My 101st Post: a (re)Birthday of Sorts


steve peterson

steve peterson

I just realized that the last post was my 100th since I started this blog in October 2012. This is a good time to reflect. Interestingly, that post deals with some of the same subject matter as the first post — the insanity of posting predetermined “learning goals” for all of our day — a post that I never published because I was nervous about what others might think.

The symmetry seems significant. First, the fact that I’m still struggling with this issue now for at least two years shows either how intractable the problem is, how unable I am to effectively deal with it, or…something else that I haven’t imagined. Yet, the fact is, this blog has allowed me to identify and explore the ideas that seem most important to me, to my life “inside the dog” where it is sometimes too dark to read the story of our shared life of learning. I had hoped to use this blog to flick on a reading lamp. And, while sometimes the chandelier inside contains a rather dim bulb :), the light sure has helped me see better.

Second, the fact that I can talk about these concerns now while earlier I was silent means that I have begun to find a voice, my voice. I do not pretend to have all of the answers, or even to know all of the questions, but this blog has helped me become a better, more articulate thinker. Writing just does that for me. It helps me think by giving me words. As a result, not only can I say what I think, I can also know what I think. Writing is magical. It calls forth ideas like a silkworm spins silk.

Finally, this blog has put me in contact with other thinkers whose ideas (and spirit) have meant so very much to me. I’m thinking especially of

  • Vicki Vinton (To Make a Prairie), whose weekly posts always range far beyond the subject of reading and into the joys of real learning. Much of what I have been thinking about here has benefited from conversation with Vicki and her marvelous band of readers, from Vicki’s insightful thinking about learning and what readers really do, and, well, from the generous spirit that glows in the words of her blog;
  • the dynamic duo of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (Burkins & Yaris) whose explorations of the Common Core model for me what true inquiry looks, sounds, and feels like, and whose prose takes on the feel of poetry, whose partnership in blogging helps me see what collaboration at its best can become;
  • Mary Lee Hahn and Franki Sibberson (A Year of Reading), another dynamic duo whose blog has informed and enlightened me for longer than any other (though I just started commenting on it about a year ago.) I love their consistent, insistent sharing of their ongoing learning and their creative souls. Here’s to you, Mary Lee, for your poems and your mosaics and your student-made videos and…And to you, Franki, for your inquiry and your technology and for sharing your classroom journey. And to both of you for some powerfully wonderful book reviews!;
  • Julieanne Harmatz (To Read, To Write, To Be), a new friend-across-a-distance whose writing about her classroom contains such clarity and grace, whose stories of classroom celebration are poignant and always generous of spirit, whose descriptions contain the kernel of what learning can be, even within the confines of a school-day classroom;
  • Fran McVeigh (Resource – Full) another new friend, a fellow Iowan who I’ve never met in person but whose comments on others’ blog posts are impressive and thoughtful, for her immense base of knowledge and passion for learning and teaching, for her unflagging willingness to share all that she knows with others.

There are so many others whose work has inspired me, though they do not really know it; folks like Kevin Hodgson, Paul Solarz, Michael Doyle, Christopher Danielson, Bill Ferriter, and many more.

So, to the first 100, it’s a wrap. I will see what the next year brings. Cheers.

Seven Touches to Save Education

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The narrative, the story line, for education reform is pretty familiar by now. It goes something like this:

  • Identify the problem (insufficient test performance, achievement gaps, poor teaching, etc.);
  • Describe the problem as a “crisis” that requires immediate action;
  • Propose solutions designed to sort and weed (evaluations based on standardized test scores, graded schools),
    • presented as carrots (performance pay, bonuses, graded schools, increased funding to those who comply),
    • or sticks (performance pay, graded schools, firing educators, decreased funding for those who are non-compliant.)

The mechanisms for these changes share a common top down, almost surgical, metaphor: change will come when the bad is discovered (through objective standardized tests) and cut out (through sanctions or punishments), while the good is adopted and performed (through rewards for good behavior.)

Mother and child
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So it happened that I read Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker piece, Slow Ideas, which asks the question: What causes some good ideas to be adopted quickly and others to be adopted slowly? His piece explored the adoption of anesthesia and antiseptics in surgery, simple (low tech) cholera treatments, and the BetterBirth project to lower global infant mortality rates through simple techniques like kangaroo care for newborns.

I admit that I’m fascinated by Gawande’s work, especially his desire to figure out how to make systems function better. In this case, the answer to his question was simple: Ideas get adopted when the people who adopt them change, often in deep and profound ways. And the best way to make these changes happen is through the careful, slow work of human-to-human contact. For Gawande, that means change agents living and working in communities, building relationships and trust — the rule of “seven human touches” that overcome resistance, and support deep and lasting change.

As Gawande notes, critics of this approach say it isn’t “scalable”, and often identify the problem as too dire for such a time intensive method. But if a better outcome requires a change in routine, in habit, in thinking, or in identity, there really is no other alternative that can create deep and lasting change.

I’m heartened to see a counter narrative similar to Gawande’s forming in response to the corporate reformers who believe reform can happen at a distance. A recent article in The Answer Sheet about Scotland’s reform shows a country exchanging the quick fix methods that the United States has adopted for a model of slow and deep cultural change at the institutional level. Michael Fullan and Richard DuFour have written in a manner very similar to Gawande about how deep and lasting change must be driven by building the capacity of educators to make better and better decisions on an system-wide level. This is also the approach that Pasi Sahlberg has said for years was at the root of Finland’s remarkable educational performance. Finally, in the United States, folks like the Center for Teaching Quality have long advocated for the slow but steady reform of education through tapping the leadership capacities of teachers themselves.

Gawande tells the story of an experienced nurse who was visited by a younger and less experienced BetterBirth Project nurse-trainer. The more experienced nurse rejected the ideas of the younger nurse at first. Even though she knew the ideas to be sound, the older nurse had many reasons why they could not be implemented in her setting. But the Project nurse stayed around and over time built a relationship with the older nurse, one not based on a judgmental stance at a distance, but through close-by human interaction, through the seven touches method.

After some time, the older nurse began to adopt the techniques as her own and began to teach others around her. The ideas spread and stayed long after the nurse-trainer had to leave. Some might argue that the needs are too great to take this kind of time to make change. But others, like me, argue that it is precisely because the needs are great that we must invest the time and effort into changes that go deep, that touch the heart of the matter.

I find this growing movement for deep change to be very hopeful. How do you think deep and lasting change happens?

network illustration
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A Reflection on Blogging

My school year is over and between packing my classroom for a move, reading, tree planting, and scything the grasses that are growing so quickly in the fields (yes, there are still some of us who are enthusiasts) I have some time to think back on where this blog has brought me since I started it about seven months ago. Seven months and 62 posts are not the normal milestones, but for a teacher early June is when the crops have been harvested and the machinery gets repaired.

Mr White
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This blog has given me many gifts, it’s been one the best things I’ve done to continue my professional growth. Here’s a short list of some of those gifts:

  • Discipline. I’ve always been a learner, but writing regularly has kept me more focused than I’ve ever been in my teaching life. As I try to keep to a regular posting schedule, my mind naturally begins to think about what I am doing or thinking that might be interesting, which causes me to do more and to think more. It’s a cycle.
  • Thinking. The Iowa Writing Project was right. Writing does cause me to think differently (and more) than I would without writing. Putting electrons on a screen, rereading, revising, scrapping whole chunks and starting over again helps me organize my writing but, more importantly, it helps me organize and push my thinking so it just doesn’t sit there, vague-like and fuzzy in my brain. For me, writing (and talking) are essential ingredients for thought.
  • Community. While the audience for this blog is not large (If you have read this far, you are one of the few!), I do feel a strong sense of community among some very smart and interesting people. The fact that someone may read what I have to say causes me to think even harder and a bit more deeply and consider my words just a bit more carefully than I would if I were writing in a journal. And experiencing the importance of that community has helped me redefine how I interact with a larger community of bloggers. I’m much more willing to offer a comment than I had been earlier; I know that my comments can help others think and feel connected, just as their comments help me think and feel connected.
  • Seriousness. You wouldn’t think that someone who is in his early fifties and male would struggle with a sense of  illegitimacy — in most places our patriarchal culture grants me power that I didn’t earn — but I do struggle with being taken seriously, and with taking myself seriously. Many elementary teachers do, I think. Some of that comes from being in a female dominated profession, and how those get delegitimized, even amongst educators. Some of the problem comes from the small people we work with; a profession often takes on the status of its clientele and ours are the least powerful in a society that worships power and independence. Some of that comes from the way we “infantilize” teaching through scripting, packaging content, and narrowing choices and thought. Whatever the causes, writing regularly has helped me to see my work as highly intellectual and skilled, which helps me to develop those very same qualities in my professional life. Again, it’s a cycle.

That’s a whole lot of giving over these last seven months.  If you write (or teach elementary school), have you experienced these kind of gifts, too? Am I missing anything?

Changes Next Year

Starting Sequence
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For me the school year has come to an end. The kids have all gone and my classroom is a mess. Well, it’s always a mess, but now more so than usual. Packing boxes are half full, and cupboards are half empty.

Next year holds a couple of changes. First, I am moving to fourth grade for two years. Two large classes mean that we will need an extra teacher in fourth grade. That teacher will be me! I am excited about the change: new things to learn, somewhat older students with different capabilities, new literature, math, science, and social studies to learn. I have been in third grade for about seven years, which is two years longer than I have been in any one job for my entire life! Time to shake it up a bit. I am a restless learner, I guess.

Second, to really spice things up, I am going to apply for National Board Certification, as that is a next logical step for me to grow as a professional. Perhaps I shouldn’t announce that intention? How embarrassing if I don’t succeed! Well, I’m assuming that I will be using this blog to think through ideas, try out reflections, and redo lessons anyway. If I’m not successful then at least I will have learned something new! And, I’m counting on your support, prodding, and critique as next year gets underway.

So, however clunky and aerodynamically unsound, this beetle will spread his ungainly wings and take to the air!

Why I Oppose Test Data for Evaluations

So, it looks like the education bill in Iowa is hung up on the question of whether teachers will be evaluated on standardized test data, or not. For what it’s worth, I’m against the idea for two big reasons. First, test data are not very accurate, it turns out. Second, for those who are interested in school change as I am, test data focuses our attention on the wrong things; elaborate evaluation systems wouldn’t lead us toward the schools we want. Like a bull in the ring, we are chasing the red robe of test data while the real work of school reform, building cultures of learning and excellence in schools, aren’t being adequately addressed.

Tarde de Toros 1. Tiento
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Just so you know, I’m not against evaluation. I don’t know any teachers who are against being evaluated. We actually enjoy when someone cares enough about what we do to talk to us about our teaching. In fact, we’d like more of that talk (And better talk, too, not just the Roman emperor, thumbs up-thumbs down kind that happens in evaluations.) The vast majority of teachers relish the chance to talk about our teaching whenever we can.

At the core of using standardized assessment data to evaluate teachers is a belief that poor teaching is a prime cause of our current “crisis” in education. Tough evaluations are necessary to make teaching better. Champions of the use of test data seem to believe that either (or both) of two things will happen when we focus on standardized test data: 1) We’ll weed out the bad teachers, bringing up the level of teaching overall; 2) Teachers will “up their game” to avoid being sacked.

Unfortunately, the focus on evaluation as a driver of change distracts us from what we really need to be doing.

First, as many people have noted (here, here, and here), “value added” test measures are not simple numbers that tell an unambiguous story. These numbers are highly variable, changing dramatically from year to year. Also, as Florida is finding, it is difficult to wrap every teacher’s evaluation into the test data. Turns out not every teacher teaches in a tested area. For example, some Florida teachers have argued that they are being evaluated on measures they have little control over. How can a music teacher be evaluated by tests that yield reading and math scores? A history teacher be evaluated on everything but history? Even if practices like this are constitutional (and the May 2nd Florida court ruling suggests it might be) systems like these don’t inspire confidence or our best effort. They become something to endure. And anything that doesn’t inspire a best effort is a distraction, not a driver of real change.

Second, it’s an element of faith on the reformer side that the profession is rife with bad teachers. Getting rid of them is the highest priority for these folks. Yet, what makes us think that there are so many bad teachers out there that weeding them out would significantly up the game? Where studies have been done, the rates of poorly performing teachers is really low. There’s not a lot to show for all that ‘weeding’ effort in past years.

Third, if you work with kids daily you know that standardized tests do not measure the important stuff. How can they? These are kids we are talking about. Grit is as important as knowledge when taking a math test. Empathy never gets tested, yet empathy will be what you and I both want most in a human as we encounter difficult economic and social issues in our increasingly flat world. The level of learning that most tests assess is low indeed. Their questions focus our attention on “skills” rather than thinking, and never, ever on asking good questions, and formulating good ideas. And, the higher the stakes, the more pressure there will be to narrow the curriculum to raise the test scores, regardless of the learning that will be sacrificed. Tests won’t drive us toward better learning.

What will be the effect of all this effort? Sure some teachers will be “weeded out,” but some of the best teachers will eventually leave as they become fed up with the capriciousness of it all and the focus on tested material that will ensue. Who will take their place in a system as arbitrary as the one that is being constructed? Reformers often act as if teaching was a job that people were clamoring to enter. But is that true? It’s not as if there are a boat load of people wanting to take the job. Inject the system with even more arbitrary data, and the number of interested people goes down further, especially for the kind of folks we want to attract into the profession.

Finally, and most importantly, all this emphasis on value added measures distracts us from the real, hard work that needs to be done to make our schools better: we need to build teachers’ capacity to be better teachers. Why focus so much effort on weeding when what will drive school reform is the healthy fertilizer of engagement, teamwork, and motivation?

How do we fertilize, rather than weed? Take the resources being invested in value added measures and use them to create workplaces (and classrooms!) that are about learning, growing, sharing ideas, innovation that is grounded solidly in learning theory, reflection, and critique. In short, we need a revolution in the cultures of schools. A revolution takes resources, vision, and leadership. It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-busy kind of work that engages people and systems effectively. It’s not the kind of leadership that you do entirely from behind a spreadsheet. Other places have made these kinds of cultural changes (here and here.) We can, too.

As a teacher, as a human, I know that real accountability comes from people who care about what they do. It originates from the desire to do well coupled with having the tools to do the job effectively, then multiplied by the good will of many people working toward a common goal. Good (and poor) work is super easy to see, you don’t need a lot of spreadsheets to find it. If we work hard to foster good conversations, learning, and reflection, accountability will take care of itself because everyone will be engaged in raising the bar and everyone will have a stake in accomplishing something great…together.

That’s the brave new world I want to live in. Do you?

Trying to be a “Force for Good”

I’ve blogged in the past (here and here and here) about whether or not our school district will purchase a reading basal program. It’s down to decision time and the decision isn’t an easy one.

A recent survey of our K-5 teaching staff (about 32 people took the survey) indicated strong support for a basal series, about 2/3 teachers wanted one. As you might have guessed, I’m in the 1/3 category. I’m disappointed, to be sure, but I want to be a positive force for change no matter what the outcome.

We abandoned a reading basal series several years ago and tried to go our own route. We adopted management practices like the Daily 5 and instructional practices based on the CAFE model. Most teachers now recognize these practices allowed students to do more actual reading in our classrooms than under the former basal approach. We purchased a book room full of real literature so we could do more small group reading. Most teachers recognize these resources have helped us find materials more quickly and easily. We created summer classes — attended by about 1/2 of the staff during various summers — that explored the Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum, which was intended to give some common structures to the teaching.

Though I think we weren’t really clear about that at the time, the implicit goals were to build the capacity of teachers to make instructional decisions about individual learners. We believed that good teaching wasn’t necessarily bound by simple grade level expectations, but by a teacher’s knowledge of what needed to be done in order to bring a particular student the next steps. We believed what Richard Allington said: “Readers differ. Teachers matter.”

We could have done a better job of building a culture of collaboration and learning and, certainly, we could have done a better job of big-picture planning. Our literacy efforts have been derailed (wholly or in part) by many different initiatives that have come down the pike. I think that’s a problem with the way educational change happens.

So, I’m struck by the conundrum we’re in right now. While other districts are struggling to keep a reading workshop approach in a climate of increasing standardization, a sizable number of our teachers are voluntarily requesting a standardized approach to literacy. They are tired and want a break.

It would be nice if I could identify a group “out there” who is forcing us down the skill-based basal route. I know there are groups out there that are forcing standardized changes in other school districts. But I’m faced with the fact that we teachers are also the ones who can’t imagine a different outcome, who are tired out by years of uncertainty and a laser-beam focus on test scores instead of kids.

If we are to make large-scale changes, we need to figure out how to lead toward the kind of school we think is best for kids. On a personal level, I struggle with the fact that teachers in my school district are not supporting the changes that I think will build creative, flexible, and self-motivated learners. I need to work in a way that builds the capacity of the teaching staff to learn and grow from each other, rather than damages relationships and creates a bunker-like mentality.

I’m tired, too.

In our classroom of super-heroes, we try to be a force for good. So: To the phone booth.

NOTE: This is NOT an actual photograph of me attempting to be a super-hero.

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On Poetry, Teaching, and “Voice”

Among other things, I have been reading Jane Hirshfield’s book about writing poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Here’s a long quote that I think is worth thinking about, not just from the poetry angle, but from the position of being a teacher who is trying to write his own poem through his teaching. This section discusses voice, one of the Nine Gates through which poetry enters the reader’s heart and mind. I’d argue that good teaching is like writing a poem; I imagined a classroom when I read this passage.

Voice is not a matter of subject, or of activity a poem undertakes; it is another level of content, equally essential  to a poem’s realization, infusing each choice and gesture a poem makes. Voice is the underlying style of being that creates a poem’s rounding presence, making it continuous, idiosyncratic, and recognizable.

A person’s heard voice is replete with information. So it is with the voice of a poem, directing us in myriad ways into the realm it inhabits — a realm more or less formal, more or less argumentative, more or less emotional, linear, textured. As we gauge a person’s kindness by tone, regardless of what she is saying, we similarly recognize a poem’s tenderness or harshness to the world around it; its engagement or detachment; whether it is ironic, comic, fantastic, serious, compassionate, irreverent, or philosophical. We intuit these things as a dog intuits another dog’s friendly or challenging disposition.

Voice in this sense is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is. Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use? The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must not only hear the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves. Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.

If “finding a voice,” one that helps to create a learning environment, requires ears that listen both inward and outward, then how can we see teaching as anything but an artful creation, one that creates a relationship and transforms a relationship simultaneously? How do we build the capacity of teachers to “find their voices?” Maybe one way is to look away from corporate, mechanistic models, and toward models like Hirshfield’s. For me, that means my “poem” includes thinking about the “voice” I create for myself, and through which I speak in my classroom.

On meaningful goals, and the paths that might lead us there

over the stileI’ve been struggling with how to write this post until I read Bud the Teacher’s post, Data Dashboards; suddenly things started to fall into place a bit more.

My struggle is this. Every year our district sets goals. Here’s this year’s building goal for my school:

During the 2012-2013 school year, at least 80% now in 3rd and 4th grade and who are performing below benchmark will increase their standard score by a minimum of twelve points on the reading assessment.  The measure used will be the Iowa Assessment reading test.

In a few months we’ll be getting those data back that show whether we’ve met that goal or not. Teachers always fight a variety of emotions when these “data days” happen, ranging from depression to head-scratching puzzlement. Each year some kids make it and others don’t, and we never really know why. We suspect our most successful years are the result of setting lower goals, not necessarily better learning. Each year, it seems, teachers are left wondering how these goals have helped us change things in important ways? Some of us ask ourselves how our teaching lives could have become so circumscribed as to be about moving 80% of the students who struggle twelve standard points on the Iowa Assessment. If goals are a statement of purpose…? Ugh.

Along comes Bud and his book club read, The 4 Disciplines of Execution. Read his post to find out more of what his leadership team is doing, but what I took away was that educators can measure leading or lagging indicators. And that distinction helped me realize why we all feel so depressed on “data days” by both our failures AND our successes; we’re measuring a lagging indicator and we don’t know what effect our efforts have had on whether we reach the standardized test goal. Along with that, we suspect that standardized test scores don’t really tell us much about the complex humans we have in our classrooms.

Enter a new set of “leading” indicator-type measures, rather than the “lagging” student achievement measures. The book, Bud writes, argues for setting meaningful goals (the author calls them something like, “wildly important goals”, which sounds wildly impressive), then developing a set of leading indicators or measures and a mechanism (a scoreboard or dashboard) to keep track of them. Here’s an example. Imagine the meaningful goal we set was for students to become better readers who think deeply about what they are reading. (You could probably think of a better worded one!) Your next step is to think of things that you could track that would “lead” you toward that goal. It helps if you already know there is research and/or theory that backs up these as important.

Just thinking out loud here, but what about these as “leading” indicators that might move us toward our important goal of creating better readers and thinkers:

  • Amount of reading time during the day, along with some sort of “effectiveness” measure, since time alone doesn’t exactly equate to high quality reading;
  • A learning log or portfolio of ideas (blog, digital portfolios, whatever) — completed by the student and/or by a teacher — that documents student learning on specific “habits of mind” in order to demonstrate deep or metacognitive thinking. (FYI, I’m working on such a project now and will blog about it later!);
  • A “flow-o-meter,” since getting lost in a book seems important. I’m sure it’s possible to keep track of this since it is lived experience. (By the way, I’ve never seen a kid who has found themselves lost in a book struggle as a reader for very long. I’ve rarely seen students who can’t get lost in a book make dramatic progress in reading.);
  • A log of learning projects started and completed, since the ability to generate questions and sustain interest in learning seems to correlate to depth of learning. This kind of goal would also require us to set aside time to explore some kind of project-based learning.

Those are just a few ideas. Wouldn’t it be fun to think of what you’d keep track of? How you’d do that? How you could engage the students in keeping track of their own dashboard?

Something like this would be a much more concrete task to complete than moving kids on standardized test scores. Each of these leading indicators begs further conversation and research both of the reading and action kind. For example, we could explore improving instructional strategies around our independent reading time; how to set up learning tasks or improve classroom dynamics; how to set up learning “dashboards”, improve curricular goals, or whatever other important changes might result in higher “scores” on the “leading indicators.” Also, these would be more measurable in real-time than a standardized test score, so you’d know if you were making progress or not.

Finally, as a teacher it would be oh-so-much more fun to teach how to become a deeply engaged learner, to log their progress toward that goal, than to abstractly move 80% of the struggling students twelve standard points on the Iowa Assessment.

Thanks, Bud Hunt! I’ll be thinking more about goals and measurements and how they influence learning and teaching.

I wish we’d ask ourselves some questions

Sam Chaltain (on shopping for a school for his 3-year old child) suggests you ask these questions and listen to the response:

  1. What is your definition of success — and how do you know if you’re reaching it?
  2. What aspect of your school are you most proud of — and where do you need the most work?
  3. What’s the general profile of your faculty — and how long do they stay?

Each of these questions is designed to drill down on how well a school understands what it does — and why it does it. Surprisingly, many schools haven’t thought about this as much as they should. They may have some generalized notion of success in terms of test scores or general statements about a child’s development. They are likely to know what they do well. They have to know how many of their teachers come and go each year. But if they can’t speak really clearly and specifically about what success will look like for your child — and do so in ways that go beyond just academics  – and if they can’t identify quickly where they still need work (because all schools, even the best ones, have room for improvement), you have good reason to wonder if they really have a plan worth investing in.

We’re coming up to another District Leadership Team meeting. Right now, I know we can’t answer these questions on anything but the individual level.

I struggle with how to be an effective agent of change without being too obnoxious. When does raising questions cross the line? Where IS the line when it comes to questions? All I want is for us to talk, to get some vision. We (and I) blunder on.

What I’d like to see

I hate being just a complainer. Here’s what I wish would happen. I’ll have to see whether I can make it so.

  • Create an ongoing Google Groups conversation about the above questions. As a reference point, remind ourselves that our goals should create innovative curriculum that highlights the Universal Constructs as outlined by the State of IA Common Core, and instructional practice in a manner that is consistent with the Characteristics of Effective Instruction (also in the CC.) A forum like this will aid in transparency and provide a place for people to lodge their observations (even complaints) so we can move on from them toward next steps, while keeping us focused during our face-to-face time.
  • From this discussion,
    • develop a rough draft understanding of what our goal is for learners
    • gather data (anecdotal or otherwise) and generate a rough draft understanding of where we are moving forward and where we are stuck
  • Explore WHY we are stuck in particular areas. This need not be in-depth at this stage, just some working assumptions / thoughts.
  • List making. Generate
    • a small set of high impact “stuck areas” to devote a lot of effort towards.
    • areas / initiatives to highlight and study to understand their effectiveness.
    • an ongoing “coalition of the willing” who can pursue their willingness in both an online and face-to-face way
  • Gather data for all of the above. Engage in transparent conversations that develop, and communicate a plan. Areas for new learning could be highlighted, resources for that new learning could be gathered and housed (or linked) online.
  • Professional learning communities could be formed around these areas using some of those sources as seeds. Key would be a way for the PLCs to share out what they have learned to colleagues and the community (!). Transparency is the best form of accountability!
  • Revisit the whole process continually.

Why is this difficult to imagine? I mean, I’m just a third grade teacher and I came up with this list in a couple of minutes. This is just good teaching.

So…now…do I send this link on to the District Leadership Team?

UPDATE: I won’t send it out. As George in the comments below said, a better way to proceed would be to build credibility through linking to a larger conversation. However, the practice of writing has helped me think through some of what I think we are lacking. In particular, we need to build a culture of learning. Administrators complain about teachers not being curious or learners or innovative thinkers. Some even say lazy. But where is the curiosity, learning, and innovative thinking from the other side? I’m ready for the conversation. Where is it? Just sayin’.

Why can’t we all be like that?

Last Sunday I was a panelist at a local film festival screening of the video The World Peace Game and other Fourth Grade Achievements. As I watched the video, I thought about what it takes to be a good teacher, and how we might create more. Today’s entry will be a sharp right turn out of the classroom and into the education “system”, one with which I have an uneasy relationship.

The video and good teaching

The video portrayed a simulation game played by John Hunter’s fourth grade students. It showed kids deeply engaged in meaningful, sometimes profound thinking as they struggled to deal with a dynamic, complex simulation world filled with classmate-actors who portrayed various nation-states and world actors. I was inspired as I watched the children sort out the problems they faced, decide on action plans, negotiate outcomes, and adapt to accommodate external events. If this kind of thinking isn’t what we are aiming for in the Common Core curriculum, then we have the wrong set of goals. Surely this is what we hope for when we learn.

I wondered what the audience would think. Among other things, they brought up how skillful Mr. Hunter was at creating a learning environment that worked. When I asked them to elaborate, viewers described how well Mr. Hunter knew his students, how well he could manage the learning environment, how well he knew his material, and how he seemed to bring about the best learning in kids. They brought up the richness of a dynamic learning situation, one they clearly understood was built by Mr. Hunter. In short, I was pleased to see audience members identify some of the key elements of good teaching. The audience recognized good teaching when they saw it.

Who’s driving the bus?

The audience wondered how can we get to a school full of John Hunters? They wanted to have their kids attend a school with him as the teacher. I wonder the same thing.

The usual suspects emerged – the curricular dumbing down to increase standardized test scores, the difficulty of change, time, etc. – all of which caused me to wonder why?

As it happened,  my smart brother had sent me an article by Michael Fullan that helps me understand how we might change our approach and create more John Hunters. Fullan argues that organizations and institutions change in response to the driver that is moving the “vehicle” of institutional change forward. According to Fullan, the US has chosen the wrong driver for educational change: accountability. Fullan says:

A focus on accountability uses standards, assessment, rewards and punishment as its core drivers. It assumes that educators will respond to these prods by putting in the effort to make the necessary changes. It assumes that educators have the capacity or will be motivated to develop the skills and competencies to get better results.

Unfortunately, this driver doesn’t recognize that really good teachers, the John Hunters of the world, are motivated by a love of learning and doing right by their students, not by fear of failure and punishment.  As Lucy Calkins said the other day during a conference I attended in Chicago: “If fear of death doesn’t change people’s health habits after a heart attack, fear of punishment will not make real change in school systems.” Instead, fearful people dealing with an large problem go to increasingly disastrous means to avoid the punishment that is threatened. We’ve seen it in the news: dumbing down curriculum, advocating to fire 5- 10% of teachers a year, or cheating (here and here) on high stakes tests.

So if rewards and punishments won’t create John Hunters, what will?

Focus on capacity building

If we want more teachers like John Hunter, we need to build the capacity of teachers to become John Hunter. As Fullan argues, we need to build on the intrinsic motivation of teachers to do a good job, create structures of support and challenge, realize that individual teachers can never bring us there as a system, nor can people grow and learn on our own. In short, we need a system that operates like John Hunter’s classroom. Why do we image that teachers would be any different?

As I look around, I see teachers become burned out and cynical not because they are bad people, or incompetent, but because burnout and cynicism grow like a weed in the cracks between hope and reality. The vast majority got into the job because we care about learning and kids. We hope to make a difference. We find ourselves facing huge difficulties, basically on our own, and are told that if we don’t perform we will be fired. We get half way to the goal, but fall short because the system is not set up to build good people into good teachers, and then good teachers into better teachers.

Imagine how good it would be if our goal was building the capacity of teachers to do their jobs better and better, not to weed out and punish. Not only is that vision more humane, it is more realistic. No positive change can occur without the consent and active participation of the ones who are doing the work:

For whole system reform to occur, lead drivers, as I have said, must get at the motivation and competency development of the vast majority of educators. Accountability measures plus sticks and carrots do not and cannot, ever accomplish this feat. Higher, clearer standards, combined with correlated assessments are essential along the way, but they are not going to drive the system forward. Whole system success requires the commitment that comes from intrinsic motivation and improved technical competencies of groups of educators working together purposefully
and relentlessly.

Teachers need the time and support to connect with each other, to learn from each other, to innovate, in a systematic way, toward meaningful ways to help students learn.

We need educational leaders who, like John Hunter, understand how people learn and change inside; who can set up situations that challenge teachers and support their learning.

We need leadership that understands how systems improve, not just how to change things.

I need to advocate for this kind of change at my team, building, district, state, and national level. That’s a lot of extra work and it takes some of my energy away from my classroom. But if not me (and you), then who?