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.

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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.

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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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