The Game Plan

As I mentioned in my previous post, I feel like I’ve got my feet on the ground with regard to the upcoming semester.  My Spanish 2 kids are leaping into the 21st century with goofy, teenage gusto, and I’m so relieved that I feel like I can meet them at the door with some fun, relevant activities to meet their needs.  It should be a fun semester.  I’m not even looking forward to Spring Break yet (well, maybe a bit.)

But as regards my Culminating Artifact, I will likely continue my work with the Junior High Foreign Language PLC (what on Earth do you do with an acronym like “JHFLPLC”?  Naming rights start at a grand.)  At the end of the first semester, I whipped up a rough draft of a proposal for a PLC for JH Spanish teachers.  Before I could meet with Laura, Brandi, and Bob Ryshke to refine it into a final draft, my principal asked if we could include all languages, and subsequently stripped the proposal down to skin and bones (I was trying to write the proposal as if it were a unit plan–too much detail).  By the New Year, the proposal was submitted and accepted, pending review of resources and hiring needs.  Given the economy, there is a distinct possibility that we will have to wait a year, but I will nonetheless get all the front-loading done so that when and if the PLC gears up, we will hit the ground running.  Here are the steps as I see them:

  • I need to speak with my Principal about what level of planning he requires or prefers, and what elements he requires.
  • Based on that conversation, Kristen (the French teacher who will serve alongside me as co-facilitator of the PLC) and I will develop the structure of the PLC.
  • I’ve already begun DuFour’s “Professional Learning Communities at Work.”  This will give me a good foundation of the philosophy behind PLCs, as well as an acquaintaince with the jargon.  Perhaps I’ll hit on this point in a later post, but as opposed as I am to “buzzwords” in education, throughout this process I’ve learned that words matter, and that part of developing a meaningful program is being very intentional with your words.  Like I said, more on that later, perhaps.

There is a possibility that my Principal and PLC coordinators in the Junior High will not want us to overly script the PLC, which means that I will have VERY little work to do regarding the set-up of the PLC.  If that is the case, Laura gave me the idea of developing an online resource for Westminster’s PLCs for internal and external use.  Much as our wiki once served as the home to the 21st Century Cohort and the Inquiry-based Cohort, I would like to look into creating a space where the paths of these various communities might find common tread.

After all, if PLCs are to be the future of how faculty interact with one another to engage in conversations about student learning, it would be silly for them not to have a common space in which to exchange ideas.

Where did I park?

I generally park in two places on campus.  If I’m on time, I park just a hop from my office in the lot outside Campbell Hall.  If I’m running late, however, I have to drive around the building, up the hill, and park behind Askew.  Sometimes, after a particularly absorbing day, I walk down the small flight of stairs to the Campbell lot, get halfway through the parking lot, snap my head this way, then that.  It is at that moment that I have no idea where my car is.  But moments later, a foggy recollection of ten hours earlier creeps into my head.  I spin around and start walking up the hill to look for my car in the only other place that it can be.

When I started this semester something interesting happened.  My head was definitely in a fog fed by gingerbread cookies, car rides, and a snow-dappled horse farm.  However, as I turned my attention toward planning my classes, something astounding happened–I knew exactly where I wanted to go.  I wanted my Spanish 2 students to use their shared Google Map as a sort of Culminating Group Project (this was before I had received Brandi and Laura’s email announcing our Culminating Projects, so my integrity is intact–redundant, I know).

I’m very excited about this semester, as I’m starting to find the balance b/w traditional classroom instruction and more student-directed, creative, collaborative, communicative activities.  The transition has been awkward in the first two attempts, but I’m sure with better planning, it will blend nicely.

During first semester students looked at “city life” and the environment as themes.  This semester they are starting on health and nutrition, and will finish the semester studying professions (which I’m going to stealthily convert into a unit on economics).  In the end, students will research a Latin American country as it pertains to the environment, urban poverty, health and nutrition, or economic duress.  They will choose one or more topics, and they will “build their case” for helping this country, and present it to the class as a sort of “Model UN” project. That idea I stole from Wagner’s book.  No apologies.

So, 21st century learning is sowing seeds in my Spanish 2 Experienced (Honorsish) class.  However, I’m still on baby steps with my Spanish 1 Intro (not-so-Honorsish) class.  I have stuck to the traditional routine of teacher-centered content delivery for the grammar, and once they’re comfortable, they engage one another in groups (in very scripted activities).  Again and again, however, I’m finding that I’m not getting the results I hope for.  I suspect that I need to communicate better, “This is what I expect, this is what it looks like, this is how you know you’re doing it, and this is the consequence if you don’t do it.”  Or is that belying the process?

How to evoke honest, developmentally appropriate work from kids, about half of whom have learned that to give off an aura of incompetence results in low expectations from all?

And where on Earth is my car?

Global Achievement Gap: Conclusions

Let me say that if you find that you don’t have time in the school year to read Tony Wagner’s “The Global Achievement Gap,” do consider reading Chapter 6, “Closing the Gap: Schools That Work,” pp. 207-253.  In it Wagner profiles three schools, High Tech High in San Diego, “The Met” in Providence, RI, and The Parker Charter School outside of Boston.  Wagner’s study of these schools makes you want to close the book and take action, knowing that it is a reality somewhere else, if not at your school.

A refrain kept running through my head as I was reading this chapter.  During our kitchen remodel a contractor once told me that it’s more costly to renovate a house than to build one from the ground up.  These three schools were built upon founding principles that make this kind of learning possible.  From the beginning they had teacher/parent/administrator buy-in, they built the grading infrastructure in such a way that allows for project-based, student-directed learning.  Finally, the level of attention given to the individual student makes 1-on-1 student-teacher contact an everyday part of the experience.

Question: So what’s standing in the way of us emulating these models in our schools?

Answer: Our schools.

In order to refocus attention on the individual student, and in order to make as emphases something resembling Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills, we need to reach 100% of the staff and faculty, rethink the texts we’re using (and if we should be using texts), reconsider the validity of the 100 pt grading system, re-evaluate validity of the “mile-wide, inch-deep” AP content.

One thing that I think we have GOING for us is that class size may be LESS of an issue than once thought.  In the process of exploring the viability of a Foreign Language PLC, we’re discussing whether or not class size will be deleteriously affected.  If we continue to deliver instruction by the teacher-centered model, then yes, class size is important.  But if we change to student-centered, paired or small group inquiry-based learning, with the teacher acting as facilitator, then the model works theoretically up to 20 students.  (Some schools are already there, however we’re right around an avg of 14/15 students per class.)

Wagner’s book has left me with a sense of hope and determination.  My desire to effect change in my teaching has been there for some time, but undeniable exigencies of the existing system and the inspiring examples of 21st century learning that Wagner presents in “The Global Achievement Gap” have strengthened my will to do so.

Choose your Own Adventure (Wagner’s, “Achievement Gap”)

As much as I’d like to fantasize about being a non-linear thinker, weighing multiple options, always looking for connections between data point y and data point x from three weeks ago, I’d just be fooling myself.  I think my brain operates like a dichotomous key or a “Choose your Own Adventure” book, constantly choosing between diverging circumstances, only to arrive at another fork in the road.  It’s how I solve electrical wiring conundrums in my house, and it’s probably how I assess student learning.

It’s also how I’ve been approaching Wagner’s “Global Achievement Gap.” When Wagner asks me, “Do we want this or that?” I choose one and make my next determination based on the previous choice.  Some questions have frustrated me, some have filled my heart with the placid warmth of the “It’s not just me!” feeling, and some things have made me furious.

Some breadcrumbs I’ve dropped along the way:

In discussing the Seven Survival Skills, Wagner interviews a teacher who laments that “schools don’t teach kids how to really think critically.”  In later chapters, he admits that our system of accountability (NCLB) provides no return on investment for critical thinking.  (The SAT does not ask you to interpret social polemic, so what’s the benefit in learning how…).  This was probably my first question of the book:

Have we ever taught critical thinking?  And if not, are we supposed to?  Look how far we’ve gotten, after all!  Are we lamenting something lost or something that was never there?  Depending on your answer, solutions to the problem are different.  If you choose the latter, “Something that was never there,” turn to page 18.

Okay, so critical thinking has never been a part of our educational process.  I accept that as it pertains to the MAJORITY of students.  However, I know that there are (and have been) many teachers who excel at prompting critical thinking and problem solving.  But, yes, for the majority, it’s a lot of scantron sheets.

Now we have to assume that the answer lies in an approach or a system of beliefs that we have never held in the education world.  Where do we look for this new “paradigm” (oh, how I have come to hate that word!)?  Wagner offers us Cisco Systems (I’m still bitter that they won’t pay a dividend).  The CEO of Cisco suggests that “if you try five things and get all five right, you may be failing.”  He’s talking about stretch goals.  Taking risks.  In order for teachers to take risks in class and accept occasional, even frequent failure, then teachers must also allow that of their students.  Since the consequence of failure is a failing grade, we must assume that in order to remove the fear of failure, we must remove the brand of failure–the failing grade itself.

My school has dipped its big toe in these waters just this past December when the principal introduced the “Death of Zero.”  Rather than returning a zero for unfinished work, students are expected to <gasp> finish the work.  It will require some extra nudge from teachers, but I find great value in this approach.  And I believe that an assessment rubric in which students exceed/meet/do not meet expectations may be a way to address the anxiety surrounding the false empiricism of the percentage grade (“Johnny, congratulations, you are 83% as good as you could have been in this course.”)

Although Wagner doesn’t take on this argument in the first 150 pages, I hope to read about it sometime soon.  What he does take on is the barn-sized target of standardized college entrance exams.  Enough said.  I won’t even bother.  (One disturbing aside–if College Board is a non-profit, then how come they and ETS have a lobbying budget that rivals most unions and tobacco companies?)

I’m off to finish my adventure.  I’ll be back with more “ifso’s.”