Just how hard is “integrated studies” anyway?

As Co-director of PLCs in the Junior High, I have the exciting privilege (and obligation) to participate in each of the school’s PLCs: English, Math/Science, History, and Language.  Thursday was my first opportunity to observe another PLC in this capacity, and my very first visit to the History PLC.  Within the first few minutes I experienced what I had assumed I would have to wait weeks for: a common thread. Continue reading “Just how hard is “integrated studies” anyway?”

“Useless” knowledge

A while ago I posted a reply to a blogger at edu180atl.  He was pondering his curious appetite for learning and how it seemed to blossom AFTER his formal education had concluded.  He astutely said the following:

Why do we want to keep learning and grow in knowledge? Is it just to impress people at the next Trivia game?

My comment follows.  I figured, since I’m a bit rusty about getting back into blogging, I’d use this to “dust off the digits.”

This is often the cited reason for accumulating and spouting off trivia. There’s a good deal of truth to it; we all want to be perceived as smart and capable. But I think there’s a deeper truth to those trivia junkies, the keepers of “useless knowledge.” The optimist in me thinks that that display of wealth is a masked expression of a desire to connect with others.

I was on a road trip recently, stopped on the roadside at an interpretive marker in Redwoods National Park. A man and woman pulled up on a Harley-Davidson Road King; the man and I swapped silly trivia about Redwoods. Within minutes it was revealed that we both read (and adored) “The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston. Our on-the-surface need to be the smarty-pants was really an expression for the love of a book about trees that became to us like family. The man, a retired sheriff from a coastal California town, teared up when he talked about the miracles, known and unknown, in the redwood canopy. I suspect that he and I drove into the park, in separate vehicles, from opposite ends of the park, dying to share that book with someone else.

Earlier I referred to “useless knowledge.” It occurs to me that knowledge isn’t useless if it connects people. Keep on learning, and share what you’ve learned! Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down in pixels.

So, that was my response to Hayward McEver.  And in the last 10 years I can think of dozens of occasions when I sauntered up to a park ranger, museum docent, fellow teacher, student, or completely unaffiliated stranger with a morsel of knowledge that set my curiosity aflame, hoping to share it with another.  Thanks to Mr. McEver, I can let go of the label of “smarty-pants” and adopt the moniker “social learner.”

In need of a starting point? Look at New Tech High School.

You may notice a theme from my recent and future posts: catching up and reconnecting.  I spent the summer being a husband, handyman, sojourner, and experiential learner, but happily, I’ve let my reading, thinking, and writing lapse.  So I have a lot to catch up on.  I don’t regret the lapse; rather, it’s been a welcome break.  Some I will pick back up faithfully, other things I will let slip into the ether of forgetfulness.

My school began the conversion from PC to Mac in March, and one of my “catch-ups” has been to empty out my old PC, sift through the stacks of docs, apps, emails, photos, and video, identifying chaff and wheat.  Here’s a piece of wheat for you:

I read an article for a cohort of which I was a member recently in which the author describes the very plain and simple premise behind the pedagogy of the New Technology High School in Napa, California.  The article, “Students thrive on Cooperation and Problem Solving,” published anonymously on Edutopia (http://edutopia.org) on October 18, 2006.

New Tech teachers build their instruction around eight Learning Outcomes — content standards, collaboration, critical thinking, oral communication, written communication, career preparation, citizenship and ethics, and technology literacy — which they embed in all projects, assessments, and grade reports. Instructors start each unit by throwing students into a real-world or realistic project that engages interest and generates a list of things they need to know. Projects are designed to tackle complex problems requiring critical thinking. The school’s strategy is simple:

  • To learn collaboration, work in teams.
  • To learn critical thinking, take on complex problems.
  • To learn oral communication, present.
  • To learn written communication, write.
  • To learn technology, use technology.
  • To develop citizenship, take on civic and global issues.
  • To learn about careers, do internships.
  • To learn content, research and do all of the above.

None of this is new, of course.  But I enjoy the simplicity of these eight guidelines and the reminder that content is not king, but must be integrated into the previous seven guidelines.

My only redaction in this list is #2.  At least at the younger levels, problems don’t need to be complex in order to recruit the skill of critical thinking. As an eighth grade teacher, since my focus on communicating in the target language, I aim to present very simple problems early on for two reasons.  First, if the problem is a simple one, they can put their sharpest thinking into their use of language.  Second, simple problems require the least input from me.  I can stay out of the doing process, and focus on facilitating conversation, providing sources of information, and assessing student work.

PBL is a forking path

So, if you’re like me, and you’re wondering how to frame your instruction for the beginning of the year, perhaps starting with these eight guidelines might help.  I’ve decided to give them a try.  I’m not sure what the result will look like.  But like any genuine learning journey, I can determine the point of origin, but where the destination lies will depend on the many points along the path.

A moment of thanks

I spent some time today dusting off my blog and found a draft of a post that I wrote immediately after the Center for Teaching Summer Institute’s Project-based Learning and PLC Facilitator workshops.  Sadly, I closed the lid for the summer before I hit “Send.”

With that, here’s a moment of thanks to the people that I worked with that week.  And let this suffice for the thanks that I owe the people I worked with over the last week in the CBL and iWorks workshops:

Last week I had the privilege of working with some of my favorite people and some new (potentially favorite) people.  For two days I worked with a team on cultivating PBL activities for the upcoming year, as well as cultivating a mindset of PBL in my own teaching.  The remaining three days of the week were spent working with my fellow PLC facilitators on preliminary planning for next year and some bigger picture goals.

The week was characterized by fluid learning spaces, bottom-up brainstorming, and strength in collaboration.  We used a newly installed idea wall to quite literally slap ideas on the wall and see which ones stick.  We picked our individual (reflective) brains and our team (evocative) thinking in answering questions such as “what do we want our adult learners to learn” and “what shall our goal be as a team.”  As a result, I learned a great deal and I helped to challenge my teammates’ thinking.  Thanks to Bo and Jill for a week of challenging, sometimes exhausting exploration.  And thanks to the teammates to took that journey with me.

This week I’m attending a three-day Economics workshop.  I’m teaching Spanish 5 Business & Economics course next year, so a colleague thought that I would benefit from this brief primer on current concerns regarding the teaching of Economics.  I’ve found some useful resources and I have managed to answer some of those key questions I need to build the curriculum.  I’ve also discovered that the day-to-day conversations I have at school and through social media are not the typical conversations going on in education.  In fact, these three days are more of a “foreign language immersion” experience.

First, I have been “sitting and getting” for two days straight.  I was handed a binder with inserts and we are following this curriculum as if it were a recipe for “Economics Pie.”  We are given breaks to stand up, stretch, and get a snack, and from time to time we stand up to do a sample activity, but for the most part, we sit and we get.

Second, the instructor, a former Economics teacher and current educational consultant, tells us repeatedly what is “coming down the pike” in the world of public education, change in standards, pay scale, testing criteria, etc.  He treats us graciously and conveys respect for the dozens of years of collective experience of the attendees, but there is definitely a sotto voce message being communicated: “I know and you don’t.”  Now, the fact is that I really don’t–I’m a language teacher with 0.0 years of experience teaching Economics.  But other teachers in the room would probably benefit from a more collaborative conversation about current and emerging decisions/trends in the state’s educational policies.

Finally, conversations almost exclusively revolve around “what we need to cover,” with little regard to what children need to learn (and just as doctors use professional language when prodding a suspect body part, yes, I believe that the difference between teaching and learning is a matter of professional use of language, not just breathless deployment of jargon–so “phthpt”).

Based on the language being used in the room (and perhaps these educators are using this somewhat informal venue to blow off the year’s steam), the child that struggles seems to be treated like a nuisance.  The only method of accommodation is to teach them less or less complicated material (the instructor’s opinion as well).  And most conversations point to one direction and one direction only: how can it benefit the teacher?  What’s in it for me?

Just to be clear, there are teachers from public and private schools, and they’re ALL speaking the same language.  I fully understand the challenges in teaching at other places (I’m a former rural public school teacher) and I also carry the DAY-TO-DAY thankfulness for the many blessings at my current school (I’m currently working my “dream job”).  In short, I’m not living in la-la land.

So from the last two weeks, I’ve learned the following:

  1. If I were a teenager, option A was an environment where I grew and helped others to grow.  My “instructors” not only didn’t bellow out the knowledge, they challenged us to find them in team.  As a result, I owned the knowledge before I “handed them over” for group consumption.  Yet, when other groups offered modifications, the knowledge only grew in depth, complexity, and relevance.
  2. I speak the same language with many of my colleagues.  It is a language that avoids categorical certainty and invites provocative rebuttal.  But even more important, whether in a PLC or not, the teachers I interact with daily are primarily focused on improving their practice, offering solutions to problems, and generating the best possible outcomes for the kids.  And regardless of our circumstances as teachers, that last little bit of language should be UNIVERSALLY understood.

Community learning

We all learn at our own pace. As adults, we choose our opportunities for learning according to the time we have free and the resources at our disposal. Maybe that’s why our students roll their eyes when we (adults) harp on about how much fun learning is. They’re not learning at their own pace. They’re doing it at our pace. But, that’s a post for another time.

At Westminster, we (the adults) have a genuine opportunity for community learning in our hands. Westminster just made the switch from PC to Mac. As one of the facilitators in the training of faculty, I will periodically post to the school’s New Westminster Mac Users blog site for faculty seeking advice. I’ll crosspost here.