The Danger of ‘Student-Centered’ (25/365)

Photo by Vladimir Kramer on Unsplash

Raise your hand if you’ve said or heard the term “student-centered” in relation to whatever system you’re working in?

Okay. That looks like everyone. Now, let’s stop doing that.

Unfeeling monster that I am, I cringe each time I hear the term student-centered. Lest you start thinking me beyond salvation, give me a chance to explain.

It has to do with the Law of Unintended Consequences. If we claim we want our educational systems to be student-centered, it behooves us to then ask, “What is the worst consequence of our best idea?

Student-centered systems (or worse, student-centered philosophies) will inevitably justify inhumane, uncaring, or incompassionate practices toward non-student members of the system. You’ve been in this faculty meeting. Adults’ negative feelings or alternative points of view are shut down by the gentle but firm reminder, “We are a student-centered school.” No one wants to raise their hand and appear anti-student, so they remain quiet and passive. Or, at least they do so outwardly.

Repeated over the course of several months or years, this anti-adult or myopic view of who our educational organizations must consider as being in their care starts to burn out some of its most caring members because they begin to resent the lack of a reciprocity of care and valuing of well being. When these people leave, they may be easy to write off by leadership as not being able to hack it in a truly student-centered environment. Even if this is the true cause of teachers’ resignations, it is cause for great concern.

Student-centered organizations are naturally incentivized to be harmful to teachers and, in turn, to students. The cumulative effect of being repeatedly asked to set aside one’s own legitimate self-interests and care in exchange for an other is likely to be some level of quiet resentment of the other.

Then What?
To argue against student-centered and suggest nothing in its place could be akin to saying, “Do what feels right” in schools. That’s also not an argument I’m interested in supporting.

Instead of student-centered, let us make decisions based on whether a given choice is learning-centered. More specifically, let us decide matters based on the answer to the question, “All things considered, which choice or action is most likely to improve the learning in this space?”

Asking some variation of this question when considering shifting teaching loads, revising a schedule, adopting new resources, implementing new systems of student or teacher assessment, planning professional development – you get the idea. Asking it in any situation and realizing “all things considered” includes adults and children inside and outside the school is more likely to lead to a decision that is more sustainable than the “Is it student-centered?” question is likely to surface.

Such an inclusive approach to shifting within a system is also more likely to invite input and conversation along the way. An administrator can sit at their desk and more easily make the student-centered decision on her own. To make the learning-centered decision, she is more likely to recognize the factors unknown to her. These realizations are the likely to lead her to seek opinions and input from those who know what she does not.

An example.

I have always been uncoupled in my work as an educator. Single and without kids of my own, I’ve consistently been on my school or district’s go-to team for activities outside the school day. Back to school nights, open houses, coaching, chaperoning – you know the stuff. I and my other single, childless friends have always been not asked, but expected to fill these roles. While I’m always happy to pitch in and help, it’s not always in my best interest. In some of the more frantic times of the year, the rapid fire of these requests becomes deleterious to my ability to perform regular, day-to-day tasks. You know, teaching and stuff.

Having the singles perform these roles is easier for the system and gets the bodies a system needs in the room. (You know, for the kids.) It is a student-centered way of thinking that fails to take into account how repeated asks of a specific group of adults might adversely effect students and learning later.

A learning-centered approach would recognize these constraints and invite input and conversation for how to more equitably meet the needs of all people in the system in service of learning. At the least, it would make room for concerns to be raised. At the most, it might uncover other ways systems aren’t working and re-evaluate approaches to such events.

A final word on the use of student-centered touched on only lightly above. That is the use of the term to incite guilt in those voicing opposition to a view or action. Those who do so are using the term as shorthand for “If you don’t like this idea, you’re probably against kids.” Not only is this mean, it is choosing what is easiest over what is right. Learning is messy work and it is difficult work requiring many voices and uncomfortable conversations. Making choices because they are easy and can be couched in language when we fear or prefer to avoid the messiness builds systems on ideas unworthy of the public good with which we have been entrusted.

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.

121/365 These Boxes Belong Everywhere

One of the best non-running aspects of being a runner is the slower exposure to the communities in which I live. A choice to make a turn in my running route has often brought me into knowing hidden gems of the towns and cities where I live and run.

Such a thing happened today when I stopped to turn around and head back home at a pavilion of a park along my route. There, I saw the box pictured below. A closer look told the box’s story.

book box

book box sign

Something like this should be in every park in every town across the country. What’s more, there should probably be two levels of boxes right on top of one another. The upper box with books for adults and the lower box with books for children.

Imagine an initiative of elementary schools throughout a community to create these boxes for every park they were near, to stock the boxes, rotate the books, and track the history of the project.

Not only would such a project bring literacy to community common spaces, they would act as signposts as well. Signposts alerting the community to the fact that local schools see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem as well as signposts tethering schools to the community and helping students understand a small act of civic engagement.

As soon as I typed this, I also started conceiving concerns around such an initiative. First among them was the defacement of the boxes. This is a reason to move forward with such an idea, not turn away from it. If the boxes are defaced, it presents true challenges of citizenship for the students involved and for the entire community. Raising such issues to the proper public officials again establishes channels of visibility between schools and the community.

These may be difficult problems to navigate, but I’d rather have students rising through our schools who have experience solving these problems than have students who were sheltered from addressing difficult community issues. It’s a question of citizenship.

Thanks, Friends of Martin Acres.

87/365 Get Together

One of the best things we do at SLA is get together. This is partially faculty meetings and the side conversations that take place there. It is in the happy hours and birthday celebrations, but it’s also more than that. Those gatherings are about the faculty. The best moments of getting together are around being a school.

In the schools we need, people get together.

It starts in ninth grade. About a month into the school year, a few dedicated parents of upperclassmen staff a bank of phones in the main office. They are calling other parents – the parents of the newest class of students. They are calling to invite them to the annual Back-to-School night. SLA has a BTS night as every school across Philadelphia does to welcome new students and parents and introduce them to the school, the adults and the building.

SLA’s night is different. While those parents are on the phone, they’re not only offering an invitation, they’re making a request, “Bring something to eat.” SLA’s BTS is also a potluck where each new ninth-grade family is invited to bring a dish, something pivotal to the family if possible. Things are better with food.

Our first year of the tradition, Chris was worried we wouldn’t have enough food. A few hundred people would gather in our cafeteria and all we’d have to offer is a cheese platter.

As families started to arrive that first year, so did the food. Everyone who was hungry ate that night (including the students who’d hung around after extracurriculars).

It’s not just the eating, it’s the cementing of community as well. Parents and students sit with the students’ advisers. These are the teachers in the building responsible for groups of 20 students as their crying shoulders, their advocates, their kicks in the butt for their four years of high school. Parents, students, advisers – they all sit together, share a meal in the din of noise in a high school cafe-gym-atorium and begin the get together that will be these students’ tenure in high school.

While they eat, those teachers who work with ninth-grade students circulate, introduce themselves and answer brief questions about what the upcoming year will hold.

Later in the evening, there are formal talks, people introducing themselves through a microphone, but this is not, nor should it be, about speeches. This is about getting together, talking, listening, and welcoming into a community.

Four years later, with many events and meetings in between them, this gathering finds its bookend. The obvious guess would be graduation. That would be wrong. Graduation ceremonies are for the students and their families. Everyone, dressed in their finest, gathers to recognize what may be the students’ proudest achievement to that point. We get together for graduation because we honor what these students have accomplished and the new journey they are beginning.

No, the bookend comes after graduation. The faculty gather together, walk a few blocks to a local restaurant and, weather permitting, sit under the sky alongside their colleagues who each knew these students for at least a semester, and close the chapter on the work of the last four years.

For teachers, this is as much a get together of grieving as it is of celebration. Many will never know where these students end up or what they do with their learning of the last four years. The teachers have done their job and they are now to prepare for the next class, the next back-to-school night and all the students in between. They share food, drink and memories. Some pass the hastily scribbled cards for students for whom they played a key role in the last few years.

These get togethers are as important to the teachers as they are to the students they will meet in the coming Fall. It is a reminder that they have done what they were charged to do, and that it is more than a job. It is also a reminder that time will march on and that this is not a profession for martyrs, but for practitioners.

Getting together, being together, is important in the life of a school. This is different from meeting or happy hour. It is a kind of formative and summative reflection for a community that plants a mile marker for the organization. “We are here, now, together, and we will acknowledge it and remember where we’ve been.” Without taking the time to get together, no group can go anywhere together.

77/365 Community is Co-Created

“I’m glad you didn’t observe me today,” a teacher comments, “We lost the lesson plan for 20 minutes while we had a whole-class disscussion about what language students thought was appropriate in class conversations.”

That’s a conversation worth observing. More importantly, it’s a conversation well worth having. Such conversations, and other informal, unplanned interactions between and among students and teachers are the only authentic way to forging community within the classroom.

In the schools we need, community is co-created.

Most any thoughtful teacher – novice or expert – will tell you they want their classrooms to be communities and they want their students to see themselves as community members. They have their students sitting in groups. They assign projects where students turn in work with more than one name attached to it. They mistake adacency with community, thinking that being in proixmity of one another is the same thing as community formation.

In staff development, administrators ask teachers to group together vertically, horizontally, by discipline – all in the name of forming professional learning communities. Teachers are asked to talk about the work in their classrooms, discuss students, revise lesson plans. Such a thing, though, does not a community make.

Communities – at least the communities these teachers and administrators are attempting to foster – are not created by fiat. While any number of things could result intended communities looking more like committees, there are a few conditions that are likely to allow or even encourage community formation.

In his book Facilitating Group Learning, George Lakey outlines several tips for living up to the text’s title. Perhaps the most important and oft-forgotten is the creation of space for disagreement or argument in learning spaces. He speaks to the need to understand that people coming from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are also coming from different approaches to disagreement. When there is safe space for argument, there is safe space for community to be built and for members of that community to come to understand where their voice fits within discussions and what others’ voices sound like at different levels of engagement.

To assist in navigating conflict in the search for common cause is the work begun by Gordon Allport on contact theory (sometimes called the contact hypothesis) which states that contact with groups identified as “other” will reduce bias.

While much work has been done to expand on and examine Allport’s theory in the intervening years, his for components of theory stated the following were necessary for successful communication:

  • equal status between groups
  • common goals
  • intergroup cooperation
  • and authoritative support

It’s easy to see some of these in place in the scenarios described above. It’s also easy to note where schools and classrooms can easily fall down in their efforts to facilitate communication toward community.

Sometimes the work gets too hairy too quickly for those in positions of authority to be able to sit back and recognize that tumult is inherent in the forming of healthy group dynamics. Better described in the work of Bruce Tuckman, groups develop in stages commonly labeled forming, storming, norming and performing.

Classroom and school-level leaders see the first stage of forming happening at a relatively peaceful pace. Once a group enters the storming phase, though, many leaders mistake the train for jumping the rails. In actuality, this is a sign of the uphill trek of individuals figureing out who they are as members of the group. Finding new identities is never easy. If the difficult isn’t seen as natural, many leaders will change course, thinking they’ve made a poor decision. Thus, groups miss the chance of developing their own norms and, more importantly, performing the tasks necessary to reach their common goals.

The classroom teacher who is willing to throw out a lesson plan for twenty minutes of students finding their way to community hasn’t left learning behind, but has made space for a kind of learning often winnowed out of curricula in the pursuit of facts. The skills earned through the creation of community and navigating the experience of working with others are key not only to higher quality academic work, but they are the skills of the advanced citizenship schools should be fostering.

Learning Grounds Ep. 016: Dean Shareski and Creating Online Community

In this episode, Zac talks with Dean Shareski about the difficulties unique to attempting to create a sense of community in online courses compared to face-to-face learning as well as other unique difficulties in community creation in conference presentations.


46/365 Every Kid Needs a Mentor

Mentoring Statistics

In a conversation about changes in social expectations of children in communities, juvenile advocate and community orgnizer Jolon McNeil remembered her own childhood in comparison with the worlds and schools of the children she dedicates her life to helping. “If I had gotten suspended,” McNeil said, “everyong in my family, everyone in my community, and everyone in my church would have kicked my butt.”

Today’s students have it differently, McNeil says, because of a disconnect between schools and communities, that same level of home awareness and community consequences have faded into the past for many.

While it is a tough sell that schoold should or could step in and take the space of the family, community and faith organization, there is something they can do that requires minimal resources and improves the lives of everyone involved.

Every kid needs a mentor.

Mentoring builds social and cultural capital in students, connects them with singular adults whose purpose is to support the student, and ties students to an anchor in the community.

For the community, the benefits are equally plentiful. Mentoring is an investment in the community, not in an economic sense (though that argument can also be made). Instead, mentoring is an investment in growing the kind of citizens, neighbors, and community leaders mentors want to live alongside in the coming years.

To be certain, teachers can be and are mentors to the students they teach. We spend more time with our students than many of them spend with their parents in the later grades. Connecting with students on online platforms like Facebook is a form of mentorship in that I am able to model appropriate behavior, find connection with students who are feeling lost and can’t bring themselves to make contact face-to-face, and step in as an adult when students push too far past what is acceptable conduct in any community – online or off.

Expecting teachers to be full mentors is laying an unliftable weight on their shoulders. The thick connections inherent in a full mentoring relationship require time and personal committment impossible with a roster of 150 students.

Schools can be the conduits and catalysts for mentoring relationships though.

Wanting to match as many of its students with mentors as possible, Phoenix Academy, a magnet high school in Sarasota, FL that recruits only the lowest achieving students in the district, sought to build its capacity to meet its goal by partnering with those already doing the work.

The school contacted the local Big Brothers Big Sisters office and explained their goals. BBBS said they could help. In a matter of weeks, the school welcomed representatives from the organization into the school one evening. Also in attendance were those community members school personnel were able to recruit into mentorship. Throughout the course of the evening, the would-be mentors navigated the school district’s volunteer clearance procedure and received BBBS orientation training and clearance checks en masse.

By the night’s end, Phoenix Academy had scores of new mentors on call to match with its students, Big Brothers Big Sisters made contact with many community members with whom it would not otherwise have likely connected.

Most importantly, in the weeks that followed, Phoenix students were matched with caring adults from the community in whom they could find a friend, advocate, and mentor.

These kinds of partnerships are possible in communities and schools across the country. They need only a school willing to set the goal and make the initial investment in organizing the effort.

We know the benefits of mentoring. We know the benefits of community connections. We know the strength of shared vision and goals.

We need to match kids with mentors.

Learning Grounds Ep. 007: In which Bud Hunt and Zac talk maker spaces, community, and grilled cheese

In this episode, Zac sits down with Bud Hunt for our first-ever pubcast, and the two discuss the need for maker spaces, teacher agency, and the building of the two.


Things I Know 306 of 375: We know who we are by what happens when things go wrong

An apology is the superglue of life.  It can repair just about anything.

– Lynn Johnston

“I just wanted to apologize for what I said up here. This is a space for coming together, and talk like that isn’t what this is about. I’m sorry.”

Then there were applause and shouts of “It’s okay” as the young man walked back to his seat.

From the other side of the auditorium, I watched as those seated around him patted the student on the back.

I’d been there to see the moment he was apologizing for. As part of a student sketch at Codman Academy’s Community Circle, the student had decided to ad lib one of his lines when describing the character played by one of Codman’s teachers. He’d said the character was a “douche.” A visitor to the school, I could still tell the student had gone off book.

Several things were remarkable to me about the episode. The least of these was what the student said.

Put an adolescent student in front of his peers with a microphone and you are asking him to play with power, to experiment with voice and discover where the line of what he can and cannot get away with lies. In the most fitting and least academic terms, he was feelin’ himself, and the school had invited it.

More interesting was the school’s reaction. The collective inhale after the line was uttered told me everyone else in the room recognized we’d left the script behind for a moment. But there was no outburst. No yells of agreement or signs students in the audience agreed with the statement. And that’s the thing, I know those students existed. At some point in time, this teacher had to have made a comment or taken an action that put him on the other side of at least one student’s good graces. If ever there were a moment for that student to give voice to his frustration anonymously, this was it. No one did.

And that’s culture. No one yelled assent because everyone understood the norms of the space. It was the message I attempted to convey when I would respond to student cursing in my classroom with, “We don’t use those words here.”

Whatever their differences, the assembled students knew they did not use those words here.

I should point out there was a space of about 20 minutes between the ad lib and the apology. Other business had been attended to, and I’d almost forgotten what had happened. Somewhere in that 20 minutes, someone had reached out to the student. Someone had removed the act from the moment and worked to process how what had been said fit with the definition of what it means to be a positive member of the community. I have no proof for this, but years of experience working with teenagers tell me I’m probably correct here. Naturally non-reflective, teens need intervention to help process actions and events. Some adult had likely intervened, and it is to their credit.

In many schools, the student would have been pulled from the circle, yelled at, and assigned a punishment with no mention of apology or what it means to be a community member.

That wasn’t what happened. Someone in the audience, I’m guessing the student’s advisor, had the clarity of thought and purpose to ask what they could do in that moment to help the student understand and learn from the verbal gaff. They’d responded as a teacher.

More than anything else, I was impressed by the student. Public speaking is more terrifying to the masses than anything else, and he stood alone in front of his peers to speak. Not only that, what he had to say was an apology. Few teenagers want to stand in front of their entire school. None wants to stand before the assembled masses and say they were wrong. Somewhere within this young man was a strength of character and commitment to community that allowed him to learn the power of saying “I’m sorry.” It did not excuse what he’d said. The words were out there. Saying he was sorry did work to make amends, to show that he valued the space and the people enough to ask for a chance to earn their trust again.

Many schools have Community Circle or some version thereof. Many schools get the circle part of it right. Few schools get right or focus resources on the community part. Codman does. At SLA and Phoenix, I knew we’d gotten it right when I saw how we reacted when someone went wrong. If anything, that’s the measure of a community.

Things I Know 287 of 365: Here’s where I’m from

I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

– George Ella Lyon

As we closed out our final meeting of the small group section attached to one of my courses, we engaged in a conversation on the importance and shape of teacher autobiography. We ended with a writing exercise. I wanted to call Bud, because I knew how happy he’d be.

After brainstorming the sensory details we associated with our individual school journeys. Then, we looked at George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.”

Our job was to re-imagine Lyon’s work filled with the stories of where we’re from. It was a beautiful task, and I thank my colleague Tracy for giving us space and safety to create and share. We began our time together this semester by sharing the basics – name, home, experience in education, etc. Tracy gave us a space to mark the end of our time together by, again, sharing who we are in a way that honored the intimacy inherent when a class becomes a community.

Here is where I’m from:

I am from tater tots,

from madrigal dinners and holding your breath in the boys bathroom.

I am from painted cinder-block walls.

(Covered in essays and coats of arms to disguise the normalness of it all.)

I am from chalkboards that wanted to be dry erase boards,

the pride of a strong FFA chapter

and knowing we’d be champions in meat judging

if not basketball.

I am from the safety of the choir room,

from Hemingway and yearbook editing.

I’m from the old guard who knew their duty to be sacred.

They’d taught our parents’ parents, and they’d teach us.

I’m from being sick the days we learned to use scissors,

and finding it didn’t matter because the teacher was right-handed.

I’m from scholastic bowl, Alanis Morissette’s debut album,

pizza that looked like it came on a giant saltine,

huddling around a speaker phone to interview a victim of Kent State,

being bumped a grade and then terrified as Mrs. Miller explained how she hated freshmen because they smelled –

making her laugh in spite of herself throughout that entire year.

I am from hallways and classrooms –

built by people who knew –

their hope and ours depended on knowing more than they did.