And the children shall lead them?

Recently, Laura referenced a reflection by her colleague Sandra Switzer of the Lovett School:

It is my sense that once students become aware of the distinct qualities that empower their learning, they refuse to accept anything less, choosing instead to recreate them in other classes.  Engendering personal investment is difficult under our culture’s current pedagogical paradigm where numbers rule.  Learning is goal oriented. Many teachers feel confined to material likely to be found on standardized tests.  These numbers matter to the teacher, the school, and the students in terms of funding and admissions. Unfortunately this emphasis leads to what I call the “anorexic-bulimic” model of teaching.  Students “binge” on facts the night before a test and “purge” it out the next day.  Little is retained and even less is understood.  Perhaps most importantly, students see learning as a tedious, if necessary, chore.

Which is why I’m not surprised to read in DuFour’s book (see previous post for link) that a helpful prescription for effective learning is to remove content and to focus on teaching children how to learn.  I’ve made some strides in the former (we’ve removed some heavy-duty material from the Spanish 1 & 2 curriculum in order to focus on depth rather than breadth), and only time will tell if I’m effectively practicing the latter.  So far, my students have been asked to complete specific tasks given tools and parameters, rather than step-by-step instructions.  They’ve been asked to work with other students on a collaborative project in which they work toward a shared outcome, rather than individual but related tasks.  And they’ve been asked to connect their individual work with one another and with world events.

But the thing that most struck me in Switzer’s reflection is this:  “Once students become aware of the distinct qualities that empower their learning, they refuse to accept anything less, choosing instead to recreate them in other classes.”  True, there is a core constituency of teachers out there, ourselves included, that are trying to make these fundamental changes.  But perhaps global change will not come from some Professional Development Enlightenment.  Perhaps students, empowered by positive experience in one class, will help their other teachers find opportunities for relevant, student-centered, process-oriented learning in their own classes.

You cannot demand something that you don’t know exists or that you cannot identify yourself.  Perhaps an “educated” student, and not a motivated facilitator, will be our best advocate for substantive change in our classrooms.

Rick Dufour’s “PLCs at Work”

If all goes to plan, my Culminating Artifact will be the planning of a Foreign Language PLC which is to begin August 2010.  Keep your fingers crossed.  However, in keeping with the “hope for the best, plan for the worst” mentality of school change, I am spending the spring semester reading Rick DuFour, Ted Sizer, Michael Fullan and others about the philosophy, methodology, and formation of PLCs, as well as the mechanics of school change.

Speaking of school change, in my current read, Professional Learning Communities at Work, DuFour gave me a chuckle in Chapter 3 when he ran down a list of reasons why schools fail to successfully implement reform:

  • the change moved too fast
  • the change moved too slowly
  • the change was too big
  • the change was too small
  • the change was top-down without faculty buy-in
  • the change was bottom-up without admin support

(DuFour, p. 48)

Essentially, what DuFour is saying is that the school won’t change unless they want to change; there will always be a reason to reject the reform and you are guaranteed to have at least one person see change from the opposite perspectives.  More  to the point, he noted that, “A 21st century classroom needs a 21st century school behind it.”  Amen, brother.

So, in addition to my study of PLCs and the expert voices behind this movement, I will observe the PLCs that currently function in my school.  I look forward to sitting in on those conversations.  I will also look into some elements of PLCs that are considered essential to the collaborative ethos, such as the outcome of establishing “essential learnings” within a department or school, the Japanese practice of “lesson study,” and the various ways in which a PLC may measure results.

Again, hopefully all of this inquiry will inform my participation in a JHFLPLC(!) next year.  But if that’s not in the cards, I will be ready to mobilize whenever that day comes.

By the way, if you’re like me and you begin to stutter when someone asks you to describe what are the key ideas behind professional learning communities, keep a miniaturized and laminated copy of this in your pocket.  It’ll make you sound real smart.

“Teaching and Learning” is a foreign language

Words matter.

The overarching takeaway from Educon 2.2 is that I’m learning a new language.  Not that I don’t understand the buzzwords that are in common use, but I don’t know how to express my needs as a teacher and my wants for my students.  Educon has helped a great deal simply because I have been engaged in this conversation for three days straight.  And although I have been repeating myself quite a bit this weekend, each time I give my schpeel (albeit a sincere, authentic schpeel) I get better at expressing what I want my classroom to be and what I see as the barriers getting in my way.  This weekend has been like a three-day long Dobbs Cohort meeting, only with people far crazier than all of you 🙂

At the end of the first day, although the panel discussion was a bit of a let-down, I felt hopeful.  By the middle (early middle?) of the second day, I couldn’t take it any more.  I had had so many wonderful interactions, I couldn’t bear to let it all combine into a cacophony of thought.  So I hopped on a bus and took a long, quiet bus ride to Independence Hall and spent some time with Ben Franklin’s ghost.  So there I was, standing in Signers Hall, listening to an overly theatrical Park Ranger give a very spirited treatment of the process of the founding of our country.  I didn’t let it go unnoticed that here I am in Philadelphia trying to start something from scratch (my vision for how kids can gain access to and affinity for modern languages), and I found myself in a room where a bunch of guys did just that!  And the overarching message of my would-be diva Park Ranger was that it was a MESSY PROCESS.  There’s a lot of blowback, even from the most noble minds in the room (the drafting of Declaration and the Constitution was anything but a chorus of like-minded cuddlebugs), and in the end the founders created an imperfect system that has yielded the most enduring democracy in history.

So, too, is the process that I’m undertaking (imperfect, that is).  I have come to be comfortable with failure, I have become comfortable looking a little farther afield than the next graded assessment, and I’ve become comfortable letting the students determine the path of their learning.  However, I’m still very much tied to the textbook.  I need to think of it more as a reference than as Assembly Instructions.  However, in the forefront of my mind is the fact that I’m not a veteran of answering these questions from DuFour:

  • How do I know students are learning?
  • If not, why not?
  • What do I do if they already know it?

I wonder if the answers to these questions become clearer after I’ve seen this type of learning occur.  Or do I need to get busy building rubrics that assess this type of learning?

Back to words.  Despite my allergy to institutional mantra and buzzwords employed by those trying to sell you their recently published book, I have come to realize that in order to build the environment that best feeds the wonder, intellect, and compassion of the teacher and the students, you need to be able to define the environment.  So, I’ve half-heartedly uttered words like collaborative, creative, design-oriented, essential learnings, etc., without allowing them to take on the full weight that they deserve (many, many other words, by the way).  So, as I (re)define my own teaching and learning, I hope to give deference to these words. And perhaps the modifications that I make in the future will constitute a renovation rather than demolition/rebuild of my teaching practice to date.

If nothing else, Educon taught me that there is meaning to these words, and for their full effect to be realized, we must use them in dialogue with other practitioners.