What if we learned about our students differently?

When I started teaching at SLA, there was a standing assignment for 9th grade students. It had begun with the inaugural class and had continued into the second year when I picked up my teaching load. Me Magazineswere a way for students in their English classes to get to know and share about one another as they started a new year in a new school. As SLA draws from myriad middle schools around Philadelphia, it made sense for this new cohort to have a chance to share and get to know one another.

I don’t share this with any illusions that Me Magazines were avant garde or broke any molds of creativity. I’ve been around enough to know the Me Magazine was of a family of activities teachers ask of their students at the start of the school year. There’s the Where I’m From poem, the I Am poem and any number of derivations. Instead, I’m sharing about Me Magazines because I wish I hadn’t assigned them.

They started my year off on the wrong foot. It was in that gray area that looks like augmented student agency. It tiptoes around authenticity. “The students are writing about themselves, their lives, and their experiences,” you might say, “How is that not agency and authenticity?”

Well, for one, their doing it in a way that says, “This is how you share about yourself in this space. I want you to talk about yourself and consider where you’re from, but I want you to do it in the way I tell you to.” While the content may be specific to the student, such assignments are often a more creative version of telling students they need to make a PowerPoint presentation and it needs to have N slides with X on Slide Y, etc.

To redesign the assignment, my question is always to return to the purpose of the task and experience. What, at its core, are we attempting to do when we assign these get-to-know-you openers to the school year?

  1. We, as teachers, want to know who these fresh faces are and how they talk about themselves.
  2. We want to students to have a forum to share pieces of their histories with their peers.
  3. We want to see what they can do as a baseline in writing when give familiar content.
  4. We want to create a sense that this space is one where it is safe to share.
  5. We want to position the class as one where agency, voice, and authenticity matter.

So, let’s take a turn at opening up the assignment so that we are adding structure to the experience, but not necessarily the final product.

  1. Instead of building in your questions for content, open up the assignment for students to share the aspects of classmates they think it’s important to know and share. Compile a brainstormed list as a class and then give students (maybe in groups) a chance to elect one question to priority status, so it’s built into the assignment. This is also an opportunity to work on building consensus.
  2. Open the format of the presentation of learning to student choice. “What’s the best way for you to share who you are with this class?” This not only opens up student agency and choice, but it will help you see whom among your students decides to perform and who decides to build or code.
  3. Explain your purpose as a teacher. The learning shouldn’t be a secret. Yes, you’ll open it up to students’ chosen presentation formats, and you’re looking for some specific understandings as well. If this is an assignment that is meant to help you understand students as writers, then tell perhaps whatever they design must include a written component. Or, if you want to keep the thrust of things open, say the one thing you’re going to require is a reflective piece of writing explaining why they made the choices they did and how they think those choices affected the outcome.
  4. Have options at the ready. As was the case in my classroom, you’re going to have students who are overwhelmed by choice. Have pathways at the ready to help these students work through selecting the right format for them. This is where you might drop in Diana’s speed learning activity. You might pair students who are stuck with parents who immediately stand out as wealths of ideas. And, in the rare moments all this doesn’t help, you’ve got those formats mentioned above at the ready to be modified to fit whatever the class has decided is important.

Making these tweaks to the traditional assignment moves us closer to our goals for the experience while also adding in elements of collaboration, student inquiry, and making the classroom a more transparent place.


Cross-posted on Medium.

Why We Don’t Ask if We’re a Learning Organization

You may be a learner, you may use a learning device. Does that matter if you’re not part of a learning organization?

My guess is no.

Today, I participated in Ben Wilkoff’s session at Future Ready: A Technovation Institute. The conversation was geared around some deeper thinking of what we mean and imply when we invoke the “1:1” ration in talking about learners and devices.

Midway through, Ben asked us to think about what is needed to support learners in tech-rich environments and what is needed to support devices as tools for deeper learning in those environments.

My answer kept coming back to the place where my thinking’s been living these last few weeks – learning organizations. Being a part of such an organization is necessary for both learners and devices to move beyond the shiny of new tech in learning.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Sure, classrooms, schools, and districts purport to be learning organizations in that they are organizations designed to facilitate the learning of those in their charge or care – namely, students. And, yes, this is a good goal. It is certainly better than being teaching organizations or education organizations. To hit lightly on being a learning organization is to at least imply that your goal is the learning of those within your system.

What I’d posit is necessary for the ongoing support of learners and the view of technology as tools for learning is that the classroom, school, or district is, itself, a learning organization. Better phrased, is any of these an organization that learns? Dice that apart. A school that is comprised of teachers who are learners may find itself ahead of other schools where teachers don’t engage their curiosity or agency to satisfy that agency.

Such a school still cannot go as far if it does not attempt, as an institution to learn from its mistakes, to move forward as a whole, and to be better as a learning body. This is part of what Chris and I mean when we write “Be One School.”

To be a learning organization classrooms, schools, and districts – either by dictate or consensus – would identify a driving, commonly held curiosity and then move toward investigating that curiosity together.

Whenever I’ve had the chance to talk to the leadership of any organization of which I’ve been a part, I’ve asked one question, “What are the three things you hope we’re working toward this year?” For whatever reason, I’ve yet to pose that question to a leader and get a coherent answer. Maybe they don’t know, maybe they’re being politic, or maybe they’re resistant to make their own goals the goals of all.

Imagine, though, what could happen if a superintendent, principal, or teacher engaged in a process of identifying those wicked problems to be investigated throughout the year. Shared ownership of these problems and shared learning toward their solutions would be a powerfully unifying experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • If your organization has a leadership team or committee, pull them together and ask what big issues they would like to grapple with in the coming year. Make updates on learning a standing item on each meeting agenda.
  • In the classroom, select the big buckets of learning (usually disciplines) and have students work through their big questions for each bucket. Keep track of answers and new questions as the year progresses.
  • If you’re at the very beginning of this work and need to build cohesion, build a simple question into your formal conversations, “What is something you’re trying to figure out right now?” Keep track of the answers you get and see how you might be able to use common threads to plan events, learning sessions, and communications toward common cause.

When there’s nothing left to say, start doing

Hands Shaping Clay

Today, I’m spending the day with educators in Cedar Rapids, IA – as you do. The morning will be dedicated to facilitating a workshop for superintendents from around the region. During the intro call with the folks who asked me to come out, I got a list of others who have come out in the months before me to offer and plan a similar workshop. Some of the names I knew, some I’m eager to read about. All of them made me wonder what I have to offer this room after the collective wisdom they’ve garnered from previous speakers.

I hammered away for a while before I realized all I need is a question.

What are you going to do now?

Think back to the keynotes and workshops you’ve been a part of – from the front or the back. Chances are they focused on vomiting new ideas, fancy new toys – the shiny, the new. It’s all well and good because these kinds of things are generally one-off experiences. The good folks of Cedar Rapids have contracted me to work with them for a day, not a year.

So, I’m going light on the new and the shiny. Instead, I’m asking a few simple questions:

  1. What have others said before me that stuck with you?
  2. What would it look like if you took the best pieces of each of those messages, envisioned them working together in your district, and worked to engineer a cultural shift in learning and teaching?
  3. What questions does this bring up for you?
  4. What are you going to do about it?

Throughout, I’ve thrown in several pieces of “Might it look like this…What about this?” to stoke the fires of their thinking and their curiosity.

In the end, though, once they’ve got a good vision, I’ll be asking them to build something. It might be a presentation for their teachers. It could be a workshop similar to ours. It could be a yearlong project to re-define learning in their schools.

Either way, I’m building our time together around the idea we’ve got all the information we need. Now, we must take the space and time to do something with it.

Take 5 Minutes for Civil Rights Today

You may have seen the following in your social media feeds:

ACTION ALERT: Through the Federal Register, the U.S. Dept. of Education is receiving comments on why it’s important to preserve and expand the Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection. The Obama Administration published this request for comments on December 30, 2016 and it is essential that we flood Secretary DeVos with comments that explain why this data collection is essential for enforcing civil rights statutes and helping to protect all students. 
 
Comments are due on Tuesday, February 28. Please click HERE to comment.
 
All you have to say is: “The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) provides much-needed transparency and information on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools. This data helps the U.S. Department of Education achieve its mission of ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for all students. Secretary DeVos must preserve, expand, and publicly share the results of the CRDC.”
 
Copy and paste on Facebook, but do not share.
This is a real thing.
Here’s some background:
The CRDC collects a variety of information including student enrollment and educational programs and services, most of which is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, sex, limited English proficiency, and disability. The CRDC is a longstanding and important aspect of the ED Office for Civil Rights (OCR) overall strategy for administering and enforcing the civil rights statutes for which it is responsible. Information collected by the CRDC is also used by other ED offices as well as policymakers and researchers outside of ED.
These data range from enrollment numbers to math course offerings to instances of reported bullying. And, for the first time ever, OCR is including school internet access as a  component of healthy civil rights:
2. Access to Internet While many school districts have used the internet to enhance educational opportunities, there have been concerns that schools and school districts do not have equitable access to high-speed internet. This equity concern occurs at both among and within school districts. For the 2017–18 CRDC, OCR is proposing to collect new information regarding internet access:  Amount of school bandwidth in Megabit per second [see Attachment A-2, page 69 (Data Group 1014)] Do many school districts already collect (or could they easily obtain) school bandwidth data that would allow OCR to determine the existence and scope of any such access disparity? Are there other data about connectivity that OCR should consider collecting to gauge access disparity?
The comments you make, published to the Federal Register, require agency staff to respond to the significant issues raised in comments:

How can I use the Federal Register to affect Federal rulemaking?

Federal agencies are required to publish notices of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register to enable citizens to participate in the decision making process of the Government. This notice and comment procedure is simple.

  1. A proposed rule published in the Federal Register notifies the public of a pending regulation.
  2. Any person or organization may comment on it directly, either in writing, or orally at a hearing. Many agencies also accept comments online or via e-mail. The comment period varies, but it usually is 30, 60, or 90 days. For each notice, the Federal Register gives detailed instructions on how, when, and where a viewpoint may be expressed. In addition, agencies must list the name and telephone number of a person to contact for further information.
  3. When agencies publish final regulations in the Federal Register, they must address the significant issues raised in comments and discuss any changes made in response to them. Agencies also may use the notice and comment process to stay in contact with constituents and to solicit their views on various policy and program issues.

If you are someone like me who cares deeply about civil rights, then please take the five minutes to tell the Department of ED why knowing who is in our schools and how they are treated is still important information for our country.

What are We Hiring For: 3 things to look for in potential faculty members

Interivewees in profile“Hire happy people.”

When asked what he looks for in potential new hires, this was the advice from John Kellam, Head of School for The Oakridge School in Arlington, TX.

Kellam and some other intelligent folks were participating in a panel discussion on hiring in modern schools at last week’s LLI Southwest conference, and his words have had me thinking for the last few days.

As we head into hiring season at schools across the country, what should we be looking for? While I’ve a much longer list in my head detailing what I think every teacher should bring to the classroom, for blogging brevity, let’s keep it to the top three more unusual asks.

  1. Hire learners. It’s one thing to say you are looking to hire great teachers. It’s another bag altogether to say you are building a team of teacher learners. By committing only to ask curious, folks who are driven to find answers alongside the children in their care to join your team, you’re committing to hire not only teachers, but role models of what it looks like to be a scientist in a science class, a writer in an English class, an anthropologist in a social studies class. Yes, capable teaching is necessary. Without the complementary identity of learner though, you’re hiring proficiency without empathy. Things to ask that might get you close to this goal:
    • How do you learn best?
    • What’s something you’re curious about?
    • When is the last time you learned something new?
    • How does who you are as a learner influence your teaching?
  2. Include students. At SLA no interview committee was convened without an equal student voice. Think about it this way, “Why would you exclude from the interview process those people who would be most directly impacted by a person’s hiring?” I can’t quite recall the adults on my interview panel, but I can remember Allison, Jordan, and Sam as clear as day. Not only did they help decide to invite me into the community, but their presence was a strong reason I accepted the invitation. Some prep work if you add students to your hiring process:
    • This is authentic learning, that means dedicating some time ahead of the interview to see what questions the students have and helping them understand key legal requirements of an interview in your district.
    • Avoid cherry picking. Sure, this teacher might have the student council president in her classes, but that’s not the only student who will be impacted by the hiring. Invite a broad swath of students to participate in the process.
  3. Play the whole game. In the same way classroom lessons are most effective when they have students participating in legitimate versions of the work of whatever discipline they’re learning about, our consideration of who we might ask to join our learning communities should ask them to participate fully in the work of the community. Stuart McCathie, Headmaster of Lusanne Collegiate School in Memphis, said on last week’s panel that he asks potential hires to spend the day with the faculty and students. “If they have as much energy at the end of the day as they did in the morning, then they’re a good candidate.” Ways of playing close-to-whole versions of the game:
    • Observe and discuss. Model lessons can give an idea of how candidates might structure learning experiences for students, but they’re not tremendously authentic. No one knows one another and the lessons are usually drop-in. Instead, sit with a candidate and observe the lesson of a teacher who would be a close hire. Afterward, debrief with the candidate and the teacher and listen for questions and comments that signal alignment to your school’s vision and values.
    • Break bread. Whether lunch, coffee, or drinks after school; ask a candidate to join you in an informal setting where food will be eaten. Every new person is a new piece of culture and identity for your school. Understanding how they will fit your puzzle in the classroom and out will help you understand if they are the people you want to learn alongside.

Making the Most of Essential Questions and Exit Tickets

tickets

Most any time I’m visiting a classroom, I’m having a conversation with the students I meet. The first few questions are pretty expected –  “What are you learning about?” and “What are you doing?”

The last two questions I routinely bring to the table working with students are less expected – “Why is that important?” and “What questions do you have?”

I know those last two are less expected because they are met with silence and stares from students – no matter the grade level. For me, it raises the questions of why are students are doing what they are doing and whether they have been asked to consider the deeper implications of a text. Whether it’s a third-grade student reading The Year of Miss Agnes or a ninth-grader wrestling with Regine’s Book, our expectation must be that students can consider key ideas, themes, styles, etc. outside of the pages of what they’re reading.

Much work has been done on the transfer of knowledge and skills, and there are certainly some thoughtful, complex projects students can embark upon to show those abilities. For the purposes of this post, though, I want to focus on two activities that can build students’ understandings of their learning and thinking while helping teachers understand areas of growth and need.

Essential Question journals can help students track their thinking about essential questions within lessons or units of study. For each of the curriculum modules within our elementary curriculum resources, for instance, students are asked to consider essential questions as they read, write, and speak their way through complex texts. Journaling around those essential questions can be easy.

  • Make routine time (5-10 min) once or twice each week for students to journal their answers to the essential questions within a unit of study. As they journal, have them consider what they wrote in their previous entries and focus on what they know or understand now that they didn’t before. Ask students to share/compare their journals with their peers and then engage in whole-class conversations about reading and writing.

Standing exit tickets help your students focus on a stationary target for thinking about their learning while giving you some quick formative information on what they think they are learning and wondering.

  • Have students fill out slips of paper with their names on them at the end of each class or lesson. Have them respond to the same prompts each time – “What can you do now that you couldn’t do at the beginning of class?” and “What is one question you have as a result of your learning?” If technology is available, have students respond via a google form. Imagine being able to conference with students with not only numbers and summative assessment results, but a portfolio of their own statements of learning and inquiry as well.

Not matter their age, all learners improve their abilities and skills if they have consistent, dedicated time to reflect on their learning. By including time to journal on essential questions and checking in at the end of a class, we make that time for our learners and provide ourselves with new windows into how we can alter our instructional practice to meet students’ needs.


Previously published on the professional blog.

How Do We Begin to Create a Culture of Reading and Writing?

Boy reading book on the floor of a book store.“Do me a favor,” I say, “and close your eyes. I’m going to ask you to visualize something. If I told you you’re visiting a school with a healthy culture of reading and writing, I want to you visit it in your imagination. Start with the lobby or entryway. Notice everything you see and hear as you walk through.”

The exercise goes on for about thirty seconds. I ask the assembled room of teachers to walk the halls, look in on classrooms, listen in on the conversations in common spaces and between the folks they pass in hallways.

I ask them to pay attention to the adults and to the students equally. “Everyone is responsible for creating and sustaining culture, so make sure to observe and listen in on everyone.”

When each teacher has finished their tour, it’s tie to write. “Take five minutes and put it all out in writing. Capture as much of the detail as possible. If you draw a blank, keep writing, ‘and, and, and, and,’ until your brain fills in the holes. Trust that it will.” And, the room takes five minutes to write.

Next, I ask them to share with someone else in the room, not reading the writing verbatim, but distilling to key ideas. I limit the time to talk because conversations at this point are fully-fed and reproducing like tribbles.

The final step, jumping into a shared and open google doc where they answer one question as many times as they can, “What would it take to create the kind of culture you envisioned in your school?”

Again, the activity is timed. Most of the time, I’m having this conversation as a drop-in to a larger meeting. There are other atomized conversations about literacy on the agenda.

I’ve run this conversation several times in the last few months. As the language arts coordinator, it’s one of my favorites. The creativity and joy it elicits each time can be unfamiliar for your average professional meeting.

All of that said, we need to be having this conversation or some variant thereof as much as possible in schools of every level. From pK to 12, we need a picture of the kind of culture of reading and writing we’re hoping to inspire and establish if we want the people in our care to see themselves as readers and writers who aspire to ask and answer better questions.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in each iteration of this conversation:

  • No one – no matter their subject area – has ever said, “I don’t know” at any point of the process.
  • No one has argued with the assumption what they’re being asked to envision is not important, worth their time, helpful to students, or a better version of what learning and teaching can be.
  • Once they get started with the writing and the talking and the coming up with ideas of how to make it work, the conversations are difficult to curtail or contain.
  • Almost every single idea these teachers generate for how to shift the culture of their schools is free to implement. When it’s not free, it’s low-cost or an idea any PTO would be thrilled to help realize these ideas.

So, let’s do it. Let us build a context around the atomized skills we’re all-too-clear our students need help building and then make it the norm that every person in our care instinctually knows our schools are places where our implied shared identity is one of curious readers and writers.

Stop Scaring Teachers with Students’ Inconceivable Futures

future

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

Civics

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.