Stop Scaring Teachers with Students’ Inconceivable Futures


It’s back-to-school season, so there’s a strong chance you’re reading or writing posts from people getting you jazzed about the work ahead in the 2016-17 school year. Maybe you’re attending a back-to-school kickoff or orientation or induction or whatever fills out your buzzword bingo card. If you’re doing any of the above, someone is likely to remind you of the impossible task before today’s educators – Preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

Well, that’s terrifying. It’s terrifying for students, and it’s terrifying for teachers.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Zac? You know what, don’t even answer, because that job will be done by a robot and whatever job you will be able to get is beyond comprehension.” Maybe that’s a stretch, but you get my point.

Instead, I’ve got two points to fight the IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE blues:

  1. This isn’t our first rodeo. Before the Industrial Revolution, we couldn’t quite conceive of the jobs for which we were preparing students. Before the computer revolution, who knew we’d need to figure out GUI programming? Before globalization and the Space Race and the Internet and so many other societal seismic shifts, those in teaching roles could not fully conceptualize the jobs for which they were preparing students. And while that system had many inefficiencies for preparing the students in our care, it always will. The future moves fast, and it’s a big world. All we can do is our best and keep learning. So, when you hear someone say our job is to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, think to yourself, “It always has been.”
  2. The present is full of plenty of jobs that need doing. While I’m not necessarily talking about honest-to-goodness W-9 requiring and W-2 generating jobs, I am talking about the jobs any news program will remind you need attending to. Rather than throwing the dart of preparation at the invisible dartboard of future employment, let’s aim our schools and classrooms at the targets we have in front of us. Climate change is a thing we’re 99.5% is a real thing. What if we turned our science curriculums toward saving the glaciers, the coast lines, and the polar bears? Ask students who haven’t yet learned not to come up with creative solutions to turn their beautiful imaginations toward poverty, systemic racism, strengthening the republic, sustainable energy, and interconnected economic systems. And, then give them the resources, lessons, and teaching they need to start figuring things out rather than telling them, “The adults have this.” Because, we don’t.

While we may not have the codex on the jobs employers will be hiring for as our students leave our care, we have a pretty good line on the problems educated, informed, collaborative, thoughtful citizens will need to solve. And that’s what we’re working to create, right?

My Anger and My Fear

I am angry, and I am scared.

I forgot they were shooting at us. In the year since I was granted the right to marry whomever I want and the words, “It is so ordered” were tattooed on my heart, I let my guard down and forgot they were shooting at us. It had been nice living in a foolish state of ignorance about the fact strangers want me dead.

I am worried for the kids like me. In the towns small and large, there are queer kids who haven’t said anything to anyone about what they know makes them different, because, somehow, other people know and ridicule them for even a perceived difference. In too many schools, like mine, that ridicule and vitriol go unanswered by the very adults whose job it is to care for and protect these students. I worry for the kids like me who were maybe hopeful that life after school would be better, because they have seen the world will let things get much worse.

I am crushed by the almost immediate straight washing of the reporting and response to this massacre at a gay club. While it is no less saddening to see Republican congresspeople sidestepping any acknowledgement that members of the LGBTQ community were killed in Orlando, it’s not surprising. To see headlines remove the word “gay” in news reporting, though, hurt and surprised. It eased the road to, “We are all Orlando,” which hurt my heart in ways I can only imagine are similar to the hurt my friends of color feel every time someone proclaims, #AllLivesMatter.

I am stung by the fact that this overt act of homohatred also illuminated the institutionalized policies of homophobia that prevented so many survivors, friends, and family of those injured in the attack from donating blood. Compounded by the fact these arcane rules were born out of a health crisis representing one of the most horrible failures of a government to protect its citizens.

All of this is to say keep your thoughts and prayers. Send your words and actions.

If, at some point you let a child or adult in your care say something derogatory about an LGBTQ person, you helped pave a path to queer-identifying kids believing they are less-than.

And then, when they saw someone actually shooting at them in a place that has, throughout history been a symbol of safety and togetherness, they put two and two together and realized the danger they felt in your classroom was much bigger in the wider world.

You may say “We are all Orlando,” but that’s not all we are.
We are the ugly tacit approval of everything that led to the killing of 49 members of my community being shot at a gay club in Orlando last weekend.

Don’t think and pray. Do and say.

That is what I’m feeling.

Citizen-Focused Schools


Someone today acknowledged the fact that an audience of folks had likely heard many keynote presentations over the last decade or so warning, proclaiming, and evangelizing on the need to change schools to better meet the shifting demands of the modern workforce. This was a lead in to the question of what the assembled educators should do about it and what they might ask employers to help them focus the work of school.

For my money, it’s all the wrong question. As much as I want every student I’ve ever known to find gainful, satisfying employment, shooting for a successful workforce aims below the best possibility of what American schools can be.

In an election season jacked up on discourse and discord, we see the highlights of how worker-focused schools are set to fail our country if they do not become citizen-focused schools.

Workers who know how to collaborate, innovate, adapt, and design are still less powerful than citizens who know how to organize, advocate, and investigate.

Rather than asking employers what schools can do to produce students to fit their needs, we should be speaking to politicians, public servants, and civic leaders asking what it takes to get their attention, what effective advocacy looks like, and what problems are on the horizon for communities and cities that our students will need to be ready to tackle.

Chasing jobs that don’t yet exist and may only exist for a moment is a fool’s errand not worthy of our children. Learning how to craft a society that realizes the best ideals of our democracy, our republic, and our grand experiment is not only a worthy goal, but a necessary one as well.

From Theory to Practice:

  • As you wrap up your school year or plan for the start of next year, make citizenship and the kinds of citizens your school community is working to create a central conversation. Keep in mind this is a conversation for all subject areas, not just social studies. Citizen scientists, public health, and a mathematically literate public are just as important as those who volunteer and show up at the polls.
  • Invite civic leaders in to build out the conversation. Ask anyone from the city manager to the mayor to local congressional leaders to come speak across classes on where any given subject area intersects with their work.
  • Think about the civic centers your schools can become. Host candidate forums. Ask leaders to come in and participate in town halls. Keep voter registration forms on the counter of your office and linked on your homepage. Make participatory citizenship part of the DNA of learning and teaching.

1 New Lesson on Caring Teachers

From the minute the bearded man in the black suit and ponytail took the stage, all eyes of the choir were on him. He was the conductor, so that’s to be expected. What’s to be hoped for, but not always expected is the change in students’ eyes and smiles in the brief seconds as he prepared them to begin their two pieces.

Last night, at a school spring music concert here in the Czech Republic, I admit to being unaware of where we were in the program at least 70% of the time. I clapped when we all clapped, I chuckled when we all chuckled. Otherwise, I was going through the motions.

That was what struck me about the change in these young singers when their teacher took the stage. The look they gave him and the overall shift in composure when he was interacting with them signaled that this is a good teacher.

I’ve worked with teachers and students all over the world, and it’s never struck me as clearly as it did last night that the look I saw was universal. More finely put, it was a visual manifestation of a caring relation in action. When thinking about the ethic of care in the past, my focus has been turned to the one caring and the cared for. I’m worried about whether those I care for recognize it as care. I’m not ever concerned with what it looks like on the outside.

I realized last night night, when people are engaged in a caring relation, those on the outside can see it. It draws us in. I don’t play an instrument, and it’s been more than a decade since I tried to sing anything other than along with whatever music is streaming on my computer. Still, I wanted to be in this teacher’s class. I wanted him to teach my one-day children. If I were leading a school, I’d have considered slipping him my card.

Yes he knew his content and how to help students access it. Each piece in the concert evidenced this. But, only when I saw him interact with the students was I able to say, “This is a good teacher.”

Now I’m thinking back to demo lessons and interviews. Was content and technical proficiency really what mattered in selecting new faculty members? Partially, yes. A math teacher who’s no good with numbers and great with kids doesn’t sound like a good hire. A candidate who is proficient and great with kids, though, this strikes me as someone to be considered more closely.

I’ve always thought demo lessons a strange activity. When considering an entire group of students’ learning, watching a stranger teach them for 15 minutes isn’t going to give me much on their overall approach or effectiveness. Those teachers who end that 15 minutes and no longer feel like strangers to that classroom — those are the ones to keep around.

Friends who argue with me time and again when I attack their data-driven instruction as anti-humanist are equally flummoxed by me when I hold to the claim that you “just know” a good teacher when you see them. For our next bout, though, I’ll have a new line of reasoning ready. It turns on the old axiom, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I know a good teacher because, like the conductor last night, the caring is clear in their teaching.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Whether in formal evaluative observations or when peers sit in on a class, ask for feedback on where visitors saw evidence of the ethic of care in action and how they came to that conclusion.
  • When checking references on a potential new hire, ask “And how did you know they cared for students?” It’s likely to throw the conversation in a different direction. Good, it’s about time.
  • At the end of a project or unit of study, ask students to reflect on where they saw evidence of your caring for them. Be prepared for some tough love from students you have a difficult time reaching and those you think you’ve got a great connection with. Most importantly, be open to that feedback and considering how you might shift your practice in the future.

Nihil Sub Sole Novum


60: How should we teach remixing, sampling, and forking (coding) to children? #LifeWideLearning16@MrChase

— Ben Wilkoff (@bhwilkoff) February 28, 2016

nihil sub sole novum

One of the best questions we can ask our students is simply, “What makes you think that?” This is akin to the question my grandmother will ask me from time to time. With a sly look in her eye (usually when I’ve accused her of something), she’ll reply, “Whatever gave you that idea?”

Pick whichever phrasing you like, but the soul of these questions is all we really need to help students understand the importance of interconnectedness in a remix, reuse culture. It took me a while to get used to thinking about the issue through this lens when I was doing the unforgiving work of teaching my students to cite their sources in more formal writing or as an editor working with novice journalists on their first stories.

Get close to any creative work about which you’re passionate and all the ideas and can begin to feel as though they are yours or that they are so clearly general knowledge that it would be foolish to explain. For this reason, when I finish a piece of writing or some other act of creation, I’ll step away for a bit and return to ask the question of each sentence, “Whatever gave me that idea?”

When the answer isn’t that the idea came from new contribution I brought to the ideas, it’s time for me to shout out my sources.

When Chris and I were finally wrapping up the book, this was certainly the case. We’ve both been writing and speaking about the ideas in each thesis for many years. Knowing we were about to put them out into the world in something as formal as a book, though, meant looking closely at each piece of our rhetorical architecture and asking, “Where do we need to point out the shoulders upon which we stand?”

It’s a bit strange to be typing these words. When it comes to fair use and open content, I’m likely as close to the liberal side of the spectrum as you’re likely to see. If you’ve used the work of another person and made that work more useful or uniquely different from its source, to my mind you now own at least a portion of that original work or idea.

At the same time, I know what it’s like to see something I’ve created travel through the world without ever pointing back to me as its source. It’s not a great feeling. While the Fair Use Doctrine has always felt quite formal and legalistic to me, it becomes much more personal when I see someone else get credit for my work and can only think, “Hey, that’s not fair.”

And this is the best way I can think of helping our students think about remixing, sampling, and coding in whatever the medium. If the answer to “What makes you think that?” lies somewhere in the work of others, it’s likely best to acknowledge that somewhere in your notes.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Have students think about the thing they’ve done of which they were the proudest. It could be a project completed for school, a winning shot in a game, or a supremely executed artistic performance. Then, ask them what it would feel like if all of a sudden, someone else – a stranger – was not only taking all the credit for the accomplishment, but the world was acting as though this was the truth. Rooting the conversation of giving credit where it’s due in a personal experience, can go miles to grounding the conversation.
  • Take students, faculty, administrators through the I used to think…, Now I think… activity to compare what has changed in their thinking as they move through assignments. Good questions here help people to consider how their outlooks have shifted over the course of creation of “new” ideas and artifacts of learning.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Building Self-Sustaining Communities

Sustainable Rays

How do you start a community that is self-sustaining?

Start with a problem. Always start with a problem. Any community that’s been worth its while has started around a problem that was either already directly shared by its members or had the potential to spread to all of its members.

Some communities start with a solution. They rally around an idea that says, “Would it be neat if…” It likely would, and so others rally to the cause. Soon, a bunch of people are collected around this solution, and they realize they need a problem to solve. These are solutions in search of a problem and the issue they raise is that everything looks like it’s ripe for the solution. For further reading, see any example of colonialism from history.

Instead, start with a problem and gather up everyone you possibly can to help you solve that problem. It won’t be difficult. People living in the presence of a problem are usually interested in finding solutions to that problem.

Then, and this is key, imagine the problem is solvable while at the same time acknowledging you have no idea what its solution will look like. If you knew what the solution looked like, it wouldn’t be a problem or you’d be obstinate. (Note: Consider both of these possibilities as being on the table.)

Once you’ve found your problem, you’ve imagined it as solvable, and you’ve eliminated pre-conceived solutions; it’s time for you and your community to get to work. A community dedicated to building a solution to a shared problem will sustain itself.

Here’s what such a self-sustaining community will not do.

It will not always be composed of the same individuals. People get worn out. They become interested in other problems. They discover limits to their curiosity. They move one. That’s okay. People leaving doesn’t mean your problem isn’t worth solving, it means the people who are still there are the right people.

It will not always sustain. Sometimes, people conflate the idea of sustainable with the ideas of eternal or infinite. They aren’t the same thing. While it’s possible that a self-sustaining community might be or become infinite or eternal, I’ve not yet seen such an example. Again, that’s okay. Communities dedicated to existing for the sake of their own existence have shifted away from whatever problem they were trying to solve and have, instead, taken mortality as their problem. Things should end. This makes way for new beginnings.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

The Sweet Dangers of Setting Vision


As much as I love to cook, one ingredient fills me with a sense of foreboding. In cakes and cookies, sugar is easy enough to handle. Whisk it with soft butter and the crystals puncture the fat cells, giving you the rich creaminess that’s going to glom on to everything else in your batter. In its resting state, sugar is attractive to everything in the bowl. Who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness.

It’s when working with sugar specifically, in confectionary work, that the stakes are raised. Temperatures become precisely important. Depending on what you are trying to make – a taffy for instance – you’re going to need to watch the sugar closely. While the end result will be delicious, in the process of cooking with sugar, touching it will blister the skin. Once sugar has moved to a liquid state, too much is in flux to be able to take hold of it. You’ve got to wait until it’s found its final form to grasp it.

So too is it with vision. In its solid state, everyone can take a piece of vision. It can be a part of everything an organization does. Again, who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness. Vision that’s been set somewhere off-site or prior to a team’s formation seems easy enough to handle.

When vision needs to be something more, when an organization needs to head a different direction, that’s when it can become too hot to hold for some members of a team. While they were fine to pass around the standard refined message of the organization, they may not have the tools, the patience, or the know how for transforming a pretty standard statement of vision into something in flux and then returning it to a solid state.

Maybe you’ve been in meetings with these folks. You’re talking about the new vision for a school or a interdisciplinary team, maybe it’s a cross-classroom unit plan. Whatever the stakes, you’re likely to find one or two people who tap out. They’re fine to support whatever vision is crafted by the rest of the team, just let them know when you’re done.

Moving a vision from a solid, graspable statement to something in flux can create heat between colleagues and peers. While that heat and friction are exactly wha are needed to mold a new vision, they can and will become uncomfortable for some team members. Blisters will result in relationships, between offices, on teams; if care isn’t taken in how creation of this new vision is handled.

Similarly, you won’t know if you’ve crafted the vision you were setting out to create until it cools and sets to a point where you can put that vision to practice. Many batches of candies have ended up in the garbage after hours of work because I’d rather throw them out than eat them or serve them to others.

This is exactly what any vision-setting team must be prepared to do. A vision that doesn’t serve the organization, that is a mismatch for the passion of its people, is a vision that should be tossed. Even if you need to throw it out, I can attest to the fact you’ll have learned enough from the process to move you closer to success in the next batch.

From Theory to Practice:

  • When starting the process to refine or redefine the vision for your organization, identify a coalition of the willing. This doesn’t have to be limited to folks who think it’s time for the vision to change, in fact it shouldn’t. Make sure you ask people who like the vision just fine the way it is to come on board. Having the loyal opposition as part of the process will help to make sure you’re building something everyone can own.
  • Make sure you get it where you want to go. Sometimes, when working with sugar, it can be tempting to ignore the temperature and say, “This hot is good enough.” In the end, it won’t be. Ending the vision-setting process prematurely can mean you’ve got a vision that won’t hold together or will be too brittle to stand up to external pressures. It can be tempting to stop the process when you want it to be done. Stick with it until you’re entire team is sure.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

When Collaboration isn’t the Skill You Need

Google Docs new sharing feature

I’ve enjoyed these of these posts. Aside from that damned tree question, each question you’ve posted on Twitter has been one I’ve met with curiosity and an element of joy unique to the experience. These posts are a kind of writing I’ve not gotten to do for years, and certainly have an audience much different from my day gig.

It is collaboration moving apace with some of the best of what’s possible. Each morning twitter lets me know you’ve posed the day’s question, and I know my question to you has been sent along the string connecting our technological tin cans. From there, I add it to my queue of questions to be answered. For a few, I’ve pulled them into the physical world, explained our setup and asked what other folks would say. Usually when I’ve done this, it’s a combination of wanting to know what others think, and hoping they could help me jumpstart my own thinking when my answer isn’t apparent.

For the more confounding questions you’ve posed, I’ve pulled you aside in online chats to see exactly what you meant. My favorite response you’ve given thus far, by the way, has been, “You know these questions are open to interpretation, right?”

Again, collaboration working at its potential.

Sometimes, though, collaboration isn’t what’s necessary. Sometimes, what’s necessary is a solitary, thoughtful effort that asks a person to turn inward on herself or on a problem to be considered.

Sometimes, collaboration is a bad idea.

I don’t have a list of these situations. I don’t even have a list of attributes to help you determine where collaboration is called for and where it should be avoided. Instead, I have three other big picture concepts that should be the part of all learning experiences – choice, context, and openness.

Choice in collaborating or not comes down to the task for me. If you ask me to draft a piece of writing, my response is likely going to be to pull up a new doc, throw on my headphones, and ignore the world until I’m done. At that point, I’ll show you my first effort. Until then, for me, writing is a collaboration-free task. Ask me to solve a complex statistical problem, though, and it’s all hands on deck. Not only will I want you to collaborate with me, I’ll need it.

Collaboration is right in some contexts, and not in others. If I’m writing a blog post, it’s going to be a solitary task as mentioned above. The editing is going to stay solitary as well. If I’m writing something for larger distribution (say, a book), my editing and revising process is going to draw in as many voices as make sense for the audience of the text. Similarly, if the effort is to be representative of an organization or system beyond me, again, context points to collaboration.

Openness means several things. It has to do with my openness to the ideas of others as I work my way through a problem. Sometimes, I don’t want to hear your ideas, even if they’re better that mine. It also has to do with how open I want to be with my process. Sometimes, writing is ugly. Sometimes building a unit plan means I need to let things sit until the last minute. As it is, I have a project of import for the day gig. I haven’t yet fully collaborated with anyone because the ideas I’m working with are still in my head. I’ve erased the white board of my mind several times over the last few weeks because I need to be the sole owner of the ideas for now. Eventually, collaboration will be called for and I’ll invite others in to the process to pull things apart. For now, though, the work is solitary.

I love collaborating. I love the thrill that comes from building something that reflects the perspectives of many minds. I also have an abiding love for working alone.

From Theory to Practice:

  • When designing tasks for your students, ask if they need to be collaborative, solitary, or either. Sometimes, the social-emotional learning comes from being able to rightly decide whether you want and need to work alone or as part of a team.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Music I’m Supposed to be Ashamed Of

Cassette Tape

I understand that the question is about cassettes. Where that specific medium is concerned, I didn’t wear any out other than in recording and re-recording improvised “radio shows” I’d make as a kid. Instead, listed below are those albums I listened to more than I should have, but just as much as I needed.

I was never good at understanding what was cool. Some of that probably stems from growing up in a family ripe with musicians of all ilks. Add to that experiences like my grandmother never telling 10-year-old me that my peers likely weren’t singing along with Neil Diamond cassettes in their family cars, and you’ve got a perfect storm of eclectic, peer-chided musical tastes. Enter, Matchbox Twenty’s Mad Season. Released in 2000 when I was “going through some things,” Mad Season was both the album I needed and the album I deserved. Each song could be counted on to hit some emotional cord my mid-adolescent self needed to experience through music. I listened to “Bed of Lies” as though it might have led to full-time employment. The whole album was my jam. This is why, after a year, I needed to buy another copy of the CD. As it turns out, you can listen to a CD too much. Mine was scratched and tired. Still, I’ll hit up Mad Season every once in a while to remember who I was and what I was feeling at the turn of the century.

I’ve never really known what I should and shouldn’t like. When it came to hanging out at my grandparents, I was always keen to flip through their record collection. It was where I learned about Mel Tormé, brass bands, and Peter and the Commissar. If you’ve heard, “Hello, Muddah”, then you know the wordplay joy of this album capturing a live performance of Allan Sherman, Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. I’m sure I didn’t get the political overtones of Sherman’s text, but the music and intelligence of the words shown through to my little-kid self. Anyone interested in understanding my sense of humor should probably listen to this album (both sides) to get a handle on what you’re in for.

I’ve owned two copies of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell CD. The first was never opened or listened to. While not triggering Tipper Gore’s parental advisory standards, this album was reported to my mother by work colleagues as containing swearing. She decided it hadn’t been the appropriate inclusion in my Easter basket. A similar decision would be reached the next year for Green Day’s Dookie. As a result, she asked for it back. I obliged. As soon as I was old enough to drive to the mall and had the money, I bought Meatloaf’s second opus. To this day, I love every song on that album. If you need me to, I will come and sing them to you.

Last week was a big week for my childhood. Netflix began streaming all 99 Animaniacs episodes. For almost the entirety of the show’s run on afternoon TV, my friend Travis and would call each other and conduct a telephone version of what today would likely be an award-winning post mortem podcast. When the first and second cassettes of Animaniacs songs hit shelves, I was there. I was there and I was singing along. To this day, my aunt and uncle remember (differently) my insistence on listening to one of the tapes when I went to visit them in Nashville.

In few places in my life am I cliché. In one recording, I fully embrace that cliché, Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album. It was my mom’s vinyl copy that I first “borrowed” into my record collection when I was 7. With the door to my bedroom closed, I would pump up the volume on my suitcase record player and belt out these Broadway classics without any sense of irony. When I bought the album on CD (around the same time I was making up for the Meatloaf mishap) I still had no appreciation for the irony. It wasn’t until college when I downloaded the digital version of the album that I recognized the stereotype I was furthering. At that point, it didn’t matter. The record had been in my life more than 11 years, and all I knew was that listening to it allowed me to tap in to something I hadn’t had words for the first time I heard it.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

In Defense(ish) of Lectures

Lecture Hall

If I’d been smart, I would have started an archive when I started prepping to be a teacher. It would document each of the teaching practices to come en vogue during my career and the approximate date when each became the villain in the stories we tell young teachers about learning and teaching.

The tool/practice with the most checkered past is the lecture.

Everything in my undergraduate preparation was a warning (direct or tacit) against the lecture. Workshops were the state of the art. Like the NCAA organizing a bracketed tournament, we were to match students with each other, have them pass their work around and then comment, defense, revise, edit, repeat. But, no lectures. The students wouldn’t learn from whatever ramblings we threw at their ears we were told.

The cognitive dissonance came as I considered the lectures I enjoyed in other courses I was taking. Pre-eminent scholars in their fields who knew how to craft stories of Hemingway, the history of the English language, remedial chemistry were regularly holding my rapt attention, while I was being told not only were they doing it wrong, but that I wasn’t likely learning form them.

It hurt my brain.

Things only got worse as I entered the classroom and the Internet made it possible to spread, embed, and mobilize lectures. Kahn, TED, and classroom flippers were putting bows on exactly the tools I was told and had come to believe were antithetical to learning. Teachers were spending time recording their lectures and telling students they were worth taking time at home to watch. Universities were making lectures freely available for anyone outside their admissions shield to learn from top professors. And big thinkers were taking to standing on a big red dot to inspire through nothing more than lecture.

Meanwhile, I was refining what it meant to operationalize a constructivist, constructionist pedagogy in an English classroom. I’d started identifying myself as a teacher whose pedagogy was inquiry-driven and project-based. This all stood opposed to the lecuturephilia I was hearing and reading about.

Except it didn’t. Because, even inside my classroom where students were asking questions that drove there creation of myriad projects, I was still lecturing from time to time. When I wanted to introduce the ideas of literary theory and literary analysis to a class of juniors, it was through a lecture that I modeled a close feminist reading of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance“.

I did it, and I didn’t feel badly about it because it was the right tool for the moment. And, it only lasted a moment. I lectured through a narrative that helped to construct a framework of understanding of literary analysis and then told a story that exemplified putting that framework to use. After that and some discussion, I put the work in the students’ hands. I never again lectured on the topic. Instead, I gave mini practice sessions, prodded students to ask each other (and the internet) for help, and then asked them to do something similar to what I had done with my model text. (They may even have workshopped.)

This is the place of the lecture. With a few exceptions, it’s the place of most every practice, theory, and tool that’ve made their way into popular edu-parlance. As trope-ish as it may be, each of these pieces is a tool in a toolbox of teaching. The key will always be determining when telling a story is the most appropriate tool or letting students write their own stories of experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Keep a running list of the tools in your own teacher toolbox along with your own current thinking on the affordances and limitations of each tool.
  • Seek feedback from peers and students on your plans for teaching with a given tool before you put it into practice. Many times students are the best voices to tell you when an exemplifying lecture might be more helpful than throwing them into the deep end and asking them to swim.
  • Watch masters. No matter how good I ever felt about a well-deployed lecture, I could always learn something by walking next door or across the hall to watch a colleague. Oftentimes, my learning was best when watching teachers of another subject area where my expertise was limited.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.