As leaders in education we need to be willing to reach forward into our students’ futures and take them with us on the journey of skill acquisition, content exploration, and the creative process. As we start this school year I hope we consider this question:
“Would the Marty McFly of 1985 survive in your 2016 classroom?”
This is important for us to consider because in the second “Back to the Future” movie Marty travels forward in time from 1985 to 2015 and we never have stopped to consider the implications for our educational world. In too many cases I think teachers would easily say that the 1985 Marty McFly would fare just fine in our classrooms. This presents us with a real and pressing challenge in the world of the education.
In her book Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, Heidi Hayes Jacobs is right to point out that “although we have had a century of fascinating innovation, experimentation, and exciting ideas…, the artifacts speak… The concept of what a school is does not need reform – it needs new forms.” (author’s emphasis) (Jacobs, 2010) The reality that “old habits run deep” and the diversity of standards and approaches are part of our educational ecosystem should be enough to give us pause and look critically at the way we “do school” in our classrooms, buildings, districts, and states.
Education might be unique in the professional world in that there are ever-changing fads and approaches we are charged with taking on in our schools and classrooms. This has always created controversy and stress because teachers and institutions are slow to change and wary of the newest pedagogy, framework, or initiative. This stress and worry puts us in a position to seek the most comfortable approach or practice; often that which we have been doing for years in our own classrooms. We are much more comfortable with what we have been doing, and perhaps doing well, because it comes naturally to us. Jacobs calls on us to consider whom we are teaching in our classrooms. Are we teaching in a time warp where students are taken back to the most cherished classrooms of our childhood, or are we reaching forward into their future and bringing them along with us?
At the beginning of this school year there are certain “myths” that we must consider and work to address. Jacob’s points out the following:
Myth #1: “The good old days are still good enough”
Myth #2: “We’re better off if we all think alike – and not too much”
Myth #3: “Too much creativity is dangerous”
The power of this analysis lies in the fact that Jacobs challenges the perspectives that serve as the foundation of our comfortable approaches to education.
To begin, she rightly points out that too many times we cling to the “good old days”. I have found this to be very true in the teams I have worked with, especially when faced with change in administrative/district focus or even shifts in the student needs of our buildings. Too often we are inextricably linked to our previous reading guides, learning targets, assignments, and classroom structures. Again, if we are to walk with students into their future we have to be willing to step forward in time to help them along this uncharted path. As Jacobs so effectively criticizes these approaches we are to take notice when she asks, “How can we grow curriculum if schools are shackled by memories?” (Jacobs, 2010) Our students see this very clearly and they get the rightful impression that we are coasting and lounging in the comfort of our previous methods. This educational enterprise is not for us as teachers and leaders, it is for the students to whom we owe the tough work of bringing a relevant pedagogy to the content that will shape their future.
The idea that this educational enterprise is to be focused on the needs of each student and their future also challenges us to examine Jacobs' second myth, that everyone is better off if everyone thinks alike. It is true this makes our job a bit more direct, but it does not help us understand the needs of our students’ future. When schools and districts develop a culture built around standardization and compliance it is very demoralizing and demotivating. When districts take on the ideology that “we are a school system, not a system of schools” it makes its way into everything from textbooks, scope and sequences, course offerings, and even to desks and student chairs. A school ethos like this leaves little room for creative energies and divergent thinking within the curriculum and it became very obvious to students that this was not required of them either. Teaching in a culture of “yes” and group think that drives work is challenged directly by Susan Jacboy’s work The Age of American Reason (2008) when she points out that “for those who want to cultivate a deeper and more reflective view, she points to the fact that the current tendency is to limit ourselves to those with whom we already agree.”
We need to heed Jacoby’s advice when she asserts, “the greatest American tradition is to deliberately expose ourselves to those with whom we do not agree.” (Jacboy in Jacobs, 2010). When schools and district leadership make it a point to amplify the voices in the wilderness and those who think outside the unwritten boundaries of the community the growth, passion, and purpose of those who are part of the organization are allowed to grow and produce results.
This cultivation of divergent thinking in and among schools is key to addressing the final myth that Jacobs points out. For her, we need to be clear that the arts are not treated as “frills” or second class status in our schools. This has been made very clear as our focus on STEM education programs has been rightly pressured to include arts and creative endeavors to create a more apt focus on STEAM pedagogy and content. However, I think this is where she falls short in her analysis. Creativity is not limited to the art classrooms and does not always require the implements one only finds in a studio. She points out that “artists are for disclosing the extraordinary in the ordinary,” (2010) and she is right to link the role of the artist in bringing a new perspective to the work. I submit, however, that this is not limited to the Art wing of the school. All teachers and schools can do this. They problem lies when we define “creativity” as a purely art-based curricular goal. When we place it in a neat box accessible to only those in the art classes we discount our students’ desires and means to connect with the content of our courses. This is why we must redefine “creativity” and know that it truly represents new perspectives. All teachers should operate under the assumption that creativity is the fundamental building block of their content and coursework. Creativity requires students to acquire core competencies in the discipline, to take risks (either personal or academic), to find problems and offer solutions, to embrace contradictions and sit within in this uncomfortable zone, to offer innovative thinking, ideas, claims, or questions, and finally to connect, synthesize, and ultimately transform the community. When we foster these skills in our classroom we are giving permission to our students to be "creative." This is a creativity that is not just present in art works.
This divergent thinking is what we need in order to challenge the systems we have perpetuated and instead of “reform” the system, we give each other to create new forms.
Challenge these myths in your schools...
As students were about to leave my semester American Government class on Friday I reminded them that we were going to have a quiz on Monday. Some of them were well aware of this, others didn't care, and others began to develop beads of sweat and a small panic ensued.
"But Mr. Barikmo, what will the quiz be over?" ...(I don't know, perhaps what we covered this past week!?!?)
"Are we going to get a study guide this weekend?" ...(Why would you need one? This is a formative assessment to help me understand what you know... It will give you an idea of what you don't know too!)
"Will this quiz go in the grade book? Will it count for points?" (and that's where my mind screeched to a halt!)
I asked the student directly, "Why? Does that matter?" and the student responded, "Of course it does... that determines whether or not I will study!" This was further evidence that we need to do some real hard work in education so we can move away from this paradigm. What this student was really saying was "I will go back and LEARN this material because now i know it matters! It's worth something." We need to move towards a system where "learning is worth something."
Students don't see the value in school as we have it constructed today. They see a place where points are given out to those who try their hardest, say the fanciest words, and load their course plan with the toughest courses... see these are the "good" students. What we need is a system that values learning, growth, and mastery of core competencies. The competencies that will set them up for success in careers, colleges, or any path they choose. What we have now is a subjective and often arbitrary system of ranking that tells us nothing. For instance, a zero in the grade book tells us very little (so much more on that in a future post!)
What we need is a way to communicate to students, parents, and staff where a student is performing relative to the expectations set forth by the community. What we need is a way to measure where students think they are...where they think they want to be by the end of the term...and where we think they are. The ABCDF grades simply won't ever do that!
I am reminded of a friend and colleague who Rishi Raghunathan who, many years ago, was working through the night completing narratives for his students as part of their progress reports for his school's marking period. I laughed inside because I knew my school would never be in a position to do this for the students and families. We simply didn't have the time! I have held onto that thought from back in 2006 hoping I would someday be able to do that for my students and families. Now is the time! We have no choice! We have to move away from a culture of "Will this go in the grade book?"
How do we do this? First of all, we don't have to reinvent the wheel, there are already so many people working on these ideas be it as student led conferences, narrative grade books, standards-based grading, or other pieces. The one that has caught my eye and attention the most is a project from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. They have seen the same problems but have also felt the need to give to their member schools tools that can be used in the universities and colleges that are formative for students and transformative for institutions. (Click here for an amazing publication on the VALUE Rubrics)
This program focuses on assessing students on indicators across institutions as a way to measure and compare data. These rubrics are in the development stage but have much use for high school and K-12 institutions.
How powerful would it be if we focused our quantitative assessment of student progress on indicators like this? We would be able to see student growth longitudinally and in sections of our population. If we could focus on just six skills and habits of mind think of the combinations... 915,103,765 to be exact... These are not tools for grading but for assessment of progress, growth, and consistency across curricular areas.
When we structure our schools and curriculum around these skills imagine what we can do with and for students. They have the skill set to make them marketable and successful in the world of work or the world of academics. This is not specific content knowledge, rather it is a set of skills and disposition... habits of mind... that are needed as a spring-board to the future.
The key to this model would be the successful implementation of longitudinal rubrics that could be used as data-gathering tools to compare students, teachers, schools, curricula, and districts. It is important to note that schools would not use these as "scoring guides" for grades.... REMEMBER, IT'S NOT ABOUT THE GRADES!
Students could use this framework to judge their work and learning in preparation for student-led conferences. Teachers could use this to assess the progress made on "soft skills" in their classroom. Schools could use the data as a way to compare college and career readiness outcomes that are not tied to an ACT score or 6-year baccalaureate graduation rates. Families could use this data to see where their students are or could be and work together with the schools to help them achieve those goals.
As an educational ecosystem, whatever we do we MUST move away from the scores, points, AP scores, weighted GPAs, class ranks, and total scholarship dollars. Our future depends on it! #morethanascore #beyondmeasure
As an educational ecosystem, whatever we do we MUST move away from the scores,
For most of us it’s like a Sunday night as we prepare to go back to school tomorrow after the MLK Jr holiday… So we will treat it like a “Sunday Night” on the blog post too!
Our Kansas Teacher of the Year Team (www.ktoy2016.com) just had two great presentations today in central Kansas. The students and teachers at McPherson College and Bethel College were great, but even greater were the people I presented with today. Our team of Teacher of the Year finalists are some of the most passionate experts on teaching and learning and I have already learned so much from them over the past two months. (Check them out here...)
What struck me today was a key piece by my teammate from West Middle School in Lawrence, Lucinda Crenshaw, when she spoke about the importance of “ABC” in the classroom. I immediately began to think of my Red Cross First Responder training and was taken back to “airway, breathing, circulation.” I was mentally going through the patient assessment when she brought me back into the topic at hand. Her point was not in rescuing the lifeless classroom. In fact it was quite the opposite. She was talking about the importance of “ABC” to fuel MORE learning and engagement in the classroom. It’s simple! When thinking about your students, think “Activity Before Content”!
“Activity Before Content” is such an important lesson and such an simple reflection on the important work of John Dewey. He reminds us to “give the pupils something to do not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results” (Democracy and Education: An introduction to the philosophy of education). Giving students a context for learning before they are taught the material allows them to buy in immediately and internalize the struggles, questions, wonderings, and self-generated theories. When they have this in place there is a ripe seed bed for true learning and deep connections to take root.
The Kansas Teacher of the Year, Justin Coffey of Dodge City High School, put it another way in his presentation. “I could teach my students about parabolas in the traditional way, but why not teach about it by taking students outside and launching rockets?” He went on to say that once they launched their rockets he asked students to guess how high their rockets flew into the air. When their guesses were clearly not based in fact or analysis of the data, he had the hook for the math lesson. By taking them back inside, with that successful rocket launch and natural parabola fresh in their mind, they were ready to determine the height of their rockets using the quadratic equation and other “fancy” math things. (C’mon, I’m a Social Studies teacher, I don’t remember these things!).
I kept saying to myself… “Lucinda is a science teacher, Justin is a math teacher…it makes sense they can do this! I’m a social studies teacher discussing the importance of the Constitution and foundational philosophies of American democracy. How can I do this?” Then it hit me again, I’m already doing this…just backwards. My class is often “CBA”. I often design my instruction based on a perceived need for students to have background knowledge and expertise in the “canon” of democratic or economic theories. We are stuck in the idea that students need to have ALL the information before they can apply it. Why? They aren’t experts, nor am I, and learning should be messy. If they apply the 4th Amendment incorrectly in the simulation they are set up for real learning when the case gets thrown out by the courts. When students price their lemonade too high on cold and rainy days they learn quickly the ins and outs of supply and demand the hard way. But if I haven't "taught" them about Mapp v. Ohio and the "exclusionary rule" or the factors that influence demand it's okay, because they learned it right then and there.
We too often get stuck in the traditional “CBA” approach because it’s comfortable for us. It’s easy because we are the experts passing on the knowledge and THEN letting them apply it. As educators in the 21st century we need to be ready to let go of learning right from the start. Let students float around and make mistakes. Let them explore the world and figure out the lessons it has to teach them. Let them grown in that struggle and be satisfied with non-closure.
Perhaps this is the biggest struggle. We are the teacher. It is “our” classroom and we are giving up control to a brand new teacher. One without a degree. One that will probably cause our students to stumble, but we have to be willing to let that teacher take over our classroom. “Experience” is the best teacher and we have to let her take over our classroom for a while. She is an amazing teacher!
So instead of tomorrow’s lesson on the basics of party polarization in America, tomorrow’s substitute teacher will be “experience.” Students will find the words of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, et al and paint the picture of political polarization themselves. It will be messy, but then again so is the politics they are studying… Ha, art imitates life! (But that's for another post!)
Don't just teach about "How a Bill Becomes a Law"... Have them do it first...
Last Monday's #ksedchat was a lively discussion on the importance of developing "soft skills" in our classrooms. I walked away from that chat mentally exhausted because there were so many ideas flying across my Twitter feed that I could hardly keep up.
So many times in the past year I found myself saying that "soft skills" and social-emotional intelligence activities are most appropriately relegated to elementary and middle schools. I kept reminding myself that my students had an AP exam to prepare for...we had too much content to get through...we were running out of time. Then I remembered a moment from last year.
I remembered that moment when I found out one of my students didn't want to come back into my class after lunch. I heard from one of her friends that she was upset with the way students were acting, reacting, and treating each other. It wasn't that she was the victim of any direct attacks or volleys of criticism. She was tired of the lack of understanding the community was showing to her ideas, her reality, her story, and her identity. She was African American and felt very strongly that her peers looked right through her and her friends in our class. It was at that moment that I realized the content ABSOLUTELY didn't matter and we had a lot of work to do as a community to address our shortcomings as a class.
This was one of my hardest moments as a teacher, but it soon turned into one of my proudest. We stopped what we were doing in our curriculum and I made a concerted effort to address directly the issues our class, and frankly our country, was facing at that moment. It became real to me that we didn't have any idea who was in our class, what they were passionate about, how we could interact with them in meaningful ways, and what a difference simple relationships could make. For the first time I had the opportunity to implement some of the powerful pieces I had learned at the Flip Flippen Group's "Capturing Kids Hearts" program.
We spent some time reorienting our classroom community to each other and sharing our strengths, weaknesses, passions, and identity. It was the strong foundation we needed for the coming semester. Every since that moment, and that "Capturing Kids Hearts" conference, I have started my classes with these tools. From day 1 we know who we are, why we are there, and how we are going to operate! This week, with the new semester, I had another opportunity to start off on the right foot and develop these "soft skills" with my students right out of the blocks.
So what does this process look like? It's simple... We greet each other at the door with a hand shake. We gather in a circle and share a quick answer while calling roll... "what is your favorite sound?" We get to know who is in the circle by exchanging "name tags" and answering three questions:
What is your favorite dessert?
If you could have dinner with anyone living, dead, or fictional who would it be and why?
What was your favorite story or book as a child?
By taking on someone's "identity" we have a chance to learn a little bit about our community. We also spend some time having a bit of fun! My go to is a "Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournament". But these are not the most important. The most important part of this day is the time spent examining key questions as we create our "social contract". This serves as an opportunity for students to come together and examine what it takes to create and maintain a dynamic and powerful learning environment. It is more than just a set of rules, it is a set of expectations we can hold each other to. These conversations can be revealing because seldom have students been given an opportunity to set the stage for a community of learners. We, as teachers, often impose our will on them on the first day. For some, this is the first opportunity they have in co-creating a classroom culture where the business of each day is centered on learning and building relationships. This co-created "social contract" is presented from each group and the common themes and words begin to emerge. They are often similar, but that only goes to solidify the importance of themes like respect, consistency, fun, feedback, etc. While these social contracts are not as complex as the historical examples we study in my class (i.e. the Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution) they are just as important to our everyday relationships.
Had it not been for the important work the I learned at the "Capturing Kids Hearts" retreat I would not have had the tools to bring to life real-life social contracts that are the basis of deep relationships that set the stage for learning. Ever since that student decided she couldn't come back in the classroom that afternoon, it has been my goal to ensure a safe learning environment for EACH student where they voice is heard, their story understood, and their identity celebrated.
These are the "soft skills" needed as our students chart their future. When they learn in these environments they are set for a lifetime of success and fruitful relationships!