summer school experience centered in tutorials and repetitive practice work designed around standardized tests, our kids have built complex language through experiential learning in rich environments, been challenged to use math, science, history, and the language arts as they’ve designed and created – everything from jazz to video games.

Why are we focusing on #make2learn and #learn2make as a pathway to lifelong learning rather than the current test prep mania? Because educators everywhere know that children who are bored by school work, turned off by worksheets, tired of listening to adult talk, and stripped of opportunities to stretch their hands and minds are kids who struggle to sustain attention and value learning. Those with effective “doing school behaviors” might get their A’s and look like good students but they also often feel disconnected from joy and passion for their work as learners.

Boredom in school is the number one reason listed by dropouts for dropping out. It’s also felt by our top students – not because of content lacking rigor. Rather, it’s because teachers  today feel compelled to fly through a scope and sequence of standards so their students acquire information paced so students will have covered what they need for a test one spring day. Teachers often feel compelled, if not required, to subtract from their teaching the very things that engage and entice children as learners - field trips, special guests, extended discussion of interesting topics, hands-on projects, inquiry activities, and interdisciplinary opportunities.  In subtracting the school experiences that enrich and extend learning, opportunity gaps between  middle class children and children living in economically disadvantaged homes only grow wider.  “Test prep” disadvantages all learners as experiential learning has been subtracted from our classrooms and schools. Our children who face challenges associated with risk factors are disadvantaged the most.

Why is it that big, huge corporations get beat by kids in garages? … because they’re inventing the future.”

Roger Martin, Dean                                                      Rotman School of Management                                       Design and Thinking, the Movie

Making is a process, not a “one-right answer” end in mind. It’s a process of learning,  developing knowledge, pursuing interests, and developing the confidence and resilience that comes with making mistakes, too. It’s not a bottom line of measuring what students know in standardized test results. Rather, it’s a bottom line in which lifelong learning is assessed when kids show what they can do with what they know.

Making is the fuel of America’s inventive spirit; its citizen-thinkers, workforce, entrepreneurs, artists, and solution-finders.

That’s why we value our kids spending time as active makers of their own learning – a competency built for a lifetime.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy

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Unhurrying the Hurried Educator: A Convo about Personal Learning and Passion

My first iPh*ne reconnected me with a love of photography that I’d abandoned at some point. Perhaps it was because I had become so consumed with my professional work. Or, maybe it simply reflected the difficulty of having a camera with me when I had moments I wanted to capture. However, when I discovered the pretty decent quality of my embedded phone camera, I became somewhat compulsive about grabbing photo opps both inside the schools I walk routinely, as well as reconnecting with the built and natural world.

Photo-sharing inside flickr, instagram, and Pinterest offers the chance to share photos with others and build a different kind of PLN that is image, not text-based. I know I’m a better photographer today as a result of reflective interaction inside global photo PLNs. I also believe a rediscovered passion for photography has positively impacted me professionally. Use of my own photos inside my blogs and in professional media reminds me that pursuing learning outside my profession also adds value within it.

passion

Recently, Steve Hargadon spent time with a small group of educators in the community where I live. The conversation led me to reflect on the value of photography in my life.

For over an hour, we chatted about education, from Virginia to Nepal. At some point, we ventured onto the topic of personal interests and passion. We began to explore the narrative of what interests us beyond our profession. Where do we find personal sources of learning passion in our own lives? What do we enjoy personally as learners? What are we drawn to do outside of our day (and night) jobs as educators? Why should we connect with a personal passion for learning beyond work -whether it’s gardening or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity?

a rake lies in on the red clay in front of the tomato plant

Steve wondered with us how our own personal learning pursuits and passions help us as educators to both recharge ourselves as well as to elicit similar learning passions from young people we serve and colleagues with whom we work. He shared his own personal interests, including building a PLN of people around the world who live with Vitiligo, a pigment disease experienced by Michael Jackson – and Steve. Some in the room that day shared their personal interests. One administrator described his love for Emily Dickinson poetry and his own poet’s alter ego as Dickinson’s “third cousin, twice removed”, Emmett Dickinson. Another described a passion for cooking. Someone else whispered, “I garden.” Some simply listened.

After Steve moved on to his next stop in his wayfarer world, I began to reflect further on our conversation. I was reminded of something Karen Olivo, youthful Broadway star from the Tony-winning show In the Heights, shared on Skype last spring with our local high school cast who were about to perform In the Heights. She commented to them that being an artist is “a way of life, not just a job.” She spoke to her own passion for what she does.

I think most educators feel that way, also. Sometimes it’s hard for us to separate our lives and personal learning passions from our profession. For example, our young people performances of In The Heights caught fire on stage because of the passion and love of performance their drama teacher brings with her to work every day.

Ms. Olivo shared her personal story of rehearsing, finally performing day and night for months, and, at some point, choosing to work through significant illness because the cast was counting on her. A young performer in the room asked her what she did to stay focused day in and out during the show’s run. She responded when people were sitting out there beyond the lights expecting her to deliver, she was compelled to bring her best to each beloved moment she spent on stage. Ms. Olivo sounded just the way many educators do about their work, too.

IMG_1035Yet, I fear even as we cherish the passion we find inside our own profession, it’s a life that also consumes us. We often don’t take time to step away and reflect on what else is important to us outside of the walls of our classrooms and administrative offices. We begin to miss the vicissitudes of life around us as we move in and out of the boxes we call school, day after day. In doing so, we disconnect from our early passions – whether in pursuing personal interests or igniting a love of learning in young people. We may forget what brought us to love learning ourselves and into the most important profession in the world. We may no longer see ourselves as learners with interests we want to pursue, too.

With Steve, we discussed that day how our own passions for poetry, photography, music, art, collecting, gaming, projects, sports, writing, drama reading, history, and so on can help us ignites interests, and ultimately, learning passions in others. The conversation centered upon the idea that as we pursue our own lifelong learning work, we become models of curiosity, inquiry, and motivation. While others may never share our interests, we can inspire them to find their own. When our own interests and passions become stories, then our stories can be shared to engage others in learning.

As we bring our own interests alive, we can connect dots for young people that lifelong learning isn’t something we do for grades, but rather because we love to learn in our own way, in our own time, about those things that intrigue and inspire us. Our personal interests also provide down time from the intensity of our day jobs. In our pursuits, we step away from being “hurried” educators, whether for an occasional few minutes, few hours, or few days. We renew and refresh our memories of what it means to take risks to learn something new, to stretch our own thinking and skills, and to find joy in the simple pleasures of doing what we love.

And, that’s good for us and it’s good for the people with whom we work as well as those we teach.

Art Stow: the Bagpiper Principal

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Learning Naturally

IMG_9192

I’ve been thinking about the end of the cycle of another school year. Of course, there is no end to school really – no end to learning ever. School is simply one anchor point in the day in the life of learners. Educators who recognize this come to teach differently than those who see annual high-stakes tests as the end game. These committed educators aren’t bound by the old traditions of factory schools or the new rituals of corporate-run schools, those teaching places commonly grounded in a Gutenberg model of “write it , print it, read it, and recall it.” They may even work in those places but manage to “teach as a subversive activity.”  These teachers understand that learning naturally sustains curiosity, passion, interest, and inquiry within children in their journey towards the rite of passage we call high school graduation.

maker space

a maker space class

In reflecting on the natural learning that occurs for children through storytelling, play, simulation, dance, making, and apprenticeship, I am reminded that the invention of the printing press opened the door for school to become synonymous with education. As a result of this, both the culture and measurement of learning shifted from what children were learning to do in natural environments to what they were taught in school to remember.

Today, we know somewhere between early and recent human learning directions lies a space where hands and minds intersect in deep learning. It’s a space that great educators occupy with the learners they serve, inside and outside the walls of the classroom.  As an assistant dean of a medical school said at a Bio-Tech conference speaking about the interactive, interdisciplinary, inquiry model being used at his school, “medical students today need to show us what they can do, and embed their knowledge in that.”

More Pk-12 schools need to embrace that approach to learning if we are to create more than “by chance” opportunities for all children to remain curious, inquiring, engaged learners after age four,  just as this medical school strives to do. There are public schools doing just that.

capturing images

3rd grader capturing QR code

questfest3

parent capturing QR code

I recently had the opportunity to tour an annual interactive museum that’s been in the making since the mid-90s in an elementary school that I know well. The children there have moved over time from showing their “paper-based” portfolio of inquiry, arts, and writing to a portfolio that includes digital and traditional artifacts of their learning. Despite the changes in technologies, educator commitment to “P-based” learning has remained constant in this school. Children ask questions and take apart problems of interest to them through an I-Search process that results in projects about which they are passionate. Their school year cycle ends annually with a culminating Quest Fest at which they share their learning across the school community.

questfest5At the Quest Fest, I watched children adding to a collage of geometric shapes in a hallway to create a new mural. “I wonder” videos displayed by first graders captured all their curiosity about things that interested them. A maker classroom was suffused with the delight of children building from milk cartons, cardboard and other people’s discarded treasures. The hallways were full of parents and children, mobile devices in hand, decoding projects through QR codes posted everywhere. Kids stood around explaining their projects and wandered the halls and classrooms looking at other children’s projects.

A schedule of performances offered insights into the children’s work through songs and skits they had written to share.

Inquiry. Writing. Art. The 20th century morphed into the 21st and these children along with their teachers are blending these with new technologies to create opportunities that never before existed.

something old, something new

something old, something new

In many ways, what I observed at the elementary Quest Fest is the best of learning as it has always been – learners wondering, storytelling, playing, making, imitating, depicting, creating, and performing. They are showing what they can do while embedding what they know. I’d like to think, when given natural learning opportunities, children educated in this way will sustain pursuit of “lifelong learning” as a way of being from cradle to grave. What more could a community, state, and nation desire from school for children?

questfest7

Wood

Carved, Powerful

Help Build Teaching

Not a Toy

Medicine Doll.

By Quinn

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Moving Up the Learning Curve

It’s good to be surrounded by people who know a lot more about technology than I know- virtual and face-to-face friends, colleagues, my son. I can always ask for assistance and they are more than willing to help me unwrap or unravel whatever I have done to create my own version of chaos theory inside a device. Often, they say things like “I’ve not seen this before” or “Boy, I’m gonna have to ask somebody else about this.” This isn’t new in my world. My approach has always been to jump in and try to figure it out as I go. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. It definitely makes learning new things a bit messier.

I’m truly baffled as to why I am so resistant to using print resources to figure out technology tools and apps despite my passion for 24/7 reading. Perhaps it’s a kind of stubborn resistance to depending on someone’s formula or a reliance on pre-defined steps. I used to feel the same way about math problems in textbooks, too. Or, maybe it’s some sort of Konrad Lorenz imprint on my grandfather who used to say when he would pass a tool to me to help with a project, “the worst thing you can do is break it.”

math for the ages

Anyway, I finally set out to build my own personal blog space this week. I looked at over one hundred blogs over the weekend as they began to stack up on @tomwhitby’s RebelSBloggers wallwisher site. When I hit the publish button on my own post at eduratireview, I watched as fellow bloggers started posting. It struck me that the time was right to build my own blog site, preferably with no assistance. How hard could it be? What would I do if I messed it up? It was comforting to know I could go to @beckyfisher73, @paulawhite, or @chadratliff- all accomplished bloggers in my immediate neighborhood- and just ask.

Well, I think I’ve done it without anyone’s help. No real glitches. No snafus. I’ve pushed myself up the learning curve, just wordpress.com and me, creating a new space for learning- an interesting space to capture and exchange ideas, information, images, and opinions.

In reflecting on work that’s no challenge for most of those who might read this, I have learned from pushing myself beyond a comfort zone in the use of technology that lifelong learning doesn’t come easily. I get frustrated. I swear that I am done with it- forever. I get embarrassed that what my son does intuitively, I struggle to learn.  I’ve come to the simple conclusion, it’s a good thing to feel that way. It reminds me that every day in our schools children struggle to learn what comes easily to their peers. It reminds me that teachers are challenged to find the time and the courage to take a risk and get over the hurdle to learn new skills. Importantly, I am reminded that to learn in a new space may not go as planned, indeed, it may not go well at all. It makes me feel vulnerable. It’s scary. It’s a different version of facing mortality when I realize I can fail publicly.

However, I’ve learned an important lesson from my friends and colleagues over the years; I can fail and bounce back with their support to learn what I need to keep going as a learner. It’s when I feel I have no learning safety net that I fear failure’s permanence. I wonder how many of our children feel there’s a learning safety net there for them when they fail, rather than just another bad grade. We must not leave those safety nets to chance- not for our colleagues, our family, our friends, or the young people we teach. After all, on some days any one of us will need that net.

learning together

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Reflections: A Summer of Learning

This summer, zones of innovation popped up everywhere across the 26 schools in the district where I work. They represented spaces of creativity where educators experimented with learning design grounded in inquiry, maker ed, integrated curricula, and multi-age groupings.

Here’s some of what I’ve thought about this summer.

School is wherever you make it. Our young people and even some of their parents participated in a summer of making in a well-hidden barrio almost under the shadow of Jefferson’s Monticello. They worked with visiting professors from MIT, STEM educators from the community, and guest teachers and librarians who dropped by to support children’s inventive minds as they built with Arduinos, Maker-bots, cardboard, donated fabrics, PVC pipe and 2-liter bottles. One MIT professor worked with a boy with limited English who could not be stopped from creating a working aquatic robot. Professor Moriarty commented, “this one could be at MIT one day.” I thought, “And, we’ll keep that path open for him.” I know it because Juan will return to a school staff committed to dual language literacy, STEAM, making as a way of learning, and finding talents within each child rather than looking for what s/he can’t do. And what he learned in his summer of making opened up possibilities he never may have considered otherwise – just as he did for the teachers who worked with him.

School connects children with community.  Across America, as political reformers standardized schools and super-sized the importance of other people’s tests, we subtracted something from learning that educators know is important. Kids need to see and experience their community. Field trips are important. Working with community members is important. Seeing a world beyond their own homes and schools is important. Giving back to their community is important. In another elementary school summer program, I observed youthful educators build a curricula that enriched learning through creative design and build processes and developed literacy through experiential learning that took children outside the school walls into the natural and built environments of their community. Their work to create was supported by a local business person with an affinity for the arts. The kids supported his work by creating and donating their own art to an arts park for the entire community. Everyone benefited.

Empowered learners are engaged learners.  Whether working in a summer fine arts academy, a leadership academy, a coder dojo, project-based summer school, or summer maker spaces, young people become active and committed learners when they:

pursue their own interests and passions,

challenge themselves to think critically and create with purpose,

experience opportunities to collaborate with peers and,

communicate their learning with power to authentic audiences.

When young people chose to participate in learning because they wanted to be there, it changed the context for them as learners whether acting in fine arts camp or wiring cardboard houses in maker camp. We created spaces “to educate children for life, not for school” and they showed us learning that went well beyond our own expectations of what we expected to accomplish.

Kids and Educators need “What If rather than Yeah But” learning options. Sure there are outlier situations … However, principals and teachers share over and over again that attendance increases and discipline issues decrease when young people feel investment and ownership in their own learning even when it’s a struggle for them.

In summer reflections with an experienced educator friend, I asked recently, “If we can gain a new market share of engaged learners through use of empowering learning strategies such as we used in the summer, why would we continue to invest in compliance pedagogy during the school year that results in kids who run the gamut from tuning out passively to dropping out actively?” Her response? “Perhaps, Pam, it’s because we educators live in a compliance-driven work world and we just do to kids what’s done to us.” I’m a firm believer in the principle that educators are some of the most innovative people on the planet. They just need freedom to be innovators and opportunities to innovate. As Fred Bartels (@fredbartels) said in a tweet to me about what new teachers need from administrators “tell them that you are here to help them flourish, not just function in their jobs.”

Summer provides an innovation zone for school districts. I saw kids this summer struggling to learn challenging riffs in Jazz camp or writing intensively all day for a week and then getting up to share their poetry with an outdoor audience on the downtown mall.  I observed kids in project-based learning produce a video in multiple languages to welcome a range of limited or non-English speaking peers to their school. I chatted with girls who barely stopped working on a coding challenge to create a website during our three-week Coder Dojo. I visited two maker school spaces where kids were “hacking their notebooks” one day as part of a national writing project challenge to use paper circuitry to bring content alive. Not only was a multi-age group of kids working intensively together on their notebook projects but they were simultaneously multi-tasking via Google hangout with an inventor of paper circuity applications, a writing project leader, and a local school librarian – all gathered in California to facilitate National Hack Your Notebook Day. The work of educators and learners in these environments informs our thinking about shifts we can and should make during the regular year. The challenge is to make the school year reflect what we learned in the summer.

What’s the end in mind and how do we get there? We are invested in seven pathways that transform learning and lead children to develop Lifelong Learning Competencies. We continue to unfold what these pathways mean for our students and for us. We see the pathways as a design for learning that activates deep learning and this summer allowed us to test and refine that design.

I end with a reflection on our work toward a different end in mind than simply passing tests and acquiring credits to graduate from high school.

There’s nothing really new about how humans learn and excellent teachers teach.  The technology may change. The century may change. But people have always learned more easily when they feel personally confident and physically comfortable, especially when challenged cognitively to push to a new level of skill or knowledge. Children have always learned best when they interact and connect with others as aspirational models, peers, and apprentices. Learners challenged by the conundrums of problems have always found curiosity in the work they do and that curiosity leads learners to a passion for gaining knowledge and finding solutions. The best teachers always have sought to understand how each child is unique and in doing so to vary the paths needed to access learning based on a child’s needs. Teachers who grow and develop as learners in their own right consider new information, ask questions, seek understanding, observe and notice with patience, and change what they do in response to what learners need.

As we amplified an ethos of innovation this summer, we multiplied the talents of learners rather than diminished them. Now we need to sustain that momentum for another ten months. I know we can.

 

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