Learning Made Accessible = Life As Opportunity

The Journey

I have to admit that five years ago, I didn’t, in general, use the terms access, accessible, or accessibility as a frame for beliefs about learning. Of course, as with most educators, I’ve been quick to embed phrases such as learning for all, eliminating achievement gaps, and opening the door for all learners into my language.Today, I’m shifting how I think about what accessible learning for all actually looks like as my district adopts practices of Universal Design for Learning as applicable to all learners.

For example, at a recent start-up edu weekend (#cvilleedu) co-sponsored by my school district, a physically handicapped teen showed up with an idea to create a virtual math keyboard to make inputting math problem responses into devices easier than using a standard keyboard – a solution not just for physically handicapped learners but also the able-bodied. She worked all weekend with a team to build her idea into a working prototype. From young people like her and adults who are helping to integrate UDL as a learning pathway, I’ve come to realize that every time we create a new accessibility pathway to learning, we all have the potential to benefit.

I began to define the concept of access over twenty years ago through the lenses of a close colleague. She was a Jedi Knight for creation of an inclusionary community in the elementary school where we worked together in the early ‘90s. I was the principal. She was the teacher. A summary of what I learned from her? See special education children as – children. Back then, access was a term typically used to talk about special education kids being allowed to participate through adaptive PE or use communicative devices that seemed to function almost like Ouija boards to those of us on the outside looking in at special educators at work.

Soon after I was appointed principal, the entire staff gathered together during a series of school days – every teacher, every teaching assistant, the librarian, the custodian, cafeteria workers, the office staff, and me – to dig deep into what we valued for children in our learning community.  This wasn’t easy to do since we had to cover classes with substitutes and school volunteers. Today, given fiscal restraints and volunteer “rules”, this kind of work likely wouldn’t happen during the school day. I also had to get past that some people in the room questioned why certain “others” were there. It had felt important to me that any one whose work brought them in contact with children be present, so everyone had been asked to participate – every last one of us in the school. If inclusion was something we needed to explore for our children then we needed to begin as seeing every one of us adults as fully included in the discussion.

The Reflective Friend

The special education teacher (a woman whom I came to think of as a close reflective friend) and I had tangled a bit philosophically in a prior year over the “new” concept of neighborhood school placements of high needs special education students. She’d been a teacher of moderately and severely handicapped children in another school. Her class was being disbanded and kids were being placed in neighborhood schools. That didn’t make sense to me. I respected her expertise as a teacher, but worried she didn’t understand the impact of moving high needs students into schools where they would be “one of a kind.”  I think, in hindsight, a lot of us were just scared of children whose needs we didn’t believe we could meet.

After she came to work with me, I came to understand that she was a teacher not just of children, but also the adults with whom she worked. Over the years under her tutelage, I came to realize that each child is “one of a kind” and it’s the labels we assign that filter our capability to see children as individuals.

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Work can happen by orienting differently in space – How do we provide choice and comfort?

I will never forget one of those pivotal, epiphany moments in one of our more heated “vision” sessions that began to shape the concept of access differently for me. We were sitting in the crowded library of the rural elementary school where we worked, trying to incorporate something about the importance of community into our belief statements. This special education teacher stood up and with grace drew a simple circle on a flip chart sheet. She then drew a series of “X’s” inside the circle and then put one “X” outside the circle like this:

the inclusive community

Then, she asked us a question, “ Is Erin* inside our community circle or outside it?” Erin (pseudonym) was “moderately handicapped” according to all the state special education formulas. She was the first child with that label to attend our school and we reluctantly had placed her in a regular early childhood classroom because we couldn’t bear to isolate her from peers. Her voice was garbled, her processing limited, and she lacked all kinds of small and large muscle coordination. Parents of “regular ed” children questioned her presence in “our” school. We were all, I think, a bit afraid of, and for, her. The children seemed to be the only ones who saw her as just another kid in the classroom and, they ultimately became the best teachers of teachers about the value of an inclusionary community as a space in which to learn relationship skills for a lifetime.

But, that question, “ Is Erin inside our community circle or outside it?” stopped us all in our tracks. No one seemed to know what to say. The special education teacher stood there and the wait time stretched out. She was good with wait time. I knew that from watching her at work with kids.  Someone was going to have to fill the void of silence in the library and, I realized,  it would be up to me.

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Children build community naturally when adults believe in them and support that occurring.

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Relationships Matter.

I remember the next few moments as if it happened yesterday, even though it’s now been over twenty years ago. I first acknowledged how hard it was for adults, including me,  to make sense of this new neighborhood model for delivering special education services. Next, I spoke of the challenges of inclusion which we all felt had become another “buzz” word in the educational lexicon. Then, I looked at our soft-spoken custodian, a man of great compassion and wisdom. I saw him kneeling in the hall at the beginning of a school day beside a child, the  one whose “X” was outside the circle, helping her tie her shoe. When he looked the child in the eye, there seemed to be some sort of kinship there.

I thought about the fact that some in the room had questioned the custodian’s presence in our work and imagined he knew that as well. He represented, in some ways, another “X” outside the community circle. I had a mentor who believed that in our work we just have to stand up sometimes and say what we think is right even if we know others might not agree or question the rightness of it. The special education teacher had done so. I took a deep breath. It was my turn.

I stood and said something like this, “We all say we value community. As long as I’m here with you, I”ll do everything I can to make sure that everyone is an X inside our community circle. If any of us ever allow any child or adult to be placed outside the circle by our actions, then we can’t call ourselves a community, we are simply a group of people who show up to work every day. If that happens, we need to acknowledge that what we say we believe isn’t what we believe at all.” While it was no great speech, it was a first step in defining access and accessibility differently in my own mind, and within our school community. Because of  that teacher, we took on inclusion as a way of being. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do.

Today, I’ve come to understand another evolution emerging in my understanding of accessibility. Accessibility applies to everyone, not just the Erins in our lives. We need to stop thinking about the concept of access as isolated to those with federally determined labels – Special Ed, 504, LEP, Title I, gifted, talented. We need to reboot our beliefs about access. And, it’s as true for adults as well as children.

Preferring Collaborative Time

When I recently asked adults with whom I work if they wanted to read a book together on a specific topic, they told  me they wanted options of titles. Some of them wanted a paper book. Others preferred to download a copy to an e-reader. Others didn’t want a book in any form, they wanted to watch a video, participate in a webinar, or take a class. Some of them wanted to get together for face to face discussions, others struggled with doing that. Some wanted to meet in school spaces, others preferred a local watering spot. Adults want accessible learning for themselves. Our kids need that, too.

finding  private reading space in the elementary library

finding private reading space in the elementary library

We adults simply mirror what our kids want and need as learners. They also have different preferences for how they access information. They, too, prefer different tools and different modes of input. They find comfort in different kinds of spaces for learning and in different configurations of interaction. Just like adults they can all benefit from adapting and flexing some of the time to fit into different learning situations. It strengthens them, and us, as learners and community members to do so.

But, if we expect any of us to learn well – regardless of our age – by sitting in the same way, using the same tools, and interacting when and how our teachers choose, then we will get the same learning results we’ve always gotten.  Some will attain great success, some will get by, and some won’t learn much at all. Some will love school, some will tolerate school, and some mostly will hate the experience. We’ll just maintain the faux nature of the Bell curve.

Kids Preferring the Floor

Teachers Preferring the Floor

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However, changing our viewpoint on access to the learning tools, environments, and experiences learners need for learning could, if implemented well, change the game regarding discipline, management, and learning performance by any measure. It also could change the game regarding motivation, drive, curiosity, interest, and commitment. I believe if we were to change the game, think of our jobs as providing universal accessibility, we’d achieve results beyond our wildest dreams; indeed a j-curve of learners who attain great success and love their spaces for learning for a lifetime.

tower builders

* a pseudonym

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Disruptive Innovation in Schools From Inside Out – Not Outside In

I’ve been thinking about disruptive innovation in schools. Disruptive innovation has evolved into a buzz phrase with superficial interpretations that can confuse understanding. First, its history. In 1997, Clayton Christensen coined the term to describe the concept’s application in the business sector and defined it in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

“Disruptive Innovation: The theory of disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service transforms an existing market by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability. – See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/key-concepts/#sthash.fVqlOlnb.dpuf” (Christensen Institute)

Here’s a few examples. The personal computer replaces mainframes. The cell phone replaces land lines. Online sellers replace department stores. And, a question.

IMG_0571Will maker work replace factory school work?

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Math class

In Disrupting Class, Christensen originally hypothesized the rise of online learning as being the big outside disruptor inside K-16 education, believing the exponential increase in virtual coursework would lead to replacement of a significant percentage of face-to-face classes over the next decade. Today, Christensen identifies blended learning models – a combination of virtual with bricks and mortar opportunities – as a key disruptive innovation occurring in schools.

However, I believe there’s more astir within the nature of disruptive innovation in education than simply the blending of technologies and the Internet with school and home to “personalize learning.” I see signs of a different form of disruptive innovation in schools, one grounded not in online coursework but rather in young people working together face-to-face as they search, connect, communicate and make to learn. My perspective is informed by teens who often share their value for the social nature of school communities as they learn with each other inside and outside school walls. I also hear it in their voices as they engage in the creativity processes inherent in making to learn and learning to make. How is this perspective being translated into schools?

The Learning Commons as Disruptive Innovation

Recent dynamic changes in how some libraries are used has shifted them to what now is labeled as the concept of the learning commons.

library studio musicians

Music Industry Studio in the library

For example,  high school librarians in the district where I work as well as in some other districts across the country are providing students with opportunities to do much more than sit silently, research or read virtually or otherwise. Progressive librarians are turning space into areas where students can search, connect, communicate and make throughout the school day and before and after school. A disruptive innovation result? Kids who never stepped into a library unless required to do so now choose to spend hours there.

Librarians who disrupt the concept of library have become hackers alongside students. They encourage slam poets, music makers, videographers, app developers, gamers and design thinkers to share space alongside more traditional readers and researchers. As a result, kids are finding each other and forming social communities for formal and informal learning inside the school’s walls.

ESOL students creating art in the library

ESOL students creating art in the library

What else happens when librarians hack library space? Circulation goes up. Students who never would have visited the library voluntarily do so. Teachers value the library as an active and thriving space for their classes to produce, develop and curate as users, not just consume content. Libraries pick up a “market share” of teachers and students who never before saw themselves as library users by choice.

 

Libraries in this change process have become far more than a source of static, pre-curated materials used by people in permanent “silent” mode.  Instead, these libraries represent an Agora, a marketplace of ideas, creativity, discovery, and interaction. As  libraries become a gathering space in schools, cultural changes reflect students’ value for formal and informal learning opportunities – only some of which may represent Christensen’s blended learning disruption. Instead, it’s the emerging communal nature of the library inside the school that’s disrupting learning – the evolution of shared and open spaces where young people come together as agents of collaborative learning.

“The Agora (/ˈæɡərə/; Ancient Greek: Ἀγορά Agorá) was a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place” or “assembly”. The agora was the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The Ancient Agora of Athens was the best-known example.” (Wikipedia)

 Makers Inside Schools Disruptively Innovate

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Beyond libraries, what other ways are schools becoming sources of disruptive innovation? Teachers and librarians who see themselves as creatives, designers, inventors, and even entrepreneurs are building start-up cultures in their classrooms grounded in the “make to learn” movement.

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learner as teacher in elementary school

In classes with a maker mindset as Dale Dougherty of Make labels it, teachers and students redefine roles of teachers and learners as interchangeable. Students actively steer  their own learning as they work on projects, researching information they need in their “make to learn and learn to make” work using tools such as YouTube while seeking expertise found in interactive social media sites such as Twitter or Instagram. Students in maker-based learning environments begin to see learning as seamless, collaborative, and extended – not defined by other’s goals for them but by their own drive to learn.

 Freedom to Learn from the Inside Out

Educators who disruptively innovate the use of pedagogy, tools, and curricula through a maker-empowerment focus (Harvard Project Zero, Agency by Design) engage young people differently, reaching students who haven’t seen themselves as successful learners in traditional settings. These students may have silently resisted or even actively sabotaged school learning opportunities, regardless of their capability or background. From the maker-empowerment studies, students who experience passion, challenge and a chance to pursue their own learning interests are less likely to “drop out” emotionally and intellectually or to physically check out of school. Instead, “maker-empowered” learners build knowledge, competency and confidence through the relational support of teachers and peers. They come to see their potential to learn far more in school than educational standards prescribe.

The maker movement as disruptive innovation transcends the “personalized” options touted in blended learning or specialized environments such as charter schools. I’ve discovered a surprising number of makers in all kinds of spaces inside public schools once built to factory model specifications for the use of time, schedules, facilities, and learning resources. I’ve noticed middle schoolers taking apart a bike to figure out the physics of its design principles and observed teens repairing a compressor in a re-purposed audio-visual storeroom and using the library as a resource for finding the science, math, and technical knowledge and skills they need.

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compressor

These are signals that mainstream education is being disrupted by the spread of maker ed, a simultaneous challenge from inside school walls to both the 20th century factory school  and the 21st century virtual learning model. Maker education is a simple, accessible and affordable way to change the way our young people experience learning – and it’s far more compatible with how humans learn than the dominant teaching wall, desk in rows, bell schedule driven schoolwork of the 20th century.

Isn’t it about time? 

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On Patience and Empathy

I remember a day many years past when a teacher boiled over with frustration with a six- year-old child who routinely sneaked snacks from other children’s lunch boxes. The kids were angry. So was the teacher. She’d tried a variety of strategies including buying snacks to keep in a closet for him.At the end of the day she sat down with a team of teachers and me as the principal. She sighed and said, “I need help.”

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What do you say to a young child bounced from a single mother to a grandmother and eventually to a foster home? A child who gave his own food to a younger brother so he wouldn’t go hungry at night and then learned to hoard other children’s food during the day to assuage his own hunger? What do you do next when no response you make seems to impact a child’s behavior?

Questions of Empathy

A couple of weeks ago #satchat participants considered questions of empathy as a critical point for dialogue among PLN participants. Tricia Shelton (@TdiShelton) shared a Brene Brown RSA short on the Power of Empathy. At the end of the video, Brown comments,  “rarely can a response make something better .. what makes something better is connection.”

Response and connection aren’t one and the same. We often are at a loss for words when a child’s needs overwhelm us. When we just aren’t sure what to say or do, we may fill in the silence with the first words that come to us – words often used in frustration by adults – words that likely won’t change anything about a child’s behaviors.

Planning a good lesson is the easy part. Connecting is often the challenge.

Connecting demands that we see, feel, hear, and experience to truly understand the narrative of a child. Sometimes, we might hear from a peer or a principal “you just need to connect.” It’s not that simple. When a child differs from us – in background, gender, color,  disabilities, personality or a variety of other ways – hearing and feeling his/her story can challenge us to find connections.

Overcome with our own emotional response, we often respond with “the rules” when a child spins out of control. His/her behavior makes it hard for us to even want to connect. Yet, for such a child to feel safe in our community, we have to sustain a commitment to connecting. We can’t walk away from the hard work to make that happen. It takes patience as Luann ChristensenLee (@stardiverr) said in this #satchat tweet.

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 Patience breathes life into connecting. Connecting builds bridges to empathy.

Despite the pressures of our teaching lives, how can we not be patient with our children? Patience is core to our work to tease out what motivates a child’s anger, frustration, pain, or grief. It gives us the time to figure out how to connect with the child. Those connections help us find the empathy we need to remember that children need us to care first and teach second.

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Empathy reminds us to pause and make the time to look a child in the eyes so s/he simply knows we are there. It creates the moments when we make ourselves stop and just listen. It helps us check our words and offer our silence. It gives us the few right words we need to help a child stop spinning and the permission to grieve or even anger at their circumstances of life.

 How do we find the empathy inside ourselves so that we can extend it to our children?

Over a long career, I’ve spent time with children dealing with life’s challenges – death of siblings, parents, grandparents and teachers and … pets. I’ve talked with teachers and parents about children lost to grievous illnesses, accidents, and at their own hand. I’ve worked with teachers and principals to find solutions to help children of all ages suffering with pain from abuse, dysfunctional family breakups, and intense rejection by peers and family. Their emotions – adults and children alike – have run the gamut from deep sadness to full-blown rage.

What do you say to a child who experiences life’s challenges in such a profound way that in the moment it feels as if those challenges will never end?

What about the children who bring handicaps with them to school that impact their capability to succeed with the ease of peers around them? The children who don’t have the family resources to pay for field trips or to obtain help with science projects to be completed at home? The left-out children who envy the popular kids who get invited to birthday parties? Or who never will have a family vacation or piano lessons or attend summer soccer camp? What do we say to help children live in an opportunity gap that won’t close for them?

IMG_7945Luann believes we must work hard to be patient as we come to understand we can’t fix the world, but we can be present today for a child. We must be patient in realizing that other people’s agendas don’t account for the child who needs you to stop, listen, and do what’s right in this moment to connect. Patience reminds us to put a child first and the rules second.

Life will never be perfect for any of us who choose to teach. Children’s lives aren’t perfect either. We can’t control either. But we can choose to be still, be patient, and connect. That’s the space where we discover empathy within for those who need us the most.

Oh yeah  – and the kid in the intro story?

When I was a young teacher a mentor once said to me about a hard-to-reach middle schooler, “You are going to spend time with this student. How you choose to spend it is in your control.”

We kicked into a Glasser approach with our first grader and went back to square one to ask “What are we doing and is it working?” We realized we had work to do.  The teacher started with simply giving this little boy time every morning to share anything with her he wanted to share – every morning this happened – his time. She worked hard to be patient as Luann advises. The counselor created a plan with him (not for him) to connect at snack time with a small peer group and to give him the chance to “snack shop” in her office so he could be in control of choosing snacks to put in his backpack. She gave him choices that put him in control, something with which he’d had little experience in his short life. The grandmother continued to struggle with him at home and we tried to help her with a plan for there, too. The child slowly, very slowly, began to connect with other kids and to realize how they felt about their snacks. Nothing about this child’s life became perfect. But we all began to understand his story. We indulged in the patience to connect and we found empathy there.

And for the record, here’s what we didn’t do. We didn’t put him on a behavior plan to work for points or rewards. We didn’t punish him with time outs or losing recess or calls home for stealing snacks. We knew not one of those responses would change anything about his behavior in the long-term. These common behavioral responses would simply reinforce that we were trying to control his actions, rather than allowing him to learn to do that.  In the end, we learned from him and he learned from us.

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Brene Brown says empathy begins with building connections. Isn’t the patience to learn that worth our time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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11 Reasons I Am Still Thankful for Public Education in America in 2014

Bashing public education in 2014 continues as a national sport for U.S. media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. But, the good news is that educators and parents are pushing back against mischaracterization of America’s public education with stronger voices than ever. I’ve updated this list annually and my observation is that the world is committed to changing education to offer more of an American model. It’s ironic that we’ve been moving to emulate what has been a mostly standardized, one size fits all approach to learning in other nations. Competing for high international test scores is not necessarily in our best national interests. To paraphrase Yong Zhao, Chinese-educated professor and fierce champion of America’s public schools, the invention and productivity quotient of nations is inversely proportional to high student test scores  – a decades old economic trend reported by ASCD.

While our public education system has room to advance, our educators continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as exam-driven as South Korea’s best or as international-test successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed.

1.     In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China. However, significant gaps still exist in meeting the target that all Chinese youth complete nine grades. Of course, if a student does get through and gets accepted into what would be our equivalent of high school, his/her parents are responsible for paying tuition to attend. If rural and poor, a mainland Chinese child is basically out of luck. Yet, chasing the American creativity dream drives the new Chinese national strategic plan – an American dream worth chasing.

2.    Talk about a poverty gap. In India, more than 40% of children drop out before eighth grade. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 1.4 million school children not being enrolled in any school at all today – down from 9.6 million school children in 2010. When you realize that education is the fuel of a nation’s  future, you invest in it.

3.     In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Thirty-five of these will go on to graduate from upper secondary school. Compulsory education now extends through 11 years of schooling, a relatively recent extension across the country. So close to us but so far away in education reality.

4.     In Afghanistan, only 1 in 2 children attend school and 45% of its 13,000 schools conduct classes in tents, lean tos, or under a tree. Nothing is more valued than education in places where access is a precious commodity.

5.     In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate and only 15% of first graders will graduate from high school.  Some things don’t change when education is reserved for a few.

6.     In Saudi Arabia women attend gender-segregated schools and are prohibited from studying architecture, engineering, and journalism. Girls in STEM, it’s one of many Saudi Arabia’s gender gaps.

7.     In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 46% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 57% of college students in the United States. In fact, Japan and Turkey are the only two nations where female college enrollment is not on the rise. And, Japan represents one of the largest gender gaps in the world, an issue of economic concern at top levels of the government.

8.     In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day. What does South Korea produce? Robots according to one South Korean professor.

9.     In Finland, 40% of teenagers in school reported being heavily intoxicated within the last thirty days, almost double the U.S. reported rate. We have seen the use of alcohol drop annually in the United States for decades  – a statistic that makes a health difference for our teens. Alcohol use among teens is an issue across Europe. Not all stats worth knowing get reported in standardized test data.

10.  In Germany, most special needs” students attend “special schools that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties. Learning community gets defined differently in different nations.

11.  America’s dreamers created the reality that all young people, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity or religion are afforded a free, public education.

This gift, I do not take for granted.

American Kids as Creators and Inventors …..

 

 

 

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Pay Learning Forward: Back to the #FutureReady

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?

 

 

 

 

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Voice in Learning: Agency as Action Word

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched children, adolescents, and teens demonstrate what agency means. It’s a function of both informal and formal settings being available to learners. It’s implementation and impact. It’s face to face and virtual.

It takes my breath away to watch learners’ agency catch fire and spread. Agency is an action word.

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Agency doesn’t emanate from standardization of curricula or pedagogy. It’s not easily captured in assessment – rubrics or otherwise. But it’s easily seen, heard, and felt in young people who have it.


When we hear student voices at work and play in learning spaces, we know we’ve found educators who foster learning agency. They don’t seek to command it. They recognize agency comes from within learners who feel they have power to direct their own learning. Such educators value and exercise the inherent agency within themselves as they come to understand they can facilitate it in others. They give up teaching control to gain learning agency. Educators with agency support learners to generate their own questions and search for their own answers. They open doors for learners to move out of the classroom and explore a bigger world beyond the places we call school. They create a narrative in which learners’ ownership of learning resonates within the teacher-learner relationship.

They encourage learners to challenge ideas, question the authority and credibility of sources, build diverse but thoughtful perspectives, and design, make and improve as they connect with the world to communicate, share, and influence within the global network.

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Educators who cultivate agency among young people want self-determined, active learners who don’t lose their voices in a school environment with passive, compliance-driven achievement in mind. They want young people who seek to discover what makes the world tick and who are driven by curiosity to know, understand and do whether age 5 or 18.

 

stonyptfilmfest

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They want learners to grow up and take a sense of agency with them into their careers, communities and families. They want learners who see themselves as capable of influencing their own lives and the lives of others for the good of self and others. What more important learning outcome could we desire?

Leadership Academytechkid

 

 

 

 

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#exponentialchange, #disruptiveinnovation, and …#CE14

Papyrus. Printing press. Microprocessor.

Change can occur in quick bursts that may advance or even retro-grapencilsde civilization, but in the moments of our daily lives we often think of change as a slow drift. The pencil I used as a child, as did my mother, and my mother’s mother and perhaps even hers before her was invented in 1564 and has mostly been constructed in the same way ever since. The pencil once was an essential tool in my elementary pencil box, the college bio lab, my own teacher’s desk, and in my admin office. Then the need for a pencil changed for me – and the rest of the world, too.

 The 1:1 pencil device of my schooling was replaced suddenly by my smart phone “pencil”, circa 2007. Now I reach for my phone to record lists, make notes, compose messages, capture images.

My pencil is a relic from a time just past Gutenberg’s era. His printing press fueled 1450’s connectivity, a revolution that emerged when writers’ final drafts turned into books, broadsheets, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines. Writing tools changed. Quill pens, pencils, rubber erasers, fountain pens, ballpoint pens, typewriters, whiteout tape and liquid emerged, all evolving technologies that advanced the capability of writers to record at a faster and faster pace. The printed page opened knowledge to people who otherwise would never have learned to read. It was …

Disruptive Innovation at its best

Just a little over 500 years after Gutenberg, the microprocessor was invented, an innovation as disruptive as the printing press. As a result we now live in a time of exponential post-Gutenberg change, a historical turning point equal to the Renaissance. Humans today search, connect, communicate, and make, linking the world through rapid-fire use of contemporary technologies.

Change does not drift along incrementally in our time.

Not in today’s careers, businesses, hospitals, homes.

And Not in Schools Either

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Skyping In Kindergarten

Our kids no longer pull encyclopedias or non-fiction texts off the shelf to do research. They search the globe for accessible expertise, experts, and others with similar learning interests. The thought that paper books have appendices for citations versus hyperlinks in a digital document doesn’t even make sense to them.

They don’t limit their connectivity to peers in their class, grade level, school, or even their local community. Their tools move with them, allowing them to connect anywhere they can catch a wireless signal. They feel isolated in homes, cafes, cars, and streets when those signals are absent. They understand the language of connectivity – mobile, cellular, fiber, satellite up and downlinks, broadband, bandwidth, gigs, virtual, GPS/GIS, portals  – words that didn’t have any context or meaning for me until after my 5th decade had almost passed.

Teens no longer define communication as writing on paper, creating a snail- or e-mail, making a phone call or watching a television show, movie, or listening to a CD. Communication is about instant connectivity with peers, teachers, family everywhere – for them community exists all over the world and print in another language isn’t a barrier thanks to Google’s translator. They aren’t limited by devices that allow them to simply write. They dictate tweets, listen to text messages, “OTT” chat, share images profusely, and download music, books, and other media of interest.

They produce in any format in which they desire to communicate and upload at astonishing rates. They are are part of a human exploration and file sharing network that is changing the world. They are the most connected communicators in the world’s history.

cardboardFinally, our kids don’t define learning as limited to what’s on the board, in a lecture, or between the pages of a textbook. As humans have since the beginning of time, they yearn to “make” as a pathway to learning. Kids don’t want to power down their creativity.

They are intrigued with what they can make with older technologies from lathes and sewing machines to contemporary programming languages and music beat production tools. Give a first grader some cardboard and you’ll end up with a robot or a house. Give a middle schooler a 3-D printer and you’ll end up with a prosthetic hand to donate to a handicapped child or a “Dr. Who sonic screwdriver flashlight.” Give a high schooler the time to create and you’ll end up with a choreographed dance or a phone app.  Today’s kids are …

A New Generation of Inventors

bikeguysEducators long have known from experience and research that learner engagement begins with hands-on, exploratory and experiential learning. Now some educators, parents, business executives, and politicians realize the “more of sameness” built through two decades of mass standardization has resulted in a generation of young people who have had to find their own pathways to active learning outside of school. They may be bored in school but they aren’t bored outside of it. Many of our younger generations spend time in post-Gutenberg “search, connect, communicate, and make” opportunities. While taking tests, listening to lectures, or doing worksheets they think about what they are going to do next. They aren’t waiting until after state tests are completed to go on their own version of field trips, pursue interesting projects, or engage in fierce debates about global issues.

They make learning happen in spite of us. They can because they are connected.

techkid solderingAs October’s Connected Educator Month inches toward November, how might we accelerate the exponential change in learning opportunities that Connected Learners need?

How might we push not just beyond our own learning horizons but challenge colleagues who fear relinquishing the power and control inherent in Gutenberg-driven teaching?

How might we do something tomorrow to power up learners in our care? If we do, I believe we will unleash a passion for learning in young people unlike anything we’ve seen in the test prep classrooms of the last two decades.

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Walking on Air: Remembering Seamus Heaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from “Exposure”, 1975)

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

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

(from “Clearances”, 1986)

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

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

(“Postscript”,1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.

 

 

 

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Why Are We Here? #LeadershipDay14

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

I bet not.

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Skyping with Friends 

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

 

 

 

Why are we here?

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing more. Nothing Less.

Now and forever more.

Leadership Academy

Young Leaders At Work

 

 

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Reflections: A Summer of Learning

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

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

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

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

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

pursue their own interests and passions,

challenge themselves to think critically and create with purpose,

experience opportunities to collaborate with peers and,

communicate their learning with power to authentic audiences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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