Just Learning

 

 

walking_in_circles
“We have to change our schools, but if that is not preceded or accompanied by a change in our thinking, in our preconceptions, in how we regard what and where children are, in our imaginativeness and boldness — absent these changes we will again confirm the maxim that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
 -Seymour Sarason

In the rush to update education, we often confuse new for innovative and conflate old with outdated. We look at what is trendy to guide our decisions. Trapped in the tyranny of the urgent, we don’t have the time or energy to consider the complexity of the problems we are trying to challenge. Instead, we throw around terms such as inquiry, agency, and learner-focused with the same effort entailed in putting a slipcover over an old couch.

Peg_Core

The terms in of themselves, do not change the learning. Do not change the learning environment. Do not change our roles. Do not change how we view the curriculum. The “slipcover” hides the real work to be done. we need to strip bare our language and reveal what we really mean. What we are really talking about. Get out from under terms that are the right mix of ambiguous and politically correct.

I don’t know EXACTLY what you are talking about but it sounds about right…and I have heard that term a lot lately… I’m in!

From there, you know how it goes.

New templates and organizers. more sessions. new books. And of course, new stuff. Cause that really proves if we are doing something different.

I sure like what you’ve done to your classroom! I should do that, too! Like I can just order all this stuff from Amazon? Cool.

Bada-boom-bada-bing, you are in business. The business of keeping up with the Jones. The business of being cutting edge. The business of catching up with the bandwagon before it leaves town.

Don’t get me wrong. I love books. I love new stuff. We need items for classrooms. New materials and books can be a catalyst for the change process. But it’s just not that simple.

simplevs complex

A slipcover alone is a simple solution to a complex problem. We might have to save for a new couch. We might have to learn how to recover the old couch. Both will take time. Both will take patience.  Both will take unwavering focus on what really matters.

…but I really wanted a quick fix. I wanted to just get on with it. Like let’s get it done. NOW. 

This world moves fast. Every answer is just a couple of clicks away. It’s understandable that we want educational change to feel exactly the same.

What if we stopped “slip covering” and were really brave. Really brave like Greta or like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Standing up for what they believe. knowing what they believe in.

What if we were brave enough to start from our beliefs? To speak of our beliefs. First. To stop and stand in our beliefs. Brave enough to ignore the siren call of sameness.

what_really_really matters

What if we started with clear and straightforward conversations about what we believe about learning? No fancy terms. No new books. No new templates. Just learning.

What if we stubbornly and patiently stuck with just that? Just that.

“The phrase ‘what matters’ is shorthand for our capacity to dream, to reclaim our freedom, to be idealistic, and to give our lives to those things which are vague, hard to measure, and invisible.”       -Peter Block

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Example

sharing
When someone shows you who they are, believe them. -Maya Angelou

Your energy is soft and light.

When you enter a room, you smile, but don’t demand attention.

You don’t hesitate to give your support and move into action.

No request is too small for you.

Garbage duty, finding a band-aid, and setting up snacks, are part of what you do.

Come with me, you say. And off you go, with the student in hand.

Even when it is crazy busy. You are fully present.

You go unnoticed in a class, as you sit side by side with students.

You greet each student by name, with sincerity.

Your ego is small but your beliefs are big and bold.

Positive behavior is noticed and commented on. In detail.

You treat everyone with respect and dignity.

You don’t use power to change minds. You make time for conversations. Then make more time.

Your words and actions match.

You believe people can change.

To you, everyone is equally important and valued. There is no hierarchy.

You put the spotlight on others.

When a child approaches, you bend down and greet them. At their level.

Your example makes me think about my example.

 

The time trap

dots
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.    -Annie Dilliard

Don’t waste your time
Hurry up! We are running out of time!
Time’s up!
Sorry, we don’t have time for that today.
We need to make up for lost time.
Keep your eye on the time.

How often have these phrases left my mouth? Too often!! And when I say them aloud, I feel the physical urgency to move into super-fast-every-second-counts-mode. I feel the grip this pace takes on my nervous system. It squeezes out every human instinct: I forget to hydrate, eat, and even go to the washroom. Time is the boss of me.

Why are we obsessed with time and how we spend it? Is our fixation with time connected to a deeply held cultural belief around productivity and efficiency? Is usefulness measured by the number of “widgets” we can produce in a day?  The more widgets we can produce, the more productive and efficient we are. Time is the boss.

Is learning like churning out widgets? Is learning about efficiency and productivity?

It can be tempting. We have x number of pieces of curriculum and to make the quota, we must produce x amount of learning per day. Perhaps, unknowingly, we have transposed pieces of the curriculum with widgets: the more pieces of the curriculum we cover in a day, the more useful and successful we feel. The learning fits into the time.

What if the small pieces of the curriculum are unrecognizable to our students? Sure, small pieces might be easy to handle and plan for. But does the convenience make the piece meaningless (both to ourselves and our learners)?

We ask our students to keep on, keeping on, and don’t mention when the pieces will fit together. We sledgehammer the curriculum into pieces so they fit neatly into 5-minute stations but in the process lose sight of the story we are trying to create. Time is queen.

What if time wasn’t the parameter we defaulted to? Let’s zoom out to see 5 years in a child’s life. What matters here? Zoom out a bit more and look at the child’s life over 12-years. What matters now? Finally, zoom way out and look at the story of this child over an entire lifetime. What matters? What patterns, stories, and experiences do we hope to see? Perhaps joy, hope, self-knowledge, love of learning, connection, and curiosity (this is not exhaustive)?

Let’s zoom back in to look in the minutes and hours. Where and when are these big sweeping stories present? Are these hopes and dreams manifested in every moment or just some? Can we see the big themes within the small?

When the pieces become too small, maybe it is time (haha) to escape the time trap.

p.s. I am not implying that knowledge acquisition is not important or relevant. When we break knowledge down into small unrecognizable bits it is hard to see where it fits. I am suggesting that knowledge acquisition could be in service of something greater than the acquisition itself.

Quality Follows Passion and Purpose

personalize

Neurologically speaking, it is literally impossible to think deeply about things you don’t care deeply about.  -M. H. Immordino-Yang

Have you ever tried to force yourself to care about something that you really don’t care about? How did that go for you?

As a child, I struggled to care about grammar and spelling. From my grade 3 perspective, writing consisted of grammar, spelling, and handwriting, (mine was always messy). These activities seemed like a huge waste of time. I mean, I had books to read, plays to create, and movies to make. So funny (not funny) that I didn’t connect these activities to writing! How does that happen? It wasn’t till later in my life that I discovered that I love to write.

“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”                                                     -Linda Darling-Hammond

When I realized that there were ideas that I wanted to write about, spelling and grammar became relevant. And full disclosure, I am not an early learning literacy expert, so I can’t speak to the intricacies of how a person should learn how to write. What I know from my lived experience is writing because I had to write, crushed my interest in it, and also my desire to improve.

“If you’re going to do something, I believe, you should do it well.  You should sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful and you should be proud of it.”                                               -Ron Berger

A decade or so ago, blogging and tweeting precipitated a reinvigorated view of writing. Finally, I wanted to look at other examples of writing and explore what quality writing looked like. The process of learning to blog, engendered me to want to learn more about writing. I felt a purpose, which developed into a passion, and a desire to understand quality. I wanted to get better at writing, not because I was asked to, or was given a rubric on writing, but because it felt good. Striving for quality felt good when I cared.

“Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more…”                      -Seymour Sarason

My journey as a non-writer to casual blogger led me to wonder about how we inspire quality and how we define success in education. As a student, the narrative was that if I worked hard and become excellent at spelling, grammar, and everything else, then I would be successful, and finally happy. I tried to be excellent in those areas, but I didn’t find purpose or meaning in them. For me, quality followed behind finding purpose and meaning, and not the other around. I felt successful not because I had A’s (or extending) but when I discovered what gave purpose and meaning to my life.

The old narrative tells us to work towards excellence and fulfillment will follow. But I wonder (so check my thinking here) if we have the story backward? As we transition from letter grades to proficiency scales are we changing how we ask our learners to explore quality and define success? How might learners discover what gives them purpose?  How might they get to experience that striving for quality feels good when they care?

What are your thoughts? Would love to hear them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What really matters?

Sometimes, life seems like a long list of have to’s: get the winter tires on before the snow flies, get through the pile of emails before Monday, get the house prepped for winter, and the list goes on. Sometimes, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to think deeply about what really matters. I mean, generally, we would all say similar things about what really matters. Things like: family, spending time with people we love, finding fulfilling work, and other such things. We all know in general terms what really matters. But sometimes the details around what really matters get a bit hazy, get a bit blurred. Kind of like being at the ocean, when you’re working hard to build a sandcastle and whoosh, a wave rolls in, and completely erodes the fine details. Life keeps sending us those waves.

“We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.” Greg McKeown

Luckily, life also presents us with moments of clarity and truth. In these moments what really matters and all the corresponding details become crystal clear. Everything else, fades into the background. These moments get you back on track or they change your perspective completely.  You probably have had moments like this in your life: looking into the eyes of a newborn baby for the first time or, feeling the mystery and wonder of this universe as you look at the night sky. 

I had a such a moment last spring, as I got to learn from a group of youth, who were speaking at TEDx Youth @DoyleAve. I could call them students but I didn’t learn from the fact that they were students. Instead,  I learned from their human-ness. Each one of these amazing humans had fought hard to create their own identity, and each had worked hard to find an authentic voice to express this identity. These inspiring humans were complete individuals and were complete long before we adults came along. All we did was stop to listen to their stories.

Their successes were not achieved by marching along the adult-centric pipeline model. You know, the elementary school, to middle school, to high school, and then university, model. Instead, each of these youth had discovered their unique strengths and indenties when they strayed away from the pipeline. 

“Students already have complete control over their learning.
Our hubris is to think they don’t.”
  -Will Richardson

From this experience, I had a moment of clarity and truth around how much I had to learn and that it wasn’t going to happen from listening to people exactly like me. I recognized that I had to move well beyond my bubble of sameness and hear diverse perspectives. 

sameness

The world we live in is becoming increasingly complex. As the challenges we face increase in complexity, these diverse perspectives and identities are becoming more essential.  Think back to the last meeting you attended and think about who was around the table. Diverse or homogeneous?

simplevs complex

If we are going to meet these complex challenges head on, we will need to assemble diverse teams. And let’s be clear: diversity doesn’t mean you have different Starbucks orders. Identity diversity includes gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.  Thanks to the extensive research of Scott E Page, we know that diversity and inclusion are not just the ethical thing to do. Diversity and inclusion are also the better thing to do when tackling complex problems. Better like bottom line better.  This intersection of what is ethical and what is better, gives us a moment of clarity and truth: diversity and inclusion ARE what really matter. 

“Diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving complex problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.” ~ Scott E. Page

Finding one’s identity and voice and discovering your unique strengths is not just nice, not a luxury if you have time or money, but instead, it is a necessity.  Each child who enters school needs discover their unique identity and create a voice to express themselves. Each child needs to find their proverbial mountain, climb it, and say: “Hello World! Here I am in all my glory!!”

Then, they will be able to challenge the complex question: what really matters?

(This is an adapted version of my mike drop for Innovate-Ed 18, slides are below)

 

Privilege

blindspot                                                                            Shared on flickr by Thomas Hawk

We all have a blind spot around our privilege shaped exactly like us.
                                                                                    -Junot Dias

I am white, straight, married, middle class, and neurotypical. I could go on. Basically, I am privileged. I have privilege. Privilege, like the air around us, is omnipresent but invisible and easy to forget. We take note when it is low supply.

Before last spring, I hadn’t given much thought to privilege. While listening to a series of youth give their TED talk, I had a moment of what I call “clarity and truth.”  These students were exploring their own privilege or lack of privilege, and how they had created authentic, unique identities. Wow! Mind blown! Here were these teens who recognized their own privilege. Somehow, I had moved through life without even considering it! Blind spot alert.

Throughout my life, I had been aware of situations when I didn’t have privilege (like in university when every science prof was white, male, and middle-aged). These big moments of no privilege were easy to spot. Just look to the news to see this how lack of privilege stands out. When a women wins a Nobel Prize in Physics (only the 3rd women in 117 years!) it is headline news. Yet, in the very same week, we hear a Cern physicist announce that physics is a field for men (not women), because it was designed by men. How crazy is that? He got the second part right!

It is easy to recognize situations when there is a huge lack of privilege (just think of #metoo) or when there is a lot of privilege (Bill Gates type privilege). It becomes more challenging when privilege is more subtle. I had missed the subtle areas of my life where privilege was present and how it manifested.

As I listened to these youth describe how they had forged an authentic identity, without privilege on their side, I began to realize that I had taken my privilege for granted. I hadn’t been aware of how I could use my privilege to make space for others to create identities for themselves.  In the months to come, I reflected that the materials, books, movies, and paradigms that I relied on in my classroom were not as diverse and inclusive as they could have been. I accepted that my lack of understanding of neurodiversity had caused me to create learning that was incredibly biased towards neurotypical learning. Most ironically of all, I recognized that I had presented science as status quo truth, while ignoring other world views. My privilege was not only invisible to me, but it was a set of blinders that kept me looking at a very small slice of the world

I had to look at my privilege (even the ugly parts) and say: I see you privilege but you don’t own me, I am not yours; I see you privilege but I can topple you; I recognize that you are part of me, but you are not going to define me; I am not going to work on your behalf and keep your status quo.

Privilege, I see you now.

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Keniesha, Tor, and Hannah: thank you for the moment of “clarity and truth”, thank you for teaching me so much about the world, thank you for being role models, thank you for your bravery and wisdom.

 

perfect-everything

light streams in

“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”  ― Jean Vanier 

I still remember the expectations during our teaching practicums: handouts and materials out on desks BEFORE students arrive, every minute of the class accounted for, a hook, a review, and don’t waste any time.

The deal with school seemed to be: perfect-everything.

When I didn’t accomplish it ALL, well you know…I felt like I had failed. I wasn’t perfect, at everything. Somehow, my shortcomings managed to overshadow my successes. Somewhere in my brain, I had the belief that I should be perfect at EVERYTHING. I was supposed to be all these things, all the time. When expectations were given, then the object was to be good at ALL of them.  If you were a “good teacher” then you were supposed to be perfect at all the teacher-y things is how my faulty logic went. As an extension, I believed my ability or inability to be perfect at everything, somehow correlated to my student’s ability to be perfect. I had warped thoughts like: oh, look at that teacher, she is so neat and organized, I bet her students will do better! I thought the object of school was to be perfect at everything, do everything expected without question, and live up to ALL the expectations.

In my mind, the deal with school was: perfect-everything.

Years go by.

One day in class, I notice the look in her eyes. She is sitting in the second row and I see that she, too, is trying to be perfect. She doesn’t want her mistakes and shortcomings to be noticed. She is focused on being the person she thinks she is supposed to be; the person she thinks school and teachers want her to be. The uncertainty I see in her eyes haunt and pull at me (and have for many years). Her eyes say: if I get perfect grades, do my assignments perfectly, and ask clarifying questions, then I will be perfect, right? Then, will you think I am perfect?

In her mind, that is the deal with school: perfect-everything.

When I see her again in grade 12, she doesn’t look up. She keeps her head down and avoids eye contact. When I try to engage her, she is distant and vague. She isn’t trying to be perfect any more. She isn’t even there anymore.

Finally, she shares that the 11 years of trying to be perfect-everything have caught up, and she can’t do it anymore. There is no joy in the perfect marks anymore, in being the perfect student, and in being who she thinks she is supposed to be. Exhausted and conflicted, she has hollowed out.

Who am I, she wonders, if I am not the person who makes everyone happy? If I am not the perfect-everything girl…then, who am I?

Is perfect-everything the deal with life, too?

Years go by.

We begin to move away from letter grades. We start to write and use student friendly learning targets.  New scales, that remove numbers and use strength based language, become popular. Self-assessment and student portfolios are more widely embraced. These are solid and concrete steps, no doubt. But will they shine a light for each child, on their specific and unique strengths?

Have we given the design of meaningful learning experiences, the same focus and priority? What comes first: the checklist of competencies or knowing what you might check? It is a chicken and egg question. Regardless of phrasing, a person who is sensitive to external suggestions, will always remain so.  Identity creation can quickly slip into role fabrication, if we don’t yet know who you are.

Can the deal with school be, that we figure out who we are, in school, not after?

When I see her again she is 28, married with 2 youngchildren. She looks me in the eye. No uncertainty. After high school, she traveled. Nothing exotic or far-flung, but along the way she figured out who she was.

Finally, time and space, allowed her to know who she WAS supposed to be. But this time, from the inside out.

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“We now understand that higher-level thinking is more likely to occur in the brain of a student who is emotionally secure than in the brain of a student who is scared, upset, anxious, or stressed.”  ― Mawhinney and Sagan