When A New Year Begins: Reflections on the Past

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IMG_5579.JPGIt’s interesting that we mark the beginning of a new year just after the moment in time of the longest day of the year and the beginning of winter. I always think of new as being that which occurs in the spring – dandelions and periwinkle poking color up amidst the brown of dead leaves, the soft green gray hues of the forest that come alive in morning mists still chilled by winter, and water still running cold and fast through the woodlands of my hollow.

Yet, I cannot escape that for many decades the sign of a new year that brings a real focus on new to me begins with the school bus that picked me up and dropped me at the end of my family farm’s half-mile long, sugar-sand road in the Low Country. The buses are still yellow, and the seats are still the basic same shape as they were six decades ago. Technology has eliminated the driver having to manually open and close the bus doors and side stop sign. But, kids still make a lot of noise on the bus, fight over the window, and love drivers who smile and take time with them.

102The school bus year begins and ends in summer light. I’ve ridden buses, driven a bus, supervised buses, and been responsible as a school superintendent for the safety of thousands of students riding almost 15,000 miles every day of the school year. In that role, as I have ridden each year on a bus to pick up children early on their first-day morning rides, I’m reminded in each of my school bus years that each new year’s ride brings a wonder at the lives and dreams of thousands and thousands of children who have traveled with me as learners over all the years that I have been in schools – four-plus decades of learners coming and going from classrooms and schools that I have tended in my own work to nurture spring-time into the lives of children, to help them grow from their hopes and dreams in a new year.

In my years in education, I’ve experienced the amazing freedom to create, early on free from the constraints of accountability testing run amok back in those days in the seventy and eighties when kids mostly read and did math and tests were administered for different purposes. Schools were not perfect then. They never have been. But kids in the school where I worked were the first generation of middle schoolers to read novels, not basal readers.

I remember a group of children, a few dad carpenters, and the teacher constructing a subway platform in a room so the classes could vicariously experience a slight feel of New York in a small rural county in Virginia. The teacher, Lynn, understood that children needed context for what they read and she was committed to recreating her classroom as the novel., Slake’s Limbo. The children painted their own graffiti as they listened to the sounds of the subway she had captured on cassette tapes during a visit to the city. It wasn’t New York but with walls covered with black paper, a raised platform overlooking faux rails, and sounds of trains coming and leaving, it was not a classroom of desks and chairs – hard work for Lynn but she always put in her best effort to create a real learning experience for kids.

albumkidsinestuary-e1514763304625.jpgWe took kids on adventures, some who had never seen the ocean or been more than a few miles from the county seat to explore natural caves and quarries and fossil pits in West Virginia and to the ocean to experience marine biology and earth science wading through the waves and marshes and walking the beaches of coastal Virginia. We came back to the school at night to set up a telescope for kids to look at the moon and visible planets, and once even a lunar eclipse. I don’t even know how we paid for the trips other than through a federal grant received when environmental education became a national focus as the nation began to process the impact of air pollution over LA, nuclear accidents and chemical spills in the northeast, and the degradation of forests and erosion of lands all over fifty states.

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We worried less about teaching facts then and there was no teaching to a test because we were living in the inquiry generation of science educators, trained through post-Sputnik era funds to engage learners and create paths for them to solve their way through problems rather than delivering all the answers to them. The goal was to educate all children in science and maybe a few might become physics majors for NASA and a few might even become science educators. In our country school, we were well aware of the differences in circumstances of life and we weren’t that far past segregation in the South and even IDEA  was a newly minted public law (94-142) that brought children to school who had never been in school before. We were very fortunate to be led by administrators who were in the work to support the learning that children would get from us and not simply to manage the school.

In those days, teachers could take time to slow down and have a discussion with kids about topics that were off topic – sometimes because kids just wanted to distract us and sometimes because they simply had great, curious questions and interests worth exploring. I was expected to plan deeply for the units I would teach and in that era worked in a school faculty expected to use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a framework for considering what kids would be able to recall, understand, apply, synthesize, and evaluate in their learning – not just surface but what we label today as deep to transfer learning. We also were expected to design assessments prior to teaching a unit and, in science, those assessments weren’t just paper pencil but also included hands-on responses to physical tasks – after all, it’s hard to demonstrate on paper alone that you can measure, titrate, or use a plant key to evaluate whether a leaf is a sycamore or a tulip poplar.

My co-teaching partner and I ran learning stations in our connected classrooms and the students we served rotated through stations working together and individually on a variety of centers designed to provide different ways to process what they were learning. We thought we were pretty cool because we used a small film loop media station, listening centers, lab activities, and reading areas. One center might involve looking at blood circulation under a microscope in the tail of a goldfish wrapped in soft very wet cotton (for a very few seconds) while another could be a simple lab to extract chlorophyll from leaves. Sometimes, kids had to go somewhere in the building or outdoors to accomplish learning that involved observations and journal writing. Or, perhaps to count how many kids didn’t eat cooked carrots served on the cafeteria line and ask them and record why not.

There was method in our teaching madness and most of the time kids were doing active learning work while my partner and I circulated, sometimes running a demo or teacher-assisted mini-lab that had safety risks or going over important concepts with small groups of kids. Kids were often learning to apply math including early algebra and to read for meaning and write for understanding. Cross-curricular connections were considered important and grade level team meetings focused on how to make more of those happen.

Inquiry meant asking questions, making predictions, testing, experimenting, discussing, and reporting on what was learned. It wasn’t always easy to have kids land in the learning zone we had targeted but we tracked their progress as they tracked their own, recording progress, questions, and their notes in daily learning logs. We actually had time to talk with individual kids as we circulated, to see their excitement when they exhaled into a BTB solution and observed the beaker of liquid turn from blue to yellow. And, then to hear them ask why and begin to make suggestions to each other.

In those minutes of watching and observing learners, I saw kids in those days of inquiry learning who were curious, interested, engaged, and empowered – not about everything, or in every class, but kids just weren’t sitting motionless at desks in our classes in that school listening all the time to teachers, or filling out work sheets, or taking practice tests, or reading from textbooks. It’s not that those things didn’t happen but they weren’t the dominant form of work that kids did in our science classes. We also didn’t sort and select kids or group them for work or even assign seats since we expected them to be independent and interdependent as they accomplished work together and moved routinely around two rooms.

I didn’t master this kind of teaching alone my first year but with the help of three other partner teachers, all with experience and all who were NSF trained in teaching through science inquiry. However, within three years of working (with no planning period and lunch daily with a class of kids in my room due to severe overcapacity enrollment kind of like walking uphill to school in the snow), I felt far more confident in my capability to move kids to think, ask good questions, manipulate variables, solve for unknowns, use lab equipment appropriately, and to hold their own in discussions with each other.

These great kids who also helped teach me how to be a teacher are in their fifties today with grandchildren who are in or already graduated from high school. When I occasionally run into one of them, they remember the field trips, the active work they did, and even reference the content, sometimes with a question about something they had done. But the most satisfying, even poignant comment I’ve heard was from a for profit package delivery supervisor who I ran into at the grocery store one day, “We had fun in school, I wish my own kid had that kind of fun in school.”

Cale library.jpgWhen I walk away from my role as superintendent at the end of this school year for family reasons, I don’t expect to leave the profession behind in totality. I’ve never imagined that I could be happier doing anything other than being an educator – although some free time to garden, read on demand, and not spend so many evenings in night activities does have its curb appeal. However, I can’t imagine life without a first day of school or time in a library or classroom reading to children or helping out as an extra pair of hands in the cafeteria. I expect I’ll volunteer a bit.

I’ve spent time over this winter holiday taking stock of a career filled with life’s lessons. I have learned across decades from educators, parents, and children that relationships matter more than anything else in our learning communities. Our voices have the power to hurt or heal and when we focus on finding common ground to solutions, we are more likely to walk away from our time together seeing the strengths of others, not their deficits.

I’ve also learned that no matter what standards or lessons we are expected to teach, whether as in my first years of teaching with inquiry as the end in mind or in the more mass standardized model of today’s test-objectified classrooms, it’s often the unintended opportunities that become the most influential learning experiences our children will get because of us. That’s why when a teacher said to me a few years ago, “Pam, I get frustrated when kids want to stop and talk about what really caused the American Civil War and not just take down notes – and I feel compelled to reply that we don’t have time.”

The time to pause and explore big ideas through the questions and curiosities of kids may be the greatest loss to learning that resulted from the reform movement that began in the 1980s and continues still today. The data are in and our kids today are less creative and less critical in their thinking than they were decades ago. Some think entertainment technologies are to blame and, yes, kids have been pulled away from play and active experiences by devices. But, as an educator who has lived through decades of mass standardization of rote learning, I, along with these empirical researchers, have to put that at the top of the list because the reform accountability movement began long before smart devices became common in the hands of children.

My advice to the social studies teacher that day and to others with similar concerns, knowing that I bear a different level of responsibility for test scores as superintendent than a classroom teacher does, “Take the time. There’s more to educating kids for life than just passing a state test. Learning to question, discuss, debate, defend, and listen to others’ perspectives is worth it’s weight in gold long after kids have forgotten the starting date of the Battle of Gettysburg. And, no state multiple choice test is going to measure those critical thinking skill sets.”

Reductions in state testing in Virginia has occurred because parents, teachers, and politicians have realized that the over-emphasis on testing has removed much of life from learning in our schools.  There’s a renewed interest in learning that has a stickiness beyond the temporary effect of test-prepping for the multiple choice tests that have permeated the lives of our young millennial teachers when they were students in school. I hope this younger generation of educators rejects the quick test to learn model and invests in using practices that build deep learning; project-focus, inquiry, labs, case studies, seminar discussions, observation and journal writing and so much more that can be done today to help kids become researchers and owners of their own learning. With Internet access today, we can take kids so much farther than the primitive technologies of my first years of teaching did and as a resource tool it expands the repertoire of excellent teaching possibilities far beyond what I had available to me in my teaching years.

Finally, in my reflective wanderings over this break, I also find I hold firm to a belief that restoring slow time to the learning process can lead us to …

school as an inspiring space for learning that promotes curiosity, questions, interests, and passions about everything from humanities to STEM to arts to wellness to languages of all kinds and,

to helping kids learn what they want to learn not just what we want them to learn and,

to finding positive relationships grounded in the strengths of a diverse community and,

to facilitating and coaching kids to work and learn together rather than mostly in isolation of each other.

Perhaps if we do these things, we have a shot at hooking kids on learning for life, not just to pass tests.

Hawk Watching and Other Observations

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

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

vulture

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

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

Middle Schoolers Exploring an Estuary Circa 1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remembering the Child in the Back
A trip to the Beach

On Fence Designers and Citizen Thinkers**

Who are the learners today who learn in the moment because of their own interests or because they need to do so? The learners who don’t just learn on command when we want them to learn? Where are the citizen-thinkers who tinker to learn and who get their hands dirty, perhaps earning a callus or two along the way? Could the “culture” of creativity and innovation we so highly prize in America be an outcome of skills we developed within families and communities as we fought first to survive, then to subsist, and, finally, to expand from East to West? Is that culture still breathing? Are our schools on their own when it comes to educating America’s young people? Are we in what America’s top CEOs call a creativity crisis? Where are our fence designers today?


When I reflect upon the ingenuity of early colonists homesteading in the Blue Ridge, it’s pretty obvious to me that despite a lack of “school” education, these families depended upon deep creative and critical problem-solving capabilities. Sometimes I wonder if schools were ever a source of this nation’s creative genius or whether our creativity and passion for innovation emerged as a socio-cultural skill of survival that continued to be honed across generations until… today.

Perhaps our capacity for creative genius is being dismantled not just by the longstanding reductionist, industrialized, one-size-fits all schools we have inhabited for generations but also by our current capacity to acquire the resources to buy, service or replace on a whim. Or, maybe despite our urge to still repair or fix things around us, our creativity’s being defeated by technology advances that lock us out of problem-solving possibilities. I suspect it’s a combination of all of these. As the digital divide fades away, will the next divide be between those who can create and respond in the moment with innovative solutions and those who cannot? How important are concrete experiences to honing creative and critical thought?

It struck me as I chatted recently with a local plumber at work with his seventeen year-old son that his son was learning something that most of our children are not. They were working on an older neighborhood home with a mash-up of pipes carrying water inside and outside, from well to drain field. I watched this young man work with his father to problem-solve the size and length of pipe needed, how to find underground pipes they needed to locate, and where to drill through an unanticipated concrete, not cinder block, footing.

I simply listened and watched as the two of them worked together, sorting through a series of multi-step problems that involved spatial relations, mathematical-analytical, verbal-linguistic, and kinesthetic intelligence; with a healthy dose of deductive reasoning on both their parts. They didn’t use any computer-based technologies, but rather a few old-fashioned technologies that most of our kids today can’t name, let alone use: the pick-axe, the shovel, the measuring tape,the level, the square, and the pipe-wrench. Many today disdain these tools as beneath them, but I was struck in watching these two at work that perhaps the lack of these tools in our children’s lives is one reason we as a culture appear to be losing our creative edge.

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

I think about my visits to schools over the course of this school year. While I love seeing new learning technologies being used by young people, I also appreciated second graders measuring with unifix cubes and handmade rulers, middle schoolers playing stringed instruments, chemistry students in goggles analyzing mixtures in old-fashioned test tubes, and kindergarteners with hands covered in blue finger paint. I loved the imagery created by the first grade teacher in her rocking chair reading from a picture book with children gathered on the floor, second graders chasing each other in a healthy game of tag, and high schoolers outdoors at lunch hanging around picnic tables and lounging on the ground.

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Comfort, Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking

In reflection, what I most value is the level of activity and engagement everywhere I look in our schools from fifth graders using iPod touches to race hallways in an in-school scavenger hunt to third graders dancing with their music teacher. Isn’t it this movement of thought processes that defines how we connect with our creative genius? When I see minds in action, not passively contained in rows, I believe that the intellectual juice of this nation can still power deep learning through the vast array of tools at our disposal, inside and out of the places we call schools.

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

These tools represent the dichotomy of our struggle to teach this techno-generation: how we capitalize upon using new technology learning tools while making sure our young people don’t lose the capability to use old technology tools as well. When we power up our young people with the “high-tech” learning tools we make available in our schools today, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we must still power up our young people with musical instruments, paintbrushes, Legos, beakers, bones, pulleys, picture books, woodworking tools, kitchen stoves, blocks and more.

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

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

Our youngest children need to have their hands on a variety of tools, but our eldest do as well. All of our children need time to socialize face to face, not just in text bytes. I want our young people to graduate with the skills to problem-solve how to fix a leaky faucet or rewire a lamp that stops functioning. I don’t want them to always feel compelled to search the Internet for an “Angie’s list” problem-solver for all their household conundrums.

I want them to…

  • wander parks, fields, forests and their own yards, taking time to not just glance past a Viceroy butterfly or mantis but also to ask questions and seek answers about that which they don’t know
  • be inspired by music from a range of genres and time periods – to grow up savoring the natural world and the arts
  • understand scientific concepts that underpin how things work, what things are, and systems that explain and support life
  • engage in passionate dialogue about the rights of humankind through informed perspectives based on deep knowledge of history, politics, religion, and culture
  • speak a second, and maybe even a third language, but especially to understand the language of mathematics and,
  • see themselves as poets, narrators, conversationalists, and consumers of literature

I guess what I am really looking for is a nation committed to creating a learning renaissance with an infusion of enlightenment thrown in to extend and challenge the thinking of young people who represent the future. And, yes, I’d also like to see our young people use technology to connect, communicate, and collaborate with the world; to draw upon the experts, their peers, and the breadth of resources that together make pathways to deep learning universally accessible to all of our young people.

We now have the capability to turn on a faucet of learning opportunities unlike anything in the history of humankind. But, shouldn’t we make sure our kids don’t lose the capability to problem-solve as the best of plumbers and fence designers do while also learning to produce and create in the clouds?

** I first wrote and published this at Edurati Review.