Learning vs Teaching

Do you ever write a blog post and leave it in “drafts” for so long… you forget your wrote it? That happened with this post. This post was initiated last spring and completed today with some additions.

For too long now, we have equated “learning” with the “result of being taught.” I’m not refuting the fact that we can learn from great teachers… in fact, that’s not my point at all. Teachers make a significant impact in whether students have an opportunity to learn or not in a school environment.

Rather, the point I want to make is that, for too long, we have equated learning with consuming what has been delivered TO learners. Traditional schooling has tried to make learning a passive activity, and I feel the damage we’re doing to children is resulting in generations of people who cannot think for themselves. Additionally, they have a difficult time learning anything that is new or unfamiliar – if a problem is put in front of them that doesn’t resemble a problem they’ve already seen, most students will struggle.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of educators talking about how we need to help students learn “how to learn.” I vehemently disagree. Children come to us as innate learners. If anything, most schooling conditions children to turn off their learning brains and substitute with their compliance/consumer brains. If you think you have students who need to be taught how to learn… you’re wrong. They just need help reprogramming themselves to actually learn, and that requires removing almost everything they have been conditioned to do in a traditional school environment.

Learning isn’t memorizing something and then performing on a test. If you disagree with me, pull out a test from one or two months ago and give it to your students. Most of them will not be able to pass this test, even if they aced it before. Now, if those same students created something through building, baking, composing, painting, etc. – something where the learning was meaningful, my guess is that they would be able to replicate (and most likely improve) their creations over and over again.  

When I speak to other educators about learning, they usually agree… except when it comes to facts and skills they strongly believe must be TAUGHT.

EXAMPLE: I am constantly asked how I TEACH my students to read, considering I do not focus on teaching and drilling sight words, phonemic awareness, etc.
 
I usually answer, “I don’t TEACH my students to read.”
 
I get the same questions when it comes to math… “How do they learn math if you don’t practice math facts?” *
 
And the question, especially from other educators, “How will your students learn to read, learn their math facts (etc.) if you don’t TEACH them?”
 
Yet… my students DO learn to read. They do learn their math facts, and so, SO much more!
 
How is it at all possible that the students in my classroom are reading, are applying math facts to actual math problems that they find (not necessarily problems I give them to solve)?
 
The answer is simple, and it’s one we’ve forgotten over years – nearly a century really- of delivering information to kids to “learn.” Consuming information that is delivered from a teacher is not LEARNING. 
 
When I memorize a bunch of stuff that someone else decides is important for me to know, that process takes one of the most important facets of learning out of the learners hands– the agency of the learner.
 

Human beings learn about the world around them when they’re curious… when they see a need to know and understand something… and then want to USE that newly found knowledge/skill. Good teachers know this and help provide an environment where kids are able to learn and pursue those things that make them curious. Master teachers know how to expose children to new experiences – those they may not discover on their own – to create new opportunities for learning to occur. 

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

 
When WE (educators) decide what students should learn, it becomes a chore. Curiosity lessens. And the opportunity to actually use that new knowledge is rarely provided outside an artificial environment.
 
Case in point… I have observed years and years of children sitting in science class “learning” from a textbook. THAT is not science! That’s reading comprehension. When you have never practiced actual science and only read about it… that is not learning science.
 
In discussions with other educators, I often hear things along the lines of “Well, if I don’t explain it to them first, how will they learn it?” This line of thinking misses the beauty of true learning. Ask any adult what they remember the most from high school. I guarantee it won’t be anything they were “taught” and memorized for a test. Delivered information resides in our short-term memory if we don’t do anything beyond memorizing it. We KNOW this… it’s not new to teachers. We learn that memorization is the lowest order of thinking. So why do we still concentrate more in this area in education than the others? Short answer: it’s the quickest and easiest to test. Efficiency for the win (or not). The longer answer is much more complicated.
 
I’ve written several posts like this before with explanations about what learning IS and what it IS NOT.  So have a lot of other people. I’ll add some to comments and welcome your additions as well! 
 
So to get back to my original example (and reason for writing this post)…
The answer to the questions I get from educators who see what we do at Anastasis Academy  – and wonder how on earth my K/1s learn how to read, write, understand math, etc.  -without teaching via traditional methods educators are used to seeing –  is THIS:
 
I don’t teach kids to read.
I don’t teach kids to write.
I don’t teach kids to memorize math facts… or vocabulary… or any of those other delivered items/standards to which we have clung so tightly in traditional education.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they are curious.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to learn to read.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to make sense of numbers.
 
(I could go on, but I think you get the picture.)
 
We do not drill phonics or math facts. We read all the time. We talk about letters, sounds, word endings, rhyming words, patterns, etc. IN THE CONTEXT OF WHAT WE ARE LEARNING. Always.
 
Let me emphasize that…
Yes, sometimes we’ll stop and talk about how verbs in the past tense sound like they end in a “t,” but the patterns we see in our books are “-ed.” We remark about this pattern every time we see it, and then we also start noticing it in our writing.
Pretty soon, the students start to think and edit themselves in their writing of past tense verbs. It makes sense to them, because it comes up in the context of what they’re already doing. These types of little mini or “pop out” lessons happen all the time, but the most important part is this: it’s always in the context of what we’re learning. I cannot stress this enough.
 
So if you ask me how I teach my kids to read if I don’t focus on all the traditional 20th/21st century methods of teaching reading, I will tell you…
 
I don’t teach them to read. They LEARN to read.
You can substitute any other concept/skill in the above sentences, because the emphasis is always on LEARNING, not teaching.
 
 
 (My class and I blog at architectsofwonder.edublogs.org… we share a lot of what we do and how we learn there. We also tweet from @TeamBaldwin and would love to hear from you!)

*Two of my “learning and math” posts that are relevant:

Trust, Compassion, and Love

Think about this:

Why do we cheer on Katniss Everdeen and company in the Hunger Games? Katniss sees a wrong and wants to fix it. The authority (the Capitol) abuses its power. When a person in one of the districts breaks the rules or speaks out against the Capitol, they’re physically and publicly punished. Katniss doesn’t trust the Capitol, and she leads a revolution… and we cheer.

When our STUDENTS communicate to us something they see as a wrong, do we applaud them for speaking up? Or do we try to shut them down and force compliance? When they break our rules, do we sit down and talk with them? Or do we punish? How often is that punishment public and/or physical?

 

What if…

  • we showed kids that we trust them?
  • we stopped requiring absolute compliance with no questioning? (because we wouldn’t want that requested of us, right?)
  • we looked at their acts of defiance as courage to stand up and advocate for themselves?
  • we taught them how to respect others by showing them respect first?
  • we looked at “discipline problem children” as who they really are? Human beings who need our care, trust, compassion, love… and no labels. They are children. Period.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the video* I watched where a young girl was thrown around her classroom while still in her chair… because she didn’t put her phone away. People commented that it wouldn’t have happened if she would have just done what she was told. Comply with my rules, or we will physically cause you harm? In my eyes, the ONLY justification in putting hands on a child is if he (or she) is endangering himself or others… and then only to restrain.

Reading more about her story is heartbreaking. What if an adult in that school had taken the time to simply stop and TALK with her? I’m betting we wouldn’t have seen a video of her being thrown around the room.

It’s extremely obvious that we do not trust kids… and that the depth of our fear OF those children (yes, children) goes so far that we allow them to be hurt by us. We allow them to be treated as LESS than. Less than human. And when you account for the suspension/expulsion rates broken down by race, you see an even more sinister story. We don’t trust kids, especially children of color.

I say “WE,” because each of us is complicit in allowing to this happen over and over again when we don’t stand up to make it end NOW.

I’ve come a long way from my first few years of teaching. Those years when I required absolute compliance. Those years when I didn’t listen to a “sob story,” because I didn’t trust the kids to do what they were “supposed” to do. Those years when a lot of my students hated me and didn’t trust me at all. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t respect them. As their teacher, I was supposed to anticipate that these students would try to get the better of me… would try to be lazy… would try to do anything but what they were supposed to be doing… if I didn’t have the upper hand.

Now, I look back on some of those kids I had… the really defiant ones… and I know they were hurting. I know they needed me to teach them that life was more than what we learning in the classroom… that someone could care about why they were upset. That sometimes an adult who will just LISTEN is more important than following the rules every step of the way. And I wasn’t that teacher.

I’ve read and heard a lot of comments about how “kids are so disrespectful nowadays,” and how they need to be taught respect properly. (Read here: we need to teach them to fear us). Any time I’ve ever heard someone use the phrase, “they need to be taught to respect me,” it always comes across as derisive. Full of contempt. As a child, why would I ever want to respect someone who wants me to fear them?

How can we teach kids to respect us if we don’t respect them?

How can we teach kids to trust us if we don’t trust them?

I am the adult in the classroom. THE ADULT. I need to ensure the safety of my students… yes. But they are in my care, and I take that very seriously. My second priority as a teacher is to help these children love to learn. My first priority is to make sure they know they are cared for. They are trusted. And yes, they are loved. When they make mistakes… and they WILL… I need to be the adult who can think past the mistake. I need to be the adult who sees the child in front of me. The child waiting to see how I will react.

I didn’t do that when I first became a teacher, and that still haunts me. I will not make that same mistake again.

 

 

 

*I didn’t link to the video. There are too many of these types of videos. This is a crisis, and we have to step up. Do better.

Dreams Fulfilled

As the school year came to a close for us this past May, I realized that I had just finished my 20th year in education: six years in 7-12 vocal music, eight years as a technology professional development coordinator, two years in elementary general music, and the last four as a teacher at Anastasis Academy.

At each stage in my education career, I have loved working with my students, both children and adults. But somehow, I always felt something was missing. I didn’t always like that students were required to learn a certain way or a pre-defined set of skills and concepts… and that I was required to teach in a certain way. It didn’t seem like real learning to me.

A good friend of mine, Sharon Comisar-Langdon (who just retired after 34 years!) visited Colorado a while back. It was great to catch up with Sharon and her husband, Randy. I found myself going on and on and on about how much I loved Anastasis and the incredible opportunities we have for our students. At one point, Sharon remarked, “Michelle, what you’re doing at this school is what we ALL went into education to do.”

That statement has stuck with me since that time, and she was right. I have never been happier as a teacher than I am now – watching our students at Anastasis grow in their confidence, ask amazingly deep questions, and become excited about learning! This is a place where students LOVE school. This is a place where teachers love school!

I watched a lot of my teacher friends post countdowns to summer break on Facebook and other social media sites a few months back, and I realized at the time, I had no idea how many days we had left. As much as I enjoy sleeping in occasionally during the summer, I’m not excited for summer break anymore. I miss my students! I miss the joy of learning I am so privileged to witness in those children every single day.

I didn’t mean this to sound like a commercial for our school, but more a testament to what happens when you stick your neck out and do something DIFFERENT. Anastasis is different.

To Kelly Tenkely (who is actually celebrating a birthday today), I express my profound gratitude. Thank you for thinking, “why not me? Why shouldn’t I just start my own school?” Thanks for writing a blog post that started Anastasis. Thank you for making a place where people WANT to be – what I have always loved about teaching and learning happens because of your dreams and drive to make them happen.

This also makes me wonder… why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we stand up to the lawmakers, those who make and enforce policy, and demand what’s best for kids? Why do we insist on “fixing a broken system” with more of the same things that make kids unhappy? Learning should be an experience that is enjoyable, challenging, and based on the needs of each child. I don’t see that happening in most places.

My friend, George Couros, often asks, “Would you want to be a kid in your classroom?” I can truly answer an enthusiastic YES to that question now… and I wish my own children could have experienced learning in this school as well.

As a child, I knew that I wanted to become a teacher, because I love learning… and I wanted to share that love and joy with others. As much as I enjoyed my previous experiences, there was always something missing. Teaching at Anastasis is not just a job. Now I am able to share my passion about learning with our students. As Sharon noted, I get to do what I always dreamed about doing. The smiles on their faces, the realization you see in their eyes when they learn something on their own terms, the pride they feel when they see their progress, and the joy they experience because they know they’re in a place that honors them as unique individuals – THAT is what I wanted to be able to experience when I dreamt about going into teaching. Dreams fulfilled.

Guest Post – Addressing the Viral “Epic Dad Response”

My friend, Nolan Schmit, is a teacher and composer extraordinaire. What I know most about him is his commitment and dedication to the students he serves.

Today, I read a post that Nolan wrote in response to this viral story: Abington dad’s letter becomes matter of principal. (I purposefully chose THIS link, rather than the other incredibly sensational posts I’ve seen about it.) As is typical of stories that elicit an emotional response, it was shared widely, and outrage grew as quickly as the story made the rounds.

My first thought after reading this story was: Yay! Parents who want to (and can afford to) take their children on learning trips are awesome!

My second thought was: schools don’t always have the option of defining “excused” and “unexcused” absences on a per case basis. It doesn’t mean that those types of family trips are discouraged… just that it’s how they’re defined. I know this all depends on the school and district.

Nolan didn’t leave it at that. He responded today with what I think is a justified perspective, and I wish that those who are seething with outrage would consider the position that schools are in when it comes to students and absences. I asked Nolan if he would consider reposting/guest blogging here, and he agreed.

Nolan Schmit - nolanschmit.com

Nolan Schmit – nolanschmit.com

Nolan’s response:

OK. I’ve got to say something. It doesn’t take a lot to get me fired up, but it takes a lot for me post something like this. I feel the need to be an apologist for public education, especially when misinformation is floating around.

I posted part of this on a friend’s page, but am reposting it here.

There is a photo going viral from a guy named Mike Rossi who is upset with his kids’ school because he took his kids on a vacation during the school year and the school wrote him a letter saying the kids’ absences are not considered “excused” absences. Rossi wrote a letter back to the school to “slam” the school for being so rigid and to tell them how educational and valuable the trip was. Many people are treating Mr. Rossi like a hero for “sticking it” to the school and, by extension, the government for being too intrusive.

Let me first say I am in favor of kids having these types of experiences, because THEY ARE VALUABLE and open up the world to kids. Travel and other opportunities for enrichment are needed, desired and invaluable. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I’m on Mr. Rossi’s side on this part of the issue.

To be fair, though, he can’t blame the school. Public education has been under fire for decades and people have DEMANDED that there be accountability. Because of these outcries and the subsequent results at the ballot boxes, we ended up with NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND.

The good part of NCLB is that it has encouraged improved practices in the classroom and has made teachers much more aware of how to reach ALL kids. I’m a better teacher now than when I started and it is not simply due to experience, but some great professional development that resulted from the mandates of NCLB.

The bad part is that schools are put in an impossible position on several fronts. First, it is impossible for 100% of students to achieve the same level of proficiency on any skill or topic on a given date. Punishing schools for this is beyond crazy. That’s like firing your kid’s coach for incompetence because she was unable to coach your kid to run the 400m in under 52 sec.

Second, TODAY the measure of success established FOR schools, right or wrong, is standardized testing. Kids pass the test = good teaching. Kids fail = bad teaching. We take no mitigating circumstances into account. For instance, a child can arrive from the Ukraine with NO ENGLISH skills in third grade and are expected to be at the same level of proficiency as their English speaking peers by fourth grade. This is INSANE. There are many teachers fearing for their future, because when a kid misses school, they miss the content being covered. While the trip may be invaluable, the content covered in class is the ONLY content over which the students will be tested and, in some districts, the only measure by which teacher success is determined.

I empathize with schools, because they have a job to do. Schools don’t have the right to tell parents what to do with their children, but how can schools do the job of educating when kids aren’t in class? You can’t say, “We demand that our kids score well on these tests, will fire you if they don’t, and we can pull our kids out of school as much as we want. If they don’t learn, it is STILL YOUR PROBLEM.”

You can’t have it both ways.

If you vote people into office who have no clue how to craft legislation as it relates to education, this type of thing is the result.

I’ve been in public education for 22 years. I am not a stereotype. I am not owned by a political party. I don’t hate home-schooled kids. I don’t hate private and parochial schools. My liberal friends would call me conservative. My conservative friends would call me liberal. I care about one thing and one thing only. I want every student that comes into my classroom, no matter what their background, beliefs, skin color, religion, life philosophy, culture, race, sexual orientation, economic status, skill set, degree of physical and mental wellness, talents, limitations, interests and ambitions, to treat others with and be treated with kindness and to be able to learn to the best of their abilities. That’s it. I am not unique in this respect. The vast majority of my colleagues feel the same way. Kids are why we got into this profession. We want to give children the tools to live a rich, fulfilling, healthy, purposeful life.

I would prefer that schools were free to allow more opportunities for enrichment, but enrichment now takes a backseat to test scores. We’ve voted, we’ve made our beds and now we have to lie in them.

Our society has put all the educational eggs in the assessment basket and forgotten what constitutes real learning and the impact other life experiences have on the total education of a child.

Thanks for letting me ramble, but when I see or hear misinformation being spread, I feel obligated to stand up for truth and facts.

Peace.
N

A Math Tale – How I Know They Are Learning

Backstory to this post:

Teaching in an inquiry-based school, we don’t isolate “subjects” as most traditional schools do.  The beauty of this model is that kids really get to make connections. Science doesn’t just happen at a certain time of day, and it usually involves many other content areas as well. I love when my students are able to connect on their own that music is science is math is history is communication… and so on.

Although we don’t teach subjects in isolation all day, we do spend some time looking at content areas on their own for supporting understanding.

Math is a great example of one “subject” in our school that receives some supplemental time. It still looks different, though, because we meet each child where he/she is and help to move more deeply into understanding.

(I started to type “move forward,” but that’s not necessarily what happens, nor should it.)

 

The FOCUS of this post:

The problem with math in so many traditional schools is that there is a push to move kids along, rather than guide them into understanding. If you memorize facts easily, you’re going to do well in math early on. The problem with how math is often taught – and how most people think it should be taught – is that we focus so much on the “abstract” — the written facts. My friend Rafranz Davis says, “experiencing math starts with the ‘why,’ not the ‘how.'” I love this! Multiplication tables and formulas, for example, are the how, not the why.

Because so many of us, educators and non-educators alike, were taught with a focus on the math facts, we tend to forget that the conceptual understanding — the “concrete” and “representational” aspects of numbers — is entirely more important than what we memorize. A lot of students who do well in elementary or primary math classes find themselves struggling in pre-algebra or other math classes that require an understanding of what those facts mean, how numbers are related, the underlying patterns in those facts, and how it all connects. <— The WHY

Flash cards, worksheets, and apps that only focus on drilling facts are not what our kids need. They do not show us what our children have learned and understand about math.

BUT… this is where so much time, effort, and concerns lie. If students do not have their multiplication tables memorized by 3rd or 4th grade, they’re labeled as behind their peers. As a teacher, this frustrates me immeasurably. Yes, we want kids to be fluent in their facts, but the problem is when we assign a date and time to when they must have these facts memorized.

You might have a child who memorizes easily, but doesn’t truly understand what the fact means. I once had a student who knew that 5×3=15, but did not know that 5 groups of 3 items was the meaning behind it. Another one of my students understood that multiplication was grouping, but she could not recall fluently each fact if put on the spot.

Teaching a K/1 class for the first time has reinforced my philosophy of how I teach math- they WHY comes before the HOW. An example from today sealed the deal:

I have four students, all boys, in my class. (I know. Yes, I typed “four.”)

Every one of these boys, ages 5 and 6, is in a different place in his understanding of addition and subtraction facts. Some can skip count by 7s. Some are still struggling with addition and subtraction facts up to 10.

Today, we did some problem-solving with an activity I found on MathPickle.com: Addition Boomerang. (Watch the video – it explains how the boomerangs work. Definitely worth the 5 minutes.)

I started with all 4 of the kids together and demonstrated how the boomerangs work. We started with one boomerang with a +1 to reach the target of 10. Then we changed it to +2 to the target of 10. The boys were seeing this as an easy activity, and liked the idea of going around the boomerang circle.

Next, I changed it to two boomerangs: +3 and +4 with the same target of 10. I asked them to find every combination, both successful and “fails.”

This is what we produced together:

Boomerang1

 

After we discussed other combinations, they determined that they had found all the successful combinations. Anything else we we might try would result in similar fails. This discussion was incredible, because some of them still don’t always remember the commutative property of addition. We often have to review that if 3+4=7, then 4+3 also equals 7. Epiphany moment!

After our discussion, I paired them up and gave them their own boomerangs to solve. One group had to get to the target of 20 with +4 and +5. The other group needed to get to 12 with +2 and +3.

Boomerang3

Boomerang2

Here’s the beauty of what I witnessed today. One of my boys who is very fluent in addition facts well past 10 struggled with this activity at first. He didn’t understand what we were trying to do. After working with his partner, he exclaimed, “Oh! I get it!” Exuberant smiles followed. Those facts he memorized are beginning to come to life for him.

Another one of my boys who is not fluent in addition facts to 10 whizzed through this activity. He was counting so quickly, his partner had to ask him to slow down so he could figure it out as well. I can still ask him, “what is 4+5?” and it will take him as long as it takes to put up 4 fingers followed by 5 fingers. But when I asked him which combinations would work in his boomerang, he amazed me at how quickly he could come up with different combinations, AS WELL AS explain WHY. This is a kid who would fail a standardized fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice math test on addition facts to 10. Give him a method in which to find a pattern or solve a puzzle, and he is able to show exactly what he understands.

When parents have come to me over the years with concerns- or outright nervousness- about where their kids are in math, I have tried to reassure them that a) kids don’t learn at the same pace, b) knowing facts is NOT understanding mathematics, and c) kids need a variety of activities that help them explore the relationship of numbers in meaningful and relevant ways.

Drilling facts, and even emphasizing facts over understanding of the concrete and representational aspects of what numbers and operators mean does a lot of damage to how kids view “math.”

So here’s my advice:

  1. Take a deep breath. Your child’s math progress does not reflect poorly on you as a parent. I promise.
  2. If you have taken your child to a math tutoring business*, remember that it is a business. They will find something (anything!) wrong with your child’s progress to sell you their services.
  3. If you really want to help your child understand the relationship of numbers, find activities that involve, but do not focus on math. Baking, building, measuring, counting, budgeting for groceries– all of these are great ways to involve your child in something that requires some skills and concepts without it being the only focus. Math facts, by themselves, can be tedious and tiresome for a lot of kids (especially for those who have been told they are “behind”).
  4. One of my students can count by 7s because he is a huge football fan. Ask him how many points have been scored with 6 touchdowns… he knows the answer. And he is SIX. Football matters to him, so groups of 7s and 3s are meaningful to him, too. What matters to your child? Build on that.
  5. Puzzles and patterns are fabulous ways to help kids make sense of numbers. If your child loves patterns, but hates “math,” there is a disconnect here. Find puzzles that your child might enjoy and do them together. Be patient, and don’t feed answers.
  6. Do a little research on Concrete-Representational-Abstract instruction (CRA). This has been my underlying philosophy of how I help kids learn concepts in math (and music, for that matter), and I’ve seen kids’ understanding improve significantly. This method connects the HOW with the WHY.
  7. If you’re teaching math, where is your emphasis? I know many of you have pacing guides, material/textbooks to cover, and even scripts you are required to follow… but are you helping your students understand? If yes, please add some of your resources or suggestions in the comments. (Thanks!)

 

I’m fortunate to teach at a school** where we MAKE time for kids to explore and have those epiphany moments, whether it’s in their mathematic abilities, reading, asking questions, creating, building, or discovering their passions. (It’s a pretty awesome place to be a kid AND an adult who gets to witness it all.)

Above all else, I want to do what’s right for each of the children in my care every day. There’s a reason “Drill and Kill” became a thing in describing math practice activities. I don’t have any place for that when I want to help children understand.

(+10,000 points to you if you read all the way to the end. TL:DR is not in my vocabulary.)

 

*”math tutoring business” in this sense refers to corporate and for-profit businesses, not individuals.

**Shameless plug: if you want to witness in person what we do in our school, please join us at 5sigmaeducon.com next month!

Educational Leaders

When someone asks you to recommend a great educational leader, whose names come to your mind?

[CC image credit: Leo Reynolds]

 

Next question… how many of them are currently in the classroom?

Please don’t get me wrong. This is not a post* that is about bashing administrators, educational consultants, or others whose names often come up in leadership conversations. Some of the people I respect the most and who are my very good friends are people with these titles.

I’m concerned, though, that the lack of respect for classroom teachers isn’t just a problem among non-educators. I think WE are all guilty of it, too.

Oh sure… there are the times when a classroom teacher wins an award with a lot of publicity. You’ll hear that teacher’s name often. He/she might be asked to special events, meet with dignitaries, etc. After a year (or maybe less), nada.

It’s ironic when those of us in education discuss educational reform and blame our society’s lack of respect for the teaching profession… yet, is it all that different in our own ranks? Seriously. When was the last time you had a keynote speaker that was someone in the classroom RIGHT NOW?

Don’t even get me started on the percentage of women or minorities invited to share their expertise. Yes, you could name some right now in the comments section, and they would probably be the same people I would list. Compare that number, however, against the norm.

Is it because we, as classroom teachers, are not great at self-marketing by nature? Is that what it takes? Personally, I get tired of people marketing themselves all over Twitter and blogs. Maybe that’s just me.

Or, and this is my sincere question to you, is it because we really don’t respect the people in the classroom as much as we think we do? 

I welcome your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

 

*Please know that I am more than aware of how important administrators are in a school. They can make such a huge difference in empowering their teachers and children to move forward, take risks, and create an incredible learning environment. I’ve also known, however, many teachers doing amazing things IN SPITE of lousy administrators. This is NOT an anti-admin post. 🙂

 

It Is About The Students

Student-centered learning. Do you know what that really looks like?

 

Sometimes I feel like a lazy teacher in this student-centered world at Anastasis Academy… but that’s only because the majority of my teacher training in undergraduate (and most of my graduate) classes prepared me for a TEACHER-centered classroom.

You are the teacher. You are the deliverer of information, knowledge, skills.

As a music teacher, some of the workshops I attended helped me realize that the kids have to experience learning to gain knowledge and skills. Very few undergrad or grad classes did this.

So what does this student-centered classroom REALLY look like?

Some days, it looks pretty chaotic from an outsider’s point-of-view (actual statement from a visitor to our school).

Some days, it looks like kids working together on a project they have designed themselves.

Some days, it looks like a child excitedly running up to me, saying, “Mrs. Baldwin! Look at this! I found this really cool information about…” x,y, z.

But most of the time, it looks like kids satisfying their own curiosity without much interference from me.

I’m on the sidelines, and I love that.

Honest disclosure: it took us a while to get to this point, because even at 8-10 years of age (those are the ages of the kids I have), these kids have been programmed to look to an adult for answers. And questions. And direction. And time management. And so on. Some days are better than others. Recently, I feel like they have regressed a little bit in independence, and I have to force myself NOT to step in.

What I know in my heart, though, is these kids are developing skills that will serve them well throughout their entire lives. They are not memorizing facts provided through notes or worksheets from me. They discover… they experiment… they reflect… and they are learning to hold themselves accountable for their own learning.

The student-centered classroom is about the STUDENTS. It’s my job as their teacher to help provide an environment in which they can learn, experience, problem-solve… and then get out of their way.

 

Saints or Scapegoats

Over winter break, I saw a couple of local news segments about a teacher who had won an award for her great teaching. The phrases used to describe her:

  • “tirelessly giving of herself”
  • “works late nights and weekends to do whatever it takes”
  • “selfless and saint-like”

My first impression was that she must be a really great teacher… but then, I  became aware that I was also slightly annoyed. I couldn’t put my finger on it right away.
Why was I annoyed? Was I jealous? Not really. After a little thought, I realized it was the fact that this woman’s entire life was dedicated to the education of students… and nothing else. There was no mention of her own family, or if she even had one. There wasn’t a single word about any of her non-school related activities.

So, I looked around at some other teacher award articles. Did you know that a search for “award,” “teacher,” and “tirelessly” results in 465,000,000 returns on Google? I found many of the same types of descriptions of teachers, and that word “tireless” is found over and over and over.

On the bright side, many awards given recently also feature the words “innovative,” “creative,” and “inspiring.” Now, those are words I can get behind! Some of the these descriptions also mention the families of those teachers, as well as their community and leisure activities. To me, this signals a balance in the lives of these teachers, and I think they are more likely to be successful with students than those who dedicate every minute of their day to teaching.

As I reflect back on 2011, the Teacher-as-Superman/Wonder Woman (or Saint) conundrum, and the backlash on the teaching profession in general, I wonder if our expectations of what a teacher should be gets in the way of helping kids to be the very best they can be. If we perpetuate that myth of a saint-like teacher, there will definitely be those who suffer by comparison and then become the scapegoats for everything that’s wrong with education. Regardless, none of that helps the kids who struggle day to day, either due to home environment, lack of proper nutrition, learning difficulties, or just plain boredom in school.

Looking forward to your thoughts…

(note: I didn’t link to any of the articles or videos of news segments, because I did not want to put any one specific teacher on the spot. It’s not about those particular people… more the idea of what a teacher is or isn’t.)

Schools and Class Wars

That’s what it’s coming down to… class wars in our schools.

With the budget cuts at the federal, state, and local levels, politicians are creating class wars in education. Our ‘illustrious’ Secretary of Education states that we in public education will have to learn to do more with less funding. This is tagged as “The New Normal.” But what happens when budget cuts are so severe and un-funded mandates regarding test scores, AYP, etc. continue to pile on?

This is what happens:

The wealthy pull their kids out of public schools, if they haven’t done so already, and pay to have them educated in a school of their choosing. Those parents find the schools that provide the programs they want for their children. These schools are not necessarily subject to federal mandates, usually have significantly less standardized testing, and often have much of the school day devoted to enrichment studies beyond math and language arts.

Children living in poverty do not have those options. They continue to attend schools with less funding. These are the schools which are forced to cut libraries, teacher librarians, music, art, drama, theater, physical education, recess… all those teachers, classes and programs that research says are best for kids to grow, develop, and learn.

For those kids in more affluent families, even if they have no private choices for school, parents still find and pay for programs outside the school day- club sports, private music instruction, etc. – to fill the void that is missing in the public schools. Kids in less affluent families are left to their own devices.

If, as Horace Mann stated:

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of man, – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.

… it seems as if our politicians are out to upset that “balance-wheel. ” Without a strong public education available for ALL students, we cannot have democracy, or even our representative democracy. We will have separate classes of education and an ever-growing divide between the have’s and the have-not’s.

I would argue, Mr. Duncan, that this is NOT the new normal. This is a disgrace to the children of the country you purport to serve.

Readiness

Ready 4 what?

Ready 4 what?

As a teacher and parent, I’m constantly reminded that children learn at different rates. Sometimes, it’s an issue of what is developmentally appropriate and, other times, it’s about their readiness. For some kids, there are occasions when they simply are not ready to learn something new. It might be due to some current event in their lives or whether they had breakfast that morning… whatever the case, it’s my job to help them get to that stage of being ready to learn.

Repeat after me: I cannot force readiness.

[cc licensed photo by kevindooley]

Now I want to transfer this same concept to adult learning, and in this case, professional growth of educators, specifically in the areas of ed reform, social media, and other web tools.

There are many, and I would include myself, who are considered early adopters in the above areas. We clamor for change NOW and reform NOW. For years, we’ve been using certain tools that some people are only now discovering. For example, I started blogging over seven years ago. There are quite a few people who have been blogging for much longer than I have. When a new tool comes around, I’m usually hopping on that bandwagon to see what it’s about, does it provide value to me, and will I continue to use it. It’s in my nature to tinker around with something that interests me. Sometimes, I get impatient that change doesn’t happy quickly enough for my tastes.

Because I’m an early adopter in these areas, it might be easy for me to then complain about the “glacial pace” of other educators when it comes to learning about new ideas, new tools, and making real changes in education. Come on! I’ve been doing this for almost a decade… get a move on! Maybe I would express my frustration about the perceived banal chatter or echo chamber mentality regarding topics that I’ve already been discussing with my networks for years.

But that would be extremely hypocritical of me. If there are children who, for one reason or another, are not ready to learn a concept or skill, it’s my job to help them move along and get to that place where they are ready.

So… shouldn’t I also be accepting of other educators who have not quite reached that state of readiness? Shouldn’t I continue to offer my assistance, perhaps in the form of webinars or online opportunities, to help fellow educators learn about those things that are new to them, even if they’re not necessarily new to me? What about brand new educators? What if they were not exposed to any of these things in their teacher education? How will they find new ideas? Where will they receive options to extend their own professional growth?

The answer is the same as it was with the children: I cannot force readiness. I can only do what I can to help others move to that next step in their own growth. Peer coach. Offer suggestions. Offer assistance. Show real examples of how using these tools or participating in something like an Elluminate session on a Saturday helps me to learn more.

Being an educator and early adopter doesn’t mean I get to a point where I get to dictate where the rest of the world “should” be. Nor does it mean I should look down my nose at those who are still offering discussions and PD sessions about things I might already know.

When I teach other adults about web tools and networks, I constantly bring up the fact that you use those tools which offer value to YOU. If you’ve used a tool for a while, and it no longer has value for you… it’s okay to stop using that tool. Even if many other people are just discovering it, you don’t have to use that tool.

While you’re making those decisions about what holds value for you, please try to remember that others will have different needs and will value different things. They will be at different stages of readiness… and that’s okay. I’ve found that it’s easier to bring people along with you when you don’t treat them like n00bs.