If a tree falls in the classroom…

[Web 2.0 tools] are specifically designed to support communitites in completing shared tasks.  Wikipedia survives on a small number of paid employees because the contributors have a shared sense of mission.  Educators need to build a similar sense of shared purpose[…] Schools and universities have the potential to become communities of learning, but educators and administrators must rethink teaching and learning in the context of new social trends and the technologies that support them. (p. 6)

What’s your shared purpose in class?

If you, like I, didn’t establish one in August, what you’re doing in April might not matter.  Forgive me if it seems like I’m taking massive steps backward in my understanding of 21st century competencies, but I think I just realized that emerging technologies don’t just fit nicely with student learning; they often reflect it. And if youth gravitate toward technology that is interactive in nature, why are we still cultivating transactional relationships in our classroom?

Earlier in the article, the authors referred to the old model as “teaching as transmission.”  Until recently, most technology was transactional in nature–enter data, receive a product.  At some point, transactional technology became interactive and networked.  Web searches became wikis, e-mails became blogs.  Perhaps this is a chicken/egg question, but which came first, the networked application or the networked student?

And why are kids so inextricably networked?  Is it so that they can master a foreign language?  Ha!  Because each of their networks, no matter how trivial achieves a shared purpose.  The burgeoning guitarist goes to iCompositions.com to share his music with the world, and to learn from others.  Facebookers join communities that allow the user to cultivate a virtual farm or build an ersatz criminal empire and update their friends about it.  Others join communities called “I don’t care about your farm, your fish, your park, or your mafia!!” (active member since 2009).  The point is, they all join one constituency or another because they want to feel connected to something.

Teachers have become proficient at utilizing transactional technology in their classrooms.  Microsoft Office is ablaze in schools across America.  But I’m willing to bet that the percentage of teachers using Web 2.0 tools is still in the single digits.  I’m not suggesting that we all chase each fad technology that comes around (imagine if my teachers based their lessons on the tenets of Colecovision?), but if our teaching more closely reflects the ways in which students interact outside of the classroom, perhaps we would see more interaction inside the classroom.

And can I get an “Amen” for the coolest use of the word “disruptive” that I’ve ever encountered?

The foundations of a PLC

I’m continuing (slowly) to take in DuFour’s book, and although I usually like to tear through books, I’m crawling through this one and I don’t seem to mind it.  There’s a lot to chew on.  It’s not voluminous and it’s not chock full of complicated concepts.  But as I mentioned in a previous post, words matter.  And although unimpressive in and of themselves, DuFour’s words have the potential to move mountains.

DuFour writes very purposefully about the process by which a PLC is created and sustained.  He starts with the essentials: mission, vision, values, and goals.

Mission

The essence of a school’s mission is the question “Why do we exist?” (p. 58)  What is the purpose of the organization and what does that spell for student learning?  DuFour cautions that schools “cannot be content with a half-hearted affirmation of their belief that all students can learn.” (62)  The mission statement must include specifics about what we expect students to learn, and what that learning looks like.

Vision

What do we want our school to look like in 20 years?  In order to begin the journey to substantive school change, an organization must first figure out what it wants to become.  DuFour quotes Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you probably aren’t going to get there.” (64)  DuFour also asserts that in order for the vision to gain traction, it must be widely accepted by those within the school.  He presents some ways for this to be accomplished, and one of them is essentially a PLC.

What the vision turns out to be is largely influenced by the school’s current culture.  DuFour cites Georgiades in describing some of the attributes evident in schools that are receptive to institutional change.  They are student-centered, have an improvement orientation, high expectations, collaborative work behavior, a strong knowledge base supported by staff development, a sense of group goals, and a staff that is focused, involved, and concerned. (71)

Values

In his discussion on values, DuFour asks the question, “How must we behave in order to make our shared vision a reality?” (88)  If the mission addresses why it exists, and the vision ponders what it wants to become, values address how to make the vision a reality.  I consider this the “mindset” component.  Once you decide who you are and who you want to become, you must adopt a mentality and you must prepare to act guided by this mentality.  Once a community is of a shared mindset,  it can begin the final step in the upholding of the school’s mission and implementation of its vision.

Goals

Action verbs.  I imagine that the goals are where you start making people talk in the active voice.  Words like discuss, provide, promote, collaborate, demonstrate, and assess.  A list of to-do’s is created and before long, a school is on its way to implementing its vision.

My Adventures at “Boarding” School

You may have noticed the title of this blog is “The Golden Plunger.”  I first heard the term in a lecture given by Rob Evans, and organizational psychologist and author of The Human Side of School Change.  He spoke to our faculty about taking risks in our teaching practice.  “The Golden Plunger” is an imaginary award that a teacher would bestow upon him or herself for implementing a great idea that falls with a thud on the classroom floor (or with a swish, as the name suggests).

From time to time I flirt with failure in my teaching practice, but it happens rarely enough that I feel assured that I’m not taking as many risks as I should–I would definitely not put my name in as candidate for a Golden Plunger.  I wonder what kind or extent of failure in my teaching practice is acceptable or appropriate.  How much failure is the right amount of failure?  I hold up my aching wrists, knotted shoulders, bruised shin, and delicate backside as evidence.

This week, while on Spring Break, I made my first attempt at snowboarding.  My wife and I just returned from a week in South Lake Tahoe where I, a self-assessed intermediate-level skier, impressed myself with hours and hours of adroit, high-speed, tight-turning runs at Heavenly Ski Resort.  I indulged in wide open sweepers and tight twisties.  I even took a few detours through the wooded portions for a bit of backcountry skiing (like slalom, but with immovable, potentially fatal obstacles).  I came down the slopes, punched my boots out of my bindings, and patted myself on the back, feeling like the coolest cat on Earth.

Today, however, I feel like an arthritic octogenarian (no offense to octogenarians–I’m sure some snowboard way better than I).  The day after Heavenly, we met up with a cousin who lives in the Bay area and has snowboarded for years.  Julie and I both did the responsible thing and took a 2.5 hour lesson from the pros.  I was amazed at how foreign it is to have your feet strapped to a board while sliding down a hill.  As I usually do, I listened intently to our instructor, mimicked his moves and tried to implement his yogic body contortions.  After the lesson I spent the day isolating the moves on the bunny slope–first the perpendicular slide, then the oscillating slide, then the heel-side stop, then the toe-side stop, etc, etc.  After a while I got impatient and just started playing.  Success intermingled with failure throughout the day, and my joints were paying the price.  But one thing I can say about the day was that I was taking risks, searching for the friction point between experience and experimentation, between comfort and loss of control.

During my time skiing at Tahoe, I didn’t really “grow” much because with the exception of skiing in Powderbowl Woods (the part with trees and rocks and such), I didn’t really do anything that I hadn’t done before.  I didn’t test my limits.  And as a result, although I felt good about myself, I didn’t improve my skills as a skier.  My day of snowboarding, however, was truly a growth experience.  I began the day with 0% knowledge of snowboarding, and although I spent more time on my backside than I did on my feet, I learned a bit about my own body’s center of gravity, and a lot about a completely foreign skill that, as it turns out, is a whole lot of fun when you’re able to spend more than 60 seconds upright.  Most importantly, I noticed a pattern.  During periods of time when I would fall at rapid intervals (every 10 seconds), I was focused on not falling.  I was getting frustrated and kept thinking about that moment AFTER I lost equilibrium.  The periods when falls were less frequent, I used prior failures to inform my future movements, gestures, and postures.  In the moments when I chose to learn from my mistakes, they became less frequent.

I wonder how often in my own teaching I choose to learn from my mistakes?  And what opportunities have I lost when I neglected to do so?

A continuing conversation

I don’t have reliable internet access where I am (which is to say that the hotel has two networked computers, but I would have to stand in the line with a dozen teenagers in order to use it), so what I say in this post may be repetitive.  I’m writing it on my laptop, and at some point I will save it to a jump drive, plod downstairs, and stand in line.  So if I repeat something from a previous post, please excuse.

First, an update.  For the last few weeks, my fellow co-facilitator and I have been picking apart the Junior High FL teaching matrix, trying to configure it in such a way that FL teachers can receive a one-class transition (or reduction, if you will) but class sizes don’t get too high.  Our department chair is very cautious to bring class sizes far above 15.  What has ensued have been a number of wonderful conversations in which three constituencies (the principal, the department chair, and the teachers) are trying to answer the same question: will this improve student learning?  It’s great to be in a conversation in which people aren’t shielding egos, protecting turf, or seeking to preserve the status quo.  Instead, we are trying to provide job-embedded professional growth for teachers while honoring the school’s commitment to giving individual attention to students through the promise of low class sizes.  Unfortunately, mathematics place both those elements on the opposite side of the playing field.  Whatever the product of the discussion (implementing the PLC or deferring for a year), I am encouraged by the healthy conversations going back and forth.

So, I continue to read DuFour’s book.  I’d love to say that I’m being enlightened, but everything that he’s saying is such common sense.  It’s just good to see it in print, in such a thoughtful, well-reasoned monologue, and to see it connected to other insights.

Two reflections from last week’s meeting

This has been a slow week both in the realm of teaching and reading.  The 8th grade Leadership Retreat took place 2 1/2 weeks ago, which took me out of class on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Returning back the following week I had to stay home in the middle of the week because of a ruptured water heater.  Then last week we had an altered day so that teachers could write midterm comments for their students (sort of like a 5,000 word paper on your classes, divided up into 11-14 year-old chunks).  So it seems like the last three weeks of classes have somehow involved me preparing to be gone, being gone, or regrouping after being gone.

However, I have managed to do a bit of reading this week; not from the DuFour book, unfortunately, but my colleague’s blogs and a few fantastic articles.  Also, I got a smartphone and I have finally come to revere Twitter.  So, there have been a few distractions.

First, Twitter.  Read this: http://bit.ly/a6YXZS.  Then get on Twitter and find some people.

About half way through our Dobbs meeting last week, a thought occurred to me.  I realized why schools hadn’t made these changes that we’re talking about and trying to implement in our own schools.  Two reasons, really:

  1. It’s hard.
  2. It involves placing trust in teachers and students.

Several teachers at our meeting observed that in order to facilitate student-centered learning, you cannot command the questions that are being asked in the classroom.  That also means that you cannot front-load all teacher knowledge prior to the day’s lesson so as to appear the smartest person in the land.  Which means to maximize effectiveness, teachers must be <GASP> experts in their field!!  I write this fully aware that I am not an expert on Bolivia, but as I’m teaching it using a student-directed model, I’m learning a lot about the country’s history, resources, and politics.  I also learned what saltpeter is!  (they’ve got a truckload of it–hundreds of millions of truckloads, actually).

Second, administrators must trust teachers that they will go the extra mile either before, during, or after a lesson to BECOME a student of their discipline again in order to take the learning walk with their students.  I’ve only done it this one time, and I must say, I’m loving it!  I’m going to kick tail next time I play Trivial Pursuit!

Finally, I’m pondering to what degree do we blend traditional, teacher-driven instruction (after all, there are some things that must be introduced b/c they may not appear on the students’ radar screen) and student-directed curricula.  A helpful answer came to me during a conversation with my Principal.  He replied:

One “answer” that I am pondering (think I like for JH in particular) is on page 135 of 21st C. Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. “A reasonable goal for most education systems moving from a 20th century model to a 21st century one might be 50 percent time for inquiry, design, and collaborative project learning and 50 percent for more traditional and direct methods of instruction. Once this goal is achieved, more and more of the direct instruction will occur in the context of questions and problems that arise in learning projects and need addressing so that students can move their project work forward. The lessons delivered this way gain greater relevance and are more likely to be remembered” (Trilling and Fadel).

Yes, I’m pretty lucky to have a boss that replies to my sometimes whimsical questions with parenthetically documented research.

Well, my Spring Break begins next week.  I will be out-of-pocket from Friday until Sunday next.  I hope to read some of your blogs on my new beloved smartphone, but I apologize in advance if my replies are a bit terse and/or misspelled.  Blame it on the limitations of a non-thumbtyping digital immigrant.

Cheers to all!