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.

What are you teaching the next Darren Wilson?

It was on the third page of the front section of the Sunday paper today. If Michael Brown’s parents hadn’t been in D.C. over the weekend, I wonder how much deeper an update on the events in Ferguson would have sunk into the news cycle.

This aligns with my concerns about what I imagine to be happening in classrooms around the country. In the first weeks of school, teacher friends around the country shifted their lessons to include some investigation and conversation around the shooting of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO.

I can’t blame the newspapers for their reduced coverage. Until something happens worthy of an update, there is no new news.

In our classrooms, though, yesterday’s story must inform today’s lesson plans so that we can help to prevent tomorrow’s Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

When tragedy strikes, we seek counselors, we make safe spaces for conversation, we hold vigils, we let out a collective, “This happened again” and utter the statement as either a shocked question or a saddened, unsurprised declaration.

Saturday will mark 8 weeks since Michael Brown was shot. Whatever units or lesson plans teachers developed so that they were “doing something” in response to the death of yet another child of color have likely run their course.

They were not enough.

Saturday will mark 8 weeks since Michael Brown was shot. Whatever units or lesson plans teachers developed so that they were “doing something” in response to the death of yet another child of color have likely run their course.

They were not enough.

However meaningful the classroom conversations, however poignant the reflective essays, however moving the student-produced PSAs and podcasts – they were not enough.

Because there will be another Michael Brown, another Eric Garner, another Kimani Gray, and another, and another, and another.

In the small town high school I attended, any conversation about race had to do with the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and possibly the March on Washington.

I should say any formal academic conversation about race included those topics. The informal conversations were fraught with the ugly contents of unexamined privilege, the exocticizing of the other, and the cultural appropriation of music relatable on an emotional level yet far removed where content was concerned.

My guess would be that Darren Wilson grew up in a similar system.

Cultural sensitivity trainings and body cams will make the difference they can make for the police officers attending them and wearing them, but that difference is nothing compared to the potential power of on-going mindfulness and conversations about race, class and privilege in our schools, classrooms, and hallways.

As much as we should worry about the next Michael Brown sitting in our algebra classes, we must worry about the next Darren Wilson being there as well.

We should feel guilt and shame that we were too weighed down by our own insecurities around these topics, that we dismissed them as too difficult or thorny to broach with students.

Perhaps we let ourselves off the hook by arguing students are discussing these topics at home with their families. That is laughable, dangerous, and irresponsible. And, were it even true, it would be no excuse to avoid adding a layer of complexity to helping our students inquire into the role they want to play in this country’s on-going identity crisis around race.

A lesson or a unit will not change the conversation. Hoping your colleagues in history and English classes are reading books with people of color as main characters will not change the conversation. Engaging in the conversation, again and again, will help to change the conversation.

The next Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are already sitting in our classrooms. What are we doing to make sure their story ends differently?


 

The following are a sampling of resources for teaching about the events in Ferguson and race in your classrooms. If you have other helpful materials, please add them to the comments:

What you believe – do (through choice, delightfulness, and email signatures)

A dry erase board sits atop a cabinet in our office. I reads, “This office believes in: choices, delightfulness, and email signatures.”

It’s been up there since I and two other team members started in the office and we sat down for a few days as a whole team to discuss what and whom we wanted to be as a group.

It’s in my poor chicken scratch penmanship, but this board has had a beautiful effect on my thinking as I’ve been moving through the district and doing the work from day to day.

When you know the ideals about which you care, you tend to orient your actions toward those ideals.

Why these three?

Choice?

We don’t know the best way to do anything. We know several good ways to do most everything. More importantly, as guests in schools and classrooms around the district, we have only snapshots of the day-to-day, moment-to-moment work being done by the adults and children we serve.

So, we provide choices based on what we see and what we want to do and then present them to people with the offer of conversation to help them curate their choices toward desired ends.

Some might think of choice and imagine a tabla rasa of options, which allow teachers any myriad courses of action without consideration of official district goals and efforts.

It’s not that broad. Instead, we look at what is to be done, what we say we want to do, and the data we gather through conversations and visits. From there, we design choices that align with existing efforts while pushing thinking forward and opening up possibilities of what can be created and produced as artifacts of learning and teaching.

The choices we work to provide live in the realm of the district’s established identity. When we started building the Professional Learning Modules for our Learning Technology Plan, we made certain that each module clearly connected with RtI Tier I Interventions as well as the Colorado Teaching and Learning Cycle. With the implementation of a new state teacher evaluation system, we added language to explain how completion of modules would help teachers improve their proficiency regarding Colorado Teacher Quality Standards.

Choice with a mission.

Delightfulness?

You could just as easily call this the Mary Poppins Principle. Whatever else we do, our team asks teachers to learn new things. For many teachers, this can feel like a daunting task when taken as anotehr component of the demands on their time.

Delightfulness, and a mind toward including it in all we do means finding the spoonful of sugar and trying our hardest to make the job as close to a game as possible.

This is all based on the presupposition that people enter into education because somewhere in the acts of learning and teaching they found joy. We believe that joy should live on well past their initial entrance.

If ever you were to come to our office for a meeting, you’d find baskets of LEGOs on the conference table, multiple dry erase surfaces (boards and tables) for doodling on, light sabres, and the odd viewing of a funny youtube video. We want to experience delightfulness so we can remember why it is important to provide it to those we serve.

Email signatures?

We serve. It might look like troubleshooting. It might look like lesson planning. It might look like coaching. It might look like eternal meetings. When you get right down to it, we serve the adults and children in our care.

When people email us, then, from any of the dozens of schools in our district, it is difficult to serve effectively when we are without the most basic context of who sent the email and from where.

An email signature with a teacher’s site, subject, grade level, and any other information can help us to understand a bit about whom of the thousands of teachers we’re working with.

It’s become boilerplate language in classes and presentations. For me, it often sounds like this:

I want to help you however I can and as best as I can. So, we’re going to take 3 minutes now to open our email and make sure you are telling a clearer story of who you are when you send an email. After I leave, your job is to make sure three other people who aren’t in this room right now have email signatures.

It’s a slow battle, but it’s worth fighting. I can’t help thinking it’s also made a difference when those teachers have sent emails to people in other offices in the district. Now, perhaps they have clearer pictures of whom they’re serving.

They are three simple things. They could easily have been any three other things. Somehow though, knowing we are about choice, delightfulness, and email signatures gives the office a sense of commonality and helps me to ask if what I’m doing aligns with what we have espoused as our beliefs.

#wellrED Week 2

José, Larissa, Scott, and I got together Thursday night in an on-air google hangout to discuss Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children for the second week running. While the schedule said we’d be talking about “Part 1” of the book, our conversation focused only on “The Silenced Dialogue.”

It was a thought-provoking hour of conversation that I’m still mulling over, and likely will be until next week’s conversation. You can read about the catalyst for the reading group here, and join the group here.

As for my part, I’m enjoying having a space to look forward to each week where race, ethnicity, culture, privilege, equity, power, and other critical issues that are easily overlooked in education is the set focus.

Last week, I switched from the print to Kindle version of the book. You can track highlights and comments here.

More importantly, consider joining in the reading. The book is a collection of essays, so you can easily jump in mid-book. Next week, we’ll be talking about pgs. 48-69. Join the hangout or the twitter chat. Maybe just post to the discussion board. Either way, let’s elevate the conversation and critical thinking around these important issues of practice.

29/365 Initial Thoughts on Caring in Online Spaces

I’ve written extensively here about the Ethic of Care, and it’s something I’ll speak about to anyone who’ll listen.

Lately, I’ve had the chance to talk and listen to people about a quesiton that’s been jumping around my brain. Namely, how do we enact an ethic of care in online spaces?

Today, I had a conversation with a former student. She’s in college now, studying to be a teacher, and wanted some advice on what to disclose to her eventual students and what to keep private.

Her concern was driven by her experiences in school and the realization she would have benefitted greatly from an adult in her life who’d been open about being where she’d been.

She wanted to know how I’d approached similar situations in my practice.

She’s in Philadelphia.

I’m in Boulder.

What’s more, I was in class at the time.

The conversation popped up through the google voice plugin I’ve installed in Chrome.

She was texting me. I was typing back on my browser.

As I built my understanding of qualitative theory and research practices, I was also attempting to guide a future teacher in her thinking about her practice.

Somewhere in there, care resides.

She had the number because I’d created it when I was in the classroom so that I might ask kids to submit questions or responses using their phones. If they had no phones, they were able to send the text via a chat client.

She kept the number.

I’m glad she did. (I hope others did too.)

If I can continue to care for my students, let them know my care for their learning didn’t end at Day 180, I’ll leverage whatever tools possible to do that. I understand the counter-arguments to this approach. It can be abused and used for nepharious purposes. I understand this to be true. I have a hard time seeing how those who would abuse these tools are going to be convinced to stop using them because those who would use them to help students refuse to consider the tools.

If anything, this is an argument for their widespread adoption of these practices by thoughtful and caring professionals who are driven by high standards of compassion and see their work as nurturing their students in safe spaces. Without such a precence, digital environments will be devoid of care. Minus that care, danger fills in the empty spaces.

I’m still tinkering with a more unified theory of care in online spaces. The conversation today helped me to see it in action, and that observation helped me to understand the power and necessity of such connections and availability.

It also left me with questions. Would this student have recognized my care for her if we’d not interacted in face-to-face environments? Did she benefit from our conversation in the same way she would have if we’d been in the same physical space? Was the caring relation reciprocal in the same way if can be in face-to-face interactions?

I don’t have answers to the questions, but I’m glad they’re getting more specific as I look more closely at trying to understand the issue.

Something else social media does in education

Somewhere along the line, the tide started to turn regarding opinions on the place of social media in the classroom and as a conduit for connecting teachers and students. Whether those making policy have seen reason or whether the market reached an inescapable saturation point, I’m unsure.

Yes, arcane policies are in place in districts and schools across the U.S., drafted in fear that’s been labeled protection. Still, the more teachers I talk to and schools and districts I visit, the more social technologies are becoming commonplace in formal educational settings.

My own interactions first started in this space. Then, my students started asking for my myspace address. I had a page, but I was a novice teacher and was listening more to the fear I heard in the conversations around me about connecting with students online than my own argument for the affordances of such connections. Eventually, I made a second myspace page and shared that with students. It was bland and more often than not included updates having to do with homework rather than whatever we’re supposed to use those spaces for.

When I moved to teach in Philadelphia, regional standards dictated Facebook be my new online home.

“What do you mean you don’t have a Facebook,” my students asked me in my first few days. I’d moved from an environment where even connecting with my students through a profession-specific online profile was questioned to a space where it was abnormal not to connect with students through your one true Facebook page.

I had a profile within the week. My rule persisted. If they were still my students, they needed to invite me to be friends, I wouldn’t seek them out. This wasn’t out of fear, but of respect. Facebook was their common space. Though I saw its use for leveraging learning, I respected the division of school and home.

In my four years at SLA, Facebook, IM, email, twitter, et al. proved invaluable tools for helping students navigate assignments and offering them a safe space to seek counsel.

But this is an old conversation in the compressed timespace of online tools.

Today, I was reminded of another reason for teachers and students to be connected online. One of my former students, Matt, lost his father a few years ago. A tremendous human being, Matt looked up to his father in the most touching of ways. Matt’s now a freshman at university in Philadelphia (half the country away from me).

Today, on Facebook, Matt announced he’d completed a media project for one of his courses, saying:

Exporting a wonderful film I made for my Dad now @ the tech center on Temple Campus. It may not meet all the requirements, but I put so many hours into it, I don’t care if I get a C, I am proud of what I made! It is really nice =)

I chimed in that I looked forward to seeing the film. Minutes later, he posted a link to the video below in the comment thread. It is a beautiful memorial to Matt’s father and grandfather. I am proud of him for its creation and for his own pride in that creation.

This is the benefit of social media in education that’s not often mentioned. I am connected to those students I was fortunate to have in my care. Ten years ago, the end of the school year was the end of my interactions with most of my students.

That needn’t be the case anymore. Connections between teachers and their students are no longer bound by 180 days. The impacts we make and made can be seen, felt, and built  upon indefinitely. I was a small piece of Matt’s life and the lives of all my students. Still, I realized today the connection I am able to continue to have with so many of them as they grow and build lives more incredible than I could have hoped.

Social media – +1

A Tribute To Mario & Nunzio Scuderi from Matthew Scuderi on Vimeo.

Are you listening to understand or just waiting to teach?

A few days ago, for a moment of levity before a more principled discussion, we watched the video below in one of my seminars.

It got me thinking, about how the segment was framed. The idea, here, is to think of Hicks as an ignorant, foolish, nonsensical man. As much as a vehemently and completely disagree with his stance on these issues, I still felt compelled to listen to Hicks.
He’s sharing more than racism when he speaks. To miss that is to miss an opportunity. Since the seminar, I’ve been thinking about how most people’s experiences watching the video are similar to the experiences of many teachers as their students file in to classrooms across the country.
“We have to teach these people. They think they know, but they don’t know. We need to change their minds. Scour that ignorance right out.”
Except that’s wrong.
As much as I want Hicks and others like him to change their minds, I don’t understand them. I don’t comprehend how or why they think the things they do.
The same was true in the classroom. While I had legions of standards and understandings I wanted my students to leave my classroom possessing, I had to restrain myself from attempting to immediately pass them along. It wouldn’t have worked.
I had to work to understand those students before I was going to be able to teach them. How were the knots in their thinking tied? What was necessary for me to loosen those knots? It was frustrating work at times. It was important work all the time.
When I meet with the student teachers I’m supervising this semester, one of my most frequent post-observation questions is, “What do you know about student X?” If the answer is a collection of facts about quiz scores, homework return, and time on task in class, we dig more deeply.
If, as teachers, we’re not working to understand the people in our care, we’re doing it wrong. If as people, we’re not working to understand those with whom we disagree, any success in changing their minds won’t last long.

Bringing the Phone Tree out of the Moth Balls

Never having played sports in school (or ever, really), the phone tree, as I understood it being used by soccer moms, never really entered into my life. I got the concept, but never needed.

When talking to a music teacher a few weeks ago about how he was using technology to care for students, the phone tree became suddenly relevant.

After a marching band gig, the teacher had sent a mass text to all of his musicians thanking them for showing up and performing. A simple act this teacher hadn’t thought much about until I’d worked to underline the importance of the ethic of care in the classroom.

It was a simple act that, after the instruments had been packed away, reminded the students that what they did mattered to other people and that they were valued.

Nice.

It also got me thinking about a possiblity for phone trees in the classroom. Apps are great and I’m all for welcoming kids to bring tech into school spaces. Oftentimes, this transitions to a mandate or a platform requirement.

Enter, phone ring.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. At a class’ opening, each student is linked to another. A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until Z is linked back around to A in the end. (More of a phone ring, I’m realizing.)
  2. Working on anything – homework, projects, whatever – if C has a question she can’t quite figure out, she gets ahold of D via whatever means necessary. It can be text, IM, e-mail (gasp), phone call (double gasp). D and C work together find an answer.
  3. If they can’t, that’s cool. The ring continues. D says, “I think we need another brain,” and gets ahold of E. The ring continues.
  4. Knowing the system is in place, the teacher begins the next class asking if any questions or troubles made it around the ring since their last meeting. It’s a formative assessment gold mine.

Student are practicing social skills, it’s low-threat collaboration, it values the asking of questions. It’s low-cost and allows for the use of mobile technologies without requiring them or the installation of new functionalities.


P.S. In putting together the chain, I’d probably take personalities into consideration and try to build in as much student choice. The easiest way I’ve found is starting with a conversation of what it means to be connected to someone who supports your learning and then asking each student to write down the names of three students they know would support their learning if they were linked and one student who would probably derail their learning. After that, it’s up to teachers’ professional opinion to make matches that foster student growth.