Habitable Worlds of Learning

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I watched the Paralympics held in Rio last summer and I was both amazed and inspired by the drive, resilience, passion, and accomplishment of people we label as disabled but who, in many cases, can athletically outperform the average person who has all body parts intact. Disabled athletes use accessibility tools that create pathways allowing them participate in events that years ago no one would have considered possible. These athletes swim, run, jump, fence, ride, throw, lift, row, sail and so much more. The Paralympics celebrates Universal Design, Inclusion, Can Do beliefs, equity, and openness to possibilities. Not only do disabled athletes demonstrate self agency and advocacy but they are surrounded by people — family, friends, coaches — who champion their assets and capabilities and support removing philosophical and physical barriers to opportunities rather than sustaining them.

The Paralympics story reminds me of the barriers to learning we may still erect in front of young people, both in PK-12 and higher education. Rather than promoting equity of access by actively advocating and acting to take down philosophical barriers, we sometimes maintain those barriers because of beliefs and values that limit potential. Access to a full, rich curricula is one example.

writing9I remember talking a few years ago to a teacher who was concerned about a middle school student who was upset because he’d been excluded from reading a book he wanted to read in a book group because of his learning disability. The teacher commented that he just couldn’t read the text and so he had been placed in a less sophisticated book. I was just on the front end of processing background on universal design for learning and asked her if he could listen to the text since he would have no problem handling the cognitive challenge of the content. She replied, “but listening is not real reading.” Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to say. I myself had begun to listen to audio books in the car and felt when I finished a book I had indeed “read” it (for the record I’m a lifelong voracious text consumer which seems to  be worth less and less as we move into the Machine Age.) I walked away thinking we have to challenge our definition of what it means to be a reader – and what it means to be labeled as learning disabled.

Today, the district where I work has adopted Universal Design for Learning as one of seven pathways to transforming learning. We are not “there” yet with 25 schools in terms of full ownership of this philosophical shift but we load every student device with an image that includes a suite of accessibility tools so every student can use a multitude of apps that open the door to equity of curricular access. After all, if medical school students listen to podcasts at triple speed rather than going to lectures and use text to speech to turn assigned text into audio to maximize access why would we continue to deny children with learning disabilities access to complex text they can’t read but they can comprehend?

Why would we not choose to create habitable worlds of schooling for all learners?

I just ran into the work of Professor Rosemary Garland-Thomsen of Emory University who researches, teaches, and writes about expansion of assistive supports to create more habitable worlds for disabled people. The phrase ‘habitable world’ caught my attention because I believe that each learning space, community, and the full curricula of our schools should be accessible to everyone — in essence, schools as habitable worlds of learning.

In her work, Professor Garland-Thomsen speaks to two different narratives that drive people’s decisions about equity of access within a community: either a eugenics philosophy or an inclusion philosophy.

The term eugenics should not be used or taken lightly given its origins and its impact. The worst of American history has been rooted in the Eugenics Movement, a legacy of Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Sir Francis Darwin. Social Darwinism, a cultural perspective on why class systems exist, made child labor and inhumane adult labor conditions acceptable long after slavery was abolished in the US. In the early 1920s, the Eugenics Movement gave birth to the infamous sterilization laws of states across the nation. In Virginia thousands of citizens were sterilized, including under-aged teens and mostly adult women. The tragic case of young Cary Buck, of Charlottesville, Virginia, traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court soon after Virginia enacted its eugenics law. Virginia’s laws were upheld and, in the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Beginning with the sterilization of Cary Buck, the SCOTUS ruling led to decades of sterilization across the nation and citation of Virginia law in the Nuremburg trials in defense of the actions of Nazi Germany.

As the Eugenics Movement faded, the Civil Rights Movement emerged as a progressive force leading to integration of public schools and full community access to public spaces for all citizens through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then Public law law 94–142 or IDEA as it’s known today was enacted in 1975 to support disabled children to attend and receive needed educational services in public schools, regardless of disability. Coupled with IDEA, the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act protected disabled people from discrimination, adding a layer to a progressive philosophy of inclusionary procedures and practices.

These three federal acts increased the potential of accessibility to a habitable world (defined broadly as a planet supporting life or more narrowly as schools supporting all learners, Pk-12 to higher education, with the tools, resources, and strategies they need to succeed) for people in communities across the nation.

How do create schools that are not boxes that wall learners in?

In schools today, we talk the talk that learners’ voices matters, their learning agency is valued, and their influence is of merit. When it comes to walking the walk, however, our work breaks down without a relentless commitment from professionals who will challenge assumptions and practices that represent the vestiges of a eugenics philosophy and promote the inclusionary practices to which progressive educators aspire.

If we are to realize our inclusionary aspirations, how do we attend, act, and advocate to confront the soft ‘eugenics’ still inherent in educational settings? How do we change practices that create school cultures where it’s acceptable to:

  • Sort and select children by perceived differences that limit access to and equity of learning opportunities
  • Turn a blind eye to ostracizing, bullying, name-calling, and shunning that can represent both adults’ and/or children’s behaviors in learning communities
  • Negatively label children based on value judgements about gender, color, economic background, class, sexual orientation, native language, parental behaviors, disability/ability and so on
  • Avoid development of pedagogical skills essential to teach children through a culturally responsive, trauma sensitive, equity of access lens
  • Ignore differences among children’s assets, resources, and home support outside of school
  • Refuse to provide access to the tools children need so that print isn’t a barrier to information sources and text entry isn’t a hurdle to showing their knowledge or sharing their creativity
  • Set up rules, situations and schedules that isolate children from access to their full community whether during recess, play-time, lunch, extracurricular activities, or academic groups and teams?

When contemporary educators endorse and use these practices, we create an uninhabitable world of learning reflective of schooling traditions of the twentieth century. We limit opportunity, potential, and possibilities and never even know what has been missed because we filter the capabilities of young people through beliefs long outdated by the tools available in today’s world.

The Good News ….

writing2

We can and are doing better in many schools today. Some teachers make different choices, challenging the normative factory model that is still relatively intact in some schools despite deep, well-researched knowledge about learning.

Social media make us aware of the voices of progressive teachers who practice a philosophy of open-ended learning rather than instruction limited by rigid standards or performance measured mostly by four-choice, one-answer tests. Today’s progressive educators provide children with opportunities to pursue their learning interests, passions, and curiosities as they learn with peers of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and capabilities. Such teachers recognize the learning power when children work together to find solutions, create, make, design, build, and produce learning.

Teachers who create a habitable learning world for all children value them as explorers, pioneers, settlers, and even resisters of learning. They don’t see a singular path as the only one navigable to learning. They don’t see one destination as an end point for a child’s year. They remain open to and notice the semiotics that help them make meaning of the learning community. They study what each child needs to access full participation in the habitat of the classroom. They listen to children to learn about their culture, stressors, assets, values, interests, and capabilities. Such teachers tune into and confront their own and others’ deficit thinking. When faced with their own biases and the biases of others, they don’t back away from tough conversations and reflection. They own their own learning and value working with a heterogeneous community of learners and peers.

Progressive educators are changing education in their classrooms and influencing others so that all children enter a habitable world of learning, one that has for too long been off-limits for some. They seek to re-norm educational practices through an inclusionary philosophy that embraces all learners.

As a mentor said to me years ago, “it takes a long time to turn an aircraft carrier around — and to change an educational practice. Both can be done. It just takes the will and the skill to do it.”

Attend. Advocate. Act. It’s how we will accomplish just that.

The Pendulum or the Butterfly

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“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Governor George Romney to the Michigan Legislature (9/20/63)

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Floor time project work

What compels us? Pulls us? Catalyzes us? Connects us? Who are we and what are we doing in this profession? In this public sector? In this institution we call school? Why do some of us keep coming back, day after day, year after year, decade after decade until we look back and realize that we accomplished something called a career; even as we watched others go silently into the night across those years?

Why do some of us keep pulling ourselves up and off the floor of the ring to continue on to the next round, in spite of our bruises and the blood we spill?

What binds us together? What pulls us apart?

Blog posts, twitter conversations, backchanneling and #chat discussions center the language of out of mainstream educators, parents, and even young people who attempt to answer these questions.  Social media capture the cadence of our conversation with the sometimes painful, sometimes achingly beautiful words and images of a poet even as others of us debate with impassioned, but crisp, political analysis.

We question whether we continue on another swing of our own perverse Newtonian pendulum. Or, is it possible social media lifts the quantum butterfly whose beating wings shift air currents across this nation, creating a learning world that we could never have envisioned in isolation of each other?

Still more of a back channel than a mainstream educational movement, those in the global communication network of educators still mostly watch from the outside as the next sentence is being written by politicians to frame American education.  We know well the drafting, revision, and editing processes in which our communities, our states, and nation now engage. We understand how mainstream media, political positions, new policy, new legislation, budget deliberations, and public hearings give voice to those who attempt to define the some; the all of us. Those with decades in education have seen this before. We know what the swing of the pendulum means inside schools.

However, in parallel universes, today two conversations exist.

One, a voice exploring the meaning of words like passion, joy, drive, inspiration, learning, democracy. The other, a voice of market share, big data, votes, rules, money, incentives, brand placement, and rhetoric.

butterfly10clockThe intersection of these voices juxtaposes the choices between the pendulum or the butterfly.

Both objects of motion- one coldly inanimate, the other joyfully alive.

One defined by the freedom to move at will. The other by  external control.

One mechanized. The other, part of the ecosystem.

In most ways, the current story of public education still represents our commitment to Newtonian physics, the classical mechanization of the factory school pendulum that many still hold dear.

But, in the back channel, our quantum butterfly wings unfold; with each pump of fluid we weigh our potential to take flight. It is here that we consider how learning becomes dynamic, active, deep, and vivid.

So, what will give lift to voices in the back channel? Will it be new legislation, policy, funding, political voices? I think not.

Instead, we must design education anew by generating an ever-increasing number of educators who believe in a mission to create spaces of inspiration for learners and learning. However, it will take more than 1 or 10 percent of us speaking the poetic and analytical voices of passion, joy, and drive to create spaces in which young people and educators can thrive in these 21st century days.

tower builders

To accomplish such a vision, it must become one of lift, influence, and power that creates a front channel for our voices. We need our best educational technologists, our courageous leaders, our creative geniuses across America’s communities to create the front channel we must become. It’s our job, and our time, to increase the inspiration quotient for public education in every community in this nation.

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For if not us, who? If not now, when?

Otherwise, we must accept again the next push of the educational pendulum and forget the potential of the butterfly’s flight.

butterflyonthistle

 Postscript:

( I wrote the first draft of this post in 2012. I felt then as if public education was in a downward spiral in which learning had become defined as being about passing tests and prepping for tests alone. Few questioned the standardization of every curricula, the loss of inquiry as an anchor for engaged thinking, the subtraction of hands-on learning from the academic curricula, the loss of play, story, and movement by design as a path to learning for our youngest children, and removal of course options from arts to physical education to shop class. Reduction or elimination of libraries, recess, club time, and field trips seemed to go without question.

Today, I am more optimistic that an awakening occurs. When I watch the movie Most Likely to Succeed, read Learn or Die, or listen to educators such as Yong Zhao speak to a different vision for learning, I know something is changing. It’s occurring in the social media conversations of educators everywhere. It’s found in a groundswell of big conference themes that focus on children as learners, not as data points. Even politicians challenge status quo assumptions about elevating national and state standardization expectations over the choices of local communities.

Some might say we are at crossroads in 2015. I see it as more of a chance to define education in this century not just a reform of the last century’s schools but a turning point transformation, indeed a contemporary Renaissance fueled by intersections of trans-disciplinary content with new contexts for learning. Because of our knowledge, tools, and communication networks, we have the potential to create learning opportunities that have never before been available in human history.)

Pay Learning Forward: Back to the #FutureReady

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obamaAs superintendents shared their districts’ contemporary learning stories on a field trip to the ConnectEd Summit in DC, our professional speech described the natural, and ancient, learning pathways of humans from field experience to tool use.

“Research and education has shown that field trips are remembered long into adulthood. Why? Because you’re experiencing something rather than simply reading it in a book…. To experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book. So why not figure out a way to turn a lesson plan into a living expression of that content. A living expression, so that sparks can be ignited and flames can be fanned within the students. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what grade they get on the exam because they are stimulated to want to learn more…  And there it is.  You’ve cast a learner into the world. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher.” Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Today’s high tech research to decode the workings of the human brain tells us that natural pathways to learning (Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist and teacher) embed what we learn in our neural structures. In essence, we humans are born to move, narrate, imitate, listen, design, create, build, engineer, play, sing, dance, and apprentice our way to the learning needed to thrive, not just survive, in our homes, communities, and work.

Simulation Center work

Simulation Center work

Why did the ConnectEd Summit superintendents come to these pathways in our stories about our students’ and teachers’ most innovative work?  It’s because our stories framed a context for what’s necessary to capture the potential of all children as learners, regardless of the era into which they are born.

Tools change, knowledge advances, and skills develop as generations march forward,  but what our young people need as learners today is as old as stone tools the most ancient of teachers once taught children to use. Our children still need us to support them to search, connect, communicate, and make in the caves, campfires, and watering holes of today’s communities – only now both face-to-face and virtually.

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The Free Speech Wall Charlottesville Va

At the Summit, superintendents were clear in conversations with each other, the Secretary of Education, and his staff that learning must sustain a spirit of inquiry that fosters creativity, critical and ethical reasoning, communication, and collaboration. We communicated pride in our districts’ efforts to put the factory school model behind us as we design learning spaces for today’s children.

Here’s what I heard emerge as themes from our discussions about the inspiring and inventive teaching and learning occurring across the network of school communities linking our nation:

  • We described commitments to project- and problem-based learning through which young people follow their personal passions and interests to seek and create work meaningful to them through the arts, STEM/STEAM, or global action projects.
  • We shared opportunities for learners of all ages to venture out of desks and chairs and into multi-age communities, coming face-to-face with the real world of interdisciplinary applications, high-and low-tech tool uses, and authentic, experiential learning – a purposeful abandonment of Carnegie’s required seat time memorizing content in de-contextualized silos to take high stakes state tests.
  • We pinpointed the critical need to address economic gaps and opportunity gaps so we can ensure equity and access for all young people to excellent teachers, contemporary learning spaces, broadband connectivity, mobile devices, time, and other essential resources.
  • We described natural learning as transportable everywhere a child can go in a community, virtually connected – or not.

From Alaska to Florida, a tiny microcosm of America’s schools, 100+ superintendents along with a few teachers, students, and principals who also lead to educate young people (50 million of them in around 16,000 school districts spread across 3.80 million U.S. square miles/9.85 million km2) came to D.C. to hear the President.

studvoice5

Yet, the voices that resonate in my head are those of students – young reporters covering the Summit, a high school student seated with equal status at the table with suited superintendents from around the nation, millennials working the twittersphere. Their voices represented the agency of young people communicating a value for adults who help them figure out how to grow into their voices, find their stride as influencers, and pursue their dreams for not just the future, but also the here and now. Whether at the ConnectEd Summit or simply chatting in the #stuvoice twitter stream about what they care about, our young people affirm what engages and empowers them.

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

In the end, I think we all left knowing that realizing a bright future for young people really isn’t about superintendents gathering in DC for an event. It’s about unifying our communities to care for, respect, and value each child as a learner and to support those who teach. Our ancestors must have known this too as they engaged in their own version of #futureready learning work. They surely wanted similar things – children who thrive, grow up to become successful adult contributors in their own families and communities, and who are kept as safe and healthy as possible in an increasingly challenging world.

 

Isn’t that the best of who we are now and who we’ve always been –  generations of parents and teachers committed to our children as we pay learning forward?

 

 

 

 

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

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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

World Peace Game: No Standard Problems – or Solutions

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel by bus to the Pentagon with John Hunter, career teacher and creator of the World Peace Game, twenty-three of the latest crop of 4th grade world peace gamers, 2 teacher-colleagues, the children’s principal, and Chris Farina, documentary film maker of “World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Accomplishments.”

The kids were invited guests of the Office of The Secretary of Defense and they arrived at school early that morning with dossiers in hand containing their white papers and questions on the critical issues of the world. After the children settled into seats on the bus, John chatted with me for a few minutes about the trip, visiting some education topics near and dear to our district’s work to ensure all young people engage in work that engages, challenges, and provides choice and opportunity to pursue passions and interests. John shared first how the children prepared for the trip and his philosophy for “unfettering” their learning.

“Each child was expected to do extensive research and develop a white paper and questions about countries they represented so that they could engage intelligently with adult policy experts on topics of interest. They are people – they are young people -in the learning adventure, their uniqueness appears; there’s no separation or line of authority they aren’t afraid to broach when asking questions and seeking information. When we take the fetters off and the false boundary lines and parameters , they have an unfettered imagination and ability and when given the chance in their own young, youthful way they can develop things that we adults in our staid and traditional way might not even see. “

John Hunter’s been in a Ted Talk – generated international limelight for the last two years for a couple of reasons. First, he represents for all educators the best of creative genius and fabulous facilitation of learning among young people. John also happened to be in the right place at the right time when Chris was looking for a film to make. John is extraordinary, no question about it. He’s the best of ambassadors for extraordinary educators who create amazing learning spaces for children in public schools everywhere. He’s quietly reflective and a wise practitioner of the art and science of teaching. But, when he speaks, others can’t help but listen.  I sometimes say that all teachers who love to teach, love to learn, and value the capabilities of all young people have a bit of John Hunter in them.

“Children show us what they can do when we remove anything from in front of them that might get in their way as people. They come to us as experts in something already. We need to use those strengths and build on those strengths.”

The daylong trip to the Pentagon makes for an interesting story about the current crop of world peace game fourth grader gamers who engaged with twenty-five high level staffers from generals to top policy makers. They even had a chance to chat about global warming, office phones, and other topics of interest for almost half an hour with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I’m not sure anyone else got that kind of time from him that day, but the children did.  Senior policymakers in the Under Secretary’s departments engaged in dialogue with the fourth graders about world issues from the current problems generated by the conflict between Israel and Iran, China’s relationship with Tibet, Yemen’s terrorists’ camps, Mexican drug wars along our border, and, the mistreatment of Syrian people by Bashir al-Assad. They then participated in a simulated press conference in the Pentagon Press Room with Press Secretary George Little.

Not much of what these children demonstrated in their learning could, or would, be assessed on the typical standardized tests they take each spring. John has thought a lot about assessment over the years and what it really means in the big scheme of lifelong learning. He sees a much bigger picture than the current reality educators face today.

“We assess for a unit, a day, a lesson, a week, a month, a year. Interestingly enough, what’s been a revelation to me of recent is that over the 35 years I’ve taught, I’m finding kids are coming back through social media from ten or twenty years ago and talking  about something they learned years ago and saying ‘you said that and I’ve been able to use that in my life.’ What an amazing thing that we educators seem to reach through time – and life becomes the assessment. Perhaps we need to start to open our assessment window beyond our classroom and look at assessment as lifelong.”

It was a wonderful day for me to observe what happens when children have worked with a teacher who has total confidence in their capability (and, no they aren’t all “gifted” by label requirements although no one who watches them can doubt their giftedness as a team of learners) and sets high expectations for a kind of creative and critical thinking work that cannot be measured with 4 choices- one correct response. For over thirty years across multiple school districts, school levels, and demographics, John’s “kids” have consistently performed in ways that transcend the 20th century paradigm for achievement and the accountability outcomes defined for today’s public school learners.

You see, John Hunter is a dreamer. He’s dreamed of no minimums for learning. He’s dreamed of children who will grow up to change the world. He’s dreamed of unlimited opportunities for children who otherwise would be limited by desks in rows and a teacher lecturing them about factoid trivia that represent the unimaginative, de-contextualized instruction to which so many children have been subjected for decades. John encourages children to be imaginative, playful, and passionate about learning. Thus, when they visited the Pentagon, they put themselves on equal footing with adults, a partnership of respectful learning.

“You see the video monitors on the bus. One of the children asked when we got on the bus this morning if we were going to watch a movie. One of the other children said, ‘no, the movie’s in your mind today’… what a great thing that their imagination is their canvas, not some Madison Avenue firm developing their imagination for them…”

John is a believer in the power and voice of children as learners. He sees his job as:

“planting the seed of possibilities in children and connecting them to the larger vision of our country and world… I don’t know the answers to give them. It becomes an adventure for everyone in the classroom everyday. They have to develop their own questions … what they need to know, so they can figure out what other things they need to know.”

Pentagon officials who didn’t know the story of John’s work asked several times if these children were “from private schools.” I proudly told them that these were children from a regular public school and that many more teachers and children just like them were back in schools in our district. They were surprised by the seriousness of the children’s pointed questions, and their public school education.

As one chief policymaker said, “you were fierce in asking senior leaders some very important and tough questions.” It struck all of us that John’s created an environment where children don’t see a hierarchy in their work with their teacher and their classmates. The Pentagon officials considered whether they need to attend less to protocols that block them from challenging each other. It’s a lesson for educators everywhere who dream of children who think independently about challenging problems, not ones looking to the teacher to tell them what to do.

At the end of the day, the children engaged in what’s known as a “hotwash” exercise – one used by Pentagon officials to debrief their own work.  The kids shared feedback for the adult staffers, pulling philosophies from their reading of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and their own experiences,  “think forward; don’t be afraid to change your plans if what you’re doing isn’t working; remember, war isn’t the answer.”

The staffers, in turn shared what they thought we should hear. Many of them noted that it had been a “favorite day at the Pentagon; I am inspired by these fourth graders; I am reminded of a teacher who inspired me when I was a child….”

Then one policymaker said something which made me stop and think about the accountability movement left over from the 20th century to which the nation’s children are subjected each day.  “We use creativity and imagination every day to solve problems around the world.. we need more people in America who can do what you are doing in your class….”

I’m struck after visiting the Pentagon with twenty-three 4th graders and John Hunter  that there are no standard problems in today’s world- global warming, water problems, economic crises, political differences, war – and no standard solutions. Yet, we educators spend our time teaching kids to pass standardized tests of standardized objectives found inside standardized programs and curricula that demand no creativity or imagination to generate solutions.

Maybe the Department of Education should talk to the Pentagon.

When Laws Are Silent: Who Will Speak?

I went to see The Conspirator last weekend. It’s the story of Mary Surratt who was executed as a co-conspirator in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. She’s defended by a U.S. Army captain turned lawyer, Frederick Aiken, and is tried by a military tribunal rather than a jury of her peers. The movie makes the case that the U.S. government, including President Andrew Johnston, abandoned the Constitution in their efforts to make southern sympathizers associated with John Wilkes Booth pay for the killing of Lincoln, ostensibly so the nation could move beyond the crime.  This film’s not about whether Mary Surratt is guilty or innocent although reasonable doubt seemed to exist. It’s a movie about what happens when the civil rights that should be accorded to anyone, regardless of the crime, get lost in the shuffle of those with power over those without.  And it’s a movie with a compelling teaching and learning story about the importance of the Constitution.

How do young people best learn the value of the U.S. Constitution as America’s voice of protection of the rights of people from the most egregiously guilty to the most vulnerably innocent?  How do they come to understand our role as a model for the world in adhering to the Geneva Conventions?  How do they engage in dialogue about rights and responsibilities in school and home so they enter adult life grounded in the key concepts of the Bill of Rights?

I worry that 59% of teenagers surveyed by the American Red Cross support torture and have little knowledge of the Geneva Conventions.  The American Red Cross offers resources to assist in educating young people about Humanitarian Laws.  I also am concerned that numerous surveys indicated our young people lack both knowledge and understanding of core values writ large in the Constitution. The good news is that resources are available to help educators. The National Constitution Center surveys young people routinely and offers resources to actively engage young people in dialogue and learning experiences that deepen understanding of the United States Constitution.  James Madison’s Montpelier Center for the U.S. Constitution offers additional educational resources.  How do we put those resources to best use? Learners need ongoing project-based learning opportunities to turn the string of words we call the Constitution into something that’s real to them.

Frederick Aiken did not want to defend Mary Surratt. He certainly believed that she was guilty when he began her defense. He did not choose to take her case but rather felt obliged to do so. As he worked to defend her and witnessed the alleged collusion of Federal department heads and the military, he moved from lukewarm effort to intense support of her right to a fair trial before a jury of peers. Despite his best efforts, his work was in vain. The force of the government prevailed and Surratt died.

To justify his actions in controlling the outcome of the case including the sentencing of Mary Surratt to hang, the movie’s Edward Stanton, Secretary of War, quoted Cicero to Frederick Aiken:

“Laws are silent in times of war.”

Mary Surratt represents an uncommon story, a hidden history that’s only a postscript to the American Civil War. She was both hated and revered, an expression of an individual’s point of view during those heated times.

Most likely, few citizens today will see The Conspirator. Some who do might agree with the reasoning of the government in its willingness to sacrifice a woman’s rights afforded by the Constitution. I worry, however, that rights we hold dear for any person can be dismissed by those who hold power, elected or otherwise. No reason justifies such an action, for if we are willing to sacrifice the rights of one, we slide down a slippery slope for us all.

Frederick Aiken knew that. He stood up for a cause he believed in and never regretted it. I like to think that’s the American way. I hope we make those stories real to our young people. The nation could use a few more citizens cut from the same cloth as Frederick Aiken.

AYP Worth Measuring (AKA Leaving Cubberley Behind)

Part I: How We Arrived At Where We Are Today

In a keynote at the recent ASCD national conference, Fable Vision CEO Peter Reynolds described the ideal learning space for learners.

Kids at work

“….  lots of essentials for creative classrooms- environment,lighting, color, music, plants, art, nooks, invitation, blank page,tools to express, no tech, low tech, high tech, walking bamboo tablet, time, freedom, visionary leaders who are kind, caring,creative, biggest tool of all is love –let every child know they exist and matter, love…”

This kind of space represents a learning happiness quotient that’s missing today from the lives of many educators and the young people they serve. Today’s hurried, or harried, educators, (both of which can be applicable at any given moment) talk fast, eat quickly, and live in perpetual motion while attempting to meet all the deliverables expected of them by a multi-tiered federal and state bureaucratic hierarchy intent upon standardizing and measuring their every movement.

Why do we educators work this way?

Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie (NYT 3/6/11)

Our President said recently that too much testing bores learners. He’s right, but there’s more.  It sucks the life out of learners and those who teach them.  The factory school model of today represents an edu-genetic line stretching back to the days when Elwood Cubberley (1868-1941) sold the notion that schools could be run more like businesses using principles of Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management.” It’s a model designed to measure how many children and teachers jump through hoops, negotiate over barrels, and maneuver around hurdles to pass muster on scientifically constructed multiple choice tests. And, it’s a model for quantifying through scientifically developed growth formulas the degree of widget learning that a particular teacher “produces” among students over the course of a school year. It looks like this.

“ The emerging view of the 1920s principal as scientific
manager dominated the scholarly writing of the 1930s. The
spiritual element of the principalship became less important,
and the conception of schools as businesses with the principal
as an executive became more popular. Business values and
rhetoric gained acceptance within school systems, and as leaders
of the schools, principals became business managers responsible
for devising standardized methods of pupil accounting and introducing
sound business administration practices in budgeting, planning, maintenance, and finance.”  (in Strayer, Engelhardt, & Elsbree, 1927 as cited by Brooks and Miles)

How does this fit with what other nations do to support learning?

Here in the United States we possess more visible numbers to measure student performance than any of the top performing nations in the world. We’ve even figured out the science of counting erasure marks to determine if a school has lost its ethical core when it comes to administering high-stakes tests.  Despite all of this hard factory schoolwork, our Secretary of Education says that 82% of America’s schools likely will be labeled failures this year. Former President George Bush, NCLB champion, exhorted educators across America to test kids and then test them some more, believing that measurement would solve achievement problems. Yet, after ten years of NCLB under Republican and Democratic administrations and 100+ years of factory schools, achievement gaps still prevail.

Trend data as evidenced by NAEP results demonstrate this model hasn’t worked so well. Fortunately, a few educators seek alternatives to Cubberley’s factories for children. Their work’s aiming towards Peter Reynolds’ descriptor of what learning spaces  could be.

Part II:  We Can Choose to Do Otherwise

What does a school do to become more of a space for learners and learning as Peter Reynolds describes rather than one of Cubberly’s legacy?

Watching a DVD at the end of the day on the last day of the workweek, I found myself reflecting on how a school staff shifts culture.  The DVD contained a documentary of recent images of learner-led conferences in an elementary school that must meet federal and state “improvement” mandates. I was moved particularly by the image of a child Skyping with grandparents in another country while leading a conference with his parents and teacher.

Instead of succumbing to improvement by test-taking curriculum, courageous educators in this diverse, economically disadvantaged elementary school embark on a different path.  Imagine slowing down time so that all children, PK-5th grade, can sit with parents and teachers, open folders, and share their best work in their own voices. Imagine working in a school whose principal leader (@mlandahl), despite living under the long arm of NCLB sanctions, chooses to lead for learning, not testing, and to create a culture where “every child knows they exist and matter.”

Rather than adopting educational recipe programs, educators in this school choose to frame their work through two overarching approaches, Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. In doing so, teachers use social responsibility as a guidepost to engaging learners in building community ownership rather than relying on ‘reinforce and manage” behavioral controls. You’ll find children outdoors building cloches to cover their newly planted seeds or huddled around a table creating an environment for red wigglers so they can figure out how worms turn “stuff” into compost. The project expeditions provide children opportunities to pursue interests with passion.  Their teachers also have embarked together to evolve a community of practice. They engage in collaborative learning rounds much like those found in the best teaching hospitals. This is a school community in which educators and children are on an expedition to learn together.

How could I not notice the culture shift in progress as one that matters?

Will this school meet all the improvement requirements set before them by today’s disciples of Taylor and Cubberley’s principles of scientific management? That outcome still’s in question. It’s a work in progress as the school’s educators and learners continue to draft and redraft their work.

This I do know.  The young people and teachers in this school are forging important bonds as a community for learners and learning. Through these bonds, they’re developing the dispositions of self-determined learners who are curious, interested, committed – and who appreciate working together. These bonds create possibilities and potential that young people served here will pay forward a deep care for communities in which they work and live.  Along with this sense of social responsibility, their teachers and principal dream of children growing up with a passion for learning that will last a lifetime.

In my opinion, that’s adequate yearly progress worth measuring.